How much did medieval communities know about their past, and what value was placed on this knowledge? These two key questions have dominated my research for about ten years now. Sometimes, I think they are unanswerable, and then suddenly find another tantalising glimpse into medieval perceptions of their past, and of the times that had come before them.
Trying to answer this question this summer took me to Normandy, primarily in search of an individual whose life and works have featured heavily in my previous work. Orderic Vitalis is an author well-known to students of Anglo-Norman history. Born in England in 1075, Orderic moved to Normandy to become a monk at the monastery of Saint-Évroul in 1085, where he lived until his death in c.1142. Orderic’s best-known work is his thirteen-book Ecclesiastical History (edited by Marjorie Chibnall in six volumes, 1968-80). This work has much to tell us about how one man thought about his past, recognised the past in the world around him, and tried to explain it to his audience.
Recently, I have been studying Orderic’s account of how Saint-Évroul was founded in 1050. Orderic knew that his community was, in fact, a reincarnation of a monastery previously ruined in the 940s during a bout of local warfare. Orderic was angered that he could not find as much information as he would have liked on the history of the site before its ruin. He knew an account of the early beginnings under the hermit St Évroul in the late seventh-century, but complained that ‘in truth I know nothing at all of the abbots who succeeded this holy man after his death, or how many there were in the next four hundred years, or what befell the monks and their neighbours’ (Orderic, vol. 3, p. 303).
If this extract suggests that Orderic sought contact with the past, other examples show that he found it in the local landscape, and reflected deeply on what he had seen. Orderic had visited the ruined monastery at Deux-Jumeaux to the west of Bayeux, describing a ‘great mass of stones’ and ‘ruined walls’ (Orderic, vol. 3, pp. 267-9). He also described ruins at Saint-Céneri, located around seventy kilometres south-west of Saint-Évroul, noting a number of ruined stone sarcophagi within the ruins, which bore ‘witness to all comers of the man whose merits and venerable life brought together the monks who rest in that place’ (Orderic, vol. 4, p. 157). Closer to home, Orderic claimed to have seen ancient tombs at a church in the village of Saint-Évroul (whose ruins now lie in the cemetery of the modern village) which he believed had been founded by a Merovingian queen. Still in use until the 1950s, the remains of this church occupy a hill known as ‘Mont Dereine’ (‘queen’s hill’) and house a single ancient stone sarcophagus, recently dated to the early Middle Ages: could this be one of the very tombs that Orderic had seen in his lifetime?
The history of Orderic’s monastery after his death is frustratingly under-studied (another future project for me, perhaps?). The buildings now lie in ruin, curated by the ‘département de l’Orne’ and a team of local enthusiasts, including the mayor of the village, whom I was lucky to meet several times during my visit. The site was recognised as a ‘Monument Historique’ in 1967, and is open to visitors via the late medieval gatehouse, located to the north-west of the abbey church. No admission fee is charged, and although an official website offers some contextualisation and an introductory video, little information on the history of the abbey is on offer to the modern-day visitor. A reasonable idea of what the monastery looked like on the eve of the French Revolution is provided in the ‘Monasticon Gallicanum’: a collection of 168 engravings which illustrate 168 French monasteries at the end of the seventeenth century. The 1694 plate shows Saint-Évroul as a fully intact and neatly arranged monastic complex, dominated by the thirteenth and fourteenth-century incarnation of the abbey church. A detailed description of how this well-ordered monastic space had come to ruin can be read in the 1897 commentary by l’Abbé Dupont, L’abbaye de Saint-Evroult de 1789 à 1815 (although this makes for very sad reading!)
Almost as soon as the monastery was closed, however, something interesting began to happen. A succession of historically-aware individuals with amateur and antiquarian interests began to visit the site and record their findings in the minutes of academic societies, such as the journal of the ‘société des antiquaries de Normandie’ and the stunning volume, ‘Le Département de l’Orne, Archaéologique et Pittoresque’, published at l’Aigle in 1845. One of these antiquarians, F. Galeron, published a memoir of his visit at the end of the 1820s, showing a deep knowledge and devotion to Orderic’s writings, and a distaste for its decline and ruin at the hands of modern industry. More recently, historians such as Amanda-Jane Hingst and Leonie Hicks have published stimulating commentaries on the enduring sense of the past in the locale of Saint-Évroul.
