Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: Premonstratensians

The Paper-Maker and the Premonstratensians

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.


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?

Mapping Hugo’s “Annales”

For historians, one of the most useful things about new digital mapping technologies are the new ways in which they let us approach our body of sources. As someone who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Premonstratensian Order in medieval France, I’ve spent much of the last few years immersed in the works of one man: Charles-Louis Hugo. His books—particularly the magisterial but uncompleted Sacri et Canonici Ordinis Praemonstratensis annales—preserved the text of many medieval documents which are otherwise lost to us. Without the Annales, my doctoral work—and the work of other people interested in the Premonstratensian Order over the years—would have been much more difficult, if not impossible.

However, when I mapped out the Annales—visualising the places from where Hugo got his information—it was very clear to me that it’s a work shaped by the particular moment in history when it was produced. The Annales has been shaped by the fact that it was produced in post-Reformation Europe, and we need to keep that in mind when using it as a source for the history of the order in the Middle Ages.

Who was Hugo?

The abbey church of Pont à Mousson. [Source]

The abbey church of Pont à Mousson. [Source]

Born in 1667 into a middle-class family into a small town in eastern France that had been profoundly affected by conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, Hugo took his religious vows while still a teenager. He did so in the Premonstratensian abbey of Pont à Mousson, the mother house of the reform branch of the order. Hugo spent time at the abbeys of Jovilliers, Jandeures, and Étival, before becoming prior of Saint-Joseph de Nancy in 1700. There he helped to reconstruct the priory and establish its library.

In 1713, Hugo moved to the abbey of Étival, one of the largest religious institutions in Lorraine. There he undertook his greatest works, the two-volume Sacræ Antiquitatis (1725) and the Annales (1734). His involvement in ecclesiastical in-fighting saw him sent away from Étival for a while, but papal and ducal favour allowed him to eventually return to the abbey. He died there in 1739 at the age of 71, having been a Premonstratensian for 54 years.

The Annales

Hugo acquired the material for the Annales by corresponding with people across Europe—much more material than was ever published, in fact, owing to Hugo’s death. (His notebooks containing a wealth of still-to-be-mined transcriptions and observations are now held at the municipal library in the French town of Nancy.)

Title page of the first volume of Charles-Louis Hugo's Annales.

Title page of the first volume of Charles-Louis Hugo’s Annales.

The first two volumes of the Annales are a kind of gazetteer of the order’s houses, with each entry consisting of a historical notice, together with a list of abbots or abbesses where known. Entries vary in length from a paragraph or two to several pages. The second two volumes are the probationes, the evidence—in other words, they contain the text of the charters, papal bulls, privileges, letters, and other documents on which Hugo drew. Publishing transcriptions of these documents was a substantial undertaking. As you can see from the index which I compiled of the two probationes volumes, there are 767 documents transcribed in the first volume, and 792 in the second. Some of these sources survive in the original, or in other medieval or early modern copies. Others are known to us only from Hugo’s transcriptions.

Mapping the Sources

Each circle on the map below represents a Premonstratensian community which was the subject of a document contained in the probationes volumes. The circles are sized proportionately: the larger they are, the more documents about that house. (In instances where a document is an agreement between, say, Abbey A and B, I counted that towards the total of both abbeys since Hugo could have potentially obtained a copy from either institution and he rarely states how he specifically came across a document. In instances where the document concerns the order as a whole, as with some papal bulls, I omitted it from the count.)

You can see straight away that there are regions which are home to clusters: where many Premonstratensian houses produced documents transcribed by Hugo and in large numbers. Unsurprisingly, these are in places like northern France and the Rhineland—where the order got its start—and in Magdeburg, where the order’s founding figure ended his days. Yet there are also some anomalies which appear when you compare this map with the distribution of the order’s houses as a whole. There were Premonstratensian houses in Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Cyprus, the Holy Land, but you would never know that from looking at this distribution.

This hints right away at there being regions which couldn’t answer Hugo’s requests for information. The eastern Mediterranean was largely under Muslim rule; Scotland and Scandinavia were decidedly Protestant in inclination; and while most people in Ireland were still Catholic, the English crown had ordered the dissolution of the island’s monasteries. The likely destruction of the medieval records from these regions means that there were histories which Hugo could neither write nor transmit—and so we have to be careful not to presume that the Premonstratensian Order in the Middle Ages was everywhere similar to those regions which remained politically and culturally Catholic.

