Bec (le Bec-Hellouin), Abbey of
BEC (LE BEC-HELLOUIN), ABBEY OF
Benedictine foundation in Normandy, Diocese of Évreux, north France. It was founded by Herluin (1034) and eventually established by the stream Bec. After the arrival of lanfranc (1041), a brilliant professor of law and grammar at Pavia and Avranches, the community developed with a cloister school for monks and an outside school for clerics and sons of Norman nobles. As prior, Lanfranc got Pope Nicholas II to grant a dispensation to Duke William of Normandy to marry his cousin Matilda of Flanders (1063); the duke named Lanfranc abbot of the new monastery of Saint-Étienne in caen, built in thanksgiving. After his conquest of England, william made Lanfranc archbishop of canterbury (1070) to reorganize the Church there and be his private counselor, as were later abbots of Bec. anselm (of canterbury), prior of Bec after Lanfranc (1059), was elected abbot after Herluin's death (1078) and, despite the opposition of the community, had to accept the See of Canterbury after Lanfranc's death (1093).
History. At first a poor monastery, Bec soon received many donations from Norman lords and Anglo-Norman kings, especially Henry I and Matilda: liturgical furnishings and relics (1134), many priories in Normandy and England (St. Walburga in chester), churches, domains, and fiefs. In 1704 Bec had 87 possessions in the Diocese of rouen, 32 in Évreux, 32 in Lisieux, 17 in paris, and 15 in chartres. After Lanfranc and Anselm, theobald became archbishop of Canterbury, Gondulf and Arnulf bishops of rochester, Hugh and gilbert crispin abbots of saint augustine (canterbury) and westminster.
Bec was a ducal, then a royal abbey, the abbots being confirmed by the dukes, then by the kings of England. The archbishop of Rouen, who blessed the abbot and received the oath of obedience, made canonical visitations; Odo Rigaldus, who made 13 visitations (124–869), called Bec the best ruled monastery in Normandy. The kings of France intervened in the thirteenth century and, from the time of Louis XI, designated commendatory abbots; the first, Jean Boucart, was royal confessor and bishop of Avranches (1471–84); some were generous, some greedy.
In the fourteenth century there were frequent differences with nobles over tithes and the patronage of churches. Commendatory abbots disputed with the monks over revenue; Roger de la Rochefoucauld (1708–13) demanded an additional 13,000 livres but finally ceded all his holdings for an annual revenue of 48,000 livres. There were frequent and heavy levies by the popes (Syrian Crusade, 1307–12; rebuilding of monte cassino, 1369) and by the kings for war (Charles VI, 1412; Louis XI, 1471) and for levies on the clergy in 1567, 1588, and in 1710 for a final redemption of the head tax.
After an occupation by Anglo-Navarrese troops (1356), Bec was fortified with a French garrison (1358); the cloister and part of the dormitory were torn down and the church used to house refugees and their possessions. Geoffrey Harenc (1388–99) rebuilt the cloister, restored the chapter, and reclaimed the farmland. William of Auvillars (1399–1418) completed an immense wall on the order of the French king (1405–15). Bec sheltered a garrison and refugees when Henry V devastated Normandy. After a three-week siege, it surrendered to the English (May of 1418), who pillaged it and kept a large garrison there. Abbot Robert (1418–30) took an oath of fidelity to Henry V (1419). When a French coup almost regained the abbey (June of 1421), the monks were expelled and the abbot imprisoned; but Henry V did not hold the monks responsible and restored the temporal goods, ordering the fortress demolished. After his death (1422) anarchy and pillaging ensued. In 1563 Huguenots pillaged Bec, and two monks were slain.
Architecture. The first church burned down in 1158 and was rebuilt and consecrated by the archbishop of Rouen in the presence of the king of England and his sons (1178). After a partial collapse (1197), it was rebuilt under Richard of St. Leger with towers and a spire (1215–17); burned again (1263), it was rebuilt with the aid of a bull of Urban IV and taxes imposed on priories. The lantern tower collapsed, bringing with it the choir and transept (1274); transept and choir with apsidal chapels were rebuilt in grandiose style at a different height than the nave (1275–1327). Painted glass and 16 large statues of Apostles, Evangelists, and Latin Doctors of the Church that were painted and gilded in the fifteenth century gave added beauty. A square belfrey tower for large bells was completed in 1468. The nave collapsed (1591) and was rebuilt (1639–43), reduced from nine to two bays. The main portal was replaced with a classical façade, bells were recast, and liturgical furnishings renewed (1644–74). The monk architect-sculptor Guillaume de la Tremblaye did the main altar and side altars, the pulpit, a large jube, and a new tomb of Matilda (1684), which was transferred to Rouen (1847). The organs were of English make (1671). Nave vaulting was restored (1699), and choir and sanctuary pavement was done in black-and-white marble dalles (1710).
