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Religious Life for Women
                        c.1100–c.1350Fontevraud in England$

Berenice M. Kerr

Print publication date: 1999

Print ISBN-13: 9780198207528

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198207528.001.0001

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Robert of Arbrissel: The Reluctant Founder

Robert of Arbrissel: The Reluctant Founder

(p.15) 1 Robert of Arbrissel: The Reluctant Founder
Religious Life for Women c.1100–c.1350

Berenice M. Kerr

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the life of Robert of Arbrissel. He was an itinerant preacher, and founder of the abbey of Fontevraud. He was born at Arbrissel and died at Orsan. The discussion examines the context in which Robert lived and worked and the various constructs with which others have sought to explain his life. The order of Fontevraud was renowned for its strict interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict and its structure represented a unique solution to the question of how best to serve the spiritual and material needs of women striving to follow a monastic vocation. Robert of Arbrissel broke new ground by integrating the male element, necessary for the cura monialium, into the very structure of the order he founded. The position of both the men and the women was carefully defined so that each group knew exactly what was expected of itself and of the other.

Keywords:   Order of Fontevraud, eremitical movement, Robert of Arbrissel, statutes

In February 1116 as Robert of Arbrissel lay dying in the priory of Orsan surrounded by religious brothers and sisters he encouraged them to persevere in virtue and to pray for his soul after his death. In a reflection on his life, he reminded them that, having left behind all the riches and honours of the world, he had chosen to live as a solitary in the desert and to suffer hunger, thirst, and exposure in order to triumph over the confusion of this world. Barefoot and wearing a hair shirt, by day, wherever he had found a convenient place, he had preached the Gospel, taking in return whatever was given him; by night, he had retired to lonely places to pray. He had spent many years of his life eradicating vice and fostering virtue and would have continued to do so had not charity constrained him to do otherwise. This ‘otherwise’ referred to his foundation of a religious order for women. He had set aside his own intentions, he told them, to reach out in pity to their need.1 This deathbed scene nicely encapsulates the three chief facets of the life of Robert—he had been a hermit and a preacher and finally he had founded the order of Fontevraud.

Since his death, critics and converts alike have looked at the events of Robert’s life and have used them as a basis for constructing an image based to some degree on reality but none the less at the mercy of whatever interpretation the particular exponent has chosen. Some have seen him as a social revolutionary, others as a chivalric figure promoting the cause of women; he has been seen as an eccentric, or as someone driven to use the most extreme measures to expiate the guilt of a past sin. The order Robert founded has similarly suffered a gamut of interpretations ranging from a refuge for world-weary noblewomen to a feminist enclave. In one sense it is true to say that it is impossible to reconstruct a true image of Robert: the man who was born c. 1050 and died in 1116 will always elude our grasp. Still, we have sufficient knowledge of the social and religious context in which he lived, and of the eremitical movement to which he belonged, to (p.16) be able to draw some valid conclusions about this man who was so central to the development of religious life for women.

Social and Historical Context

The Capetians, the ruling dynasty in France during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, are traditionally regarded as having been weak.2 The rulers of the various principalities—in the West, the counts of Normandy, Anjou, Brittany, and Blois-Champagne-Chartres—were in theory vassals of the king but in practice they often behaved quite independently of his authority and, at times, in direct conflict with him and each other. Bands of young nobles roamed the countryside of western France in search of adventure and frequently were agents of turmoil and aggression. Attempts to control the anarchy of the nobility by such means as the Truce of God led to the emergence of the peace movement and ultimately to the Crusading movement during which local differences were forgotten in the interests of the Church and the energies of the nobles were concentrated on the enemies of Christendom. Economically this was a period of increasing prosperity. By the middle of the eleventh century the signs of prosperity—population growth, increasing trade, expansion in the agricultural and pastoral industry, and the growth of towns—were manifest. The same period witnessed a reform in the monasteries which gradually spread to the entire church. The need for a better-educated clergy gave rise to the monastic schools where many of those who later became hermits carried out their initial studies, and the struggle to eliminate the problems of clerical marriage, simony, and lay investiture culminated in the programme for ecclesiastical renewal and reform which takes its name from Pope Gregory VII (1073–85).

This is, however, only part of the picture. Not all shared in the increased prosperity and the forces of reform did not benefit everyone. During the second half of the eleventh century population increase had put pressure on the land, new inheritance practices concentrated wealth into the hands of a few and forced many younger members of families into inappropriate marriage alliances or into religious life.3 The implementation of canon law concerning concubinage and incest meant that women, (p.17) repudiated by their husbands, were faced with homelessness or returning to their parental homes where they were not always welcome. The picture of an uprooted population, abandoned children, increased brigandage, and lawlessness is exacerbated by the chronicle of floods, fires, epidemics, and locust infestations which beset the west of France in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Between 1042 and 1100, for example, in Anjou, there were five famines.4 Among the less-privileged classes the picture was one of devastation and disarray, both moral and social, but the nobility was not without its problems. Anjou was torn by rival claimants for comital power to the extent that by the beginning of the twelfth century the authority of count Fulk IV, Le Réchin (1068–1109), was little more than nominal. His standing was further diminished by the blatantly scandalous liaison of his young wife, Bertrade, with King Philip I.

The Eremitical Movement

In a sense, the eremitical movement was a response to both the prosperity and the poverty which prevailed. The hermits turned their backs on the affluent society and voluntarily embraced evangelical poverty in an attempt to alleviate the social problems which surrounded them.5

By the time Robert of Arbrissel had made his decision to live in the forest of Craon, Benedictine monasticism had been challenged by the foundation of the Carthusian and Cistercian orders in 1084 and 1098 respectively. Moreover, throughout the whole of western Europe people had begun to experiment with less formal types of evangelical living.6 Responding to the challenge to return to the sources of Christianity and the idealism of the primitive church, men, both clerical and lay, began to retire to the margins of civilization, the forests, taking as their models (p.18)

                   Robert of Arbrissel: The                         Reluctant Founder

MAP 1.1. Principal Sites Mentioned in this Chapter

(p.19) Christ, John the Baptist and St Anthony of Egypt.7 Eremiticism took such a firm hold in the forests of the west of France that the area was compared to the Egyptian desert of the patristic period.8 There, living among the outcasts of society, the ‘new’ hermits sought in silence, solitude and austerity to live a pure form of evangelical life, working with their hands, taking for food and shelter what the forest provided.9

The hermit was rarely alone in his ‘solitary’ life. Solitude and solitary living were two separate issues, the solitude of the hermit being more an interior state than an observable quality. Neither was the sojourn in solitude a flight from the world: it was a period of intense spiritual activity to prepare the hermits for a new mission. The ‘desert’ signified a complete rupture with their former way of life in the world or in the cloister; the penance they practised was a means of spiritual ‘martyrdom’, freeing them to live completely for God and the message of the Gospel; their distinguishing garb was a sign of their having forsaken worldly comfort and espoused poverty.10 Disciples were welcomed, in fact they were expected. There was a strong apostolic element to this eremiticism: the hermits needed to be seen and heard since their fundamental mission was to announce the gospel to the poor, by precept and in practice.11 Seen and heard they were. The reputation for holiness which they gained, the strangeness of their appearance, the radical nature of their lifestyle, their personal magnetism, and the directness of their message all combined to attract the crowds.12 Some were curious; some were motivated by a genuine desire for conversion. Among the latter there were those who wanted to live the eremitic life themselves and these soon posed a problem, a problem which was to prove fundamental to the very nature of the movement.

Explanations vary as to what exactly led the hermits to take the steps of adopting a Rule and customs which ultimately spelled the end of the (p.20) movement as such. One school of thought, led by Henrietta Leyser, sees the hermits and their communities as ‘uneasy’ about not having any official status, insecure because they were without a written Rule, ‘worried’ that their goals would not endure or that their settlements would founder.13 This lack of security prompted them to abandon their original ideal in favour of more stabilized living. Ludovic Milis views the process as more evolutionary and less under the control of the hermits themselves.14 According to Milis, the very popularity of the movement proved to be its undoing. Increased numbers meant a change in the composition of the communities with the concomitant need to attend to material concerns. Control was more likely to be exercised by church authorities who sought to regularize a movement prone to immoderate practices. Eremitical communities thus passed through three phases—from the original informal groups through a process of gradual ‘cenobitization’ to the adoption of a Rule and customs, by which time most of the eremitical elements had been so modified as to be unrecognizable. While these two explanations are not mutually exclusive, it is fair to say that details of the foundation of Fontevraud highlight the role played by higher authority, both ecclesiastical and lay, in effecting the change from spontaneous to stabilized living and that therefore, in this particular case, the construction of Milis seems to be the more apposite.15

Interpretations of Robert’s Life

The day after the burial of Robert of Arbrissel, Leger, archbishop of Bourges and a personal friend, preached his panegyric in the chapter house of the brothers’ monastery at Fontevraud. We know very little of Leger’s funeral oration. The original text has been lost and the surviving sixteenth-century version is an admixture of fact and fantasy which is of little value.16 It is safe to assume that under the circumstances the archbishop would have stressed those details of Robert’s life which revealed his sanctity—his fidelity to the Gospel, his love of poverty, his missionary zeal and personal holiness—namely those things which the assembly of clerics and nobles gathered at Fontevraud on 8 March 1116 wanted to hear.17 In all probability he would have glossed over anything which could have introduced (p.21) a discordant note into the solemnity of the occasion. He is unlikely, for example, to have noted that some prelates found it necessary to counsel Robert to act more prudently or to impose order on the undisciplined lives of his followers. All this is, however, conjectural. The epitaph composed by another friend, Hildebert of Lavardin, has survived intact but its very form militates against its telling us other than what was expected. Written in verse, it stressed Robert’s penitential practices, his fasting, his vigils and penitential garb, and left no doubt that its author considered Robert to have been a saint.18

The bulk of our information on Robert of Arbrissel is to be had from two official lives, both written within four years of his death. Abbess Petronilla commissioned Baldric, archbishop of Dol, well-known for his literary prowess, to write the first of these, commonly referred to as the Vita Prima.19 Baldric’s main purpose was to edify his readers, to make them aware that Robert was a saint, and to lead them to venerate him as a man of God. From the outset it is evident that he was following certain hagiographic conventions.20 It is unlikely, for instance, that Baldric knew Robert during his youth, yet he insisted that he possessed a moral maturity in advance of his years that he did not succumb to the usual excesses of adolescence, but embraced chastity and delighted inwardly in purity.21 The rest of the work, though based on some personal knowledge (the abbey of Bourgueil where Baldric had been abbot was near Fontevraud) nevertheless presents a stereotyped view. The details of Robert’s life which Baldric chose to stress are those most in accord with what we would expect to find in the life of a saint. Robert’s studies, his work in Rennes as a herald of the Gregorian reforms, his penitential practices, his zeal in preaching, his ministry, his foundation of Fontevraud, and his death were all put in the context of the life of a holy man, an imitator of Christ, a worker of miracles.22 It is difficult at times to detect the dividing line between truth and fiction. Baldric’s text is amply supported by scriptural references and while the author of the life of Bernard of Tiron stopped short of attributing to him the power to raise the dead, Baldric had no hesitation about (p.22) claiming that Robert was capable of such actions.23 He described Robert as venerabilis and beatus and, in the finale, pictured him in heaven in the company of the apostles.24 On one point, however, Baldric required censorship by a future generation. His reporting that Robert’s father was a priest, from a line of priests, was judged by someone (probably abbess Jeanne-Baptiste de Bourbon, who showed herself remarkably adept in this field) to be inappropriate and the offending phrase was removed from the edition of the Vita Prima which appeared in 1641, and hence from all modern editions.25

It is generally held that the second life, the Vita Altera, by Brother Andrew, Robert’s chaplain and grand prior of the order, was also commissioned by Petronilla to compensate for the deficiencies in Baldric’s work.26 Emphasizing as it did the eremitic aspects of Robert’s life and scarcely referring to his installation of Petronilla as abbess, to his putting everything under the control of the nuns, or to the brothers’ promise of service, it is quite possible that the work of the archbishop of Dol was not wholly pleasing to Petronilla. However, another interpretation is possible. First, it is important to note that Andrew’s work was not dedicated to Petronilla. It is reasonable to expect the grand prior of the order to have made a dedication to the abbess somewhere in the text had she commissioned it. His statement at the beginning of his work that he wished to commit to writing the events of the final months of Robert’s life so that those who came after him would have a record of them, may be a factual account of the circumstances of its composition.27 A chance remark (licet mihi, fratres, dicere…) made further on in the work lends itself to the construction that Brother Andrew wrote for the community of brothers.28 On the basis of this, it is plausible to argue that Andrew was writing on his own behalf and not at the instigation of another.29 The fact that his work records Petronilla’s election and its ratification by the Holy See, as well as the brothers’ promise of obedience and service, is perfectly consistent with this viewpoint, as is his reluctance to praise Petronilla for fear of being thought a flatterer.30 Andrew appears as a participant in the events he (p.23) described, one who has tried within the limits of medieval hagiography to give an impartial record for posterity.

Interest in the two vitae was revived towards the end of the fifteenth century and continued well into the seventeenth, activated by abbesses dedicated to reforming the order by restoring the ancient observance and returning to the original spirit.31 Abbess Renée de Bourbon was one of the first to encourage the study of the early sources and it was during her term of office (1491–1534) that Brother G. Boudet, a brother from the reformed house of Fontaines, made a French translation of both lives, incorporating into his manuscript the statutes of the brothers and nuns and other relevant material such as an account of proceedings at the Council of Poitiers and the miracle of Ménélay.32 Boudet’s translation is the only known extant complete version of the Vita Altera.33 Also published during this period of reform, promoted by abbesses belonging to the royal house of Bourbon, were a number of apologetic works all written to extol Robert’s sanctity and at the same time to emphasize the authority of the abbess and foster the centralization of the order under her jurisdiction.34 The first of these appeared in 1586, dedicated to Abbess Eleanor de Bourbon by the Franciscan Yves Magistri. It is evident that Magistri had used Boudet’s translation—in fact it can be argued that he misused it by producing a work which is both confused and confusing, where fact is indistinguishable from the author’s opinion, where interpolations and anachronisms abound.35 The majority of the apologetic works appeared during the reign of Abbess Jeanne-Baptiste de Bourbon (1637–70). She it was who introduced to Rome Robert’s cause for canonization and she commissioned the curé of Fontevraud, M. Cosnier, to re-edit and publish the ancient manuscripts which were pertinent to the early history of the order. Cosnier’s work, with any inappropriate material excised, became the basis for future editions of the two vitae.36 Other works published during Jeanne-Baptiste’s term of office were written either by prominent members of the order or by those under her (p.24) command and all are written to illustrate the same premiss: Robert of Arbrissel was a saint; he is worthy of canonization.37

The shift in emphasis from Robert the saint to Robert the man did not occur until the beginning of the twentieth century. Prompted, no doubt, by the current interest in human psychology, scholars began searching the sources to find evidence of character traits, factors which may have influenced his behaviour, and indications of his personality. The first to publish such details was a German, Johannes von Walter, whose study of the preachers Vitalis of Mortain, Bernard of Tiron, and Robert is still considered a seminal work.38 Von Walter commenced with a rigorous examination of all available source material, thus laying the foundation for later critical assessment.39 The sources revealed, in his opinion, a man of the people permeated with the spirit of the Gospel, a powerful personality inspired by an interior piety, but withal someone with no talent for organization, pessimistic, and indecisive, whose fatal flaws meant that the Fontevraud dream did not endure.40 Several years later, Marthe Peton, in a paper to the Société des Lettres, Sciences et Arts at Saumur, in the heart of Fontevraud territory, presented an analysis of Robert’s personality, isolating traits such as mysticism and sensitivity said to be typically Breton, and revealing a man given to extremes of behaviour, a passionate and impulsive person who did not always look to the logical consequences of his actions.41 Peton found a man of admirable zeal, but one whose tendency to obsessive behaviour and lack of balance left him wide open to the criticisms levelled by both friends and enemies.

