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?
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.
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.)
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.
- 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]