The first cloister buildings (1073) were enlarged by Roger I Bailleul (1159–79) with a large hostel, an infirmary and dormitory, and an aqueduct to a covered reservoir. Reconstruction took place under Geoffrey Harenc after 1392, Robert Valée from 1428, Geoffrey d'Epaigne (1452–76), Louis de Bourbon-Condé (1742–58), and recently under Abbot Grammont (1948).
Culture. Lanfranc (1042–63) was a lucid teacher, subtle, learned, and a skillful dialectician who disputed with berengarius. Anselm turned more to the soul, silence, and composure, and fixed the use of philosophy in theology. They had many famous disciples in the school of Bec: Archbishop William Good Soul of Rouen, ivo of chartres, Bishop Fulk of Beauvais, Hervé, dean of Canterbury, Gilbert and Miles Crispin (biographers of Herluin and Lanfranc), the prolific writer robert of torigny, Stephen of Rouen (Draco Normannicus, a chronicle of Normandy), and Peter of Dives (Gesta septem abbatum Beccensium, in Patrologia Latina 181:1709–18).
Monastic laxity accompanied wars. The maurist reform was introduced (1626) by Abbot Dominic de Vic, archbishop of Auch. Peace and order brought prosperity and an increase in revenue; the monks' revenue increased from 30,000 livres (1654) to 48,000 (1685), but the riches benefitted the nobility. A theological school was installed (1651) with famous professors: René Massuet (1665–1716), editor of the works of St. Irenaeus, and Guillaume Bessin. A chronicle of Bec to 1331 by Thibaut and a collection by Jouvelin (both in manuscripts) are valuable historical works.
Lanfranc's library of 160 volumes, primarily on Holy Scripture and the Fathers, increased with bequests by Bishop Philip d'Harcourt of Bayeux (d. 1164; 113 volumes) and the priest and medical doctor Jean de Bessay (fourteenth century). But Estout d'Estouteville took away beautiful manuscripts in 1391. In 1421 there were 700 volumes besides liturgical books. Some 5,000 volumes were rearranged by the Maurists in 1677. A general inventory of 1671 divided charters into two charter rooms and three chartularies (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries). In 1789 there were 5,000 printed books besides pamphlets, and 220 manuscripts, of which 19 are extant (12 in the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale).
The tradition of generosity to the poor and strangers goes back to St. Anselm. In the thirteenth century 200 loaves of bread a week were distributed to the poor. Many refugees were cared for in crises (1358, 1417, 1418), and in 1693 some 10,000 were fed in time of need. The people were kindly disposed toward the abbey.
In 1792 the eight remaining monks had to leave. Ten bells and much silver work were sent to Rouen (1789) and bernay (1792) to be melted down. The furniture was sold for almost nothing. The lead roof of the church was pillaged. The church itself, fallen to ruin, was condemned and demolished (1810–24); the main altar, jube, statues, and the dalles of the sanctuary were obtained by the pastor of Sainte-Croix in Bernay. The chapter hall was demolished (1816–17). The buildings became a stud farm.
Olivetan Benedictines from Mesnil-Saint-Loup (Champagne) reoccupied Bec (1948), which with 20 monks and many visitors is expanding under Abbot Grammont. The old refectory has been made into a church.
Bibliography: gilbert crispin, Vita Herluini, in Patrolgia Latina, 217 v., ed. j. p. migne (Paris 1878–90) 150:695–714; Eng. ed. in j. a. robinson, Gilbert Crispin (Cambridge, Eng. 1911) 87–110. Chronicon Beccense (1034–1467), in Patrologia Latina 150:639–695. Chronique du Bec … (1149–1476), ed. a. porÉe (Rouen 1883). j. bourget, The History of the Royal Abbey of Bec, Near Rouen in Normandy, tr. a. c. ducarel (London 1779), "Philosophe," admirer of Voltaire who ignores early authors because of miracles; brief. a. porÉe, "L'Abbaye du Bec au XVIIIe siècle," Congrès archéologique de France (Paris 1881) 372–455; L'Abbaye du Bec et ses écoles, 1045–1790 (Évreux 1892); Histoire de l'abbaye du Bec, 2 v. (Évreux 1901). e. veuclin, Fin de la célèbre abbaye du Bec-Hellouin (Brionne 1885). b. heurtebize, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart et al. (Paris 1912— ) 7:325–335. g. nortier, "La Bibliothèque de l'abbaye du Bec," Revue Mabillon (Paris 1957) 57–83. m. de bouard and j. mercet, "La Remise en état de l'abbaye du Bec," Monuments historiques de la France 5 (Paris 1959) 149–173. m. p. dickson, "Introduction à l'édition critique du Coutumier du Bec," Spicilegium Beccense 1 (Paris 1959) 599–632. m. m. morgan, The English Lands of the Abbey of Bec (New York 1946) j. tait, ed., The Chartulary or Register of the Abbey of Saint Werburgh, Chester, 2 v. (Manchester 1920–23). l. h. cottineau, Répertoire topobibliographique des abbayes et prieurés, 2 v. (Mâon 1935–39) 1:316–319.