Interpretations which stripped away the myths to reveal a person of flesh and blood with human characteristics and inconsistencies contrast forcefully with a body of pious literature and works of amateur historians which appeared around the same time.42 These works, written with a particular (p.25) model of holiness in mind, aimed not at increasing knowledge of Robert but at popularizing the myth of Robert of Arbrissel, a devout person, worthy of imitation and veneration. They are inaccurate, often misleading, and as works of serious scholarship, they cannot merit consideration.

Some interpreters of Robert have sought to gain an understanding of the man and his work by tailoring them to fit certain political or philosophical constructs. Such a manipulation of facts can be observed in the work of Baronne Brincard who, writing in Le Correspondent in 1932, saw Fontevraud solely as an institution in which Robert instituted feminist rule. Brincard proposed Fontevraud as an inspiration to the women of France who, at the time, were struggling to obtain the franchise.43 The Polish historian Manteuffel adopted the somewhat doctrinaire position of Robert as defender of the poor against the rich, the weak against the strong—in short, the champion of the masses in their ideological struggle.44 Manteuffel, emphasizing Robert’s itinerant lifestyle and the crowds who attached themselves to him, concluded that he was heading with deterministic inevitability towards social conflict which was only avoided by his choosing to stabilize the group and abandon the experiment.45 Quite recently Loraine Simmons argued that Robert’s ‘extraordinary concept of gender roles in religious life’ led him to found an order which consisted of two groups incapable of interaction and, on the basis of this, postulated permanent tension over the balance of authority.46 She insisted that the maleness of the monks and their lower class was a challenge to the nuns who reacted to it by developing a ‘proximity anxiety’ which is reflected in the architecture of the abbatial church. While these constructions of the life and work of Robert represent significant departures from the mainstream of conventional scholarship they nevertheless serve to illustrate that the man (p.26) and the order he founded have inspired interpretations of varying degrees of seriousness and erudition.

A balanced approach can be found in the work of Jacqueline Smith and Penny Schine Gold.47 The former has questioned Robert’s reputation as a protector of women, won initially at the hands of the French historian Jules Michelet and perpetuated in the work of Reto Bezzola and Régine Pernoud.48 Michelet’s Histoire de France in 1835 presented Robert as a romantic, chivalric figure who rescued women from harsh treatment by the medieval clergy and lifted them to a position of honour by establishing them in Fontevraud.49 His view was heavily influenced by a legend in which Robert rescued a group of prostitutes from a brothel in Rouen by preaching to them so convincingly about the mercy of God that they were inspired to follow him, to do penance, and enter religious life.50 Bezzola, studying William IX of Aquitaine and the troubadours, also subscribed to the legend of Robert the chivalric hero, exalting womanhood by bringing some of the most famous and beautiful women of the age to join his foundation.51 Régine Pernoud, in a similar vein, portrayed an image of Robert promoting women who devoted their charm and beauty to the work of God with an enthusiasm matched only by the zeal with which they had hitherto pursued the gratification of their passions.52 Against this romantic ideal Jacqueline Smith countered that Robert was, in fact, neglectful of his fledgling foundation, the responsibilities of which he shed at the earliest opportunity.53 Though he continued to maintain tenuous links with Fontevraud, he remained at heart a preacher whose call to evangelize took precedence over everything else, even the future direction of the order.

(p.27) Penny Gold’s approach to Robert is through the institution. He was a man who founded an order, the structure of which reveals the man—or at the very least his ideas of religious life. Fontevraud was, according to Gold, intentionally constituted as an order for women, a factor which explains its endurance when so many other orders, founded contemporaneously, failed to withstand the test of time. Robert was a founder with an original design: the male element, necessary in every female establishment to take care of the nuns’ spiritual and material needs, was integrated into the structure of the order. Robert’s idea of gender roles in religious life was based on complementarity, so Fontevraud, as designed by him, became an example of male–female co-operation where each group could function within parameters juridically established, aware of what was expected of it and of the other.54 Gold presents an image of a founder extremely conscious of his position and giving the utmost attention to establishing a carefully balanced arrangement in which good order depended on reciprocity.

Scholarship over the last twenty years has been dominated by two Frenchmen. The first, J.-M. Bienvenu, concentrated on the eremitic side of Robert’s character. Having studied the social and economic conditions in the west of France, he demonstrated that the foundation of Fontevraud was a response to the prevailing poverty, both spiritual and material.55 Bienvenu situated Robert and his fellow hermits and itinerant preachers on a continuum beginning with Romuald and extending to the founders of the mendicant orders.56 Yet the Robert of Bienvenu is a victim—willing perhaps, but a victim none the less. The order outgrew him, the aristocratic women he put in charge changed its essential character; he alone remained faithful to the ideals of the eremitic life while Fontevraud transmogrified into a conventional order where the rich women ruled and the men were their servants. Robert’s aim was never realized except for a few fleeting years at the beginning of the twelfth century when all was spontaneous and original.57 Perhaps it is in this context of the women having taken over the direction of the order, perhaps it is in reaction to the romantic legend of Robert the promoter of women; for some reason Bienvenu has allowed the pendulum to swing to the opposite extreme and (p.28) has propounded the idea of Robert as the founder of an order where men were humiliated.58 The humiliation was, he reasoned, an essential part of Robert’s personal asceticism which he in turn imposed on his male followers: it was spiritually beneficial for them to be permanently confronted by women to whom they were subjected.

Jacques Dalarun worked from the advantageous position of having discovered a complete edition of the Vita Altera. His interpretations are thus based on some entirely new material, which has thrown new light on much of the old. Insistent that there is no one truth about Robert, Dalarun has opted for two interpretations, the first, realistic—a reconstruction of events, the second, hagiographic—an examination of Robert’s ‘sainthood’.59 He has laboriously reconstructed events—the chronology of the last week of Robert’s life, the topography of the priory of Orsan, the seigneurial rivalries at play in the dispute over Robert’s body—and the picture he has presented is realistic. However, having turned to analysing the man and his motives, he too has imposed a priori a psychological construction which seems to limit our view of Robert to a man driven by guilt. Robert’s discovery that he was born of a nicolaistic union and, as Dalarun believes, his marriage, albeit in ignorance of the law, produced an overriding guilt complex which coloured his entire life and his future relationships, becoming the chief motivation for all his behaviour.60 Guilt impelled him to eradicate clerical vice in the diocese of Rennes with such unprecedented zeal, guilt urged him to embark on a regime of personal asceticism, guilt inspired him to prove he had gained mastery over his sexual urges by sleeping with young women, and guilt motivated his other relations with women. The texts Dalarun has quoted in support of his theory are not explicit, however, and are open to interpretations other than those he has proposed.61 Furthermore, his exploration of Robert’s attitude to women has resulted in a confused picture where women are classed as Marthas, Marys, or Magdalenes with Robert reacting in a variety of ways to each.62 Robert (p.29) needed women, he asserts; they were essential to his asceticism, but his promotion of them to a position of prominence in his order was an inverse effect of this asceticism.63 We must, Dalarun has claimed, confront the contradictions in Robert’s personality. This is true. Ultimately, however, he has confronted us with a figure whose psychological complexity borders on the pathological.

Both Bienvenu and Dalarun have adopted a negative attitude towards and a seeming distrust of Petronilla de Chemillé. Each, but more particularly Dalarun, has attributed to her villainous designs, especially an inordinate desire for power and the betrayal of the wishes of the founder.64 Robert was, according to the interpretation of these two men, an embarrassment to Petronilla and the aristocratic women of Fontevraud who tried, therefore, to suppress his memory, prevent his cult, and forbid the men of the order to have any access to his tomb.65 So convinced is Dalarun that Petronilla betrayed Robert’s original design that he has put a negative interpretation on actions which are in themselves quite neutral. For instance, he reads harsh intent into her remarks of dismay on seeing Robert so close to death when she arrived at Orsan, yet they could betray a perfectly natural response, a fact which he himself concedes later in the text.66 Finally he has accused her of having deliberately censored the manuscript of the Vita Altera so that it circulated for several hundred years in a truncated form (after a brief period of publicity in the fifteenth century, the complete version remained lost until his discovery).67 It has been left to women scholars such as Penny Gold and Suzanne Tunc to restore the balance by offering Petronilla some rehabilitation.68

At the end of the Vita Altera Robert is compared to various biblical figures—Joseph, Moses, Daniel, and Samuel. Next he is likened to John the Baptist, who lived in the desert and proclaimed the Gospel, to Martha, who exercised the ministry of hospitality, to Paul, who was an itinerant preacher, and to Arsenius (a fifth century hermit), who prayed with the gift of tears.69 The writer obviously saw Robert’s as a complex personality with many facets and probably many contradictions, but in these (p.30) comparisons the images of preaching predominate. Any analysis of Robert of Arbrissel must begin and end at this point. His eremiticism was a preparation for and a function of his call to be a preacher. He would have subscribed to the axiom of Peter Damian that the only men fit for the office of preaching were those without the support of earthly riches who, because they possess nothing of their own, have everything in common.70 He would also have been in total accord with the maxim that only by the authority of his sharing in the mortifications of Christ could a preacher speak out against vice.71 It is evident that the Fontevraud brothers saw him first and foremost as a hermit/preacher: after his death they clothed him in his hermit’s robe and hair shirt.72 That the hermit and preacher became the founder of a religious order appears almost an accident of fate—a result of his preaching which he neither anticipated nor desired. The nuns of the order, however, viewed him more specifically as their founder and spiritual father, his life of eremiticism and preaching notwithstanding. Back at Fontevraud for burial, his body was dressed in priestly vestments and he was buried, not in the mud as he had requested, but in the abbatial church next to the high altar.73

Robert of Arbrissel

Having examined the context in which Robert lived and worked as well as the various constructs with which others have sought to explain his life, we are now in a position to examine that life more closely and to draw some conclusions for ourselves. Robert was born in Arbrissel, south-southeast of Rennes, sometime about the middle of the eleventh century.74 His father Damalioch was a country priest, clerical celibacy not being imposed in parts of rural France until well into the twelfth century and, in the diocese of Rennes, largely through the efforts of Robert himself.75 His (p.31) mother Orguende and brother Fulk are mentioned in the necrology of Fontevraud as are two female relatives, probably nieces.76 In the normal course of events, he would have inherited his father’s benefice and he may indeed have taken possession of it. The details of his life and the order of events before his studies took him to Paris at the age of about thirty are largely conjectural: when exactly he was ordained and whether or not he married are matters on which there is no conclusive evidence. He may have married, although the financial burden of a wife would have made it difficult for him to pursue studies in Paris. There is, in a personal letter from Marbod of Rennes, an allusion to a previous sin against chastity which may or may not mean that he had married after his ordination.77 We simply do not have sufficient information to form a judgement on this matter. Another matter about which details are not clear is his having been involved in the simoniacal election of a bishop of Rennes.78 One school of thought dates the event in 1076 with the election of Sylvester de la Guerche.79 If this were so, the subsequent deposition of this bishop may have precipitated Robert’s departure for Paris, where he studied, possibly under Anselm of Laon.80 It was in Paris that he became involved in the movement for religious renewal which was currently manifesting itself in the church and it was as an agent of that renewal and reform that he returned to his native diocese in 1088 or 1089 as archpriest and assistant to the re-established bishop Sylvester. His preaching against lay investiture, simony, incest, and nicolaism, not surprisingly, made him enemies, and the unexpected death of his patron in 1092 forced him to take refuge in Angers, where he resumed his studies.81

The Hermit

The details of Robert’s embracing the eremitical life do not differ markedly from those found in the lives of his fellow hermits. Typically he began to wear a coat of mail, to fast and keep vigils.82 After a short time he retired to the forest of Craon where he practised a more rigorous programme of mortification.83 He began wearing a hair shirt, shaving (p.32) without water, sleeping on the bare ground, fasting, abstaining from meat and wine, keeping vigils throughout the entire night, all in an effort to win the interior battle against the demands of the flesh. This programme, he believed, would enable him to devote himself totally to God.84 We do not have proof that Robert actually practised all these mortifications. We do know, however, that they were the spiritual exercises expected of a hermit and, as such, we would expect them to be part of his regime.

Robert, Bernard of Tiron, Vitalis of Mortain, and Raoul de la Futaie, as well as following their individual missions and instructing their own disciples, supported each other in work and prayer. They used to meet regularly at Dompierre for spiritual discourse and, in the early twelfth century, Bernard, Robert and Vitalis preached together in the west of France.85 At first their shelters were rude structures in the forest but as the numbers of their followers increased more substantial dwellings were erected.

It would seem that the group of disciples which had attached themselves to Robert and settled at La Roë in the forest of Craon lived the ‘eremitical’ phase only four years before being formally constituted with the Rule of Saint Augustine.86 As the process of evolution would normally postulate a more lengthy time-frame, we need to seek an explanation of this phenomenon. Generally it was the bishop who, to control the exaggerations of the hermits and to utilize their preaching in the process of reform, encouraged them to settle in a fixed location, to adopt a rule, and appoint a leader. Often he influenced local magnates to grant them land on which they could settle their followers. In the case of La Roë, it was the pope who played the decisive role. Although Baldric would have us believe that during his visit to Angers in 1096 Pope Urban II summoned Robert, bade him preach, and, recognizing that the Holy Spirit was using him as an instrument, appointed him apostolic preacher, the reality was probably quite different.87 (p.33) Since the time of Gregory VII the papacy had been exercising increasing control over the activities of ‘freelance’ preachers.88 Bishops could permit or forbid preachers to enter their dioceses, and while papal permission to preach was not canonically necessary it provided preachers with an official status and thus some protection, and at the same time it enabled the papacy to limit their activities.89 Word of Robert had undoubtedly reached Urban’s ears, and it suited his purposes to hear him preach to satisfy himself as to his orthodoxy. The commission to spread the gospel on the pope’s behalf (if indeed Robert actually received such) meant that he was effectively under papal jurisdiction. As an official agent of reform, he was morally bound to keep his preaching within orthodox limits.90 The formalizing of the community was also a restraint. Robert was henceforth tied to La Roë, with the equivalent of a vow of stability, under the authority of the bishop of Angers.91

Since the apostolate of preaching was so salient a feature of Robert’s programme, it is possible that the primitive La Roë community had been a base from which priests, celibate, educated, and dedicated to the values of the Gospel, evangelized the surrounding parishes.92 This is not inconsistent with the description of Robert’s followers given by Marbod of Rennes, but it is not clear whether this refers to this stage of Robert’s life.93 If it refers to La Roë, the community was atypical. Generally speaking, the hermit leaders chose to train their followers in the practice of prayer, penance, and manual work but preferred to have them live in stable communities rather than engage in outright evangelization.94 We can assume that, at least after 1096, La Roë was a conventional community of canons. Although Robert was willing to welcome anyone who chose to join the group, apparently at this stage he had not taken on the direction of women. These, it seems, he put in the charge of one of his disciples, Solomon, who (p.34) founded several more or less temporary establishments, before, early in the twelfth century, establishing a permanent foundation on land donated by the Seigneur of Nyoiseau.95