Of course, this realisation raises yet another question: if the dissolution of houses in Ireland and Scotland meant that Hugo couldn’t gain access to documents from those houses, then why are English Premonstratensian monasteries represented on the map? Returning to the text of the Annales provides a possible answer. While Hugo generally copies out a medieval document in full, including preamble, date, and witness list, he doesn’t do so for the documents from English houses. They are all transcribed in a truncated format, and so my sense is that Hugo was copying from a register of charters that had been sent from England to a house on the continent at some point prior to the Reformation—most likely to the mother house at Prémontré.

If this register did exist, it has long since vanished—but mapping out the sources of Charles-Louis Hugo’s Annales lets us see the echo of it and other lost sources in the historical record.

Hugo’s Works:

  • Critique de l’histoire des Chanoines. 1700. [Read online]
  • La vie de Saint Norbert. 1704. [Read online]
  • Traité historique et critique sur l’origine et la généalogie de la maison de Lorraine. 1711. [Read online]
  • Sacræ Antiquitatis Monumenta Historica, Dogmatica, Diplomatica, Notis Illustrata, 2 vols. 1725. [Vol. 1] [Vol. 2]
  • Sacri et Canonici Ordinis Praemonstratensis annales, 4 vols. 1734. [Vol. 1] [Vol. 2] [Vol. 3] [Vol. 4]

Clothes Make the Premonstratensian Sister

Clothing mattered for medieval religious women—as it did for all women in the Middle Ages. It marked out rank, gender, and age, but it also made a statement about marital status and morality. Many of the Church Fathers such as Jerome, John Chrysostom and Tertullian, whose writings were highly influential on the development of Christianity in the Middle Ages, had condemned any kind of extravagance or display in women’s clothing, fearing that it might cause men to feel spiritually or sexually tempted. (This is the same underlying reasoning which we see, say, driving gendered differences in dress codes in U.S. public schools.) This isn’t to say that medieval women (or men, for that matter) didn’t follow fashion, or use their clothing to display their wealth. But for those women who chose to take religious vows of whatever kind, those patristic strictures had weight, and from a very early period, female Christian religious opted to wear plain and inexpensive clothing. The Rule of Caesarius of Arles, written in 512, was the first monastic rule in western Europe written exclusively for women. It required that nuns wear simple outfits of undyed woollen cloth.

Altenberg Altarpiece

On the lower left, a Premonstratensian sister kneels, wearing a nun’s crown. Detail, Altenberg altarpiece, 1334. Städel Museum, Frankfurt-am-Main.

However, the reformed religious orders that emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—including the order which I work on, the Premonstratensians—were much more specific than their predecessors when it came to issues of monastic dress. Their Rules detailed the kind of cloth to be used, its colour and cut, what kinds of accessories were permitted, and if there could be seasonal variation. Not only did these regulations help to set the virtuous vowed religious apart from the world, but they also helped to rein in some of the excesses of the more zealous members of the order. For instance, one of the order’s founders, Norbert of Xanten, was reputed to have wandered barefoot as a preacher through the snows of northern France and the Rhineland while clad only in the skins of sheep and goats—a clear attempt to mimic John the Baptist’s voice crying out in the wilderness (allowing for the fact that camel skin was not so easy to come by in twelfth-century northwestern Europe). This kind of ostentatious piety was enough to attract censure from the Council of Fritzlar. [MGH Scriptores XII: 673].

As you can see from the early fourteenth-century Altenberg altarpiece pictured left—one of the few contemporary visual sources for what medieval Premonstratensian sisters dressed like—they were not any more covered-up than were their lay female counterparts. Nothing is visible of the body of either the kneeling sister or the standing noblewoman other than their face and hands. The basic shapes and items of clothing were also similar—the nun’s belted habit is like the laywoman’s belted tunic; both women wear a cloak over this, together with a veil and wimple (a piece of cloth that covers the throat and chest). We can’t see the women’s feet, but likely both are wearing shoes and perhaps even woollen hose for added warmth. What marks the clothing of the Premonstratensian sister out from the laywoman is the absence of colour and ornamentation, together with much less elaborate drapery and folding of the fabric. The noblewoman’s clothing is designed to make you notice how much she has; the Premonstratensian sister’s, how much she has given up.

