Clairvaux, a monastery and a prison

Screen shot "The monastery and the prison"

Every now and then you across projects which attract immediately your curiosity. In Autumn 2018 the blog L’agenda du médiéviste alerted to an online documentary with the title Le cloître et le prison. Les espaces de l’enfermement, “The monastery and the prison. Places of confinement”. The website of this project was launched on September 26, 2018. The documentary is the fruit of the Enfermements project in which several French institutions work together. Not only the abbey of Clairvaux did function as a prison, other locations have a similar history. In this post I will look both at the documentary and the project website.

Between walls

The medieval abbey of Clairvaux occupies a special place in the Enfermements project. The abbey was founded in 1115. In 1808 it became a prison which functioned until 1971. The official closure is announced for 2022. 900 years of Clairvaux’s history were celebrated in 2015. The medieval manuscripts of Clairvaux are held at the Bibliothèque municipale de Troyes and can be viewed online. Alas the special portal Bibliothèque virtuelle de l ‘abbaye de Clairvaux for these manuscripts does not function currently. You can find the medieval cartularies of Clairvaux using CartulR, a resource of the IRHT/CNRS. Archival records of this abbey are also held in Troyes by the Archives départementales de l’Aube. Among its digitized collections the AD de l’Aube presents fifteen late medieval registres de l’officialité de Troyes, registers of the official, the ecclesiastical judge of the bishop.

The website of Le cloître et le prison has six main sections. The Avant-propos explains the goals and background. The glossaire is a glossary with not just terms from the monastic and incarcerated life in France. Even the Rasphuis and Spinhuis in Amsterdam are mentioned. You had best navigate this glossary using the icon on the rather small top bar of your screen. A chronology of Clairvaux helps you to see developments in their succession. In the bibliography you will find information about archival documents and images, printed sources and scholarly publications.

Screenprint of Le cloître et le prison with a part of the chronology fo the 19th century

The section with videos, Visite vidéo, takes most space in the exhibition, and equally in the helpful sitemap. Jean-François Leroux, already forty years president of the association to save the cultural heritage of Clairvaux, acts as a guide in the videos. There is no question about the quality of his calm explanations, but sometimes he seems somewhat tired, but in comparison with other more enthusiastic reporters this might well be a pleasant change. At a number of turns the team of this portal does not hesitate to use materials from other prisons, even from outside France.

The tour of the premises starts with the location nowadays called Le Petit Clairvaux, the site of the first monastery, sometimes nicknamed by medievalists Clairvaux I. The nine following sections deal with the main site, starting with the cloister walls. For each items a short motto has been chosen, often with verbs opposing each other. For the eight section, Quartier punitive, the verbs Surveiller – punir, survey and punish, are a choice clearly referring to the study by Michel Foucault. Apart from the videos each section has an accompanying text, photos and at least one archival document. There are also some interviews with experts of the team. The navigation of the website is stylish, with a key and lock for the main menu, and in the video section a quill pen to go to the menu with the ten sections of Clairvaux. It was possible to follow the preparations for project at Twitter (@enfermements), but it has been very quiet after August 2018.

If you look at the screen print of the chronology you can gather already two elements from the long history of Clairvaux, the ongoing construction, demolition and reconstruction of the buildings and its place in French history. The chronology mentions under the year 1834 the incarceration of political prisoners, but with examples from the late nineteenth century, Auguste Blanqui between 1872 and 1879, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin in the years 1883-1886, and even Philip of Orléans in 1890, albeit in his case lodged away from other prisoners.

In this virtual exhibit the most interesting element, the comparison of monasteries and prisons, is the central element. I feel hard pressed to focus here on one particular aspect. It is exactly the variety of aspects which is brought here into view. When you remember the title of the study by Uwe Kai Jacobs, Die Regula Benedicti als Rechtsbuch: Eine rechtshistorische und rechtstheologische Untersuchung [The Rule of St. Benedict as a book of law. A study in legal history and legal theology] (Cologne, etc., 1987) it is less surprising to look at monks and nuns as persons living under a strict regime with punishments for transgressions on premises clearly designed to make such things possible. You might want to read also the study by Elisabeth Lusset, Crime, châtiment et grâce dans les monastères au Moyen Âge (Turnhout 2017). The strength of the virtual exhibit is the combination of videos showing the present locations at Clairvaux with explanations about both periods as an abbey and as a prison and proper use of historical document and images. The intuition that places with a common dining room or canteen are an institution or a company is not new!

Looking behind and beyond walls

The abbey of Clairvaux is not the only famous building in France which at a certain point was turned into a prison. In Paris the Conciergerie first was a palace, the Palais de la Cité which for centuries housed the Parliament the Paris, with only a number of prison cells. During the French Revolution it became a full-scale prison. The abbey of Port-Royal in Paris served as a prison between 1790 and 1795. Between 1793 and 1863 the abbey at the Mont-Saint Michel was home to a prison. The abbey of Notre-Dame de Fontevraud, once the royal abbey of the Plantagenets, was used as a prison between 1812 and 1963. You might try to find more examples at the website of the Centre des Monuments nationaux, but somehow the search function did not work correctly.

At this point one should by all means invoke the various service of the bilingual Criminocorpus platform (CNRS), strangely absent in the production of this audiovisual project. At this portal you can read both as a PDF and in a browsable version the Guide des archives judiciaires et pénitentaires en France (1800-1958) by Jean-Luc Farcy. He puts these monasteries converted into prisons in a group of prisons for those having to serve long terms, typically in old castles, fortresses and some abbeys. Clairvaux served in this quality for several French départements. Criminocorpus has virtual exhibits on Fontevraud and on Paris prisons after the fall of the Bastille.

It is really interesting to explore this virtual exhibit around the abbey of Clairvaux. The partnership of organization for cultural heritage, archival institution, research groups and communication design offices succeeds in telling an intricate history in a way earlier generations would not have thought feasible or sensible. Let Le cloître et le prison be one of your guides to the wealth of stories about this famous monument!

 

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