We can be fairly certain that with many of the foundations made at the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth centuries, church authorities brought pressure to bear on individual hermits and preachers to impose some regularity on the lives of their followers. Marbod of Rennes, as we shall see, played a decisive role in the foundation of Fontevraud, begging Robert in the name of both ecclesiastical and lay authority to order the activities of the crowds which followed him.96 Peter of Poitiers was probably instrumental in securing the initial land grant at Fontevraud.97 Barthélemy of Laon was influential in the early years of the foundation of Premontré.98 And the attitude of the church authorities is understandable. Untrammelled religious enthusiasm could disturb the status quo, as Hildebert, bishop of Le Mans, discovered.99 Eremitic spirituality was not regimented: each hermit lived according to his own temperament and his own lights. The eremitic communities were characterized neither by a rule nor by any structured observance. For the members the guidance of the master was their norm.100 Their non-conformity was sufficient ground for fear and distrust, and the bishops, while generally supporting the movement, were not unaware of the problems nor indifferent to the scandals associated with it.101 Frequently the bishops were the means of avoiding conflict between the hermits and the local clergy who saw in their activities a threat to their revenues.102

This is not to deny that there were other factors which inclined the founders towards providing a rule for their followers. Sometimes it was (p.35) the followers themselves who, fearing disintegration on the death or departure of their leader, pressed him to give them a formal rule; at other times it seems to have been the hermits themselves who sought a rule which would give permanence to their foundations.103 Whatever the explanation, the fact remains: the closing years of the eleventh century and the early years of the twelfth witnessed the birth of several conventional religious houses, among them Tiron, Savigny, St Sulpice at Rennes, and Fontevraud, from foundations which had been indisputably eremitic in origin.104

Robert did not remain long at La Roë. In 1098, having put the community under the direction of another, Robert returned to preaching, an action for which he was later reproached.105 His biographer tells us that the direction of La Roë was a source of tension for him, that his true vocation was incompatible with the demands of managing an established community.106 However, Robert’s departure from La Roë fits nicely into Milis’ analysis of the movement of eremitic communities towards cenobitic living.107 Many founders, it seems, confronted with the ambiguities inherent in stabilized living and unwilling to compromise their ideals of solitude and austerity, chose to withdraw from their foundations or attempted to prolong artificially the eremitical phase, a course of action which became increasingly difficult as numbers of followers increased.108 Furthermore, Robert’s refusal to be called ‘Lord’ or ‘Abbot’ makes sense in this context. Most of the hermit leaders chose to be called ‘master’.109 The more formalized cenobitic communities demanded a more formal, juridical title for their leaders.110 Beyond a rejection of those titles and the power they represented, we can infer a refusal to accept the responsibility intrinsic to them. Apropos of this we may note that Robert’s staff was not a crosier but a pilgrim’s staff, shaped like a capital ‘T’, like that of St Anthony of the desert.111

Within a few years Robert was successively hermit, preacher, and founder. To be unmindful of the interdependence of these three facets of his life is to distort their significance. Intrinsic to his preaching mission was the (p.36) asceticism practised in the desert; the direct result of his eremiticism was the gathering of disciples and their ultimate organization in a stable religious community. Before examining his second and more famous foundation, let us turn our attention for a moment to Robert, the preacher.

The Preacher

What was the message preached by this man which drew so many to listen to him and to want to stay and share his way of life? We know that he did not preach the crusade although there was undoubtedly a link between the eremitical and the crusading movements.112 Like the crusading preachers, however, Robert did preach a message of penance. Peter of Poitiers recorded that in preaching the word of God Robert turned many men and women away from the evils of the world.113 We know too that he denounced the lives of the clergy to the extent that Marbod of Rennes accused him of subversion.114 But to find the positive aspects of Robert’s teaching we must turn to his letter to the Countess Ermengarde, sister of Fulk V of Anjou.115 The main thrust of this letter was that Ermengarde, anxious but unable to leave the world and join Fontevraud, was to develop an interior piety. She was to live in the land of her own heart and nourish herself on the riches contained therein. She was to hold God in her heart, whether she was at home, abroad, in her bed, or enjoying herself in fine clothes and in company.116 Robert advised her how she might achieve this: through prayer, both the canonical hours and shorter prayers, through penance, and through ascetic practices, though it was necessary to maintain proper balance in the last.117 In addition she was to love voluntary poverty and practise almsgiving.118 Such a programme for a lay woman was practical, achievable, and attractive. We have no reason to suppose that he did not preach the same message to others.

(p.37) Since we know that this letter was composed by Robert himself, it is worth while to examine it, not simply for its content but also for its style, as an indication what may have attracted the crowds.119 While it is clear that most successful preachers would have adapted their styles to suit their audiences, it is still valid to examine this, our only direct evidence of Robert’s teaching, to find some distinguishing characteristics. Immediately striking is his heavy reliance on Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. An analysis of the letter has shown that it contains sixty-eight Old Testament references, thirty-four of them direct quotations.120 The most frequently cited book is the Book of Psalms and the predominant theme is one of hope in God. Though Robert referred to the tribulations of this life—for which he was termed a pessimist—his gaze went beyond the present to the salvation promised to those who were faithful.121 There is a similar abundance of New Testament references.122 Not surprisingly for a preacher, he relied heavily on the Sermon on the Mount.123 Robert shows himself a reformer, not a revolutionary, and the overall impression supports Brother Andrew’s assertion that his preaching showed the presence of the Holy Spirit, was never ineffectual, and always touched the hearts of his hearers.124 There was never any compromise on the message of the gospel. In fact, his thundering sermons threatening sinners with eternal punishment won him the title of ‘Depths of Hell’.125 This could refer to his early career when his zeal was at its zenith; Peter of Poitiers also referred to his vehement exhortations.126 By the end of his life he seems to have mellowed: as he lay dying at Orsan, we are told, all who came to visit him left consoled by whatever he had said to them.127

Baldric informs us that Robert’s message, his eloquence, his personality drew the crowds. They attached themselves to him and followed him through the length and breadth of the countryside. They must have been a motley lot, drawn, at least to some extent, from the lower ranks of (p.38) society. Baldric describes them as comprising men, women, poor, nobles, widows and virgins, old and young, prostitutes and haters of men. Later he adds that Robert received the poor, the sick, and did not turn away incurables or lepers, those in incestuous relationships, or concubines.128 The extent to which this is an accurate description of the crowds which followed Robert, or indeed any of the wandering preachers, is open to question, but we can conclude that a fair cross-section of society was represented. Baldric does refer to the presence of nobles among the crowd, but there could also have been a substantial middle-class element.129 Many of his followers were women who had left their husbands.130 Irrespective of their social mix, the aspect of this large group following Robert through the countryside must indeed have been strange. What is more strange is that this was the raw material for the Fontevraud foundation.

The Founder

At this stage of his life the foundation of a religious community must have been the furthermost consideration from Robert’s mind. He had just divested himself of the responsibility of directing one and cannot have been anxious to take on another. Two forces, however, converged to precipitate his decision to provide both stable accommodation and a rule of life for the group which was following him. The first was a letter from a member of the higher clergy voicing his, and no doubt others’, criticism of Robert’s behaviour; the second was his action at the Council of Poitiers. A third factor may have been the experience of La Roë. Robert may have realized that change was inevitable, that eremitic spirituality was in reality unsuitable for a large group, and that some provision had to be made for the weaker members.131 The letter of Marbod, archbishop of Rennes and Robert’s former master at the school of Angers, in addition to criticism, contained a plea on behalf of clergy and laity alike for him to regularize the lives of his followers, to put an end to their licentious behaviour, and to show some common sense and prudence in his own.132 The degree of truth behind the criticism is debatable. It is evident that Marbod had relied on hearsay, of which rumour and exaggeration would doubtless have been elements, and his reaction is typical of the reaction of authority to seeming disorder.133 Still, there must have been some basis for the allegations (p.39) and, given that the crowd following Robert was quite large, it is logical to conclude that he would have found it impossible to maintain discipline and orderly conduct among them no matter how fervent his prayers or prolonged his vigils.134 One can, in retrospect, appreciate Marbod’s consternation. Robert apparently had never been over-prudent.135 His current behaviour was causing more than a few ecclesiastical eyebrows to be raised. His disciples were dirty and unruly, his own attire was unconventional and offensive; his denunciation of the vices of the clergy in front of the common people was manifestly subversive of authority, both spiritual and temporal, and his practice of a most extreme type of penance—mulierum consortia (sleeping in the company of young women to prove he had mastered his sexual desires)—was nothing short of scandalous.136 On receipt of Marbod’s criticism and his appeal to sanity and sanctity, Robert may have accepted the inevitable, realizing that at stake was not only his reputation but also the future of all his followers.137 Despite his criticism of the established order, he was not a social revolutionary. For his work to continue he relied on the patronage of the baronial class and the approval of the ecclesiastical authorities. He may thus have felt his hand forced to comply with their wishes. Later, when he referred to his foundation of Fontevraud, he remarked that he would happily have continued in his life as a hermit and preacher had not divine pity constrained him to reach out to the needs of his women followers. It is likely that, in actual fact, divine pity assumed a much more prosaic complexion.

The Council of Poitiers provided Robert with an opportunity to prove in a dramatic way where he stood on the issues of adultery and licentiousness. When William IX of Aquitaine brought in his troops to force the assembled fathers to rescind the ban of excommunication imposed on Philip I because of the latter’s refusal to end his adulterous affair with Bertrade of Montfort, the only two to take a stand against them were Robert (p.40) and his friend Bernard of Tiron.138 After this episode Robert was morally obliged to ensure that the future behaviour of his own followers was above reproach. Thus, immediately after the Council (probably between November 1100 and Easter 1101) and no doubt with the assistance of Peter, bishop of Poitiers, a long-time friend and supporter, Robert took definite steps towards establishing a permanent foundation.139

Land was provided in the Loire and Vienne valleys, close to a public thoroughfare.140 Though described by Baldric as wild and rough, infested with thorns and thistles, the land known as Fontis Ebraudi was no desert.141 It was actually fertile, suitable for agricultural, pastoral, and viticultural exploitation. Early donations included a mill, pasture for cattle, and various customs and dues.142 Moreover, its position vis-à-vis civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction was carefully considered. In the county of Anjou it was outside the civil authority of William IX of Aquitaine, with whom Robert had clashed, yet it was within the diocese of Poitiers thus ensuring the continued support and patronage of Peter, the bishop.143 It is quite possible that the latter had used his influence to secure the initial grant of land from Aremburg and her daughter Adelaide; Robert made no secret of the fact that the bishop had played a significant role in his foundation.144

While Robert may have been forced by circumstances to make this foundation, when it came to preserving the character of the original group he showed that he was not prepared to abandon the entirety of his dream. Where it could be achieved without scandal, he insisted, women should live with men: Fontevraud was to be a mixed community.145 And, although ecclesiastical authorities were generally not in favour of such, in this case they seemed to have raised no objection. Robert’s stand at Poitiers must (p.41) have been well known and the evident support of bishop Peter would have helped establish his credibility.

Organization of the new foundation was simple. The plan was that the group would live an eremitical life. All were to observe silence at specified times. The sexes were separated. Tasks appropriate to each were assigned: men were to work, women to pray. This was, according to Robert (or Baldric), in keeping with the rules of nature.146 There was nothing original in the organization. Women religious of the period were conventionally enjoined to contemplation, silence, mortification, and penance.147 We are told that from the outset roles were clearly defined: clerics were to sing Mass and the Offices and lay brothers were to perform manual work. These social distinctions may not have been present initially but may have developed over a period of time.148 Shelter was at first basic but became more substantial as donations increased and as the group moved increasingly in the direction of cenobitic living.

The men lived together in one dwelling under the patronage of St John the evangelist, known as The Habit.149 Women, who clearly outnumbered the men, were grouped around several cloisters. The main cloister was for contemplatives—at least 300 of them. Other cloisters, under the patronage of St Lazarus and St Mary Magdalene, housed other groups.150 The patronage of Mary Magdalene has given rise to a commonly held belief that this last was a house for reformed prostitutes.151 Robert was dedicated to the rehabilitation of these women, as were others of the preacher-hermits, but among the hermits devotion to Mary Magdalene was very popular, not only because of her reformed life but also on account of a legend that she was the first hermit.152 The new orders, with their emphasis on the contemplative life, were often associated with Mary, in contrast to the more active Martha.153 The cult of the saint, centred at Vézélay, was widespread during the Middle Ages. Also widespread was confusion as to (p.42)

                   Robert of Arbrissel: The                         Reluctant Founder

FIGURE 1.1. Plan of the Main Abbey Buildings, Fontevraud

Adapted from M. Melot, Fontevrault (Paris, 1971).

her actual identity, a confusion shared and, in fact, promoted by Gregory the Great: Mary Magdalene, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’ feet were all identified as the same biblical figure.154 The most likely interpretation of accommodation at Fontevraud is that the main cloister was reserved for virgins and La Madeleine for conversae, that is, for all other women.155

(p.43) Of the foundation community Baldric paints an idyllic picture. All lived together in the bonds of fraternal love: there was no bitterness, envy, or discord among them.156 Generally the men belonged to the lower ranks of society, though the priests must have been educated.157 Noblewomen, however, were among early members of the order and their numbers increased.158 This was predictable. Recruitment to religious life at this time was mainly from the upper classes. In the west of France at this time a significant proportion of the members of female religious houses were either noble widows or married women.159 It was not long before the prevailing social order was apparent at Fontevraud with the noblewomen in charge.160 It is doubtful that Robert planned this but it seems that he did little to prevent it—in fact, his actions rendered it inevitable.

The contents of another letter must be considered for their bearing on the turn of events. This letter came from the abbot of La Trinité of Vendôme, written probably c. 1101, just as the order was in its initial stages of foundation.161 As well as reiterating the criticisms of Marbod of Rennes, the letter of abbot Geoffrey indicated that there was some division among the sisters. One group, it appears, felt that Robert was treating them harshly while at the same time favouring another group. Who lodged the initial complaint and who belonged to which group is not known but a few certainties can be established. The complaint must have come from a member of the community who had access to the abbot, that is, from one of the noble women. Petronilla of Chemillé was Geoffrey’s cousin and it could well have been she who voiced the discontent of her noble sisters, who were disaffected, feeling that they were not being treated as befitted people of their rank.162 Robert’s attempt at equality on religious grounds where all were simply pauperes Christi was obviously distasteful to them.

(p.44) Geoffrey’s letter may have been the catalyst which made it clear to Robert that the success of his enterprise necessitated some changes in structure.163 In 1101 he would have been no more inclined to settle to monastic life than he had been in 1096 in the forest of Craon. Stability ill-befitted an itinerant preacher. Yet, with a group consisting of several hundred persons, the original austerity and spontaneity were no longer possible.164 Structures, moral, juridical, and religious, were needed to protect them, as well as the more obvious physical structures such as buildings. The word of the master would no longer suffice as a rule; something more formal was necessary, and if he were not prepared to be designated superior of the group, someone else had to be appointed to the position. In this instance it is clear that Robert set up structures which would serve for an interim period. He was obviously not willing to remain and direct the group but he did not hand it over totally to the charge of another. Baldric recounts the decision in the context of the programme of building which perforce had to be undertaken at Fontevraud. Unskilled in the direction of such matters himself, and wanting to return to his preaching, Robert handed over the daily administration to someone else.165

The choice of the director was of paramount importance. For the continued success of his work Robert relied on the support, both monetary and moral, of the wealthy classes. For the building programme at Fontevraud to continue, he needed to hand over its supervision to someone interested in and capable of seeing it through to a satisfactory completion. The director needed to be a person with sufficient experience, self-assurance, and social standing to carry on the work. Given the heterogeneous group at Fontevraud, the person best suited to the task had to have been one of the noblewomen, and in fact it was Hersende of Montsoreau, sister of Hubert, count of Champagne, mother-in-law of the lord of Montsoreau, on whose land the monastery had been built, whom Robert chose and appointed prioress. Petronilla of Chemillé, whom he appointed as her assistant, was also a noblewoman, widow of the lord of Chemillé.

