History of the priory

A priory is a small religious community headed by a prior. The Cluniac Benedictine priory in Pommiers has a fascinating history going back over a thousand years. Benedictine monks moved onto the site of what is now the village of Pommiers-en-Forez as early as the 9th century, and built the church of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul and the first monastic buildings in the 11th century.

One of the interesting things about this site is the way that it has constantly changed over the centuries - having been a priory until the French Revolution, it became a private residence in the 19th and 20th centuries before being used as a retirement and rest home for members of the clergy in the second half of the 20th century. The Department of the Loire, which now owns the site, has handled the conservation, restoration and development of this heritage site since 1990.

A cluniac benedictine site

The Benedictine order

Légende photo : Vue aérienne du prieuré et du village de Pommiers-en-Forez – © DEPT42
The origins of the Benedictine order lie in the eponymous rule drawn up by Saint Benedict of Nursia (circa 480-547). Back in the 6th century, he wrote a series of instructions compiled into seventy-three chapters on how everyday and spiritual life should be organised at the monastery he founded at Monte Cassino (Italy). The application of this Rule was highly successful at a large number of the monasteries which were springing up in the medieval West.

Monasticism - the word comes from the Greek term monachos meaning “solitary” - is a religious lifestyle based entirely on faith while seeking God. It made its first appearance during the early centuries of Christianity in the East, around the third and fourth centuries (largely in Egypt before spreading more widely around the Mediterranean basin). Initially it was practised through a retreat into an austere, solitary life (hermits) and then gradually into life in a community (cenobites). People who choose this path are known as “monks” (men) or “nuns” (women). Monks come together in religious orders, make solemn vows and live their lives observing a shared religious rule (the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Rule of Saint Augustine, etc.) Unlike priests, who hand out God’s gifts in the form of the Word and the sacraments, monks’ lives are oriented towards prayer. This is a lifestyle that involves living at a distance from society, in enclosed buildings and spaces, reserved solely for the use of monks, called monasteries. Monasteries need to be organised in such a way as to be self-sufficient, producing everything they need (food, tools, etc.), with no contact - or almost none - with the outside world.

Drawing inspiration from other monastic rules, Saint Benedict wanted to introduce a rule for religious life based primarily on balance and discipline. It had its foundations in prayer and manual work, along with individual and communal activities. So the monks’ days were organised around eight religious offices, reading and studying Holy Scripture, and time spent doing manual work. Monks had to make a number of vows in order to commit fully to the religious order, including vows of obedience both to the Rule and to the abbot (or prior), vows of monastic stability and vows that they would change their ways of life (e.g. poverty and chastity).

The rule affected both the monks’ lives (diet, dress code, celebration of the divine offices, welcoming visitors, etc.) and the spatial organisation of the monastery. Laid out around the church and the cloister there were various monastic buildings and spaces used for everyday life (chapter house, dormitory, refectory, kitchen, cellar, scriptorium, etc.), for agricultural work (agricultural outbuildings, mill, etc.), for receiving high-ranking visitors or to medicine (infirmary, medicinal plant garden) which allow the monks to live independently.

The Benedictine Rule was considered easy to apply and was adopted by many monasteries. It grew again in the 8th and 9th centuries due to a monk named Benedict of Aniane (circa 750-821), who made some additions to the Rule of Saint Benedict.  This second Benedict was appointed head of the Carolingian Empire’s monasteries by the Emperor, Louis the Pious, to whom he was a close adviser. In 817, Louis the Pious called the abbots from his empire to a council at Aix-la-Chapelle in order to regulate and unify the various monastic lifestyles. At this council, he ordered that the monasteries in his empire should follow the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia. From that time on, the Benedictine Rule was adopted by all of the abbeys and priories in a large part of the medieval West. This included Cluny Abbey, founded in 910, which enjoyed a period of unprecedented development and influence.

Cluny Abbey

In around 1000 AD, Western Europe was going through a period of stability during which the Church was asserting its authority over the secular powers. Churches and other sanctuaries grew, as a result of factors such as the cult of the relics of saints which gained enormous momentum (e.g. the Camino de Santiago de Compostela). Against this background, William I, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Auvergne, donated some land in Cluny to Abbot Bernon (Abbot of Baume-les-Messieurs and Gigny) in 910. He asked for a Benedictine monastery to be built under the sole protection of the Pope, rather than of a secular power, and this was to be the key to its strength and success. That is how Cluny Abbey was founded.

