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  • Writer's pictureMme Vanessa Williamson

Medieval Maine will take your breath away.

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

Life in France - Yesterday we took a long way home, and on impulse followed a sign to a Historic Monument OMG...

France Mayenne Department was historically known as Maine, and from the 9th through to the late 14th-century, medieval life blossomed across the green land of well-stocked forests, rivers and open grasslands. Over time emerged vast stone fortified stronghold chateaux - monasteries and churches. Built-in long-lasting local granite, many are surviving today ready to be explored. Maine's medieval landscape of settlements was a half-day to one-day horse ride apart. Today the distances seem close, at about 15km. In the Renaissance, change came to France with the 100 Years War, Wars of Religion and climaxed in 1789 with The Revolution. Medieval chateaux & monasteries were forcibly abandoned or destroyed, some taken apart stone by stone to ensure no one never returned. Today both vast ruins and complete chateaux and monastery’s survive in the rural landscape, and along the Mayenne River.

After our errands in Laval chasing supplies of gold paint, Matt took us home meandering along country roads we had not explored. In typical style, Matt announced he recalled a monastery was located nearby. Soon road signs for a monastery Abbaye de Clairvaux; part of the National Estate of Historic Monuments appeared. After first missing the turnoff we eventually found our way down a tree-lined country lane. The avenue of trees evidence the road led to something special, and we were not disappointed. Narrowing to a small stone bridge over a stream running white and fast with winter rain, and a lake filled the view to the left of the road. We stopped the car just to look, and through the trees, we saw what looked like a grand 18thc country house. There was no barrier so we drove in and parked out front, my door was open immediately and I walked, quickly lost in taking photographs. I discovered the facade masked the vast quadrangle of the 12th-century monastery & church behind.

I was deeply impressed by what I was seeing, lost in my own childhood dream adventure of solitary discovery. The 12th-century buildings soared up high to the heavens, though derelict and stripped bare, they are in fact well preserved as the last passionate owners repaired the roofs of the buildings. This would have been at a vast cost. The site is built around a central quadrangle with buildings on four sides from the 12th to 18th century. Sadly the characteristic colonnade cloister is gone, collapsed long ago. I read they hope to reinstate it, photographs from the 19th century show it in detail. As I looked and wander, it was evident the landscape still held within its many original features. My University studies flooded back into my memory, and I recognised what I thought were characteristic vast monastic fish ponds; which are rare to survive. I could see farm buildings, bread ovens, a vast soaring church, away up high on the crest of a long slope the huge entrance gate buildings and stables.

The surrounding land was still farmland, with a complicated system of and carefully managed man-made watercourses. As I walked up the slope to the entry gates I could hear the roar of the tumbling of water dashing down a spillway. I suspect an old mill must have also been located nearby. Water Mills were one of the 11th century newest labour-saving innovations and often found in monasteries of the period. The use of water power drove change, transforming farming, the cloth industry, and grain processing productivity, leading to the first Industrial Revolution.

On the drive home I was on Google reading out aloud to Matt, we were eager to learn more and what we discovered was fascinating history. Founded in 1136, it says by the most famous monk of the period Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who I studied at university. He was part of the order of Cistercian monks who were invited by the Laval Lord and landowner Guy IV of Laval to found a new monastery. He donated a whole valley of land, and funds to establish a large monastic community. This was both a politically strategic decision as an act of piety. In the medieval period, the location of monastic complexes was strategic as all monastery land was first donated to a Religious order, by a noble Lord. They also served the families needs as donations often stipulated a family member must be installed as the first Abbot or Abbess. The monasteries were often located on the border of the Lords Domaine, or lands that need extensive works to become arable farming land, I suspect this was a very wet valley until the extensive channels, huge ponds, and mill run was created. So, family, defence & piety were all part of the mindset behind the donation. The Monastery we visited sat in a valley on the border of Maine and Brittany and the land of the powerful Lords of Vitré. Monasteries were for a time a very real buffer to border conflict, but they were also raided and pillaged by the Vikings to Normans for their rich resources of food, wine, gold, and books, an easy non defended target.

With a major in Medieval Studies and as an Archaeologist, I was on my hallowed ground yesterday, it was a day in my life I will never forget. To experience what I have previously only imagined from reading in academic books was amazing, and it is hard to express how transported I was back into the past 900 years ago. That the monastery survives at all above ground level is extraordinary. The site is open to visitors for a small entry fee, and Guided Tours can be booked as dedicated Volunteer Guides share with visitors how the community lived in a lifestyle now long past. The website states the monastery is visited by about 3,000 people a year, I recall a French friend once told us, the French keep the best places secret and this is one of those secrets.

After our first magical discovery on a silent winter day, we will be returning. I will add this fascinating destination to our Guided Tour offering after all its less than 30 minutes from our door. So when you visit us I can lead you down a monastic path of history and you too can step back into the past.

Thank you for reading

Vanessa Williamson January 2021

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* Historic Maine

A region of France located in a highly strategic position, with borders to Brittany, Normandy and Anjou. The province emerged in the written record in the 9th century, during the time of Charlemagne and his heirs the Carolingians. They wielded their military might to subjugate the region into a vast dynastic empire. ‘Pepin the Short’ built Mayenne's first stone fortress, towering from a rocky outcrop over the river, fixing the location for the future town, where we live today. By the 11th century, across the land we know today as France, independent Castilian feudal Lords ruled private domains. Establishing and holding power through their ability to weld military strength and create alliances. The use of martial might to consolidate and hold power resulted in constant border conflicts and bands of unchecked militia roamed wreaking havoc on peasants and religious communities. Neighbouring regional Lords fought each other for territory expansion and Maine was constantly attacked. The subjecting of your neighbours resulted in lucrative peace alliances. The new overlord claim annual tribute in military service, food, wine, and income from new taxes. Maines neighbours sort control of her territory, the powerful Normandy lords to the north, Brittany to the West and in the south, the Dukes of Anjou all wanted a piece of Maine or at least a lucrative alliance. The Lords of Maine stood strong, constantly defending borders, fighting brutal sieges from William of Normandy. They changed alliances with their neighbours back and forth, until the end of the Middle Ages. Over time the power of the independent Lords was consolidated via alliances and marriage, into two powerful families the French Capetians and the English Plantagenêts. Maine sat as a region between the two. By 1204 Maine allied to the power of the Capetians and the emerging idea of a crown of France.

The 1789 French Revolution was the next huge point of change, the region was renamed and restructured the regional capitals moved. Maine became Pays de Loire and the Department Mayenne and the new capital Laval. The medieval Chateaux of Le Mans (Old capital of Maine), Laval, & Mayenne sit at the centre of this dramatic history.

Historical summary by Vanessa Williamson

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