It has been claimed that Robert’s choice indicates that he bowed to pressure from the nobility and, in essence, compromised his ideals by establishing a conventional order of women in which the rich ruled over (p.45) the poor.166 In one sense this is true: he did confirm the noble women in positions of authority, but in reality there was no other option available to him. He could not have left administration of such a large concern to anyone other than a noble woman, someone used to ruling, used to commanding obedience. The poor, the lepers, the reformed prostitutes would not have been suitable candidates.167 Neither Hersende nor Petronilla gave Robert cause to regret his decision: in fact each proved herself a capable administrator.168 And, significantly, when it came to founding other priories, Robert followed this same pattern. Agnes, prioress of Orsan, was former wife of Alard, lord of that region; Bertrade of Montfort, former wife of the count of Anjou, was made prioress of Hautes Bruyères.169 It could be argued, too, using Geoffrey’s letter as evidence, that the noblewomen had already assumed control and that Robert, no longer able to hold the group together, was simply legitimizing the status quo.170 In view of his later foundation of a number of monasteries dependent on Fontevraud and his continued spiritual direction of the Order, this seems highly unlikely. It would appear, rather, that, aware of the movement of the group towards cenobitic living, and, unable to prevent that movement, but disinclined to accept this for himself, Robert withdrew from direct involvement in the minutiae of monastic life and resumed his itinerant lifestyle. It is possible, moreover, in the light of later events, that several of the brothers accompanied him.171

Robert’s departure from Fontevraud, however, should not be construed as desertion or lack of interest.172 Hersende was never constituted abbess of the order, simply prioress, suggesting that Robert still retained ultimate control. This could indicate a certain ambivalence on his part concerning the ultimate direction which the order should take. For the next fifteen years he was instrumental in obtaining donations and fostering new recruits. Converts were settled in priories dependent on Fontevraud and he periodically returned to the mother house to direct the group. By the time of his death in 1116 he had founded about eighteen priories and had secured a rich patrimony for his order.173


                   Robert of Arbrissel: The                         Reluctant Founder

MAP 1.2. Priories Founded during the Lifetime of Robert of Arbrissel

Adapted from Bienvenu, Fondateur, 109 and ‘Fontevraud’, Histoire-Archéologie (1993), 107–9.

The Order of Fontevraud: Abbess Petronilla

There is a degree of uncertainty over the precise chronology of the final six months of Robert’s life. Assuming that he died on 25 February 1116 and working back from that date we can place the events which we are about to discuss as beginning in September 1115.174 At this stage Robert, (p.47) realizing that he did not have much longer to live, put in train a series of events which would ensure the permanence and stability of the order.

His first action, according to Brother Andrew, was to call all the brothers together to determine if they wished to continue in their service of the nuns.175 Almost to a man they agreed to do so, despite having been given the option of leaving Fontevraud and joining another order. The significance of this action could easily be overlooked. What seems to have taken place is that he asked the men who had been his companions to make a vow of stability.176 It is even possible that, up to this point, they may not have been constituted as canons, a possibility strengthened by their subsequent clothing of Robert’s corpse in his hermit’s robe.177 Satisfied that he had established concord between the two sexes, he then consulted the bishops and abbots of the region concerning the appointment of an abbess and thus the formal adoption of a Rule.178 The Vita Altera details the nature of the deliberations telling how Robert finally gained approval for his plan of appointing a conversa (someone who had experience of the world as opposed to one who had been raised from childhood in the cloister) as abbess—someone with sufficient business acumen and knowledge of the ways of the world not to lose all that he had built up.179 He reasoned that the cloistered virgins, who knew of no other life than praying and singing psalms, were not suitable administrators: a more practical person was needed.180 His anxiety was well founded. The abbey of Ronceray in Angers had been involved in thirty-eight cases of litigation between its foundation and 1100.181 In the litigious society of the twelfth century naivety had no place.182 Thus it was that on 28 October 1115 Petronilla of Chemillé, noblewoman and former prioress, was officially designated first abbess of Fontevraud and Robert enjoined on the order that henceforth the abbess was to be elected from among the conversae rather than from among those who had been choir sisters from their youth.183

This appointment officially constituted Fontevraud as a religious order for women with an integrated male element. Although brothers and nuns lived under the authority of one abbess, it is preferable to avoid the use of the term ‘double order’ since arrangements under which men and women (p.48) lived in close association in religious life are so diverse that each case merits individual description.184 Petronilla’s rule was absolute, no different from that of any contemporary abbess.185 She controlled the entire order, all its members male and female, all its priories, and all its temporal domain. A clause from an early collection of rules, judged as bearing the hallmark of Robert’s design, states unequivocally that Petronilla, having been chosen by Master Robert and constituted abbess by common consent and the devoted request of the nuns as well as of the brothers, was to have and maintain the power of ruling the order and all the places belonging to the order. All were to obey her and revere her as their spiritual mother, and all the affairs of the order, spiritual as well as temporal, were in her hands to be assigned to whomsoever she designated.186

Soon after formalizing Petronilla’s position Robert departed from Fontevraud on a preaching mission, visiting Hautes-Bruyères, Bonneval, and Chartres. For part of his journey he was accompanied by Bernard of Tiron and Petronilla.187 On 18 February 1116 he fell ill and with help made his way to the nearby priory of Orsan where it was evident that death was approaching.188 It is perhaps appropriate that someone who spent a significant part of his life travelling the roads should end his days far from ‘home’, but Robert’s dearest wish had been to die at Fontevraud and be buried in the cemetery there. Realizing that the former was impossible, he repeatedly begged his friends, during the last week of his life, to take his body to Fontevraud after his death and bury him among his fellow workers and the lepers.189 We are given a detailed account of the events of Robert’s final days: his agony, his advice to the nuns and the brothers, his confession, his final blessing, and his death on the evening of 25 February at the time of vespers.190 Immediately after his death, amidst the sorrow at losing their founder, leader, and friend, a bitter dispute arose over possession (p.49) of his body. Alard, lord of Orsan, and Leger, archbishop of Bourges, both reneged on their promise to allow Robert to be buried at Fontevraud and did their utmost to arrange the interment at Orsan. At stake was not simply the spiritual privilege of having the relics of a holy man; there were potential financial rewards as well.191 Petronilla, however, was determined that Robert should be taken back to Fontevraud as he had requested. She and the nuns were prepared to go to extreme measures to force the hands of the clergy and noblemen who thought otherwise. They finally won the day by praying, fasting, walking in procession in the February cold barefooted and without cloaks.192 The body was transported to the mother house by river. The abbey reached, the obsequies were performed and, on 7 March 1116, Robert was buried in the part of the abbatial church normally reserved for the nuns.193 The following day Leger of Bourges preached the panegyric in the brothers’ chapter.194

Legends about Robert and his sanctity had, without doubt, already begun to develop. But, in contrast to what often occurred with monastic founders, there is no evidence of a popular cult of Robert being promoted by Petronilla nor, it seems, by anyone at Fontevraud. No miracles were recorded at his tomb; no attempt was made to canonize him.195 While on the surface this may sound strange, it could illustrate the desire of the order to spare itself the nuisance of throngs of pilgrims to his shrine, guaranteed to disturb the enclosure and disrupt the contemplation of the nuns. This is not without precedent. The monks at Chaise Dieu pleaded with their Saint Robert to refrain from performing miracles so that they would be left in peace by the pilgrims and the abbot of Clairvaux bade St Bernard, by virtue of obedience, to cease performing miracles at his tomb for the same reason.196 Among the early Fontevraud statutes, there was a prohibition against seculars keeping vigil in churches belonging to the order, a prohibition which would unquestionably have commanded observance in the abbatial church.197 Enclosure was not to be compromised, even, it seems, at the expense of the canonization of the founder. Furthermore, it is not incontestable that Robert’s cult was totally neglected. There is, in fact, strong evidence that devotion to him did continue within the order. The formula (p.50) for profession, for example, mentioned his relics, and a breviary originating in one of the English foundations includes both a prayer to him and an invocation in the litany of saints.198 Given that source material is so very scarce, these meagre references lend considerable weight to our argument that, contrary to current opinion, the Fontevraud nuns may not have been guilty of making a concerted effort to consign their founder to oblivion.199

One question, however, must be asked: Why did Petronilla, so determined to return Robert’s body to Fontevraud for burial, not keep the whole of her promise and allow him to be buried in the cemetery as he had asked? Why, on this occasion, did she give in so easily to the wishes of the nobility and clergy, when a week previously she withstood them so vigorously? One interpretation of events attributes to Petronilla a sinister purpose. It sees her as deliberately flouting Robert’s wishes, deliberately denying the brothers access to his tomb, deliberately organizing that Robert should be forgotten.200 This judgement does seem unduly harsh and it is unfortunate that we cannot counter it with evidence in Petronilla’s favour. It is possible that in having Robert buried in the church Petronilla was acting more from wisdom than perfidy—the difficulty she had in obtaining Robert’s body in the first place and the attempt by the people of Candes to seize it on the way to Fontevraud would have made her justifiably afraid that his tomb might be robbed were it left unguarded in the cemetery.201 On the other hand, the fact that the positioning of Robert’s tomb in the abbatial church meant that the brothers, with the exception of those celebrating Mass for the nuns, were ultimately denied access to it, is difficult, if not impossible, to explain. At Sempringham, by contrast, St Gilbert was buried in the dividing wall in the priory church so that both nuns and brothers could pray at his tomb.202

(p.51) Another question which must be considered is whether the death of the founder marked the end of the Fontevraud ideal. Most of the institutions founded by twelfth-century hermits changed their orientation after the death of their founders or the retirement of the latter from active involvement in the affairs of the institution.203 But a change in orientation is not tantamount to a betrayal of the ideal. There is bound to be a gap between the spirituality of a founder and that of his disciples and in giving them a formal Rule the founder inevitably gave them something less rigorous than the primitive ideal. The emphasis was bound to shift from internal attitudes to external practices, and the eremitic influence inevitably faded. There is no doubt that the order of Fontevraud changed direction from its humble beginnings, but its aristocratic propensities had been present at the outset and were endorsed by Robert when he accepted land from magnates and appointed noblewomen as its early administrators. He clearly relied on the generosity and patronage of the aristocracy to sustain his enterprise and hence was in some ways beholden to their wishes. He himself rejoiced in the prosperity of the order, grateful that those who had shared the initial poverty and privation with him should reap the fruits of their labours.204 The consequence of the tension in Robert’s life between being a hermit–preacher and founding a religious order was that the ideal he envisaged for his followers was neither practical nor practicable; the very success of his preaching demanded a modification of his standards. His dream of his followers living a life of collective eremiticism as pauperes Christi contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction.205 The practicalities of feeding, housing, and caring for a large group of people, not to mention those of administering an ever-increasing temporal domain, demanded the imposition of structures which immediately spelt the alteration of the original plan.206 The idealistic and idyllic primitive community of Fontevraud could not have survived; the ideal had to be translated into practical terms. When Robert handed over the task of translation to the two noblewomen Hersende and Petronilla he set the foundation on the inevitable course of becoming a conventional twelfth-century (p.52) religious order no matter how much he would have wished it otherwise. The character of the order was destined to change: Robert’s ceding of authority to the nobility simply guaranteed the direction of that change. However, the assessment that under Petronilla and her successors the order became a retreat where noble women and world-weary dowagers could end their days with priests to say masses for them and servants to wait on them is not only undeserved: it is belied by the reputation for strict observance of the Rule which the order continued to maintain and the esteem in which both the church and the laity continued to hold its members.207

The Order of Fontevraud: Statutes

The principles which governed the life of the Fontevraud order are expressed in its Rule and statutes. Any analysis of the Rule of Fontevraud must begin from the understanding that the fundamental rule of life for a nun of this order was the Rule of Saint Benedict: at her profession she promised stability and conversion of life and obedience to the Rule of Saint Benedict, in the presence of God and all his saints and before the tomb of Robert of Arbrissel, the founder.208 Chaplains and brothers, as far as we know, followed the Augustinian Rule. What is commonly referred to as the Rule of Fontevraud is the body of statutes which Robert decreed should enshrine the particular manner in which the two Rules were lived in the two respective Fontevraud communities.209 Over the years the statutes were modified by abbesses and chapters general to reflect actual experience. Their matter covers such topics as dress, diet, silence, and religious comportment as well as contact between male and female members of the order, maintenance of enclosure, and the election of an abbess. A text (p.53) of the statutes was probably committed to writing during 1115, about the same time as Robert was making provision for the future of the order.210 It is clear that before this there were some regulations although their exact form is uncertain. Initially, we know, organization was haphazard and spontaneous and only after external pressure did Robert impose some regularity.211 Baldric tells us that the sexes were separated, that the women were enclosed and devoted themselves to prayer, and that the lay brothers and clerics lived together, the latter performing religious duties, the former manual work. All kept silence at prescribed times.212 This may or may not be an accurate description of the early community. Baldric may have been using certain hagiographic conventions. Nevertheless, there must have been a body of statutes in rudimentary form at least, to have been approved by pope Paschal II in 1106: whether or not they were a particular interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict we do not know. Peter of Poitiers in his charter of confirmation of the order specified that the nuns’ statutes were not to be interfered with, but their actual provisions are unclear.213

By the time that the Vita Altera was being composed, written statutes were held at the mother house. Brother Andrew noted that the regulation concerning the election of the abbess from among the conversae was added to the other commandments which were prescribed by Robert and which were kept at Fontevraud.214 These, according to Andrew, included regulations on work, food, speech, and clothing and were written to ensure that both the brothers and the nuns lived religious life worthily.215 There was also among Robert’s original precepts a prohibition against using violence to defend the property of the order.216

What remains of Robert’s statutes (Migne, version 2), is clearly a representative sample.217 The nuns’ precepts enjoin strict silence in the enclosure except for those who must concern themselves with external affairs.218 This is stricter than that reported by Baldric where initially silence was observed only at certain times. When speaking was necessary, it was to be done in a manner becoming to a religious, and while signs were (p.54) permitted their use was strictly limited.219 The prohibition against eating meat even by those who are ill is found only in this version:220 its disappearance from subsequent versions suggests that it soon lapsed. It is uncertain whether this means that the order as a whole ignored the prohibition or that they simply followed the more humane prescriptions of the Rule of St Benedict and allowed meat to the infirm.221 The latter seems more probable, especially in view of the fact that the order was still so close to its eremitical origins, even though Peter the Venerable noted with disapproval the consumption of various types of meat at Cluny at about the same time.222 The only stipulation concerning contact between the male and female members of the order is contained in the ruling that the sick are to be brought to the church for the sacrament of anointing—obviously a means of preventing the priest from coming into the nuns’ living quarters.223 Also in this version is a strong statement on authority structures within the order, outlining Petronilla’s position of absolute power, and the status of the Grand Prioress, indicating the role which she is to play between the death of an abbess and the election of her successor.224

The 1119 version contains five of these seven precepts—the only two which do not appear are that concerning meat (which has already been discussed) and that defining Petronilla’s position.225 The latter, specifically referring to Petronilla’s personal authority, would no doubt have been invoked during the process of her assuming control of the order. In the body of statutes approved for the future government of the order there would have been need of explicit precepts defining the areas of the authority of the abbess per se. These can be found in the 1119 version.226 The other precepts in this version are mainly regulations on dress and enclosure. The habit was to be made from roughly woven, inexpensive material, (p.55) unbleached and of natural colours, without any of the trappings of elegance such as trains, fringes, pleats, or embroidery.227 While this may evoke the plainness of, for example, the Cistercian habit, there could also be a deeper significance in that it is reminiscent of the melota worn by penitents and thus was symbolic of the nuns’ having turned their backs on the attractions of the world.228 Three times a year they were to shave their heads—another penitential gesture.229 Anyone going beyond the enclosure was to be accompanied ideally by two male religious but at the very least by one religious and one secular, and the context of the precepts concerning excursions from the cloister suggests that only the abbess and those with positions of authority were to engage in external business.230 The maintenance of enclosure within the monastery was strictly regulated: no one was to go beyond it without the abbess’s permission; no one was to enter it without the abbess’s permission; nuns did not go to the cemetery to bury their dead; if a patron or pilgrim wished to see the monastery the nuns were to withdraw from view and the grand prioress or cellarist was permitted to show him certain specified areas.231 The nuns’ enclosure was similarly inaccessible to priests whose liturgical function was carefully defined.

