St Benoit sur Loire, an abbey built on a sacred pagan site

St Benoit sur Loire church is all that remains of the Abbaye de Fleury.

St Benoit sur Loire Church
Abbaye de St Benoit sur Loire

Benedictine monks founded their abbey on the site of a sacred pagan ground, where all the Druids from Gaul assembled once a year.

Fleury was indeed the Navel of Gaul (geographical centre) as the Emperor Julius Caesar called it.

The region is indeed unique, as numerous springs arise on a radius of about 10km around Fleury.

They irrigate the silts and make this enclave one of the most fertile of the Loire Valley.

Our pagan ancestors worshiped these sacred springs dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility.

The numerous artifacts uncovered around Fleury show the importance of the area.

Abbot Leodobod became immediately aware of the exceptional fertility of the soil.

He therefore bought some land in Floriacum or Val d’Or (Golden Valley) in order to found the abbey.

When he died in 651AD, he bequeathed the abbey and its land to his monks.

However, those needed to be inventive if they wanted to Christianize the region so full of heathen worship!

They therefore dedicated each sacred spring to a Christian saint and dug wells and fountains next to them.

For example, one of the sacred springs still is the current Fontaine Saint-Sebastien, in the village of St Benoit.

St. Benedict of Nursia’s relics in St Benoit sur Loire Abbey

In 703AD the second abbot of Fleury, Mommole, sent his monks to steal the relics of St. Benedict in the old abbey of Monte Casino.

St Benoit sur Loire Church
Romanesque architecture

Not only did the monks returned with the holy man’s relics, but also with those of his sister Ste-Scholastica!

They rewarded the monks of Le Mans, who had assisted them in this theft, in giving them the relics of Ste-Scholastica.

The Italian monks reported the theft to the Pope, but the Pope eventually allowed Fleury to keep the relics of St. Benedict.

The pilgrimage on the shrine of St-Benedict (St. Benoît) became highly popular.

As a result Fleury became one of the most influential abbeys in the country.

Late 8th century, Emperor Charlemagne bequeathed Fleury to his adviser and Bishop of Orléans, Theodulf.

Theodulf founded a monastic school, which became one of the most influential in Europe and had branches in France and in England.

The 9th century Norman invasions had obviously an adverse effect on the prosperity of the abbey.

Whenever the Vikings raided, the precious relics were placed in safety in the nearby walled city of Orléans.

The revival of the abbey

Abbot Odo revived Fleury in 930 when he established a new monastic rule.

When the monk Abbo took over, as Head of Religious Studies in 975, the abbey had fully regained its ancient fame.

A renowned scholar and professor, Abbo was educated at Fleury.

St Benoit sur Loire Church
St Benoit sur Loire Church

He devoted his time and energy developing the department of religious studies and considerably enlarged the library.

When he became abbot in 988, Fleury was already the largest centre of religious studies in Europe!

His successor, abbot Gauzin, a natural son of King Hugues Capet, commissioned the writing of a manuscript with illuminations – Gospel of Gaignières.

An accidental fire destroyed the Abbey of Fleury in 1026.

The reconstruction of the church (the current one) began 2 years later.

Gauzlin built the splendid Romanesque belfry and porch.

His successors completed the chancel, transept and the crypt in 1108.

Decline and revival of the abbey

St Benoit sur Loire Abbey, however, entered a long period of gradual decline that spanned several centuries.

St Benoit sur Loire Church
St Benoit sur Loire Church

The culmination of this decline took place during the 16th century Wars of Religion.

Indeed, the abbots were no longer elected among the monks, but chosen among the nobility.

These lay abbots, appointed by the king, had no monastic duty, however enjoyed all the privileges of the office of abbot.

This abusive status created much discontent among the monks, who revolted on several occasions.

Odet de Coligny, commendatory abbot of St Benoit sur Loire and brother of the Protestant leader Admiral Coligny, brought devastation to the abbey.

Odet indeed authorized the protestant troops to sack the abbey, steal and melt the treasure, including the gold coffin containing the relics of St. Benedict.

They also squandered the exceptional library, which had been assembled over the previous 7 centuries.

More than 2,000 priceless manuscripts were therefore scattered throughout Europe, most of which were never recovered.

St Benoit sur Loire Church

The monks of the Order of St-Maur moved to the abbey in 1627 and revived the spiritual and intellectual life.

However, the abbey was closed at the French Revolution, the monks evicted and the property sold.

The monastic buildings were demolished in the early 19th century.

All that was left was the church, which gradually fell into ruins.

St Benoit sur Loire Church was fortunately listed Historical Monument in 1835 and restored from 1835 to 1923.

The current religious community moved to St Benoit sur Loire in 1944.

They completed the restoration of the church and convent, revived monastic life as well as the tradition of Gregorian chants, a discipline in which they excel.

St Benoit sur Loire Church

The 11th century  porch of the belfry is a superb illustration of Romanesque architecture.

Each column’s capital is indeed carved in the purest Romanesque tradition with a wealth of leaves and plants.

St Benoit sur Loire Church Romanesque porch
Romanesque porch

Others represent frightening or comical animals and human heads in order to symbolize hell and its torments!

These were indeed intended to scare the parishioners as they walked through the porch.

It also forced them to quickly enter the church where they were placed under God’s protection.

It is obvious that the monks of St Benoit sur Loire used all means possible in order to eradicate ‘pagan spirit’ so deeply rooted in the region.

The lantern-tower was replaced in 1661.

The luminous nave boasts superb vaulted ribs and cupola.

It was completed around 1170 when Gothic style started to replace Romanesque.

The gigantic Romanesque chancel was built in order to accommodate large crowds.

The floor is tiled with a mosaic brought back from Italy during the 16th century.

The church boasts also an unusual feature.

Indeed, the small head of a Norseman was carved in the north transept during the 12th century.

The cheeks are pierced and symbolically protects the abbey from paganism in the manner of an exorcism!

St. Benedict’s relics are located in the 11th century crypt and are in a small niche carved into the pillar that supports the altar.

The daily services (with Gregorian chants) in St Benoit sur Loire Church are open to the public.

Department of Loiret
Coordinates: Lat 47.809329 – Long 2.305337

Photos via Wikimedia Commons: detail architectureChurch interior  – Lithography abbey

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