Montbard – Fontenay Abbey
The Fontenay Abbey, located next to the city of Montbard in Burgundy, is part of the Unesco World Heritage sites. Therefore you can expect something that is out of the ordinary, and you’ll not be disappointed.
The Cistercian Abbey is old, very old. It is the oldest Cistercian abbey in the world that has preserved its original form and that is still visitable. It was created in the year 1118 by Saint Bernard, making it a branch of the Citeaux order.
The Abbey is a few minutes away from the Montbard city centre. It lies in a valley alongside a small river with forests (which can all be visited for free).
You might recognise the place when you see it. It has featured in many movies, including the popular Cyrano de Bergerac.
The Abbey is now in private hands. You will need to pay €10 to visit the place, but trust me, it’s worth it. The Cistercian monks prescribed a life of poverty, therefore the buildings are very austere. The 200-odd monks who lived here used to elect their abbot, but in the 16th century, the king decided that he would elect the abbot, and since then the place was run down. By the time the French revolution came, there were only 12 monks left.
The place got sold off in 1790 to Elie de Mongolfier (the family of the hot air balloon inventors) and turned the abbey into a paper-mill. In 1906 it was bought by Eduoard Aynard, the son-in-law, who undertook the restoration of the abbey. Today, it still remains part of the Aynard family.
In 1981, Unesco made it part of the World Heritage Sites.
Next to the 13th century dovecote you will find the dog kennels. The dogs belonged to the Duke of Burgundy who used them for hunting, and when he was not hunting, the dogs were cared for on these grounds.
From the outside, all the buildings have been restored properly. All the grime and slime of the paper-mills have been removed. But when you go inside….
…. it’s empty! The inside is yet again really well restored, but there is absolutely no furniture, nothing on the walls, not even a cross. The Cistercian monks lived a life of poverty, but not like this. Indeed, they did not have any decorations on the walls but they did have chairs to sit on, and tables to eat their meals on. During the war of religion, the French revolution and the turning the abbey into a factory, all furniture has disappeared.
It’s strange to enter a church and not see a single piece of wood…
This is where the altar used to be. Empty! On the bottom right of the above photo you see the tomb of Knight Mello d’Epoisses and his wife.
These were Burgundy nobles (Epoise is a city not far away from the Abbey which is best known for its very smelly cheese). These two tombs are the only ones to be found in the church. Other noblemen and monks are buried in the cemetery next to the formal gardens (including Bishop Ebrard of Norwich, who fled persecution from the UK).
This is the only statue you will find in the abbey, the “our lady of Fontenay”. Behind the statue is the door that leads to the cemetery (called the “door to the dead”).
From within the church you will find the stairs leading to the monks’ dormitories.
All 200 monks slept in the same room. The roof of the dormitory was made the only way they used to know how to make these kind of constructions; the hull of a boat turned upside down.
Mind you, there was no heating, and temperatures in Burgundy can drop to -20°C (-4°F) during the winter. More on their heating further down…
The cloister is quite beautiful. It’s a rather large garden surrounded by arched walkways belonging to the buildings that are around the garden.
NOTE: Below is a 360° photo. To see more of this beautiful cloister click on the photo, keep your mouse clicked and move your mouse left/right/up/down (you can also zoom in by clicking on the + or –):
The cloister is the heart of the abbey, where monks would gather to read or meditate.
On the other side of the cloister is the warming room and the chapter room (for gathering, reading and discussing practical daily tasks).
Next door was the only heat allowed in the abbey (apart from the infirmary and the bread ovens). These two big fireplaces gave up some heat, and would warm up (slightly) the dormitory. That’s it! No central heating, no fireplaces in the bedrooms, eating halls, or anywhere else.
One side of the abbey has a large garden, called the Formal Gardens. These are not part of the original abbey, and where put in by the new owners in 1996 by British landscaper Peter Holmes. On the far side of the gardens is where you will find the cemetery.
On the other side of the gardens you will find the abbey’s infirmary.
But the most important part of the abbey will be found on the right side of the abbey complex; the Forge.
The iron forge is housed in the large building that was constructed in the 12th century by the monks.
The monks extracted extracted iron ore from the nearby hills and worked the iron into tools which were then resold. But to do that requires a lot of force, and therefore the monks invented the very first hydraulic hammer! The abbey is believed to be one of the oldest metallurgical plants in Europe.. dating back to the 12th century.
Here is how the hydraulic hammer worked:
The hydraulic hammer starts with a watermill located outside the forge building. The watermill’s wheel turns with the water streaming below it…..
… which in its turn turns a shaft with pins on them (centre of the above shaft). These pins hit a beam ….
…. that lift the hammer up and then with gravity, falls down. Simple but very effective.
Next to the forge is a small pond where the water from the mill goes. In the pond you’ll find enormous carp fish.
And finally in one of the out-buildings you will find the bread ovens. The monks are totally self-sufficient, and that included the bread they ate.
This place is not part of the Unesco World Heritage Sites for nothing. It’s very special, especially taking into account one of the world’s first hydraulic hammers, and the whole place is beautifully restored. It’s worth a detour to go and see this place.