Any contact with seculars or with priests was scrupulously supervised.232 Given the sensitivity of the church to mixed communities and the necessity of avoiding scandal, the regulations concerning contact between the sexes are to be expected, and parallels can be found in the statutes of other communities with a similar structure to Fontevraud.233 One interesting statute decrees that the nuns were to cook for themselves.234 This probably means that lay sisters would do this work rather than the order have paid servants, but it could also mean that the nuns were rostered for kitchen duty as were Benedictine monks.235 The general picture is one of penance, poverty, and simplicity managed by carefully defined authority.

The earliest version of the brothers’ statutes begins with a preamble indicating that the priests, clerks, and lay brothers of Fontevraud had freely (p.56) chosen to serve the nuns until death under the yoke of holy obedience.236 Their reverent subjection was not confined to Fontevraud but was to be observed in all houses of the order. The precepts which follow enjoined them to recite the canonical office, to live an enclosed life in community having nothing of their own but being content with what was given to them by the nuns, to be bled three times yearly, and to return leftovers from meals to the nuns for distribution to the poor.237 They were forbidden to accept parish churches or the tithes attached to them, to lend anything to seculars, and to receive anyone into their convent without the abbess’s permission.238 Most of these precepts are repeated in the 1119 version of the statutes with the exception of those pertaining to lending to seculars and accepting parishes.239 Parishes were probably rapidly recognized as a worthwhile source of income.240 The prohibition against accepting may have been imposed originally by Robert to protect himself and the order from an early criticism concerning the brothers who were said to be depriving the parish clergy of their legitimate income. We do not know the circumstances surrounding the abandoning of this precept but it is evident that ‘spiritual’ income ultimately was extremely important to the order.241 The regulation concerning dealings with seculars was probably subsumed in the statutes covering separation from the affairs of the world. Other statutes in this version emphasize simplicity in dress: habits were of rough material and simple design; accoutrements such as knives were to be neither costly nor valuable.242 Here too the outward commitment to poverty was symbolic of inner detachment. Liturgy was to be simple—processions were to be kept to a minimum and confined to the cloister, with only the officiating priest wearing a surplice.243 Women were forbidden to enter the brothers’ enclosure, even to work.244 Several regulations concern the (p.57) abbess’s authority: material goods were to be distributed through her representative, the cellarist; she alone was to receive aspirants; she permitted visitors to enter the brothers’ enclosure.245 Rebellious brothers were to be punished or imprisoned; deserters were to be readmitted only with the abbess’s permission and after having performed appropriate penance.246

Some writers have expressed surprise at finding in these statutes regulations concerning rebellious brothers and the punishment to be meted out to them while there is no evidence of corresponding regulations for the nuns.247 They have interpreted this as an indication of indiscipline among the Fontevraud brothers stemming from the difficulty they would have experienced in submitting to the authority of the nuns. It is clear, however, that the Rule of St Benedict, under which the nuns lived, had ample provisions for dealing with insubordination and there was no need for further elaboration in their statutes.248 The Rule of St Augustine was less explicit and needed to be supplemented by statutory material such as is presented here. There is no denying that there were cases of desertion. The years following the death of the founder with the necessary centralization of authority under Petronilla were bound to have been problematic to some extent.249 It was necessary to bring about twenty priories and their inhabitants into the new authority structure and the transition was likely to have been more difficult for the men who had been so closely identified with Robert, particularly if their vow of stability had only been made at the time of his death.250 One consequence of this was, of course, that whereas hitherto they had been free to come and go as they pleased, there after they were obliged to stay or endure the shame of being branded as fugitives.251 In 1118 pope Gelasius II sent a directive to the abbots and priors of monasteries instructing them that they were not to receive brothers from Fontevraud but to charge them to return to their own monasteries.252 Honorius II had to repeat these injunctions several years later and in 1149, possibly on the death of Petronilla, Eugenius III reprimanded brothers who had violated the nuns’ enclosure and set up rival superiors.253 Robert had (p.58) anticipated some difficulties among the brothers and before his death gave those unwilling to stay an opportunity to join other orders.254 Among those to whom these papal injunctions applied were, no doubt, some who, albeit belatedly, chose to take advantage of the founder’s provision. It goes without saying that in every order there would have been malcontents and misfits and others who, finding their living situation intolerable, would have sought greener pastures. Saint Bernard received into Clairvaux monks who had not received proper dismissorial letters from their abbots and Peter the Venerable argued that if a monk’s salvation were at stake no letter of recommendation was required for transfer.255 Obviously, at the time, desertion or movement from one order to another was sufficiently commonplace to provoke such argument, and it was most probably a direct result of the formalizing of eremitical groups under a canonical Rule. Furthermore, rebellions by brothers were not confined to the order of Fontevraud: that, for example, of the lay brothers at Sempringham c.1165 is well documented.256 And while some brothers were discontented and chose to leave the order, other groups of men opted to join it. In 1122, for example, Aimeric, prior of the church in Bragerac, brought his whole group under the control of Fontevraud.257

Nevertheless, this is an appropriate point to examine the position of the Fontevraud brothers vis-à-vis the authority of the abbess. It is best done from the perspective of the juridical position of the nuns. Fontevraud was essentially a women’s order.258 Robert was specific on this score.259 Papal pronouncements and charters of donation reinforce it.260

Robert clearly made a deliberate choice not to perpetuate his own role as master or supervisor, in contrast, for example, to Gilbert of Sempringham.261 Constitutionally, Fontevraud was an autonomous, independent order for women, ruled by a woman. All authority was vested in (p.59) the abbess or in those to whom she chose to delegate it, just as in contemporary male orders, or in mixed orders with male control, all authority was vested in the abbot.262

We know that all women’s communities had to make some provision for the material and spiritual assistance for which they relied on priests and brothers.263 Traditional Benedictine monasteries for women maintained a staff of resident chaplains and lay brothers for this purpose.264 Peter Abelard in his rule for The Paraclete provided for a community of monks and lay brothers and insisted that they were to be subject to the female superior.265 The men of Fontevraud were in a similar category. They were not monks as such but were probably canons regular, as was Robert himself.266 Their specific vocation was to provide for the nuns materially and spiritually. At profession they promised poverty, chastity, and obedience to the abbess according to the statutes of the order.267 It is fairly certain that the men were generally of a lower social class than the women, but the important feature regarding their situation is that they were an integral part of the order. Within the authority structure, however, the men had no executive function: their role was simply to obey and serve, taking as their model St John, who obeyed and served the Virgin Mary after the ascension of Jeus.268 And, according to this same model, Robert expected the nuns to work in co-operation with the brothers. On his deathbed he instructed them not to undertake anything new without first consulting them.269 However, for the juridical integrity of the order, as well as for its (p.60) practical functioning, it was necessary to have only one authority figure—hence the insistence on total submission to the abbess and obedience to her by all. The obedience and submission outlined in the statutes are, nevertheless, unlikely to have had the servile character which some writers have ascribed to them.270 Rules which they have seen as demeaning to the brothers are perfectly reasonable seen in the context of a women’s community. The efficient management of a large monastery would demand, for example, that material goods be distributed to all, male and female a like, by the cellarist or whomever the abbess appointed to this task; alms would likewise be distributed by the almoner; one person alone should authorize admission to and departure from the monastery. All this is simply sound administrative practice. The fact that the nuns managed the brothers’ leftovers is more likely an illustration of the geography of the monasteries than anything else. The brothers’ quarters would have been physically distant from the main section of the monastery which housed the nuns. The main gate of the monastery, where the poor waited for their food, would usually have been in the nuns’ territory rather than in the brothers’ as was the case at Fontevraud.271


What began as an assorted crowd following a bizarre hermit–preacher developed in less than two decades into an order patronized by the rich and powerful. But the pre-eminence of Fontevraud did not rest simply on its aristocratic associations. This order was renowned for its strict interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict and its structure represented a unique solution to the question of how best to serve the spiritual and material needs of women striving to follow a monastic vocation. The originality of Fontevraud did not lie in the fact that it comprised both men and women: there were mixed communities before Robert’s time and others were founded more or less contemporaneously.272 Nor did Fontevraud’s originality lie in the subordination of men to an abbess: the early Anglo-Saxon monasteries were well known for this feature, and contemporary chroniclers did not deem this fact worthy of mention. William (p.61) of Malmesbury, for example, was more impressed by the fact that strict silence was observed at Fontevraud than that an abbess ruled over men.273 Robert of Arbrissel broke new ground by integrating the male element, necessary for the cura monialium, into the very structure of the order he founded. The position of both the men and the women was carefully defined so that each group knew exactly what was expected of itself and of the other.274 This contrasts sharply with other contemporary situations where the nuns were simply attached with more or less permanence to a male structure, giving rise at best to ambiguities, at worst to resentment by the men at the necessary investment of resources, both human and economic.275 The Fontevraud community, focused on women but including men in its structure, was an exception—a factor which perhaps accounts for its rapid expansion.

That there were difficulties and necessary readjustments during the reign of the first abbess, Petronilla, cannot be denied. Assuming control of the order, especially after Robert’s unconventional style of leadership, would not have been simple, and the formative years of any religious order are seldom problem-free. One major problem facing Petronilla was the consolidation of Fontevraud’s temporal assets. In the years following Robert’s death the order was involved in several cases of litigation, attributable in part to his failure to ensure that grants had been recorded in charters.276 One case lasted over thirty years.277 On the political level, the position of the abbey vis-à-vis its donors and patrons took a critical turn after the events of 1135 in England. Henry I had made donations to the abbey which were confirmed in 1137 by Stephen.278 Yet, with the abbey set in the heart of Anjou, loyalties were obviously confused: in 1141 these same donations were confirmed by Matilda. It was the abbess above all who was responsible for decisions about affiliations to one or other party and at times she was required to walk a political tightrope.279 Furthermore, there were disputes with the hierarchy, one of the most celebrated being that with Ulger, bishop of Angers.280 Neither Ulger nor Petronilla (p.62) was without fault in this affair. Ulger’s behaviour was meddlesome and belligerent; Petronilla’s stubborn and intransigent, and the scandal cannot have been helpful to the order.281 Previously a friend and supporter of Fontevraud, Ulger c. 1140 risked the full force of papal injunctions against those who harmed the property of the abbey by interfering with its exclusive rights on the Ponts-de-Cé, the bridges over the Loire.282 Petronilla, determined to safeguard the property of the abbey, referred the matter to the Holy See as protector of the order and refused to submit to any process of conciliation. The intervention of St Bernard proved to be of no use.283 The livelihood of the abbey was under threat and had Petronilla failed here it might have led to the erosion of the order’s patrimony. It was not until 1145 that a new pope managed to bring the two parties together to effect a reconciliation. Nor did the political upheavals in the English territories during the 1140s leave the order unscathed: one priory in Normandy was probably destroyed in clashes between Geoffrey of Anjou and Waleran Beaumont.284 Such was her burden that at one point Petronilla sought to resign. However, Innocent II refused his permission.285

Petronilla’s rule was a period of both centralization and expansion. One of her first tasks was to have approved by Rome the statutes which Robert had given the order. Approval was granted in 1119 when pope Callixtus II dedicated the abbatial church.286 Since medieval law tended to be normative rather than prescriptive we would expect that there were changes to Robert’s statutes, modifications which reflected the experience of three years’ living. This is in accordance with the normal evolutionary process of institutions and, far from constituting a betrayal of the wishes of the founder, could just as easily illustrate fidelity to his spirit. On the other hand it is possible that Robert, never the most practical of men, had prescribed statutes which proved unsuitable for a large, expanding, heterogeneous group. There is not sufficient evidence for us to judge, from the surviving versions of the statutes, the extent to which Robert’s original statutes were adhered to or modified. Indications are that, on the (p.63) whole, the order maintained its high ideals. Very early in its history Robert obtained the special protection of the papacy for his foundation.287 By 1113 Fontevraud was paying Rome an annual census of two shillings, thus denoting its subjection to papal rather than episcopal jurisdiction.288 Throughout the twelfth century the papacy, traditionally averse to allowing orders of women too great a degree of control over their own lives, extended the privileges granted by Paschal II and Callixtus II, culminating in 1244 with the decree of Innocent IV that the order was directly reliant on the Holy See—ad, Romanam Ecclesiamnullo mediante.289 It would be unwise to assume that the bestowal of these privileges was in itself a sign of strict observance, yet it is difficult to believe that the papacy would have accepted lax houses, especially lax houses of women, under its jurisdiction. Privileges such as those bestowed on Fontevraud were not bestowed lightly and perhaps they can be read as signs that, in the eyes of the church, the order was faithful to its spirit.290 We lack more subtle indications of fidelity to or departure from the particular spirit engendered by Robert that would enable us to judge standards of observance.


(1) VAB §50 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 289).

(2) The social, political, and economic situation in France is discussed in J. Dunbabin, France in the Making, 843–1180 (Oxford, 1985), 133–61. For a general discussion of influences on the nobility, especially on unmarried knights, see G. Duby, The Chivalrous Society, trans. C. Postan (London, 1977) 112–17. See also Bienvenu, ‘Pauvreté’, passim.

(3) See Duby, loc. cit.

(4) Bienvenu, ‘Pauvreté’, 391–5.

(5) The centrality of poverty to the eremitical life is discussed in L. K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (London, 1978), 70–83.

