The last resting place of Eleanor of Aquitaine

After the best, uninterrupted sleep I can ever remember having, I woke to rain. I think it followed us from the north. It was just a gentle rain and the temperature hadn’t dropped.

The beds where we stayed were quite odd. Two, individual sleigh beds set very high. One is slightly bigger than a single and the other is slightly smaller than a double. They looked awfully uncomfortable at first glance but they are amazingly comfortable – at least mine was.

Today was all about Fontevraud, the main reason we had come here, as far as Mirinda was concerned. She has wanted to visit the Abbey for years so this was to be her day in France.

The abbey church from the front door

The abbey was built at the start of the 12th century and the order at Fontevraud was set up by a pretty clever chap called Robert d’Arbrissel. He was the son of a village priest and his concubine. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The church only invented marriage as we know it in around 1200 and priests weren’t always celibate.

Robert was obviously going to be a priest when his father died (clearly a hereditary post rather than a true calling then) and he took part in a few bits of argy bargy under the bishop cum warrior Sylvestre de la Guerche. Eventually, however, he came over all discouraged and took to the forests to whip himself and generally do penance.

Typically, whenever someone decides to turn all hermit-like in a forest, it attracts a whole load of people who set up shrines and chapels and generally turn everything into a bit of a circus. So, Robert was a bit of a hit and attracted bigger and bigger crowds given as he was to preaching before the masses.

He would preach then set off again, wearing little but rags and the crowd would follow him. They would all be wearing hair shirts to show their penance and they would all sleep in the woods under the constant eye of god. This would have been just fine and dandy except for the fact that Robert didn’t segregate his followers (he probably wanted them all to piss off and let him have a bit of holy peace to commune with his god alone) and the church took a dim view of men and women being together in the service of god.

Robert, on the other hand, felt that, as part of his self-imposed penance, it was a good thing to share sleeping arrangements with women because it put temptation directly in his way. He extended this to going into brothels and preaching at the prostitutes. Clearly Robert was a shrewd man.

Eventually the church decided something had to be done about Robert and his modern ways so he was invited to a council at Poitiers which had been formed in order to pass judgement over the king for having slept with his cousin. Robert was asked his opinion. He said he agreed with the pope and, suddenly, all was forgiven.

The church, however wasn’t that easy. Robert had to end his wandering and set up a community into which all his hippies should go. He had no choice of place but, fortunately, the church let him have the valley of Fontevraud.

Things were particularly tough at the start because there was nothing there and everyone lived in huts. According to Geoffrey de Vendôme there was all manner of people living together: men and women, lay and priests, prostitutes and virgins, the disabled, lepers etc, etc. He even accused Robert of still sleeping with women. But, eventually, it flourished magnificently. Particularly after Gautier de Montsoreau (presumably from the Chateau we didn’t visit yesterday) decided to donate a whole load of useful things to them.

Lazarus Priory

Eventually the community was divided into four distinct areas. The Grand Moutier which was for virgins, the Moutier Saint-Jean which was for men in black robes who, it seems, did most of the manual labour, the Saint-Lazare Priory which was for lepers and, finally the La Madeleine priory which was for all women who were not virgins (widows, married woman, prostitutes, horse riders, etc). The was a sort of fifth area as well which was for the old and sick nuns but that was basically an extension added to the side of the Grand Moutier.

Robert, having set this all up, decided to go back to wandering around, whipping himself. Before he left he decided to do something which had profound consequences for the Abbey. He decided to put the Prioress, Hersende de Champagne in charge of everyone, including the men. This was extremely unusual given men were supposed to be in sole charge of women.

The ruckus caused by Robert’s decision was so great that he was forced to return to Fontevraud time and time again, just to sort out rebellions.

Eventually they just had to put up with it because Robert died. In typical church fashion, the powers that be decided that Robert’s dying wishes should be completely ignored and, instead of burying him in the mud like a peasant, deposited his earthly remains in the abbey church.

Fast forward to 1154 and to Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine as they make a first visit to the abbey before leaving for England and their coronation. She would end her life at the abbey, serving it in their robes even though she was also running Aquitaine. I’m not going to go through the entire history of the Plantagent kings and queens because it’s far too diverse and tangled. Suffice it to say that Fontevraud was a very important place for the lot of them and some managed to be buried there.

Eleanor and Henry II at Fontevraud

But enough history…Fontevraud Abbey today is a wonderful monument to man’s ability at restoration. It’s amazing the way that the abbey’s use as a prison has been completely obliterated as if it never happened. The decision to restore the abbey didn’t take the prison into account and yet it once was said to be the worst prison in all of France. Genet wrote about the horrors of Fontevraud in his Miracle of the Rose. Still, we can still read about it even if the suffering of the individual prisoners has been scoured from the walls of the abbey.

With or without the prison, Fontevraud is an amazing place. Sitting in a beautiful valley, its restored stonework bright under the dullest of skies. It looks magnificent.

Our first taste of the abbey, however, was not the stonework but the English woman who sold us our tickets at the front desk. What a sour and miserable woman! Why was she English? Why was she so miserable? She didn’t even bother to smile, instead preferring to adopt a permanent scowl. Perhaps she was born to a life of misery and woe and had just decided to share her shortcomings with the rest of humanity.

Once we’d managed to get passed Mrs Misery-Guts, we were confronted with this.

Fontevraud Abbey

The rain didn’t dampen our enjoyment as we huddled under our inadequate umbrellas, listening intently to our talking sticks.

My favourite bit (which is a pretty tough call because the place is amazingly amazing) was the sculpture in the cloister garden. It goes up and down and round and round like a roller coaster except for feet rather than wheels. It was closed because, I guess, it was too wet, which is a shame because I’d have loved to wander around it.

The Big Dipper at Fontevraud

Actually the rain pretty much followed us around, stopping only when we eventually left. Typically, blue bits started to appear between the clouds as we drove back to the farmhouse.

I forgot to mention the soap. The farmhouse is joined onto a place where they hand make soap. The courtyard is extremely smelly though in a sort of overpoweringly nice way. There’s also a strange little museum which seems to be devoted to soap but, given everything is in French, I could be completely wrong. However, I like to think it’s a museum of soap and shall enquire no further.

After a lovely long rest back at the farmhouse (which included a guitar concert for an audience of one) we set off for a walk across lovely countryside, beside fields of rape seed and wheat. We even found a strange, secluded dolmen!

The mysterious dolmen in a field of rape seed

The walk ended up taking us as far as Montsoreau where we decided to stop for a drink…except everything was shut. We then decided, after a little sit by the river, to walk back to the farmhouse.

I realise this post has gone on way longer than any blog post should but it would be terribly remiss of me if I didn’t mention our dinner tonight. The only place we could find open was the Unicorn Restaurant in Fontevraud. It was a wonderful find. I am so glad everything else was closed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Anyone wanting to spend a bit on some brilliant food, the Unicorn in Fontevraud is fantastic.

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