Header image: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53084786q

As an ambitious young man, Stanislas Prioux did something quite common for ambitious young men in  mid-nineteenth century France. He left behind his birthplace—the small village of Limé, near Soissons in the quiet Vesle river valley—for the bustle and opportunity of Paris. There, Prioux established a paper wholesale business in a prime city centre spot: 47 quai des Grands Augustins, just across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral. (The company survives today, though thanks to a series of mergers and acquisitions the Papeteries Prioux now goes by the decidedly un-French name of ArjoWiggins).

View of Notre Dame from the Quai des Grands Augustins, 1900s.

View of Notre Dame from the Quai des Grands Augustins, 1900s.

Although Stanislas Prioux became a successful businessman and settled down to raise a family in the city, he maintained strong links back to his home region and was keenly interested in its history. That’s why I first encountered him, when I was researching the history of the Premonstratensian abbey of Saint-Yved-et-Sainte-Marie de Braine, the main religious foundation in a town near his birthplace. Prioux wrote extensively about the medieval abbey, and about the surrounding area and its prominent figures. It was only by getting to know a little more about Prioux that I could better understand how he and his particular interests have shaped some of our understanding of the development of the Premonstratensian Order, and the role women played in that development.

Stanislas Prioux was active in the local historical society at Soissons, was a regular visitor to archaeological digs in the Soissonais, and produced a number of articles, pamphlets, and books on regional history—at quite an astounding rate, given that he neither had much by way of training as a historian nor much free time given the demands of his job. In 1846, when he was just thirty years old, he published his Histoire de Braine et de ses environs.

The work was published on a subscription basis: the nineteenth-century version of crowdfunding. As you can see from the poster above, it was also very much a work which drew on Prioux’s connections. The book was illustrated with engravings by his childhood friend, Jules Roze; it was sold from two bookshops, one in Braine and one next door to the Parisian premises of Prioux’s papeterie.

The next year, Prioux published Grégoire de Tours au concile de Braine, a work which was followed by many others. In 1858, Prioux published his most important work, the Monographie de l’Abbaye Royale de Saint-Yved de Braine. For decades, this would remain the most authoritative work on the history and architecture of the abbey. Stanislas Prioux died in 1866 at the age of just 50, leaving behind him an unfinished but equally ambitious project: an edition of the abbey’s cartulary. (No edition of this important text would actually be published until the year 2000.)

Abbey church of Saint-Yved, Braine. [Source]

Abbey church of Saint-Yved, Braine. [Source]

The pen portrait of Prioux by his friend Jean Wallon is an attractive one—curious and active, “small in size, but strong and stocky, brown, with an open face and large, bright, dark eyes”. Yet it also reveals a man who was devoutly Catholic—spearheading the reconstruction of the parish church where he’d been baptised, and even persuading the Empress Eugénie to donate an elaborate monstrance to it—conservative, nostalgic about history, and pro-monarchist. Prioux’s desire to give his beloved Braine deep historical links with royalty—combined with contemporary ideas about how a woman could or should behave—shaped how the story he told about the abbey’s history.

As Madeline Caviness has pointed out, in the Monographie, Prioux depicted the Capetian Robert of Dreux (brother of Louis VII) as the driving force behind the abbey church’s construction. In reality, it was Robert’s devout and formidable wife Agnès of Braine who funded and oversaw the project. (Moreover, Robert died very early on in the construction process and could not have had much influence.) Prioux’s desire to depict Braine as a quasi-royal holding even seems to have led him to falsify some of the primary sources on which he drew—a cardinal sin for historians. Caviness notes that while Prioux lays out a deathbed scene in which Agnès handed over control of her birth family’s lands to a son who had long since been their de facto lord, he appears to have altered the wording to make it seem that the king’s nephew, rather than an independent-minded countess, was the real power in Braine. The version of the abbey’s early years and the role played by its key patron family that Prioux tells has been very influential over the years—and yet it’s built on very shaky foundations.

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Stained glass window showing prophet Abiud, formerly at the abbey of Braine. [Source]

Without enthusiastic antiquarian scholars like Stanislas Prioux, our knowledge of medieval France would be much poorer. They founded the historical societies which sprang up across the country in the nineteenth century, and wrote about sites and artefacts which have since been lost to the world wars. But as much as we owe them our thanks, we owe it to our own readers to be mindful of the ways in which their perspectives and preoccupations have shaped our perception of the Middle Ages.

The Premonstratensian Order has acquired a reputation among historians for being firmly misogynist even by medieval standards—and yet we see an active, independent-minded woman like Agnès of Braine collaborating with them without an apparent issue. When we look at the male and female lords who ruled in medieval Braine, at the churches they helped build and the ways in which they interacted with reformed orders like the Premonstratensians, are we really seeing them? Or are we still looking through the lenses fashioned by antiquarians like Prioux?