Court Memoirs of France Series— Complete

Contents:
Author: Various

Chapter X.

The Benedictines of Fontevrault.—The Head in the Basin.—The Unfortunate Delivery.—The Baptism of the Monster.—The Courageous Marriage.— Foundation of the Royal Abbey of Fontevrault.

Two or three days after our arrival at Fontevrault, the King, who loves to know all the geographical details of important places, asked me of the form and particulars of the celebrated abbey. I gave him a natural description of it.

"They are two vast communities," I told him, "which the founder, for some inexplicable whim, united in one domain, of an extent which astonishes the imagination."

The Community of Benedictine Nuns is regarded as the first, because of the abbotorial dignity it possesses. The Community of Benedictine Monks is only second,—a fact which surprises greatly strangers and visitors. Both in the monastery and the convent the buildings are huge and magnificent, the courts spacious, the woods and streams well distributed and well kept.

"Every morning you may see a hundred and fifty to two hundred ploughs issue from both establishments; these spread over the plain and till an immense expanse of land. Carts drawn by bullocks, big mules, or superb horses are ceaselessly exporting the products of the fields, the meadows, or the orchards. Innumerable cows cover the pastures, and legions of women and herds are employed to look after these estates.

"The aspect of Fontevrault gives an exact idea of the ancient homes of the Patriarchs, in their remote periods of early civilisation, which saw the great proprietors delighting in their natal hearth, and finding their glory, as well as their happiness, in fertilising or assisting nature.

"The abbess rules like a sovereign over her companion nuns, and over the monks, her neighbours. She appoints their officers and their temporal prince. It is she who admits postulants, who fixes the dates of ordinations, pronounces interdictions, graces, and penances. They render her an account of their administration and the employment of their revenues, from which she subtracts carefully her third share, as the essential right of her crosier of authority."

"Have you invited the Benedictine Fathers to your fete in the wood?" the King asked me, smiling.

"We had no power, Sire," I answered. "There are many young ladies being educated with the nuns of Fontevrault. The parents of these young ladies respectful as they are to these monks, would have looked askance at the innovation. The Fathers never go in there. They are to be seen at the abbey church, where they sing and say their offices. Only the three secular chaplains of the abbess penetrate into the house of the nuns; the youngest of the three cannot be less than fifty.

"The night of the feast the monks draw near our cloister by means of a wooden theatre, which forms a terrace, and from this elevation they participate by the eye and ear in our amusements; that is enough."

"Has Madame de Mortemart ever related to you the origin of her abbey?" resumed the King. "Perhaps she is ignorant of it. I am going to tell you of it, for it is extremely curious; it is not as it is related in the books, and I take the facts from good authority. You must hear of it, and you will see.

"There was once a Comtesse de Poitiers, named Honorinde, to whom fate had given for a husband the greatest hunter in the world. This man would have willingly passed his life in the woods, where he hunted, night and day, what we call, in hunter’s parlance, ’big game.’ Having won the victory over a monstrous boar, he cut off the head himself, and this quivering and bleeding mask he went to offer to his lady in a basin. The young woman was in the first month of her pregnancy. She was filled with repugnance and fright at the sight of this still-threatening head; it troubled her to the prejudice of her fruit.

"Eight, or seven and a half, months afterwards, she brought into the world a girl who was human in her whole body, but above had the horrible head of a wild boar! Imagine what cries, what grief, what despair! The cure of the place refused baptism, and the Count, broken down and desolate, ordered the child to be drowned.

"Instead of throwing it into the water, his servant scrupulously went straight to the monastery where your sister rules. He laid down his closed packet in the church of the monks, and then returned to his lord, who never had any other child.

"The religious Benedictines, not knowing whence this monster came, believed there was some prodigy in it. They baptised in this little person all that was not boar, and left the surplus to Providence. They brought up the singular creature in the greatest secrecy; it drank and lapped after the manner of its kind. As it grew up it walked on its feet, and that without the least imperfection; it could sit down, go on its knees, and even make a courtesy. But it never articulated any distinct words, and it had always a harsh and rough voice which howled and grunted. Its intelligence never reached the knowledge of reading or writing; but it understood easily all that could be said to it, and the proof was that it replied by its actions.

"The Comte de Poitiers having died whilst hunting, Honorinde learnt of her old serving-man in what refuge, in what asylum, he had long ago deposited the little one. This good mother proceeded there, and the monks, after some hesitation, confessed what had become of it. She wished to see it; they showed it her. At its aspect she felt the same inward commotion which had, years before, perverted nature. She groaned, fainted, burst into tears, and never had the courage and firmness to embrace what she had seen.

"Her gratitude was not less lively and sincere; she handed a considerable sum to the Benedictines of Fontevrault, charging them to continue their good work and charity.

"The reverend Prior, reflecting that his hideous inmate came of a great family, and of a family of great property, resolved to procure it as a wife for his nephew. He sounded the young man, who looked fixedly at his future bride, and avowed that he was satisfied.

"She is a good Christian," he replied to his uncle, since you have baptised her here. She is of a good family, since Honorinde has recognised her. There are many as ugly as she is to be seen who still find husbands. I will put a pretty mask on her, and the mask will give me sufficient illusion. Benedicte, so far as she goes, is well-made; I hope to have fine children who will talk.

"The Prior commenced by marrying them; he then confided in Honorinde, who, not daring to noise abroad this existence, was compelled to submit to what had been done.

"The marriage of the young she-monster was not happy. She bit her husband from morning to night. She did not know how to sit at table, and would only eat out of a trough. She needed neither an armchair, a sofa, nor a couch; she stretched herself out on the sand or on the pavement.

"Her husband, in despair, demanded the nullification of his marriage; and as the courts did not proceed fast enough for his impatience, he killed his companion, Benedicte, with a pistol-shot, at the moment when she was biting and tearing him before witnesses.

"Honorinde had her buried at Fontevrault, and over her tomb, at the end of the year, she built a convent, to which her immense property was given, where she retired herself as a simple nun, and of which she was appointed first abbess by the Pope who reigned at the time.

"There, madame," added the King, "is the somewhat singular origin of the illustrious abbey which your sister rules with such eclat. You must have remarked the boar’s head, perfectly imitated in sculpture, in the dome; that mask is the speaking history of the noble community of Fontevrault, where more than a hundred Benedictine monks obey an abbess."

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Chicago: Various, "Chapter X.," Court Memoirs of France Series— Complete, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Holcroft, Thomas, 1745-1809 in Court Memoirs of France Series—Complete (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed January 26, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8P9KGEABSPZ8CRJ.

MLA: Various. "Chapter X." Court Memoirs of France Series— Complete, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Holcroft, Thomas, 1745-1809, in Court Memoirs of France Series—Complete, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 26 Jan. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8P9KGEABSPZ8CRJ.

Harvard: Various, 'Chapter X.' in Court Memoirs of France Series— Complete, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, Court Memoirs of France Series—Complete, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 26 January 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8P9KGEABSPZ8CRJ.