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The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay

in North East Burgundy (near Buffon)


French Cistercian Abbey Pages


Link to lunch at "Le Marronier" in nearby Buffon

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The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay was founded in 1118 as a daughter house of Clairvaux, which was one of the four foundation Cistercian Abbeys.  By 1139 the Abbey had moved to a better site a bit further down the valley, and then along came Ebrard, Bishop of Norwich and member of the Howard family from Arundel (which is in Sussex, but they were and are called Dukes of Norfolk, of which Norwich is the County Town - that's the English for you!).  Ebrard much preferred the tranquillity of  Fontenay to the politics of Norwich, built himself a pied terre castle next door, then applied his large fortune to the construction of a new church and other buildings for the Cistercians.   As a matter of interest, (re)developing Cistercian abbeys was a bit of a thing with the Howards.  Another family member (one of the Dukes this time) spent a fortune rebuilding Tintern in South Wales (of which he was the Abbot) in the final years of the 1200s. 


The new Abbey was consecrated by the Cistercian Pope Eugene III in September 1147 and continued to expand in the following decades.  Its wealth and isolated location made it a tempting target for raiders in the unstable times of the thirteen and fourteen hundreds (including plunder by Edward III in 1359 during the hundred years' war).  The reestablishment of political stability in the mid 1400s also returned the abbey to a hundred year period of growth and great prosperity.


Then came the disastrous era of commendatory abbots (from the mid 1500s), and things got steadily worse until, in the wake of the French Revolution in October 1791, the run down Abbey and its lands were sold to a M Claude Hugot, who transformed it into a paper mill (smoke stacks and all).  The paper mill lasted until October 1906, when it was closed and sold.  The new owners, the Aynard family, have devoted the best part of the last century to restoring the Abbey buildings, and their achievements speak for themselves .......





The eastern facade.  On the right is the apse of the abbey church, and the large building abutting this is the monk's dormitory (upstairs), and downstairs the chapter house and monks' scriptorium, both of which are open through arches but without a change in floor levels, to the cloisters.  In several Cistercian abbeys the chapter house floor level is lower than the adjoining cloisters, making it much darker and more detached than the flowing Fontenay arrangement.




Our first Cistercian Nave - wow !



"If you desire to know what is inside, leave behind the bodies that you brought from the world: only souls are allowed"


Saint Bernard (1090 - 1153 (63)), Founding Abbot of Clairvaux, address to novices.





South Aisle - more wow !



The monks' dormitory (left) and the north east corner of the cloisters.  Whilst bells were essential for monk summoning purposes*, bell towers were forbidden as an unnecessary and ostentatious extravagance in early Cistercian abbeys.  Along the same lines there were no narrative decorations or sculptures and definitely no tombs - but tombs generate money, and .......



* in Yorkshire, there was a fight when the original Cistercian Abbey of Byland set up within earshot (bellshot) of the already established Rivaulx - instead of synchronizing their daily routines, Byland had to pack up and relocate out of bellshot.





The Cistercian Romanesque cloisters give one a unique feel for the original.  Most surviving Cistercian stone vaulted cloisters are gothic in style - mostly because they were rebuilt like that.




The chapter house (cloisters in the background) and the next door monks' scriptorium (below right)





Left: The tomb of Ebrard, Bishop of Norwich, who used money from the English Howard family (Dukes of Norfolk) to erect a new church and other buildings at Fontenay in the 1140s.  A later member of the Howard family backrolled the demolition and Gothic rebuild of the Cistercian Tintern Abbey in Wales in the late 1200s.


Below:   Postcard aerial view.  The abbey church and cloister are on the left.  The refectory on the south side of the cloister has morphed into a mansion.  


The south end of the dormitory / chapter house block

Above: The view from just inside the entrance to the Abbey site.  The foundry building on the right  housed what was said to be the first pneumatic hammer in France.  As well as being pioneering water engineers (for both power and fisheries), the Cistercians also built iron foundries and in Yorkshire were said to have invented water taps. 



Web Site and List of some Daughter Houses of Fontenay



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