(6) The reform of the church is treated in Constable, Renewal, 42–65. Among the large number of publications on the eremitical movement see in particular the following: H. Leyser, Hermits and the New Monasticism (London, 1984), passim; L. Milis, ‘Ermites et chanoines réguliers au XIIe siècle’, CCM 12 (1979), 46–80. Bienvenu, ‘Pauvreté’, 16–34; L. Raison and R. Niderst, ‘Le Mouvement érémitique dans l’Ouest de la France à la fin du XIe siècle et au début du XIIe siècle’, Annales de Bretagne, 55 (1948), 1–34; J. von Walter, ‘La Vie de Robert Arbrissel’, trans. J. Cahour, op. cit.; Constable, ‘Eremitical Forms’, passim; J. Becquet, ‘L’Érémiticisme clérical et laïque dans l’Ouest de la France’, in L’eremitismo in Occidente nei secoli XI e XII, MCSM 4 (Milan, 1962), 182–202; E. Delaruelle, ‘Les Ermites et la spiritualité populaire’, ibid., 212–241; L. Gougaud, ‘La Vie érémitique au moyen âge’, Révue d’Ascétique et de Mystique, 1 (1920), 209–40, 316–28; D. Iogna-Prat, ‘La Femme dans la perspective pénitentielle des ermites du Bas-Maine’, Rev. d’hist. spir., 53 (1977), 47–64.

(7) Constable, ‘Renewal’, 46–9. The movement was largely clerical. On the involvement of the laity see Becquet, op. cit., 188–9. While women figured prominently among the followers of the hermits, among the leaders of the movement they were extremely rare. One exception was an English nun, Eve, who lived close to Angers in the company of the hermit Hervé. Gougaud, op. cit., 211; Bienvenu, Fondateur, 65, 66.

(8) Vita Bernardi, §20, 1380–1. Map 1.1 shows the eremitical foundations in this area.

(9) Bernard of Tiron, for example, ate nothing but roots and herbs. Vita Bernardi, §23, 1383. For a discussion of the symbolic aspects of the choice of location, see Iogna-Prat, op. cit., 50 and Milis, op. cit., 50. The term ‘new hermits’ is from Leyser, loc. cit.

(10) The ‘desert’ was often idealized and the regions inhabited by the hermits were probably more civilized than we imagine. Milis, op. cit., 50. Martyrdom as an ascetic ideal is discussed in L. Gougaud, ‘Les Conceptions du martyre chez les Irlandais’, Rev. Bén. 24 (1907), 360–73 and Iogna-Prat, op. cit., 53–4. On the eremitical dress, see Delaruelle, op. cit., 223.

(11) VP §23 (PL 162, 1055).

(12) Raison and Niderst, op. cit., 23.

(13) Leyser, op. cit., 22, 87–96.

(14) See Milis, op. cit., passim.

(15) This will be discussed in greater detail below, pp. 38–40.

(16) Y. Magistri, Baston de Deffence (Angers, 1586), 148–78. Magistri’s work is discussed by Dalarun in Sainteté, 65–73.

(17) The dating is that proposed in Dalarun, Sainteté, 71 n. 49.

(18) Hildebert de Lavardin, Epitaphium Roberti de Arbrissel (PL 171, 1391, 1392).

(19) Baldric’s literary works are discussed by R. Niderst, Robert d’Arbrissel et les origines del’ordre de Fontevrault (Rodez, 1952), 175–6.

(20) e.g., VP §4 (PL 162, 1045–6). On the literary form of hagiography, see T. Head, Hagiography and the Cult of the Saints (Cambridge, 1990), 102–34 and Milis, op. cit., 41. For an analysis of the Vita Prima, see J.-M. Bienvenu, ‘Les Deux Vitae de Robert d’Arbrissel’, in La Littérature angevine médiévale (Maulevrier, 1981), 65–8.

(21) VP §7 (PL 162, 1047). Parallels with the life of Bernard of Tiron are evident here; cf. Vita Bernardi, §§6, 1373.

(22) VP §7 (PL 162, 1047).

(23) VP §§10–14 (PL 162, 1049–51); §18 (PL 162, 1052); §23 (PL 162, 1055); §25 (PL 162, 1056). Cf. Vita Bernardi, §§50, 1397.

(24) VP §26 (PL 162, 1058).

(25) Fontis Ebraldi Exordium, ed. M. Cosnier (La Flèche, 1641). His edition was used by J. Bolland, ‘Vita B. Roberti’, AASS, Feb. iii. 603–8, and J. Migne, ‘Vita B. Roberti de Arbrissello’ (PL 162, 1043–58). On Cosnier’s censorship of the original: AASS, op. cit., 605, n. 2b; Bienvenu, Fondateur, 17; Dalarun, Sainteté, 42.

(26) Bienvenu, ‘Les Deux Vitae, op. cit., 68–71, particularly 70.

(27) VA §1 (PL 162, 1057).

(28) VA §21 (PL 162, 1068).

(29) This view is proposed in Gold, op. cit., 95.

(30) VA §8 (PL 162, 1061).

(31) For reform of the order, begun by Abbess Marie de Bretagne in 1459, see F. Uzureau, ‘La Réforme de l’ordre de Fontevrault, 1459–1641’, RM 13, 50 (1923), 141–6.

(32) J. Dalarun, ‘La Veritable Fin de Robert d’Arbrissel’, CCM 27, 1984, 306–11. The priory of Fontaines-en-France in the diocese of Meaux was one of the earliest (1478) to accept the reformed rule. Uzureau, op. cit., 142.

(33) This is the basis of Dalarun’s study. Dalarun, Sainteté, passim.

(34) After Renée other Bourbon abbesses were Louise (1534–75), Eleanor (1575–1611), Louise (1612–37), Jeanne-Baptiste (1637–70).

(35) This work is discussed in Dalarun, Sainteté, 65–73. Particularly pertinent is Magistri’s distortion of the funeral oration of Leger de Bourges, ibid., 66–9. See above, p. 20.

(36) Cosnier, loc. cit.

(37) One work produced at this time, for example, devoted 19 chapters to Robert’s sanctity. See H. Nicquet Histoire de l’Ordre de Font Evraud (Paris, 1642), 131–216. Other contemporary works include: S. Ganot and J. Chevalier, La Vie du bienheureux Robert d’Arbrissel (La Flèche, 1648). This work is dedicated by Ganot but written by the Jesuit, Chevalier. J. Lardier, La Saincte Famille de Font-Evraud, iii, 1650 (AML, 1 mi 74); B. Pavillon, La Vie du bienheureux Robert d’Arbrissel (Paris and Saumur, 1666); Dalarun discusses these works in Sainteté, 73–7.

(38) J. von Walter, Die ersten Wanderprediger Frankreichs (2 vols., Leipzig, 1903).

(39) This work is discussed by Dalarun in Sainteté, 134–9.

(40) von Walter, ‘La Vie de Robert Arbrissel’, trans. J. Cahour, Bulletin de la commission historique et archéologique de la Mayenne, 23 (1907), 268, 276–7, 390, 394, 401.

(41) M. Peton, ‘Robert d’Arbrissel et la fondation de Font-Evraud’, Bulletin de la Société des lettres, sciences et arts du Saumurois, 4 (1913), 62–76.

(42) A. Biron (Abbé Edouard), Fontevrault et ses monuments ou l’histoire de cette royale abbaye (2 vols., Paris, 1873–4); Les Réligieuses de Sainte Marie de Fontevrault de Boulaur, Histoire de l’ordre de Fontevrault 1100&–1908 (Auch, 1911–15); L. Picard, Le Fondateur de l’ordre de Fontevrault: Robert d’Arbrissel (Saumur, 1932); id., L’Ordre de Fontevrault de 1115 à 1207 (Saumur, 1933).

(43) B. Brincard, ‘Sept siècles de féminisme à Fontevrault’, Le Corréspondant, 326 (1932), 353–69.

(44) T. Manteuffel, Naissance d’une hérésie, trans. A. Posner (Paris, 1970). Manteuffel took his lead from E. Werner, Pauperes Christi. Studien zu sozial-religiösen. Bewegungen im Zeitalter des Reforpapsttums (Leipzig, 1956). These two works are discussed in Dalarun, Sainteté, 140–3.

(45) Il renonçait donc à son apostolat errant dont la poursuite, sous sa forme originelle, devait obligatoirement dégénerer tôt ou tard en un conflit social (emphasis mine). Manteuffel, op. cit., 35.

(46) L. Simmons, ‘The Abbey Church at Fontevraud in the Late Twelfth Century: Anxiety, Authority and Architecture in the Female Spiritual Life’, Gesta, 31 (1992), 99–107.

(47) J. Smith, ‘Robert of Arbrissel: procurator mulierum’, in D. Baker (ed.), Medieval Women (Oxford, 1978), 175–84.; Gold, op. cit., 76–115.

(48) J. Michelet, Histoire de France, ii (Paris, 1835), 297–301. H. Martin, Histoire de France, iii (Paris, 1855), 214, n. 1; R. Bezzola, Les Origines et la formation de la littérature courtoise en Occident pt. 2, ii (Paris, 1960), 275–92; R. Pernoud, La Femme au temps des cathédrales (Paris, 1984), 129–69.

(49) Michelet, loc. cit.

(50) This story, of uncertain authenticity, was obtained from an ancient manuscript at the abbey of Vaux de Cernay is reported in B. Pavillon, op. cit., 547. (Dalarun, Sainteté, 125 n. 38). It was possibly written to illustrate Robert’s concern for fallen women without having had any foundation in fact. See J.-M. Bienvenu, ‘L’Ordre de Fontevraud et la Normandie au XIIe siècle’, op. cit., 4–5. Michelet’s interpretation of the consequences of Robert’s actionsis nothing short of extraordinary: La grace prévalant sur la loi, il se fit sensiblement une granderévolution réligieuse. Dieu changea de sexe, pour ainsi dire. La Vierge devint le dieu du monde;elle envahit presque tous les temples et tous les autels. La piété se tourna en enthousiasme de galanteriechevaleresque. Michelet, loc. cit.

(51) Bezzola, op. cit., 286–92.

(52) Pernoud, op. cit., 139. See Dalarun, Sainteté, 143–6, for an analysis of these works.

(53) Smith, loc. cit.

(54) Gold, op. cit., 101.

(55) Bienvenu, ‘Pauvreté’, passim.

(56) Id., ‘Préhistoire du Franciscanisme. Aspects pré-Franciscains de l’érémitisime et de la prédication itinérante dans la France de l’Ouest, fin XIe et début XIIe siècle’, in D. Flood (ed.), Poverty in the Middle Ages (Werl/Wesf., 1975), 27–36. See also M.-D. Chenu, Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century, trans. J. Taylor and L. K. Little (Chicago, 1968), 242–6.

(57) Bienvenu, ‘Origines’, 243; id., Fondateur, 97.

(58) Id., ‘Les Deux Vitae’, 76; id., Fondateur, 96.

(59) Dalarun, Sainteté, 146–7.

(60) Dalarun, ‘Femmes’, 1147–8.

(61) Ibid. The texts on which he bases his conclusions are: ‘sed nitidam, prout poterat, amplexebatur castimoniam, et intrinsecus diligebat munditiem’ (VP§7 [PL 162, 1047]), and ‘quidam intrinsecus in eo erat conflictus, quidam mentis rugitus, quidam penetralium singultus’ (VP§11 [PL 162, 1049, 50]). The first need not necessarily mean that Robert was married. The second could quite justifiably be interpreted as meaning that he was consumed with the urge to conquer his earthly desires, a compulsion shared by all of the hermits. The latter seems all the more feasible when it is seen in context, i.e., immediately following a discussion of his penitential practices.

(62) Corresponding to the biblical characters of Martha and Mary of Bethany. This saint and her influence on the eremitical movement are discussed below, p. 41.

(63) Dalarun, ‘Femmes’, 1151–5.

(64) Bienvenu, Fondateur, 158–9; 166–7; Dalarun, Sainteté, 198–200; id., Robert d’Arbrissel, fondateur de Fontevraud (Paris, 1986), 195–200.

(65) Bienvenu, Fondateur, 157–8; Dalarun, Sainteté, 199–200.

(66) VA §30 (PL 162, 1072). cf. Dalarun, Sainteté, 107, 157.

(67) Dalarun, Sainteté, 104–8.

(68) P. S. Gold, ‘Reviews’, Speculum, 62 (1987), 923–5; S. Tunc, ‘Après la mort de Robert d’Arbrissel. Le conflit entre l’abbesse et l’évêque’, LMA 98 (1992), 379–90.

(69) VAB §69 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 296).

(70) Illi duntaxat idonei sunt ad praedicationis officium, qui nullum terrenae facultatis possidentlucrum: et dum aliquid singulare non habeat, communiter omnia possident. Peter Damian, Contraclericos regulares proprietarios, vi (PL 145, 490).

(71) …sicut verus ille praedicator mundo de seipso dicebat, Christo confixus cruci, ut per auctoritatem mortificationis suae, viventes adhuc in peccatis et vitiis possit castigare, et castigatos sibimortuo conformes efficere. Vita Bernardi, §§54, 1399.

(72) VAB §56 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 291). The significance of the hair shirt is discussed by Milis, op. cit., 74.

(73) VAB §67 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 295). For his being clothed in priestly vestments, see Bienvenu, Fondateur, 156.

(74) Robert’s birth date is discussed in von Walter, op. cit., 263.

(75) Clerical celibacy is discussed in C. N. L. Brooke, ‘Gregorian Reform in Action: Clerical Marriage in England, 1050–1200’, Cambridge Historical Journal, 12 (1956), 1–21. repr., S. Thrupp (ed.), Change in Medieval Society (New York, 1964), 49–61. Much of what is written here is also applicable to the west of France.

(76) Bienvenu, Fondateur, 17.

(77) mulierum cohabitationem, in quo genere quondam peccasti. Marbod, Epistola vi (PL 171, 1481).

(78) VA §41 (PL 162, 1078).

(79) Bienvenu, Fondateur, 21. Silvester de la Guerche was bishop of Rennes 1076–8 and 1088–93.

(80) Ibid., 22.

(81) VP §§9, 10 (PL 162, 1048, 1049).

(82) See Milis, op. cit., 51, for this author’s suggestion that ‘vigils’ refer to mystical contemplation.

(83) The forest of Craon was on the border of Anjou and Brittany. See Map 1.1.

(84) VP §11 (PL 162, 1049, 1050).

(85) The activities of these and other associates of Robert are discussed by Raison and Niderst, op. cit., 7–17. See also Rouleaux des morts du IXe au XVe siècles, ed. L. Delisle (Paris, 1886), 281.

(86) VP §12 (PL 162, 1050). The charter recording the donation of land by Renaud de Craon was promulgated and signed on this occasion. Bienvenu, Fondateur, 45–7. La Roë was the first organized community of canons regular to be instituted in the ecclesiastical region of Tours since the Carolingian period. Bienvenu, Fondateur, 35. The adoption of a Rule is treated in Milis, op. cit., passim and especially 55–7, and in J. Leclercq, ‘Problèmes de l’erémiticisme’, Studia Monastica, 5 (1963), 202.

(87) se eum statuit seminiverbum. VP §13 (PL 162, 1050); §14 (PL 162, 1051). There is no foundation for the opinion held by some that Robert was commissioned to preach the crusade. Cf. R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society (Oxford, 1987), 20.

(88) On permission to preach, see Leyser, op. cit., 74 and Bienvenu, Fondateur, 41–7. Bernard of Tiron and Vitalis of Mortain both received papal permission to preach.

(89) Those who preached without authority might end up being branded as heretics. The author of the life of Gilbert of Sempringham, for example, seems to have been at pains to show that this saint worked under the authority of his bishop and was not ‘unlicensed’. The Book of St Gilbert, op. cit., 20. See also B. Golding, ‘Hermits, Monks and Women in Twelfth-century France and England: The Experience of Obazine and Sempringham’, in J. Loades(ed.), Monastic Studies, The Continuity of Tradition, i (Headstart History, Bangor, 1990), 134, 143 n. 56.

