The Royal Abbey of Fontevrault: Religious Women and the Shaping of Gendered Space
By Gabrielle Esperdy
Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol 6 No.2 (2005)
Abstract: This article examines the religious and architectural history of the Royal Abbey of Fontevrault, in the French province of Anjou, investigating the active and deliberate role women played in shaping the physical and symbolic space of this female monastic community. Founded in the early 12th century and active until the French Revolution, the abbey was a rare institution in which administrative power was in the hands of women, enabling them to exert almost complete control over the built environment. The nature and impact of this control is examined by tracing the development of the abbey from an initial settlement of rough dwellings into a large monastic complex comprising five distinct communities. By exploring the planning and building of Fontevrault in the context of typical monastic design as well as contemporaneous Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture, the article reveals the extent and significance of this gendered construction of space.
Introduction: The Abbey of Fontevrault, located in the departement of Maine-et-Loire in the historic province of Anjou, has a rich and complex religious and architectural history spanning nearly eight centuries of continuous use. Founded in 1101 by a Breton preacher named Robert d’Arbrissel, the abbey quickly developed from an initial settlement of rough dwellings into a large monastic complex, eventually comprising five distinct communities for women and men. A nearly unbroken cycle of construction, expansion, and renovation followed Fountevrault’s foundation, ensuring that the abbey’s buildings would reflect both the changing needs of the religious communities and major architectural developments as well.