Monday, August 7, 2017

The Chelles Abbey: a Medieval oasis of girl power - and the grinch who crashed the party!

Greetings, heretics!

Another post in my 15th century French bishops series. Today's guest of dishonor is Louis de Beaumont de la Forêt, who served as the Bishop of Paris from 1473 until his death in 1492. He had spent the first decade of his episcopal tenure trying to tighten up the loose screws left behind by his predecessor Guillaume Chartier. Guillaume had been too busy locking horns with the king to pay attention to the discipline in his precinct, so Louis inherited Notre-Dame de Paris in a state of chaos, with priests and deacons roaming freely, flirting with women, reading heretical books, quoting Italian humanists and talking about the impending Reformation. Naturally, Louis de Beaumont, a reactionary, was horrified. He embarked on a mission to reverse the progressive "damage" done by his negligent predecessor. When Louis accepted the position, he was in his mid twenties and full of energy. It took him a decade to get any traction. He had no leadership experience, so he had no idea how to establish his authority and restore the atmosphere of austerity and holiness. At the same time, he did not want to openly admit that he had trouble controlling his own men.

He decided to flex his muscles by asserting his power over the Chelles Abbey. In the early 1480s he made that oasis of Medieval girl power his next target.The Chelles Abbey was a Frankish monastery founded in the 7th century. Originally it was intended for women, but eventually it gained a reputation for being a epicenter of scholarship, so more men were drawn to that place, establishing a parallel male community. Thus a double monastery was created, with men and women living, learning and exploring in close - and dangerous - proximity to each other. You can imagine all those clandestine keg parties similar to those happening on college campuses today.

The majority of nuns at the Chelles Abbey were daughters, widows, sisters, nieces and even ex-mistresses of various European monarchs. They were worldly, scholarly, ambitious women who did not necessarily focus on religion. Overtime, this trend affected the monastic discipline adversely. The focus was not spiritual refinement but scholarship. Many of the books stored at the famous scriptorium were of questionable content and marginally heretical. Naturally, Louis de Beaumont did not like the idea of women having too much forbidden knowledge, too much autonomy, too many progressive ideas. He saw the string of blue-blooded, wilful abbesses as a problem. So in 1480s he started sticking his fingers into the abbey. Catherine de Lignieres was the abbess at the time. Louis perceived her as an "enabler" of frivolities and tried to have her removed and replaced by someone he approved of, someone more conservative, who would support more traditional monastic values. As expected, he failed. The Chelles Abbey had strong ties to the cathedral in Reims, and Pierre de Laval, the present archbishop, put a stop to Louis' attempts to bully the abbess. In the end, it was not "girl power" that saved the abbey's autonomy - it was intervention from a stronger man. Pierre de Laval was older, richer, more influential than Louis de Beaumont. Pierre was closely linked to the royal family and rubbed elbows with the king, so he had more leverage. The bishop of Paris had to back off. In other words, a woman-hating bully was defeated by a woman-friendly bully.

The story does have a bittersweet ending. The Chelles Abbey did lose some of is autonomy eventually. Starting from 1500, through a degree of the Parlement of Paris, abbesses were elected every three years with the possibility of reelection, which prevented a single woman from having too much influence over the culture of the abbey. In mid-16th century the new king abolished the election and resumed the appointment of the abbesses himself. Once again, the abbey fell into the secular authority.


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