(90) See J. Longère, La Prédication médiévale (Paris, 1983), 78.

(91) See Milis, op. cit., 71.

(92) Niderst, op. cit., 20.

(93) Marbod, Epistola vi (PL 171, 1483).

(94) Leyser op. cit., 73–4. There seems to have been a contradiction between the unstructured life which the hermits led and the stable way of life which, for practical reasons they were obliged to impose on their followers. This matter is discussed in detail, below, p. 45.

(95) For the place of women in the eremitical scheme of things, see Milis, op. cit., 59. For Solomon’s role, see Joseph Avril, ‘Les Fondations, l’organisation et l’évolution des établissements de moniales dans le diocèse d’Angers du XIe au XIIIe siècle’, in M. Parisse (ed.), Les Réligieuses en France au XIIIe siècle (Nancy, 1983), 34 and Bienvenu, ‘Origines’, 235. The community at La Nyoiseau was mixed in that it had a group of resident chaplains but its internal organization was different from that of Fontevraud.

(96) Marbod, Epistola vi (PL 171, 1481). See below, p. 38.

(97) Peter of Poitiers, Privilegia pro Ordine…Fontis Ebraldi (PL 162, 1089–92, i–iii). Robert of Arbrissel, Diplomata (PL 162, 1086, i). This will be discussed in greater detail below, pp. 39–40.

(98) C. Dereine, ‘Les Origines de Premontré’, RHE 42 (1947), 363–70.

(99) The false hermit Henry of Lausanne led the people of Le Mans in an insurrection against the bishop. False hermits are discussed in J. Leclercq, ‘Le Poème de Payen Bolotin contre les faux ermites’, Rev. Bén., 68 (1958), 52–86, and in Moore, Dissent, 84–6.

(100) Milis, op. cit., 71.

(101) Ibid., 56. See also J. Becquet, ‘L’Erémiticisme et hérésie au moyen âge’, Hérésies et sociétés dans l’Europe pré-industrielle XIe –XVIIIe siècles, ed. J. Le Goff (Paris, 1968), 139–45, where it is pointed out that all too often orthodoxy was identified with social order.

(102) This was the case with Robert’s followers, see Marbod, Epistola vi (PL 171, 1484).

(103) Milis, op. cit., 61; Golding, op. cit., 143 n. 39; Leyser, op. cit., 22.

(104) Constable, ‘Eremitical Forms’, 250–2.

(105) De professione vitae canonicae et stabilitate loci prioris, susceptaque cura regiminis super fratres ibid em professos: quae omnia propter sorores diceris contempsisse. Marbod, Epistola vi (PL 171, 1486). Cf. VP §16 (PL 162, 1051).

(106) VP §§15, 16 (PL 162, 1031).

(107) Milis, op. cit., 69, 78.

(108) Ibid., 61–2. Gilbert of Sempringham also withdrew from active involvement in the cenobitical community. The Book of St Gilbert, op. cit., 66–8.

(109) VP §17 (PL 162, 1052). Chenu, op. cit., 252.

(110) Milis, op. cit., 66.

(111) The staff is preserved at the priory of St Marie de Fontevraud at Chemillé, Maine-et-Loire. Bienvenu, ‘Pauvreté’, 191; illustrated id., Fondateur, facing p. 96.

(112) Bienvenu, Fondateur, 44, 45.

(113) Peter of Poitiers, Privilegia (PL 162, 1089, i).

(114) Hoc enim non est praedicare, sed detrahere. Marbod, Epistola vi(PL 171, 1484).

(115) Sermo, 225–35. This letter is discussed briefly above, p. 7.

(116) Inhabita terram cordis tui et pasceris in divitiis eius. (Sermo, 231) In corde Deum habe sivein civitate, sive in aula, sive in lecto eburneo, sive in veste preciosa, vel in exercitu, vel in judiciosive in convivio fueris. (ibid., 228).

(117) Oratio brevis utilis est; oratio cordis, non labiorum est accepta Deo; (Sermo, 232) Voluntas tua esset ut mundum reliqueres, et te upsam abnegares, et nuda nudum Christum in cruce sequeris. Seda ora Dominum Deum tuum ut non tua voluntas sed sua de te fiat (ibid., 234–5)…Discretionem tene in omnibus, in abstinentia, in jejuniis, in vigiliis, in orationibus (ibid., 235). In view of Robert’s severe personal ascetic programme, this last advice is interesting.

(118) Paupertatem voluntarium dilige.…Misericors esto pauperibus omnibus, sed tamen magispauperioribus et maxime domesticis fidei, his qui propter Deum mundum reliquerunt (ibid., 233–4).

(119) It has been suggested that Robert’s sermon at Ménélay (printed in Dalarun, Sainteté, 297–9) is illustrative of Robert’s preaching style, but as we do not know how much of this is directly attributable to Robert and how much is the interpretation of Brother Andrew, its value is less positive than that of the letter to Ermengarde. Cf ibid., 182.

(120) Bienvenu, Fondateur, 58–9.

(121) On Robert’s pessimism: von Walter, op. cit., 276.

(122) There are 68 references, 48 of them direct quotations. Bienvenu, loc. cit.

(123) Most medieval preachers used similar themes. Longère, op. cit., 209, 210.

(124) VA §23 (PL 162, 1069).

(125) J.-B. Souchet, Histoire du diocèse et de la ville de Chartres (4 vols., Paris, 1868), ii. 362. See also Dalarun, Sainteté, 180 n. 286.

(126) tonitruo sanctae exhortationis…Peter of Poitiers, Privilegia (PL 162, 1089, i).

(127) VA §29 (PL 162, 1072). This is discussed in Dalarun, Sainteté, 181–2.

(128) VP §1 9 (PL 162, 1053), §22 (PL 162, 1055).

(129) Moore, Dissent, 77.

(130) Roscelin, ‘Der Brief an Abelard’, in J. Reiners (ed.), Der Nominalismus in der Frühskolastik (Münster, 1910), 67.

(131) See Milis, op. cit., 70.

(132) Marbod, Epistola vi (PL 171, 1481).

(133) Moore, Dissent, 84.

(134) The behaviour of Robert’s followers is described in Marbod, loc. cit. If, as Baldric claims, there were 300 living in the main cloister at the time of foundation, the crowd could easily have numbered in excess of 500. VP §20 (PL 162, 1054).

(135) Marbod, Epistola vi (PL 171, 1486).

(136) This practice of proving one’s mastery over the flesh by cohabiting with women is discussed in L. Gougaud, ‘Mulierum Consortia: étude sur le synéisaktisme chez les ascètes celtiques’, Eriu. The Journal of the School of Irish Learning, 9/2 (1923), 147–56 and Iogna-Prat, op. cit., 57–64. The Celtic influence postulated by Gougaud is feasible given Robert’s Breton origins. However, Iogna-Prat shows that most educated clergy of the time were familiar with the conferences of John Cassian where the practice is also discussed. Jean Cassian, Conférences, ed. and trans. E. Pichery (Paris, 1958), ii. 219–20. According to Gerald of Wales, St Aldem of Malmesbury slept between two young girls. Gerald of Wales, ii. 236.

(137) VAB §50 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 289).

(138) Vita Bernardi §§48, 1396.

(139) On the probable date: Bienvenu, ‘Origines’, 238.

(140) Peter of Poitiers, Privilegia (PL 162, 1089–90, i); Diversorum Donationes Piae (ibid., 1104, xix, xx). For details of the topography of the area and also the diocesan boundaries, see Bienvenu, Fondateur, 80, 81.

(141) VP §16 (PL 162, 1051). The locations of both Molesme and Muret were described in similar terms even though both were close to main roads. D. Baker, ‘Crossroads and Crisis in the Religious life of the Later Eleventh Century’, in D. Baker (ed.), The Church in Town and Country (Studies in Church History, 16, Oxford, 1979, 141–2).

(142) The ‘desert’ was a stock phrase, with biblical connotations and evocative of the hermits of the Patristic period. Milis, op. cit., 50, 51. Early charters of donation attest to the fertility of the land at Fontevraud. Diversorum Donationes Piae, (PL 162, 1104, charters xix–xx).

(143) The political and economic advantages of the location are discussed in Bienvenu, ‘Origines’, 239; id., Fondateur, 78–85.

(144) Peter of Poitiers, Privilegia (PL 162, 1089–91, i–iii). On the co-operation of Peter of Poitiers see Robert of Arbrissel, Diplomata (PL 162, 1086, i).

(145) …quoniam mulieres cum hominibus oportebat habitare, ubi possent sine scandalorum scrupulositate conversari et vivere, deliberavit perquirere et si quod desertum contigisset reperire. VP §16 (PL 162, 1051).

(146) VP §17 (PL 162, 1052).

(147) Fontette, op. cit., 154.

(148) See Milis, op. cit., 69–70.

(149) This title may have been borrowed from dwellings of this name occupied by early Breton hermits. Its derivation is from Old French, habiter, to dwell. Raison and Niderst, op. cit., 5 n. 18.

(150) VP §20 (PL 162, 1054). The separate cloisters are named in VAB §66 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 295)

(151) Dalarun, Sainteté, 185; id., ‘Femmes’, 1146, 1147.

(152) V. Saxer, Le Culte de Marie-Madeleine en occident des origines à la fin du moyen âge (2 vols., Auxerre and Paris, 1959), 125, 126. See also Iogna-Prat, op. cit., 52–64.

(153) Devotion to Mary Magdalene, the virtues associated with her, and the importance placed on her by medieval scholars are examined in G. Constable, ‘The Interpretation of Mary and Martha’, in Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought (Cambridge, 1995), 3–141, in particular at 82–102.

(154) G. Constable, ‘The Interpretation of Mary and Martha’, in Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought (Cambridge, 1995), 6–8; see also Saxer, op. cit., i. 2–6 and Dalarun, Sainteté, 184 n. 320, 185 n. 324.

(155) See Dalarun, ‘Femmes’, 1146. The term conversa is ambiguous. Originally denoting a late entrant into religious life, conversus gradually came to mean an illiterate (i.e., unschooled in Latin) monk. By the end of the thirteenth century even among the Black Monks it denoted a lay brother and not a monk. In the present context conversae clearly refers to late entrants—the opposite of virgines or nutritae. Dalarun, Sainteté, 185. On conversi, see U. Berlière, ‘Les Monastères doubles au XIIe et XIIIe siècles’, Mémoires de l’Académie Royale de Belgique, classe des lettres et des sciences morales et politiques, sér. 2, 18 (1923), 27–31 and G. Constable, ‘Famuli and Conversi at Cluny. A note on Statute 24 of Peter the Venerable’, Rev. Bén., 83 (1973), 326–50.

(156) VP §17 (PL 162, 1052); cf. Acts 4: 32.

(157) The social status of the brothers was investigated by Bienvenu in his thesis: ‘Les Premiers Temps de Fontevraud (1101–1189): Naissance et évolution d’un ordre religieux’ (Thèse de doctorat d’État, Paris, Sorbonne, 1980). Unfortunately, I was unable to consult this work.

(158) J. de Petigny, ‘Robert d’Arbrissel et Geoffroi de Vendôme’, BEC 5, sér. 3 (1854), 19, 20, n. 1 lists the most notable among them. They included Agnes, countess of Chateaumeillant; Agnes of Montreuil, cousin of the count of Anjou; Angarde of Roannez, Queen Bertrade; Elisabeth of Montfort, Matilda, countess of Poitiers; Ermengarde, duchess of Brittany; Hersende, the first prioress was sister of Hubert of Champagne and widow of the lord of Montsoreau, Petronilla, the first abbess was widow of the lord of Chemillé.

(159) J. Verdon, ‘Les Moniales de la France de l’ouest aux XIe et XIIe siècles’, CCM 19 (1976), 249–53.

(160) Dalarun, Sainteté, 95; Bienvenu, Fondateur, 87.

(161) Geoffrey de Vendôme, Epistola xlvii (PL 154, 181–4); See J. de Petigny, ‘Robert d’Arbrissel et Geoffroi de Vendôme’, op. cit., 1–30.

(162) See Dalarun, Sainteté, 186; id., ‘Femmes’, 1157 n. 50.

(163) Bienvenu, ‘Origines’, 242.

(164) See Milis, op. cit., 57, for a discussion of the point that quantitative changes necessitated qualitative ones.

(165) VP §21 (PL 162, 1054).

(166) Dalarun, Sainteté, 186.

(167) Unless, of course, they were of the rank of Bertrade de Montfort.

(168) For the work of Hersende and Petronilla in preserving the patrimony of the order see Peton, op. cit., 74, 75, and R. I. Moore, ‘Reconstruction of the Cartulary of Fontevrault’, BIHR 41 (1968), 86–95.

(169) VA §36 (PL 162, 1075); Dalarun, Sainteté, 186. Pernoud, op. cit., 138.

(170) See Milis, op. cit., 61.

(171) See below, pp. 47–57.

(172) Cf. Smith, op. cit., 175–84.

(173) See Map 1.2.

(174) The chronology follows that of Dalarun in Sainteté, 25.

(175) VA §3 (PL 162, 1059).

(176) See Milis, op. cit., 71.

(177) See above, p. 29.

(178) VA §4 (PL 162, 1059). On the choice of a Rule and designation of a juridical leader see Milis, op. cit., 62.

(179) VA §§4–6 (PL 162, 1059–60). On conversae see above, p. 42 n. 25.

(180) VA §5 (PL 162, 1060).

(181) Verdon, op. cit., 263.

(182) Subsequent events would vindicate his decision. Moore, ‘Reconstruction of the Cartulary of Fontevrault’, op. cit., 94–5.

(183) Not necessarily, however, a widow. cf. Nicquet, op. cit., 98–9.

(184) Gold, The Lady and the Virgin, op. cit, 101, 102.

(185) The authority of a twelfth-century abbess is discussed in S. Tunc, ‘L’autorité d’une abbesse de Fontevraud au XVIIe siècle: Gabrielle de Rochechouart de Mortemart 1670–1704’, RHE 87 (1992), 75.

(186) Ut Petronilla electa a magistro Roberto et constituta abbatissa communi voluntate, et devotapetitione tam sanctimonialium quam religiosorum fratrum habeat, obtineatque potestatem regendiecclesiam Fontis Ebraldi, et omnium locorum eidem ecclesiae pertinentium, et obediant ei; venerentur eam ut suam matrem spiritualem, in eiusque prudentia omnia ecclesiae negotia tam spiritualia quam saecularia permaneant, aut quibuscunque attribuerit, et prout constituerit (PL 162, 1083–4[5]). This section of the statutes is considered to be a fragment of Robert’s Rule. von Walter, Die ersten Wanderprediger, 77. I am indebted to R. Hiley for translating this section of von Walter’s work.

(187) VA §§11–13 (PL 162, 1062–4).

(188) The chronology follows Dalarun, Sainteté, 71.

(189) VA §3 (PL 162, 1073).

(190) VAB §§43–54 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 285–91).

(191) Ibid. §§59–63 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 292–4. See also Tunc, ‘Après la mort de Robert d’Arbrissel’, 382.

(192) VAB §§60–3 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 293–4).

(193) VAB §§66–8 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 295–6).

(194) VAB §68 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 296).

(195) On the process of canonization: E. W. Kemp, Canonisation and Authority in the Western Church (Oxford, 1948), 36–81.

(196) P.-A. Sigal, L’Homme et le miracle dans la France médiévale (Paris, 1985), 223–5.

(197) Ut in ecclesiis earum nunquam vigiliae fiant a saecularibus. §XXXI (PL 162, 1081).

