My favourite visit in BurgundyI want to tell you a bit about the Abbey of Fontenay, and why it’s one of my favourite places on any Chain Gang tour.
The Abbey is the main reason why we start from Montbard, about 3 miles away, and if you’ve visited you won’t be surprised that Michelin award three stars (***), ‘Worth a journey in itself’.
Benedictines were supposed to follow the ‘Rule of Benedict’ to live their lives with modesty, obedience and chastity. By the 11th century the order had spread throughout Europe and had become rich and powerful.
There’s a lovely quote from historian Edward Gibbon ( Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) “I have somewhere heard or read the confession of a Benedictine abbot: ‘My vow of poverty has given me a hundred crowns a year; my vow of obedience has raised me to the rank of a sovereign prince.’ I forgot the consequences of his vow of chastity.”
At the end of the 11th Century, in 1098, St Robert of Molesme grew tired of this hypocrisy and left the Benedictines to found a new order at Citeaux, the Cistercians, based on a stricter adherence to Benedict’s ‘rule’.Who’s St Robert? Not interested. We’re more concerned with his pal, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who 20 years later decided that Citeaux itself was becoming too grand, and led a band of followers to found Fontenay, the oldest surviving Cistercian abbey in the world, and beautiful.
Part of the monks’ creed was to work, and not to use servants. Their abbeys were intended to be self-sufficicent, and Fontenay sits in a gorgeous river valley, exactly where you’d choose if you wanted to be self-suficient.This is the same St Bernard who preached the 2nd Crusade, and who was chosen to broker the deal between France, England, Germany, Portugal, Castile, and Aragon that established Innocent II as Pope following the schsim of 1130. He didn’t invent giant dogs, but he was a very important historical figure. Fontenay isn’t a cistercian abbey, it’s THE Cistercian abbey.
The grounds are beautiful, and the buildings are both beautiful and classically Cistercian – modest, minimalist, and designed to worship God through work and prayer. So we have a huge, stark chapel, the monks’ dormitory, a magnificent cloister, the kitchens and apothecary. The buildings and grounds would make Fontenay famous. But it has an even greater claim to fame, and this is the reason I love it.
They invented the hydraulic hammer at Fontenay. They rigged a waterwheel to a gigantic hammer and created the world’s first metallurgical factory. The Matericals Information Society credit Fontenay as the ‘basis of industrial manufacturing of ironn in Europe’. This is where the industrial revolution started, way back in 1220.
And there is one final piece of loveliness at the Abbey de Fontenay. They have developed their own hydrangea cultivar. If you catch it at the right time of year – June and July – it’s stunning. Don’t walk right past it – this is a unique flower, beautiful, and worth a moment.
Don’t forget, there’s a special album of photos about the Abbey de Fontenay available on Flickr. All you have to do is to click here.