Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume II: February. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
B. Robert of Arbrissel, Priest
[So called from the place of his birth.] HE was archpriest and grand vicar of the diocess of Rennes, and chancellor to the duke of Brittany; but divested himself of these employments, and led a most austere eremitical life in the forest of Craon, in Anjou. He soon filled that desert with anchorets, and built in it a monastery of regular canons. This is the abbey called De la Roe, in Latin De Rotâ, which was founded, according to Duchesne, in 1093, and confirmed by Pope Urban II., in 1096. This pope having heard him preach at Angers, gave him the powers of an apostolic missionary. The blessed man therefore preached in many places, and formed many disciples. In 1099 he founded the great monastery of Fantevraud, Fons Ebraldi, a league from the Loire in Poitou. He appointed superioress Herlande of Champagne, a near kinswoman to the duke of Brittany; and Petronilla of Craon, baroness of Chemillé, coadjutress. He settled it under the rule of St. Benedict, with perpetual abstinence from flesh, even in all sicknesses, and put his order under the special patronage of the blessed Virgin. By a singular institution, he appointed the abbess superioress over the men, who lived in a remote monastery, whose superiors she nominates. The holy founder prescribed so strict a silence in his order, as to forbid any one to speak even by signs, without necessity. The law of enclosure was not less rigorous, insomuch that no priest was allowed to enter even the infirmary of the nuns, to visit the sick, if it could possibly be avoided, and the sick, even in their agonies, were carried into the church, that they might there receive the sacraments. Among the great conversions of which St. Robert was the instrument, none was more famous than that of queen Bertrade, the daughter of Simon Montfort, and sister of Amauri Montfort, count of Evreux. She was married to Fulk, count of Anjou, in 1089, but quitted him in 1092, to marry Phillip I., king of France, who was enamoured of her. Pope Urban II. excommunicated that prince on this account in 1094, and again in 1100, because the king, after having put her away, had taken her again. These censures were taken off when she and the king had sworn upon the gospels in the council of Poitiers never to live together again.
Bertrade, when she had retired to an estate which was her dower, in the diocess of Chartres, was so powerfully moved by the exhortations of St. Robert, that, renouncing the world, of which she had been long the idol, she took the religious veil at Fontevraud, and led there an exemplary life till her death. Many other princesses embraced the same state under the direction of the holy founder: among others Hersande of Champagne, widow of William of Monsoreau; Agnes of Montroëil, of the same family; Ermengarde, wife of Alin Fergan, duke of Brittany; Philippa, countess of Thoulouse, wife of William IX., duke of Aquitain, &c. After the death of St. Robert, several queens and princesses had taken sanctuary in this monastery, flying from the corruption of the world. Among its abbesses are counted fourteen princesses, of which five were of the royal house of Bourbon. The abbot Suger, writing to Pope Eugenius III., about fifty years after the death of the founder, says there were at that time in this order between five and six thousand religious persons. The order of Fontevraud, in France, is divided into four provinces. B. Robert lived to see above three thousand nuns in this one house. He died in 1116, on the 25th of February, St. Matthiass day, it being leap-year, in the seventieth of his age, at the monastery of Orsan, near Linieres, in Berry. His body was conveyed to Fontevraud, and there interred. The bishop of Poitiers, in 1644, took a juridical information of many miracles wrought by his intercession.1 From the time of his death he has been honoured with the title of blessed, and is invoked in the litany of his order, which keeps his festival only with a mass of the Trinity on St. Matthiass day. See his life by Baldric, bishop of Dole, his contemporary; Helyot, Hist. des Ordres Relig. t. 6. p. 83. Dom. Lobineau, Hist. de Bretagne, fol. 1707. p. 113. and, in the first place, Chatelain, Notes on the Martyrol. p. 736 to 758. who clearly confutes those who place his death in 1117.
Note 1. Some have raked up most groundless slanders to asperse the character of this holy man, as, that he admitted all to the religious habit that asked it, and was guilty of too familiar conversation with women. These slanders were spread in a letter of Roscelin, whose errors against faith were condemned in the council of Soissons in 1095. Such scandalous reports excited the zeal of some good men, and they are mentioned in a letter ascribed to Marbodius, bishop of Rennes, and in another of Godfrey, abbot of Vendome, addressed to the holy man himself. This last letter seems genuine, though some have denied it. But the charge was only gathered from hearsay, and notoriously false, as the very authors of these letters were soon convinced. It is not surprising that a man who bade open defiance to all sinners, and whose reputation ran so high in the world, should excite the murmurs of some, and envy of others, which zeal and merit never escape. But his boldness to declaim against the vices of great men, and the most hardened sinners; the high encomiums and favourable testimonies which all who knew him gave to his extraordinary sanctity, which forced even envy itself to respect him; and his most holy comportment and happy death, furnish most invincible proofs of his innocence and purity; which he preserved only by humility, and the most scrupulous flight of all dangerous occasions. Godfrey of Vendome was afterwards perfectly satisfied of the sanctity of this great servant of God, and became his warmest friend and patron; as is evident from several of his letters. See l. 1. ep. 24. and 26. l. 3. ep. 2. l. 4. ep. 32. He entered into an association of prayers with the monastery of Fontevraud in 1114; and so much did he esteem his virtue that he made a considerable foundation at Fontevraud, often visited the church, and built himself a house near it, called Hotel de Vendome, that he might more frequently enjoy the converse of St. Robert, and promote his holy endeavours. The letter of Marbodius is denied to be genuine by Mainferme and Natalis Alexander, and suspected by D. Beaugendre, who published the works of Marbodius at Paris, in 1708. But the continuator of the Hist. Liter. t. 10. p. 359. clearly shows this letter to have been written by Marbodius, who, in it, speaks of these rumours without giving credit to them, and with tenderness and charity exhorts Robert to reform his conduct if the reports were true; to dissipate them by justifying himself, if they were false. Marbodius was soon satisfied as to these calumnies, and was the saints great protector, in 1101, in his missions in Brittany, particularly in his diocess of Rennes; whither he seems to have invited him. Ermengarde, countess of Brittany, was so moved by St. Roberts sermons, that she earnestly desired to renounce the world, and retire to Fontevraud. The saint exhorted her to continue in the world, and to sanctify her soul by her duties in her public station, especially by patience and prayer: yet, some years after, she took the veil at Fontevraud. See F. de la Mainferme, in his three apologetic volumes in vindication of this patriarch of his order, Natalis Alexander, sæc. xii. diss. 6. and especially Sorins Apologetique du Saint, in 1702, a polite and spirited work. [back]