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Chaise-Dieu, La

Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages

Michel Aubrun

Chaise-Dieu, La 

The abbey was founded in the mid 11th c. by Robert of Turlande, son of a middle-ranking Noble family with possessions in Brivadois, Margeride and on the borders of Rouergue. Nephew of Rencon, bishop of Clermont, Robert was entrusted very young to the illustrious chapter of Brioude. After many years of life as a canon, during which he acted as treasurer, Robert was drawn to the monastic life, but the “laxity” that he saw in Cluniac houses led him to look rather to the stricter Benedictine abbeys, like that of Monte Cassino where he made a pilgrimage in c.1040.

On his return, he settled in a lonely spot in the Livradois on 28 Dec 1043, in a place belonging to two churchmen who donated it to him. The canon became a hermit while continuing to seek a new mode of monastic practice. This step was not original: John Gualbert, founder of Vallombrosa, a bit later Stephen of Muret or St Bruno did much the same. But Robert remained within the Benedictine tradition.

The new abbey was rapidly built, and Bishop Rencon consecrated the abbey church which, following the original title of Clermont cathedral, was dedicated to Sts Vitalis and Agricola. Unlike the Cluniac houses, the new Foundation, which took the significant name of Casa Dei – the house of God –, was put resolutely under episcopal authority.

Robert's most striking subsequent action was the creation of some 50 priories, all centres of religious life, spread through all the dioceses of the Massif Central. He died at La Chaise-Dieu on 17 April 1067 and was buried on the 24th, date of his feast.

The end of that century and the course of the next saw the apogee of La Chaise-Dieu. The founder's successor, Durand, a priest of Clermont, combined his office with that of Bishop of his home town. The next Abbot Adelelm, was called to Spain by Alfonso VI and the reforming clergy to eliminate the last practitioners of the Mozarabic liturgy. With Seguin (1078–1094), La Chaise-Dieu was closely mixed up in the Foundation of the Chartreuse: by a donation of 1090, the Auvergne abbey contributed to the temporalities of the hermits installed by St Bruno. From the crusade preached in 1095 La Chaise-Dieu received numerous donations, which the crusaders had to concede it in order to obtain financial help. The most important beneficiary of this exchange was one of the expedition's leaders, Count Raymond of Toulouse. Pons (1094–1102) was then head of the monastery, which attained its greatest territorial power with Stephen of Mercoeur († 1146). Numerous Spanish and Italian possessions were added at that time to its impressive network of influences and revenues in France.

The domestic feudal struggles of the Auvergne and the wars between Capetians and Plantagenets contributed to sending La Chaise-Dieu into a slow period of stagnation, which cannot quite be called decline. In the 13th c., the Abbot of La Chaise-Dieu was at the head of a congregation comprising 11 abbeys: Borzone, Brantôme, Faverney, Frassinoro, Caillac, Montauban, San Marino at Pavia, San Sesto at Piacenza, La Valdieu and Saint-André at Vienne, not counting tens of priories.

It was thanks to the Election to the papacy of one of its monks under the name Clement VI (1342–1352), and then of his nephew (Gregory IX, 1370–1378), that the prestige of La Chaise-Dieu was maintained, admittedly rather artificially. At the moment of the worst crises suffered by the realm in the 14th c., the abbey thanks to the subsidies of the Avignon Popes, offered the world the spectacle of sumptuous rebuilding works whose results are still admired today, as well as the famous mural painting depicting the danse macabre. At the start of the 16th c., the abbey founded by Robert of Turlande fell under the regime of Commendation which put it – institutions, privileges and immense revenues – into the hands of the king.

Danse macabreClick to view larger

Danse macabre. Minstrel, student and peasant. 15th-c. fresco (detail) in the abbey church of Saint-Robert, La Chaise- Dieu.


P. R. Gaussin, L'Abbaye de La Chaise-Dieu (1043-1518), Paris, 1962.Find this resource:

    A. Erlande-Brandenburg, “L'abbatiale de la Chaise-Dieu”, Congrès archéologique (Velay), 133, 1975, 720-55.Find this resource:

      P. R. Gaussin, Le Rayonnement de la Chaise-Dieu, Brioude, 1981.Find this resource:

        Michel Aubrun