Robert of Arbrissel

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Robert of Arbrissel on a 19th-century fresco in Rennes.

Robert of Arbrissel (c. 1045 – 1116) was an itinerant preacher, and founder of the abbey of Fontevrault. He was born at Arbrissel (near Retiers, Brittany); and died at Orsan.


The first Vita was written by Baudri of Dol, abbot of the monastery of Saint-Pierre of Bourgueil, shortly after Robert's death in 1116. A second Life was commissioned a few years later by Petronilla, Abbess of Fontevrault, probably to support her authority as abbess.[1]


Robert was born around 1045 at Arbrissel in Brittany, the son of Domalioch and Orguende. His father was a parish priest. Married clergy were not uncommon prior to the Gregorian reform. He probably succeeded his father as priest to the parish. Seeking to improve his education, he went to Paris were he spent some years in study,[1] perhaps under Anselm of Laon and later displayed considerable theological knowledge. The date and place of his ordination are unknown.[2] Sometime prior to 1076, Robert returned to his parish. In 1078, Bishop Sylvester de La Guerche, was deposed by a legate of Gregory VII, and as Robert had supported Sylvester's election, Robert was compelled to leave the diocese.

Robert resumed his studies in Paris until recalled by the now reinstated Bishop Sylvester. He then served as Sylvester's archpriest, effectively running the diocese of Rennes. Bishop Sylvester attempted, with Robert's assistance, to introduce reforms, which provoked antagonism on the part of the Breton clergy. Upon the death of Sylvester around 1093, Robert fled to Angers and there commenced ascetic practices which he continued throughout his life.[2]

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 of Thiron, afterwards founder of the Congregation of Tiron, Vitalis, founder of Savigny Abbey, and others of considerable note. His piety, eloquence, and asceticism attracted many followers, for whom in 1096 he founded the monastery of La Roé of Canons Regular, becoming himself the first abbot. In the same year Urban II summoned him to Angers and appointed him an apostolic missionary authorized to preach anywhere.[2]

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. Robert resigned the abbacy, and in 1099 founded the double monastery of Fontevrault. He appointed Herlande of Champagne, kinswoman to the Duke of Brittany as abbess, and Petronilla, baroness of Chemille, as coadjutress. Fontrevault followed the Rule of St. Benedict.[3]

Robert's legend has long alluded to the presence of converted prostitutes and there is indeed considerable contemporary evidence for this assertion. Baldric of Dol writes of the presence amongst Robert's disciples of meretrices – a Latin word usually used at the time to refer to prostitutes, or at the very least, morally loose women. The almost-certainty of prostitutes being amongst Robert’s followers is confirmed by a text discovered at the monastery of Vaux-de-Cernay. In the text, Robert visits a brothel in Rouen and speaks of sin to the prostitutes there; enraptured, they walk away into the wilderness with him. Robert aimed to “attract adulterers and prostitutes to the medicine of repentance”, the text avers. The story it relates may not be entirely true in the matters of its facts, but it relates the essential truth that Robert had prostitute followers – by virtue of showing that such a story was in common currency at the time. Robert also dedicated one of the houses 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 Vendôme and Bishop Marbod of Rennes for 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 France on 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, but was beatified: thus is Blessed Robert's feast day in the Western Church February 24. The accusation made against him by Geoffrey of Vendôme of 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 Rennes and Geoffrey of Vendôme were without sufficient cause declared to be forgeries and the MS. Letter of Peter of Saumur was made away with, probably at the instigation of Jeanne Baptiste de Bourbon, Abbess of Fontevrault. This natural daughter of Henry IV of France applied to Pope Innocent X for the beatification of Robert, her request being supported by Louis XIV and 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).


Further reading[edit]

  • Venarde, Bruce L., ed. and trans.(2003) Robert of Arbrissel: a Medieval Religious Life. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press
  • Dalarun, Jacques. (2006) Robert of Arbrissel: Sex, Sin, and Salvation in the Middle Ages. Translated by B. L. Venarde. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press