- Robert of Arbrissel
Robert of Arbrissel (c.
1045- 1116) was an itinerant preacher, and founder of the abbey of Fontevrault. He was born at Arbrissel (now Arbressec) near Rhétiers, Brittany; and died at Orsan.
Robert studied in Paris during the pontificate of Gregory VII, perhaps under
Anselm of Laonand later displayed considerable theological knowledge. The date and place of his ordination are unknown. In 1089 he was recalled to his native diocese of Rennesby Bishop Sylvester de la Guerche, who desired to reform his flock.
As archpriest, Robert devoted himself to the suppression of simony, lay investiture, clerical concubinage, irregular marriages, and to the healing of feuds. This reforming zeal aroused such enmity that upon Sylvester's death in 1093, Robert was compelled to leave the diocese. He went to Angers and there commenced ascetic practices which he continued throughout his life.
In 1095 he became a hermit in the forest of
Craon(south-west of Laval), living a life of severe penance in the company of Bernard, afterwards founder of the Congregation of Tiron, Vitalis, founder of Savigny Abbey, and others of considerable note. His piety, eloquence, and strong personality attracted many followers, for whom in 1096 he founded the monastery of La Roéof Canons Regular, becoming himself the first abbot. In the same year Urban II summoned him to Angers and appointed him a "preacher (seminiverbus, cf. Acts 17, 18) second only to himself with orders to travel everywhere in the performance of this duty" ("Vita Baldrici").
There is no evidence that Robert assisted Urban to preach the Crusade, for his theme was the abandonment of the world and especially poverty. Living in the utmost destitution, he addressed himself to the poor and would have his followers known only as the "poor of Christ", while the ideal he put forward was "In nakedness to follow Christ naked upon the Cross". His eloquence, heightened by his strikingly ascetic appearance, drew crowds everywhere. Those who desired to embrace the monastic state under his leadership he sent to La Roé, but the Canons objected to the number and diversity of the postulants, and between 1097 and 1100 Robert formally resigned his abbacy, and founded
Fontevrault. His disciples were of every age and condition. His legend has long alluded to the presence of converted prostitutes, but there is no contemporary evidence for this assertion. The earliest mention of prostitutes in conjunction with Robert's following dates from the 16th century, and may have been enhanced by his dedication of one house at his abbey of Fontevrault to Mary Magdalene. Robert continued his missionary journeys over the whole of Western France till the end of his life, but little is known of this period. He was, however, condemned by Abbot Geoffrey of Vendômeand Bishop Marbod of Rennesfor the practice of "syneisaktism", a mortification of the flesh that consisted of resisting the temptation of sleeping among women. At the Council of Poitiers, November 1100, he supported the papal legates in excommunicating Philip I of Franceon account of his lawless union with Bertrade de Montfort; in 1110 he attended the Council of Nantes. Knowledge of his approaching death caused him to take steps to ensure the permanence of his foundation at Fontevrault. He imposed a vow of stability on his monks and summoned a Chapter (September, 1116) to settle the form of government. From Hautebruyère a priory founded by the penitent Bertrade, he went to Orsan, another priory of Fontevrault, where he died. The "Vita Andreæ" gives a detailed account of his last year of life.
Robert was never
canonized. The accusation made against him by Geoffrey of Vendômeof extreme indiscretion in his choice of exceptional ascetic practices (see P.L., CLVII, 182) was the source of much controversy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Other evidence of eccentric actions on Robert's part and scandals among his mixed followers may have helped to give rise to these rumors. The Fontevrists did everything in their power to discredit the attacks on their founder. The accusatory letters of bishop Marbodius of Rennesand Geoffrey of Vendôme were without sufficient cause declared to be forgeries and the MS. Letter of Peter of Saumurwas made away with, probably at the instigation of Jeanne Baptiste de Bourbon, Abbess of Fontevrault. This natural daughter of Henry IV of Franceapplied to Pope Innocent Xfor the beatificationof Robert, her request being supported by Louis XIVand Henrietta of England. Both this attempt and one made about the middle of the nineteenth century failed, but Robert is usually given the title of "Blessed". The original recension of the Rule of Fontevrault no longer exists; the only surviving writing of Robert is his letter of exhortation to Ermengarde of Brittany (ed. Petigny in " Bib. de l'école des Chartes", 1854, V, iii).
*Venarde, Bruce L., ed. and trans. Robert of Arbrissel: A Medieval Religious Life. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003.
*Dalarun, Jacques. Robert of Arbrissel: Sex, Sin, and Salvation in the Middle Ages. Translated by B. L. Venarde. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2006.
* Dalarun, Jacques, et al, eds. "Les Deux Vies de Robert D'Arbrissel Fondateur de Fontevraud: Legendes, ecrits et temoignages, with English summaries of Introductions and Complete Translation of the Sources". Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.
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