27 June 2009

More about Noirlac and the Cistercian order

The monastery at Noirlac, south of Bourges, was founded in the 1100s. The buildings were constructed over the decades between 1150 and 1200, and the religious community at Noirlac was in its glory days by the year 1250. In the 1300s and 1400s, it went into decline.

By the end of the 1300s, there were 343 Cistercian monasteries operating in Europe. Some of the best known include Sénanque, Sylvacane, and Le Thoronet in Provence, and Cîteaux and Clairvoix in Burgundy. All are worth a visit. Walt and I have beautiful memories and photos of Le Thoronet, especially, from a 1993 trip to Provence.

The stark outlines of the Abbey of Noirlac in the Berry.

The Cistercian movement was a revolution within the Catholic church, and a reaction to the worldliness of the medieval church. Cistercian monks rejected everything they thought might interfere with their quest for God. They got rid of all riches and decoration, including elaborate stained glass windows. They wanted plain stone buildings, unadorned walls, and an austere existence. They were purists.

The "cellar" at Noirlac, where the grains, fruits,
and wines produced by the monks were stored

The Cistercians were also workers and builders. Their motto was "the cross and the plow." The order slowly enriched itself by getting control of the lands around their monasteries and cultivating them. The communities produced more than they needed, and they began selling part of the crops they harvested. They learned how to use and control water for irrigation, becoming even more prosperous. They became landlords.

The cloister around which the monastic complex is built

At Noirlac, the Cistercian community had the advantage of a location along an old Roman road and on the banks of a navigable river, the Cher. Their community started out in poverty, but ended up becoming affluent. It owned houses in nearby towns, and many of the monks had daily contact with the outside world — with all the corruption that eventually entailed.

Noirlac Abbey

It's a story as old as the world itself, of course. I've simplified it, and telescoped centuries of history into a few paragraphs. None of this takes away from the beauty and serenity of the complex of buildings at Noirlac.

There's a long walkway lines with 300-year-old linden trees at Noirlac.

The fact that CHM and I were there on a beautiful summer day and were just about the monastery's only visitors that day made the place especially impressive.


  1. The ruins of the Cistercian abbeys in the north of England are well worth visiting too.

  2. Ken, you're a born teacher. You always give us interesting information, with helpful photos, and present it in a concise and informative manner.

    I read more about Cistercian art and architecture yesterday, and I see now how the architectural style manages to incorporate some aspects of both Romanesque and early Gothic, while excluding all fanciful decoration. It seems to be that all of these buildings are abbeys, rather than being referred to as churches or cathedrals. I've always wondered what exactly was the difference between an abbey and a monastery, and (for anyone who is interested and doesn't already know this!), I found this clear explanation.

    Thanks for giving us info as well as food for thought! It always comes down to food :))


  3. Ken

    I believe that's when the King of France started the "Establishment of the Commende regime whereby the Father monk is appointed by the King and not elected by the monks" that corruption started creeping in. Cardinal Richelieu and Mazarin as Abbots :-)

    From your pictures Noirlac looks as grand as Fontenay

  4. Another beautiful place to visit. Thank you, Ken.

    And thank you, Judy, for the explanation of the difference between an abbey and a monastery.


  5. lovin those trees!

  6. Thank you Judy for the explanation! My sister lived for 3 years in an abbey "Aubazine" not too far from Limoges (it is the photo of Saint-Etienne d'Aubazine abbey on the list of Ken's list of people who follow his blog). The nuns'cloister (in ruin) is deep in the valley where it must have been dark and so cold in winter. So much history in Europe and Ken will teach us even more. Thank you Ken for taking the time and being always objective.

  7. Ken, recently learned about the Abbaye when looking for an overnight stop back up from the Midi to London and it wasn't convenient to divert to Touraine. Unfortunately the nearby hotel was full, so will have to get there another time.


  8. Yes, thanks to Ken and Judy for today's lesson. I love this blog!

  9. We've been to Sénanque and it's as lovely as Noirlac. There, the monks turned their hands to agriculture in the form of the most heavenly lavender fields that surround the abbey. In the summer, the perfume fills the air.



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