From early in the history of the Premonstratensian Order, donning the habit was considered a necessary step for admission to its ranks. In a letter written around 1160, Philippe, abbot of the Cistercian house of L’Aumône, discussed a niece of his who had impulsively decided to join the Premonstratensians. (Very impulsively: she hadn’t stopped to ask permission from the order itself.) However, Philippe seemed to think that his niece’s actions—taking a vow of virginity in front of an altar, cutting off her hair, and putting on the habit—irrefutably made her a Premonstratensian. [Text]

What that habit looked like was decided by the order’s General Chapter—the assembly of the Premonstratensians’ leaders which met, at least in theory, on a regular basis. Like the Cistercians, Gilbertines, and Carthusians, Premonstratensian men and women wore mostly white habits—likely because of the colour’s association with purity—but the details did change over the course of the Middle Ages.

Premonstratensian men also wore white robes. Miniature of the Premonstratensian Jean Hayton offering his book to Pope Clement V. NY Public Library

Premonstratensian men also wore white robes. Miniature of the Premonstratensian Jean Hayton offering his book to Pope Clement V. Ca. 1400. [NY Public Library]

One of the earliest commentators on the Premonstratensians, the monk-chronicler Herman of Tournai (ca. 1090-1147), said that the order’s sisters could wear only a single garment made of wool or sheepskin, with a veil made of cheap black cloth [Patrologia Latina 156, col. 996]. However, the earliest known statutes of the order (ca. 1135) present a slightly more complicated picture. In the summer, the sisters wore white linen tunics with black linen veils; in the winter, they wore tunics and veils made of black linen or coarse, itchy black wool. (“Black wool” probably meant wool that was dark in colour, because it was difficult and expensive to dye wool a pure black with the technology available at the time.) At all times of the year, they could wear a belt from which hung a small knife in a sheath. [BSM Clm. 17174, ff.38v-39]

These regulations were modified around 1200—new statutes stated that under pain of excommunication, Premonstratensian sisters were never to wear black tunics, only white tunics and black surplices (a kind of loose over-tunic). [BM Troyes MS 802, ff. 93-94] Mid-thirteenth statutes modified the required habit of Premonstratensian women yet again: the sisters were to wear all-white clothing, except in the regions where it had been customary (ex antiqua consuetudine) that they wear different-coloured tunics. It’s not clear why all these legislative changes were made—perhaps the Premonstratensians were trying to more effectively distinguish themselves from other orders—but they clearly faced regional push-back from women who valued the traditions of their particular communities. The habit of a Premonstratensian sister signified individual religious purity, but it also signalled a group identity.

As the push-back makes clear, just because the Premonstratensian Order—and indeed the Church hierarchy—told women they had to dress in a particular way doesn’t mean that they were listened to. The Council of Reims (1157) forbade religious women from wearing habits made of sumptuous fabrics [Text]—but 150 years later, the Council of Vienne (1311-12) felt the need to reiterate that nuns shouldn’t wear silk gowns, fur trims, sandals, elaborate hairstyles, or plaid or striped veils. [Text] These councils would have had no reason to ban these kinds of attire if there hadn’t been religious women sporting them—and the fact that many church councils issued legislation like this over and over means that their rules weren’t always observed. Nunneries in the Middle Ages may have been far more colourful places than we give them credit for.

Premonstratensian Doll, early 19th c. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Premonstratensian Doll, early 19th c. France. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Until the changes introduced by Vatican II in the mid-twentieth century, Catholic sisters and nuns largely dressed as had their medieval foremothers. Even by the early nineteenth-century, however, nuns’ habits had long since ceased to be an austere variant on everyday women’s variant and had become something distinctly associated with religious women. The hemp-and-wax Premonstratensian doll (pictured at left) was made in the first half of the nineteenth century, perhaps as an educational aid to help distinguish between various religious orders and congregations. Enclosed orders still wear the traditional habits (as indeed do modern Premonstratensian canonesses, like those who recently establish a community at Tehachapi in California), but members of nursing and teaching congregations—the kinds of female religious whom the general public are most likely to encounter—now largely wear contemporary, albeit modest, clothing. The choice to don or discard the habit, now as in the Middle Ages, is a powerful and immediate way of communicating how a religious woman—and the community which she inhabits—understands her religious faith.

