A Medieval Network of Power Brokers
Many villages in central France have ancient roots. It’s not uncommon in a place like Royat to find Roman ruins, or in places like Souvigny and St. Menoux to see traces of great Catholic abbeys that once dominated their territories. But there’s only one place in the Auvergne where you can still see a Romanesque cloister that’s survived for a thousand years – and it’s in Lavaudieu, which also has the distinction of being one of France’s “most beautiful villages”.
It’s hard to imagine now how powerful and pervasive the networks established by the great medieval abbeys would have been in their time. The most famous is probably the one at Cluny, founded in the Burgundy region but with outposts all over central France and power extending even to Paris. But the abbey here at Lavaudieu sprang from a different root – the Benedictine house established by Saint Robert at La Chaise Dieu.
These were truly orders that carved out a life in the wilderness – even today, La Chaise Dieu is far from any urban center in one of the wildest, least-populated areas of France. So I’ve always been fascinated by how the monastic system worked. The abbots in charge of these outposts were incredibly powerful, higher in many cases than archbishops and cardinals, many reporting only to the Pope himself. And yet, out of these remote, sauvage regions came some of the most important princes of the church – ambassadors, papal legates, cardinals, bishops, even the occasional Pope. How did that happen? How could a young monk with talent ambition even be “discovered” in such a faraway, forbidding place?
From Medieval Center to "Most Beautiful Village"
All this was on my mind when I came into Lavaudieu. Like many of the other “plus beaux villages” in France, this one has been transformed into a pedestrian zone; you have to park at the city limits and walk wherever you want to go. And like many of these “most beautiful” towns, Lavaudieu has invested handsomely in making the place an attractive and interesting destination for a day-trip.
You come into the village through a medieval stone gate and find yourself immediately surrounded by the lush gardens behind the houses where the town’s walls once stood. It’s quiet here – I’m the only tourist in sight when I come into the main square, sharing the space only with a couple of cats who take turns drinking from the “non-drinkable” water in the central fountain. Several people are having lunch on the terrasse of the little café. Everyone else is inside, out of the summer heat, but I can hear the clink of silverware on plates through the open windows in the houses around the square.
A Church Wearing a "Liberty Cap"
The abbey church is open, though, and this is what I really came to see. It’s an odd sight from street level, with a steeple cropped off sometime during the French Revolution. (In this, it’s similar to the church in Charroux, another “most beautiful village”, although no one there seems to know exactly when or how their steeple suffered the indignity of being cut short.)
To make the point more explicitly, the tower is now topped by a structure modeled on the “bonnet phrygien”, one of the most famous symbols of the Revolution; it’s one of those short of goofy conical red cloth hats like the one you see on most images of Marianne, the national symbol of France.
The abbey's “headquarters” at La Chaise Dieu is only about 20 miles away (they’re connected by the Senouire river that flows through here), but at a higher, colder altitude. Legend says that Saint Robert wanted a warmer location when he established the satellite order here in 1057 A.D. In those days, the place was called “Saint-André-de-Comps” until, sometime in the 15th century, it became Vallus Dei (the Valley of God) and eventually just “Lavaudieu.”
An Abbey for Rich Young Women
Women joined the monastic order beginning in 1074 when Judith d’Auvergne came here. The daughter of Count Robert II of Auvergne, she was supposed to get married to Count Simon of Valois to keep him from running away to join a different monastery. As the story goes, the two of them decided on the eve of the wedding to go their separate ways. He became a monk after all, and she came to Lavaudieu. Her father, the Count, seemed happy enough with this outcome, since he donated a significant gift of lands to the abbey.
That tradition continued, and by the early 16th century the abbey at Lavaudieu was reserved for young women from noble families. To get in, they had to have an endowment guaranteeing enough income for them to live on – and since these “canonesses” were very rich young women, they began building fine Renaissance houses in the town around the church and living “off-campus”. (This is the way Blesle, another “most beautiful village”, developed its beautiful medieval center, too!)
Grisly scenes, brightly-painted walls
Today, their church – l’Eglise Saint André de Comps – is a lovely example of the Romanesque style that dominates this part of France. Begun in the 11th century and finished in the 12th, it is worth a visit on its own. It’s one of the rare example of a Romanesque church that still has some of its brightly-colored frescoes intact on the walls. (My favorite is the allegorical depiction of the plague – the “black death” that swept through the Auvergne between 1348 and 1352. For obvious reasons, medieval people had an overwhelming sense of the presence of death in their midst; in this painting, the figure of death walks through a crowd stabbing everyone in sight with long arrows, making no distinction at all between noble knights and peasants.)
Auvergne's only surviving Romanesque cloister
Of course, the main “talking point” for the church in Lavaudieu is the beautiful Romanesque cloister that adjoins it. You can imagine the women of the abbey walking in its dark hallways, silent and contemplative, while the summer sun bears down on the courtyard. Other churches have ruined fragments of cloisters – but this one at Lavaudieu is the only one that has survived intact for more than eight centuries!
A full program for the summer
Outside again in the main square, tables have been cleared in the little restaurant and the town is completely quiet. Even the cats that were sampling the fountain earlier have disappeared into shadier spots. Lavaudieu had around 700 people at the time of the French Revolution; today, it’s more like 230, making it one of the smallest of the “plus beaux villages” I’ve visited.
They do have a small Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions dedicated to giving you a sense of how life used to be in a tiny town like Lavaudieu. And every summer, the townspeople organize a series of concerts and readings alongside a series of art expositions, adding to the reasons for spending a long day here.
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