Back to the 13th century at the Royaumont abbey- Meandering through France n° 99
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
The Royaumont abbey is only 30 km away from Paris but going there will take you 800 years ago to a place surrounded by forests and ponds filled with serenity, It is the largest Cistercian abbey in the Paris region and was built by one of the most popular French king, Louis IX better known as Saint Louis. Extensive works of renovation were carried out this year and rooms that had been neglected for decades are now opened to the public, especially one of the two refectories with its six vaulted bays.
Saint Louis was a great believer who ruled his kingdom in a pious way but also one of the very first reformer-king of medieval France. During his 43 years long reign he helped the poor and oppressed people escape the arbitrary nature of their lord and master’s decisions. He established the presumption of innocence, limited the use of torture and he banned gambling, games of chance, usury and prostitution. He also created a parliament and the Courts of Auditors. But he also tried to convert French Jews to Christianity, by will or by force…
Unfortunately for him he took an active part in the 7th and 8th crusades. He first left France in 1248, leading the Christian crusaders to Egypt where his armies were plague-stricken. Louis IX was taken prisoner and had to pay heavy ransoms before being able to come back to France in 1254.
Fourteen years later, joined by his 3 sons and King Edward of England, he left for Tunis but their attempt to convert local Muslim was a failure. He died of dysentery in Tunis in 1270. Nevertheless, the economic, intellectual and artistic renewal he achieved makes the balance of his reign more than positive.
Saint Louis was also a notable builder and a large amount of the royal budget was used every year to build churches, abbeys and hospices. The Royaumont abbey is one of them, built in an amazing short amount of time from 1228 to 1235. King Louis came there several times each year, taking an active part in its construction not only by discussing with the architects but also by helping the workers to carry, cut and assemble the stones of the cloister, the refectories, the library…
Later he often came to stay at the abbey living among the monks, serving them at table, washing their feet or helping cure them at the infirmary. Monastic life marked by moments of prayers fulfilled his thirst for the absolute.
During the following five centuries there were little change in Royaumont abbey. Until 1789 and the French Revolution when it was emptied of all the monks, sold and turned into a cotton mill where 300 hundred workers first destroyed its church in order to get stones to built their own houses. A hydraulic wheel was built inside the main monks’ building, one of the cloister’s gallery and several vaulted bays of the refectory were torn down.
Along the years the business went successful and several industrial brick buildings were added next to the gothic abbey. From the 1850’ the activities declined and the factory finally closed in 1863. In 1864 Royaumont was bought by a new religious order and took up once again its original vocation. Extensive renovation works started giving back to Royaumont its previous splendour. Everything but the huge church was rebuilt. In 1905 the nuns living in Royaumont had to sell it and it was bought by Jules Gouin, an important industrialist. In 1964 his grandson, Henri created the Royaumont Foundation dedicated to trans-disciplinary cooperation that later moved to a more artistic view of this cooperation. Today singers, composers, dancers and poets from all over the world come to stay for several weeks or months to work and study, inspired by the beauty of the site and by its unique peaceful atmosphere.
This year huge renovation works have been undertaken: the facades, the roof and the frame are now entirely refurbished, the amazing kitchens set inside a beautiful vaulted room are brand new, new rooms have been created to welcome more artists and the second refectory is now open to the public. The Royaumont abbey is now more than ever ready to organize its yearly Music Festival where former and present artists that studied here come to perform.
If you go to Royaumont abbey you will not only visit the magnificent renovated buildings but you will also enjoy the peacefulness of its park with ornamental ponds shaded by tall chestnut trees and of its 3 gardens: the cloister’s garden surrounded by elegant lancet arches, the nine square garden evocating the travels made by the plants during the Middle Ages between East and West and the vegetable garden. A tearoom is opened in a building that used to be the monks’ latrines and you can enjoy here the delicious food that is all homemade. Believe me it’s a real pleasure to see how beautifully and cleverly this abbey has been restored respecting its very soul.
For more information: https://www.royaumont.com/en/the-abbey