(198) With reference to profession the Rule of St Benedict states: De qua promissione sua faciat petitionem ad nomen Sanctorum quorum reliquiae ibi sunt.…RB §lviii (McCann, 132). See CUL MS Ee. vi. 16, fos. 9v, 65v. See also below, p. 52.

(199) Bienvenu, Fondateur, 164–9. This author claims that there was no rouleau de mort circulated, a claim which must be based solely on circumstantial evidence.

(200) J. Dalarun, Robert d’Arbrissel, fondateur de Fontevraud (Paris, 1986), 196, 197; Bienvenu, Fondateur, 164–7.

(201) The incident at Candes is reported in VAB §65 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 294). Bienvenu concedes the point about grave robbers. Fondateur, 157. On theft of relics and translation of bodies of saints see P. Geary, Furta Sacra (Cambridge, Mass., rev. edn., 1990), 5–7, 16. For an interpretation of events different from that of Dalarun and Bienvenu, see Tunc, ‘Après la mort de Robert d’Arbrissel’, 388–90, and Gold, ‘Reviews’, op. cit.

(202) The Book of St Gilbert, ed. R. Foreville and G. Kier (Oxford, 1987), 128–31. R. Graham, ‘Excavations on the Site of Sempringham Priory’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 5 (1940), 91.

(203) See Milis, op. cit., 61, 70, for a discussion of the change in emphasis which inevitably occurred.

(204) VA §7 (PL 162, 1061). For a discussion of material prosperity in monastic life see J. Van Engen, ‘The Crisis of Cenobitism Reconsidered: Benedictine Monasticism in the Years 1050–1150’, Speculum, 61 (1986), 285–92.

(205) The paradox of the hermit-founder is discussed in Golding, op. cit., 129 and Milis, op. cit., 57–62.

(206) The parallels with the modification of the Franciscan ideal are apparent. Bienvenu, ‘Préhistoire du Franciscanisme’, 35.

(207) The view that Fontevraud became a ‘retirement home’ is held by Dalarun; see id., Robert d’Arbrissel, fondateur de Fontevraud, 191. On the esteem of the papacy and prelates: Gelasius II, Epistola xxii (PL 163, 504); Innocent II, Epistola lxxiv (PL 179, 116); Eugenius III, Epistola xxi (PL 180, 1036); Suger of St-Denis, Epistola lxxxviii (PL 186, 1392–3).

(208) Ego soror…promitto stabilitatem et conversionem morum meorum, obedientiam secundum regulam Sancti Benedicti abbatis, coram Deo et omnibus Sanctis ejus, in hoc loco…ante Sepulchrum domini Roberti patris nostri in praesentia dominae…abbatissae. Nicquet, op. cit, 349. This formula is from 1244 and while it may have undergone some modification since the inception of the order it will nevertheless be close to the original. The similarity of this formula to that of the Benedictine order is evident. Cf. RB §lviii (McCann, 130).

(209) References to ‘the Rule’ throughout this work will be to the Rule of Saint Benedict. The body of customs observed at Fontevraud will be termed statutes and individual decrees either statutes or precepts.

(210) It was common practice for founders, prior to their deaths, to put into writing the precepts by which their orders lived. Milis, op. cit., 61; Golding op. cit., 143 n. 39.

(211) See above, p. 44.

(212) VP §17 (PL 162, 1052).

(213) …ut nulli personae liceat regulam sanctimonialium destruere, vel mutare. Peter of Poitiers, Privilegia (PL 162, 1091, i).

(214) VA §9 (PL 162, 1062).

(215) Ibid.

(216) Innocent II, Epistola lxxviii (PL 179, 118, 119).

(217) Inter vetusta statuta data Petronillae…magistro Roberto (PL 162, 1083).

(218) §4 (PL 162, 1083).

(219) §4 (PL 162, 1083). Monastic sign language had been standardized and tabulated by the Cluniac monks during the tenth century. D. Sherlock, ‘Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 107 (1989), 1–27. Cf. RB §xxxviii (McCann, 92). See also D. Banham (ed.), Monasteriales Indicia (Pinner, 1991).

(220) §4 (PL 162, 1083). Abelard was not in favour of the nuns at The Paraclete abstaining from meat. Abelard, Epistola viii (PL 178, 286–302); see also, Abelard’s Rule for Religious Women, ed. T. P., McLaughlin, Mediaeval Studies, 18 (1956), 270–82.

(221) RB §§xxxvi, xxxix (McCann, 90, 96). For a discussion of the manner in which the black monks overcame the prescriptions imposed by this rule, see Harvey, Living and Dying, 39–40.

(222) Peter the Venerable, Epistola clxi, in G. Constable (ed.), The Letters of Peter the Venerable (2 vols., Cambridge, Mass., 1967), i. 388–9. Later history shows that meat was definitely consumed in the English houses, but our evidence is from the early fourteenth century when a greater degree of latitude was exercised in this respect. See below, p. 161.

(223) §5 (PL 162, 1083).

(224) Ibid., §§5, 6.

(225) Regulae Sanctimonialium Fontis Ebraldi, §§I, II, XL, XLIII, XLIV (PL 172, 1079–82).

(226) Ibid., §§XIX, XXI, XXII, XXIV, XXIX, XXXIII.

(227) Ibid., §§v, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIV, XV.

(228) On the melota: Delaruelle, op. cit., 223.

(229) Regulae Sanctimonialium §XVI.

(230) Ibid., §§XVII, XVIII, XIX.

(231) Ibid., §§XXIII—XXX.

(232) Ibid., §§XXXI—XLI.

(233) In 1139 nuns and brothers were forbidden by Canon Law to sing office in the samechoir: Lateran II, Canon xxvii in Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, ed. J. D. Mansi (repr. 53 vols., Paris, 1901–27), XXI. 526 (XXVII.) The Gilbertine Rule contained strictinstructions concerning the avoidance of contact between the sexes. The Book of St Gilbert, 46, 47; Abelard’s rule for nuns also limited contact. Abelard, Epistola viii (PL 178, 276);Abelard’s Rule for Religious Women, 260.

(234) Abelard’s Rule, §xx.

(235) …ut nullus excusetur a coquinae officio, RB §xxxv (McCann, 86). See also G. Constable, ‘Famuli and Conversi at Cluny’, 326–34.

(236) PL 172, 1085.

(237) PL 172, 1085, §§8, 9, 10, 11. With regard to bloodletting, three times a year seems infrequent by contemporary standards. At Westminster in the early fourteenth century monks were rostered so that their turn would have come around seven or eight times a year. Harvey, Living and Dying, 96–9.

(238) PL 172, 1085, §§12, 13, 14. The Cistercians had a similar ban on accepting churches which was soon abandoned. See Burton, op. cit., 247.

(239) Praecepta Recte Vivendi, §§I, II, VII, VIII, XXV (PL 172, 1081–4).

(240) Marbod, Epistola vi (PL 171, 1484).

(241) On the importance of spiritualities in the income of the English foundations, see Fig. 6.1.

(242) Praecepta Recte Vivendi, §§IV–VII; XXVI, XXVII.

(243) Ibid., §§x–, xvi. As he was dying Robert referred, somewhat ironically one might suspect, to the wonderful processions held at Cluny. In choosing Fontevraud as his place for burial he rejected others—Bethlehem, Rome, and Cluny, ubi fiunt pulchrae processiones. VA§32 (PL 162, 1073).

(244) Praecepta Recte Vivendi, §XIV.

(245) Ibid., §§XVII, XXIV, XXV.

(246) Ibid., §§XIX, XXI.

(247) e.g., Fontette, op. cit., 78.

(248) RB §§ii, xxiii., xxiv, lxxi (McCann, 20, 72, 158).

(249) Even though Robert had centralized the order to some extent (VAB §48 [Dalarun, Sainteté, 288]) it would have been necessary for Petronilla to make adjustments to impose her authority.

(250) Robert referred to the men of the order as filii mei charissimi quos in Evangelio genui. VA §3 (PL 162, 1058, 1059): the men referred to themselves as homines magistri. Marbod, Epistola vi(PL 171, 1485). On the vow of stability see above, p. 47.

(251) This is discussed in Milis, op. cit., 71.

(252) Gelasius II, Epistola xxii (PL 163, 504).

(253) Honorius II, Epistola xlix (PL 164, 1268); Eugenius III, Epistola ccclxiv (PL 180, 1400).

(254) Almost all (pene omnes) agreed that there was no better way of life. VA §3 (PL 162, 1059). This allows us to speculate that some may have left on this occasion.

(255) A. Dimier, ‘Saint Bernard et le droit en matière de transitu’, RM 43 (1953), 48–82; Peter the Venerable, Epistola xvi in The Letters of Peter the Venerable, op. cit, i. 78–9.

(256) The Book of St Gilbert, 76–85, 116–19, 343–9. See also D. Knowles, ‘The Revolt of the Lay Brothers at Sempringham’, EHR l (1935), 465–87. For some English examples of flight from monasteries see F. Donald Logan, Runaway Religious in Medieval England c.1240–1540 (Cambridge, 1996), 4–5.

(257) The charter is quoted in Nicquet, op. cit., 262–4.

(258) See above, p. 47.

(259) quidquid in mundo aedificavi, ad opus sanctimonialium nostrarum feci, eisque potestatem omnem factultatum mearum praebui. VA §5 (PL 162, 1059).

(260) Paschal II, Epistolae clv, cdxcii (PL 163, 164, 419): Callixtus II, Epistola xxxii (PL 163, 1121); Innocent II, Epistola xxv(PL 179, 72); Peter of Poitiers, Privilegia, (PL 162, 1090, i); Diversorum Donationes Piae, (PL 162, 1097, iv, v, v; 1103, xviii). For a discussion of the evidence from charters of donation, see Gold, op. cit., 104–7.

(261) The Book of St Gilbert, 68–71, 86–9.

(262) See above, p. 48, and Tunc, ‘L’Autorité d’une abbesse’, 75, 76.

(263) The problems associated with the cura monialium are discussed in Gold, op. cit., 76–93.

(264) In the twelfth century, association of men and women in religious life was probably more common than has hitherto been acknowledged. S. Thompson, Women Religious. The Founding of English Nunneries after the Norman Conquest (Oxford, 1991), 113.

(265) omnes pariter tam viros quam feminas ei professionem facere, et obedientiam promittere. Abelard, Epistola viii (PL 178, 277); Abelard’s Rule for Religious Women, 260.

(266) Bienvenu, Fondateur, 46–7. This explains why, in certain matters, the provisions in the men’s rule are more explicit than those in the women’s. The canons regular are discussed in C. Dereine, ‘Vie commune, règle de saint Augustine et chanoines réguliers au xi e siècle’, RHE 41 (1946), 365–406.

(267) Ego, frater…promitto quod ero bonus et legalis in hac religione Fontis Ebraldi et ergaipsam religionem, et voveo ac promitto Dei et Beatae Mariae Virgine, tenere et observare pure etnude castitatem, paupertatem et obedientiam Dominae Abbatissae, secundum statuta et observations religionis, quemodmodum a patribus et praedecessoribus nostris extitit ordinatum etmodificatum easdem observare et tenere. Sic me Deus adjuvet. Nicquet, op. cit., 348. This formula dates from 1477 but is said to be faithful to the original act of profession. Fontette, op. cit., 77–8 n. 93. The explicit mention of poverty, chastity, and obedience suggests some later influences.

(268) VA §11 (PL 162, 1063). See John 19: 22–7.

(269) Aussy sy vouléz faire quelque chose de nouveau, ne faictes jammais rien sans le conseil de voz freres et religieux. VAB §52 (Dalarun, Sainteté, 290). One critic casts doubt on the significance of this action, arguing that new ventures would be rare. Tunc, ‘Après la mort de Robert d’Arbrissel’, 383 n. 6. It would seem, rather, that Robert is counselling a spirit of continual co-operation which he hoped would characterize the relationship between the sexes.

(270) Bienvenu, Fondateur, 96; Dalarun, Sainteté, 192–6.

(271) See Fig. 1.1.

(272) M. Bateson, ‘The Origin and Early History of Double Monasteries’, TRHS, NS, 13 (1899), 137–98; E. de Moreau, ‘Les Monastères doubles—leur histoire surtout en Belgique’, Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 56 (1939), 787–829 and Gold, op. cit., 89.

(273) William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum Anglorum, ed. W. Stubbs (2 vols., RS 90), ii (1889), 512.

(274) Gold, op. cit., 111.

(275) See above, p. 2. See also Gold, op. cit., 76–93, 111–12, and Fontette, op. cit., 13–18, 27–42.

(276) See M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307 (London, 1993), 35–43.

(277) R. I. Moore, ‘Reconstruction of the Cartulary of Fontevrault’, 94; and de la Martinière, op. cit., 1–45.

(278) Cal. Doc. Fr. 1052, 1055, 1459, 1460.

(279) Ibid., 1056.

(280) J.-M. Bienvenu, ‘Le Conflit entre Ulger, évêque d’Angers et Pétronille de Chemille, abbesse de Fontevrault (vers 1140–1149)’, RM 58, (1975), 113–32.

(281) Lucius II, Epistola lxxix (PL 179, 924).

(282) For papal protection of Fontevraud possessions see Paschal II, Epistolae clv, cccxxxix(PL 163, 164–5, 296–7); Innocent II, Epistolae xxv, lxxviii (PL 179, 74, 118–19).

(283) Bernard of Clairvaux, Epistola cc (PL 182, 367–8); Innocent II, Epistola dlxxvi (PL 179, 634).

(284) J.-M. Bienvenu, ‘L’Ordre de Fontevraud et la Normandie au XIIe siècle’, 10.

(285) …dilectionem tuam monemus, et per obedientiam imperamus, ut gregem tibi commissum nulla ratione relinquas, sed potius more solito sorores tuas temporaliter et spiritualiter studeas procurare… Innocent II, Epistola ccliv(PL 179, 304).

(286) Callixtus II Epistola xxxii (PL 163, 1121).

(287) Paschal II, Epistola clv(PL 163, 164).

(288) Paschal II, Epistola cccxxxix(PL 163, 296); see also Le Liber Censuum de l’Eglise Romaine, ed. P. Fabre and L. Duchesne (2 vols., Paris, 1889–1910) i. 205.

(289) Bibliothèque municipale de la ville d’Angers, MS Molinier 880, fo. 52; Les Régisters d’Innocent IV, ed. E. Berger (4 vols., Paris, 1884) i. 498. The steps by which papal privilege was extended can be traced in a plea made to the Holy See on the eve of the French Revolution by the last abbess of Fontevraud, Julie-Sophie Gilette de Pardaillan d’Antin, abbess 1765–1792. (MS Molinier 880, fo. 48–57). Some of these bulls are printed: Callixtus II Epistola xxxii(PL 163, 1121); Honorius II, Epistola xlix(PL 166, 1268); Innocent II, Epistola xxv(PL 179, 72); id., Epistola lxxiv (PL 179, 116). For further information on exemption: D. Knowles, ‘The Growth of Exemption’, Downside Review, l (1932), 201–31; 396–436; J.-F. Lemarignier, Etude sur les privilèges d’exemption et de juridiction ecclésiastique des abbayes normandes depuis les origines jusqu’en 1140 (Paris, 1937), 180, 205, 218, 219 and H. E. J. Cowdrey, The Cluniacs and the Gregorian Reform (Oxford, 1970), 22–32.

(290) See J. Dubois, ‘Les Ordres religieux au XIIe siècle’, Rev. Bén., 78 (1968), 308.