Fontevrault, Convent of
FONTEVRAULT, CONVENT OF
Former French double monastery, about 11 miles southeast of Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France. It was established, probably in 1101, in what was at the time a remote area, by robert of arbrissel, a renowned preacher and hermit who had inspired many of both sexes to recognize their vocation to the monastic life. The new house attracted special attention when it revived a type of institution not uncommon in western Europe during the early Middle Ages but now little known; it was one of the famous medieval Double monasteries, having communities of men and women living separate existences within a single precinct, both under the single rule of an abbess. The nuns were always the major element there and lived under the benedictine rule with observances that demanded an austere and strictly enclosed life. The male community included both clergy and laity and, for a while at least, lived under the Rule of St. augustine.
From its earliest days Fontevrault won the highest reputation, and the size of its community increased: in 1248 the abbey claimed to have a total population of 700 and in 1297 was said to have 360 nuns. It was greatly venerated by King henry ii of England, who was a generous benefactor to the house, and by his son, King Richard I, who believed he owed his release from captivity to the prayers of its nuns. Both kings were buried at Fontevrault, where their tombs may still be seen along with those of Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, his daughter Joan of Sicily, and his daughter-in-law, Isobel of Angoulême. In 1173 the abbey was exempted from episcopal visitation. Fontevrault gradually developed into a religious order that included houses in France and Spain, as well as five in England. In the mid-13th century, jacques de vitry warmly praised the life of this order.
The abbesses of Fontevrault were not infrequently of high birth, including in their number various members of the royal houses of France. In the 15th century the 26th abbess, Mary of Brittany, found the order in great decay and put forward vigorous new statutes, which under her immediate successors were widely adopted within the order, whose numbers were now much reduced. Later on the situation improved. When the order was suppressed in 1790, it had 59 monasteries. In 1824 there began an attempt to revive the order, and houses were established at Chemillé, Brioude, and Boulaur, but none of these now remain.
After being used as a prison since 1804, the considerable remains of the Abbey of Fontevrault have recently been taken over as an ancient monument. The imposing, Romanesque conventual church, dedicated in 1119, is largely intact, as are the adjoining cloister, chapter house, and refectory (for the most part of 16th century date). A remarkable feature is the huge, 12th-century octagonal kitchen.
Bibliography: h. nicquet, Histoire de l'ordre de Font-Evraud (Paris 1642). Congrès archéologique de France 77 (1911) 48–64, for architecture. Histoire de l'ordre de Fontevrault (1100–1908), by the religious of Sainte-Marie-de-Fontevrault, 3 v. (Auch 1911–15). l. h. cottineau, Répertoire topobibliographique des abbayes et prieurés, 2 v. (Mâcon 1935–39) 1:1185–88, for bibliography. r. niderst, Robert d'Arbrissel et les origines de l'ordre de Fontevrault (Rodez 1952).
[j. c. dickinson]