Read More:

Pierre Hélyot. Dictionnaire des ordres religieux (Paris, 1714-19). [Archive.org]

Adrien Schoonenbeek. Courte description des ordres des femmes & filles religieuses (Amsterdam, 1691). [Archive.org]

Collection of 19th century dolls representing Catholic religious orders. [Victoria and Albert Museum]

A Premonstratensian Abbot in France Reacts to Magna Carta

[Image above: British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106. Credit.]

The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta has prompted a lot of discussion around the world about how the document has influenced law and government in the centuries since it was signed—but even in 1215, Magna Carta was being discussed outside of England.

One of the key figures whom I discuss in my dissertation is Gervais, who was abbot of a succession of Premonstratensian houses—Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, Thenailles, and then Prémontré itself from 1209-1220—before serving as bishop of Séez from 1220-28. Though his ecclesiastical career led him to northern France, Gervais was English by birth. Charles-Louis Hugo, the great Premonstratensian antiquarian writer of the early eighteenth-century, described Gervais as being origine Lincolniensis, sanguine clarus, though we know nothing more of Gervais or his origins than that.1

While my interest in Gervais centres mostly on his other activities in 1215—he travelled to Rome to participate in the Fourth Lateran Council, which gave him encouragement for his reformist agenda which seems to have been so central in shaping the direction of the Premonstratensian Order for the rest of the thirteenth century—even amidst all his other duties, Gervais was following the events unfolding back in his country of birth. In 1215, Gervais wrote to archbishop Stephen Langton of Canterbury about Magna Carta.2

The letter is undated but was probably composed in July or August, since Gervais knew that an agreement had been reached between King John and the rebels, but didn’t yet know of the renewal of the civil war or of the pope’s condemnation of Magna Carta. The letter doesn’t provide any new insights into the circumstances surrounding the composition of Magna Carta, but it does give us a rare insight into how the conflict in England was perceived by an Englishman and an ecclesiastic, one who had lived overseas for many years but who still had strong ties there. Gervais urged moderation in the church’s interaction with the crown—perhaps unsurprisingly, given both the Premonstratensians’ history of maintaining strong ties with royal administrations, and given Gervais’ own insistence on the importance of hierarchical structure within his order.

You can find the full text of the letter embedded below:

This was not the only time when the baronial rebellion was mentioned by Gervais. He twice wrote to the papal legate in England, Guala Bicchieri, asking among other things for leniency for those English Premonstratensians who had sided with the rebels and been excommunicated. In the second of these letters, Gervais made reference to a failed attempt at a “three-fold” peace (triplex forma pacis) which was proposed by the papacy but which Gervais evidently thought would have been shameful.3 Given Gervais’ strong relationship with successive popes, and the wide geographical range of Premonstratensian houses in this period, it’s not a surprise that even in Picardy, far from the ongoing diplomatic negotiations, Gervais had knowledge of them.

Gervais also wrote a letter in the summer of 1216 to Simon of Maugastel, archbishop of Tyre, at a time when the future Louis VIII of France had invaded southern England. The text reveals Gervais’ less-than-cordial thoughts about the clergy who had sided with the baronial party: “I’m greatly upset that when England was on the brink of peace, it was hindered by merely four clerics—would that they had never learned their letters!”


1 He has sometimes been referred to as Gervais/Gervase of Chichester or Gervaise/Gervase of Chester, but C.R. Cheney showed that this was based on a confusion on the part of Jean Le Paige in the seventeenth century. See C.R. Cheney, “Gervase, Abbot of Premontre: A Medieval Letter-Writer.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 33, no. 1 (1950): 25–56. We do however know that a relative of Gervais’, Bartholomew, was also a Premonstratensian canon who transacted business in Italy on Gervais’ behalf.

2 The dispute over Langton’s election to the episcopate was of course one of the causes behind the conflict which led to Magna Carta. See Langton’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

3 “Triplex forma pacis quae, ut dicitur, a sede apostolica emanavit, quarum quaelibet, si fuisset ad effectum perducta, in totius ecclesiae et vestram nihilominus ignomimam redundasset.”


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