All this suggests to me, that Saint-Évroul is a place which has inspired a longstanding, and almost universal engagement with the past among multiple audiences across changing times, from Orderic in the twelfth century, through to Galeron, and now me. I first visited in 2013, and returned again this summer to see if I could find more clues about why this communicates so much of its past. It was no coincidence that my visit coincided with an archaeological dig at the abbey, which has been carried out for the past five years under the direction of Anne-Sophie Vigot, from Caen. Anne-Sophie’s work has so far proven Orderic’s claim that the 1050 monastery was founded on the site of an earlier ruin, namely through the excavation and carbon dating of burials (for more information and updates, see: https://www.facebook.com/abbayedesaintevroult/)
In the nineteenth century, the celebrated English historian of the Norman Conquest, E.A. Freeman had written: ‘Beyond all doubt the finished historian must be a traveller: [s]he must see with his own eyes the true look of a wide land; he must see, too, with his eyes the very spots where great events happened’ (Freeman, p. vii). Although Freeman’s Sketches of Travel and Maine is more than a little reflective of Freeman’s own beliefs (and certainly his patriotic leanings) we are dealing here with history seen and felt, before it is written. I certainly felt history all around me at Saint-Évroul, and especially as the archaeologists uncovered more of the buildings that Orderic would have known back at the turn of the twelfth century (and perhaps in the graves, also the individuals).
We might think for a long time about how visits to historical sites bring us closer to the past, and this is something I have felt my whole life. In my professional career, there is nothing quite like seeing, touching and reading the very books that our heroes such as Orderic are known to have carefully copied and written with their own hands, and during my visit I also did plenty of this in the library of Alençon, where several of Orderic’s manuscripts are now held. But Orderic’s contact with the past, and the digestion of his writings by individuals like Galeron and Freeman also shows us that the past is constantly being lost, re-found and felt by multiple audiences, and one of my favourite parts of this was to think about how post-Revolution audiences had viewed the monastery. Having lain relatively untouched for several centuries, the manuscript of Orderic’s Ecclesiastical History was edited several times in the nineteenth century, when all of the major European nation-states were seeking to boost their sense of national culture and identity: what better way to achieve this than by promoting a glorious past?
By 1840, Orderic’s story was held in such high esteem that a local family of Mr de Nau of Sainte Marie decided to establish a new chapel and fountain at the source of the Charentonne river, which, according to Orderic, was where St Évroul had come to escape the distractions of the world during his hermitage. The chapel is difficult to get to, involving a walk (or drive) of roughly three miles from the monastery, and here we again meet similar pattern of foundation, use and then decline and neglect. The fountain now rests stagnant, overgrown and forgotten, yet there is something mysteriously alluring in this stage of a repeating cycle. I wondered who might one day restore the fountain, or whether it will be lost for another few hundred years, only to be once more discovered and written about by the successors of Orderic, Galeron, Freeman, and I suppose, also myself. So, if anyone in 500 years wants to know how much early twenty first-century people knew about their past and how much value was placed on that knowledge, all they need to is a) read this blog, but more importantly, b) go to the site of Saint-Évroul and see what is left to be found in 2517.
References and further Reading:
The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, ed. Marjorie Chibnall, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1969-80), cited here as ‘Orderic’. l’Abbé Dupont, L’abbaye de Saint-Evroult de 1789 à 1815 paroisse de Touquette-en-Ouche, de 1789 à 1815 : d’après les documents la plupart inédits extraits des registres de la paroisse de Notre-Dame de Touquette (Touquette, 1897).
Edward A. Freeman, Sketches of Travel in Normandy and Maine, ed. William H. Hutton (London, 1897).
Galeron, ‘Sur un reliquaire et quelques d’ébris anciens trouvés dans les ruines du monastère de Saint-Évroult (Orne)’, Memoires de la société des antiquaries de Normandie (1829-30).
Galeron, ‘Promenade aux ruines du monastère de Saint-Évroult (Orne)’, Revue Normande (1830).
Amanda Jane Hingst, The Written World: Past and Place in the Work of Orderic Vitalis (Notre Dame, 2009).
Leonie V. Hicks, ‘Monastic Authority, Landscape, and Place in the Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis’, in Juliana Dresvina and Nicholas Sparks (eds.), Authority and Gender in Medieval and Renaissance Chronicles, (Cambridge, 2012).
De la Sicotière and Auguste Poulet-Malassis, Le Département de l’Orne, Archaéologique et Pittoresque (l’Aigle, 1845), 79-98.
Monasticon Gallicanum: collection de 168 planches et vues topographiques, ed. M Peigné-Delacourt with preface by Léopold Delisle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1871).
Charles C. Rozier et al. (eds.), Orderic Vitalis: Life, Works and Interpretations (Woodbridge, 2016).
All photographs copyright Charlie Rozier