The Abbey quickly grew and set up a huge ecclesiastical network revolving around the main Abbey (Cluny), while also getting involved in feudal society. By the end of the 11th century, Cluny was a leading spiritual and cultural centre - it had more than a thousand buildings (such as abbeys and priories) housing more than ten thousand monks throughout what is now Western Europe. One of the reasons for the abbey’s success is that it was independent from the secular powers and enjoyed a strong relationship with the papacy.

Légende photo : L’expansion clunisienne en 1200 © Clunypédia

Nevertheless, the Cluniac order went into a slow decline starting in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the 12th century, the Cluniac monks were criticised for relaxing their obedience to the Benedictine Rule, their growing taste for luxury and their tendency not to bother with manual work and to focus on the divine offices instead. These criticisms led to new vocations and the appearance of new orders advocating a stricter observance of the Benedictine Rule, such as the Cistercian order. In the 13th century, at a time when contemplative religious orders (e.g. the Benedictines and Cistercians) were moving further and further away from their vocations and the towns and cities were growing again, many monks decided to come out of their isolation and move into monasteries in or near towns so that they would be in touch with the population. This was the birth of the mendicant orders (e.g. the Franciscans and Dominicans). They called themselves “brothers”, rather than “monks”, and decided to live lives of poverty, to look after the needy and also to take part in religious education (reference to the Franciscan monastery in Saint-Nizier-sous-Charlieu).

Having been undermined by competition from the mendicant orders, Cluny Abbey was weakened still further with the introduction of the commendatory system in the early 16th century, the Protestant reform and the Wars of Religion. Having failed to bring about root and branch reforms and to attract new vocations in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Cluniac order disappeared in 1790, after the French Revolution had broken out.

The links between Pommiers and Cluny

There are several ancient sites from the Gallo-Roman period in the present-day commune of Pommiers-en-Forez, which proves that there have been humans here since ancient times. For instance, various ancient pieces of stone, such as a column and a fifth century sarcophagus, used as a secondary altar, were reused in the church of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul. However, the first mention of Pommiers in written sources goes back to the late 9th century when the Archbishop of Lyons returned the cella (a term which may refer to a monastery; to a religious community or to individual houses near a church or even inside a monastery) of Pommiers to Nantua Abbey (Ain). So, back in the 9th century, it was monks from Nantua Abbey who moved close to the former church of Saint-Julien, which can still be seen today, and around which a first urban settlement grew up.

The monks lived by the Rule of Saint Benedict which had spread on a huge scale during the Dark Ages (the 6th to the 10th centuries) in the Medieval West. Starting in the 10th century, a large number of monasteries were attached to Cluny Abbey, which was one of the genuine spearheads of the Benedictine order. In around 960, Nantua Abbey came under the jurisdiction of the all-powerful Cluny Abbey. This annexing of Nantua Abbey, before it was reduced to the rank of a priory around the 12th century, was a real boon for Cluny, as it meant twenty priories - including the one in Pommiers - came into its possession. As a result, the monks of Pommiers Priory were placed under Cluniac authority and protection. Even so, the priory retained “close ties” with Nantua Abbey under whose authority it came - the monks offered a reminder of their affiliation in the 16th century by portraying Saint Amand, the protector and supposed founder of Nantua Abbey, in a mural in the northern absidiole of the church of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul in Pommiers.

The fact that the priory now belonged to the Cluniac order meant that the monastery had to be rearranged in order both to meet the order’s needs and to house fresh monks (development of the cult of the dead and of the saints, liturgical chants, etc.)

A thousand-year-old priory


The building of the church and the original priory (11th-13th centuries)

The Cluniac order made its presence felt by putting up a new church at the top of a clay hill, the church of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul (11th-12th centuries), and erecting a monastic building (11th century) at its foot. A burial area stretched out in the space that was left free between the church and the priory. The monks gradually closed off the priory wall by putting up a building to the east (12th century) and one to the west (12th-13th century), thus abandoning the cemetery. It is estimated that the priory housed twelve monks and that this number remained fairly stable throughout the medieval period.

The monks also arranged the priory environment in order to meet their own needs. There was a wall around the priory which helped to cut the monks off from the outside world. They gradually organised their domain with various facilities allowing them to live self-sufficiently. They dug a millstream which channelled water from the Aix to irrigate an orchard, a kitchen garden and a fishpond which can still be seen today. The monks also had a furnace and a press, plus various agricultural outbuildings. A former mill which the monks could have used also stood to the west of the priory. Although we cannot date the work involved in making these arrangements with any degree of certainty, we can imagine that it may have been done gradually, starting in the medieval period.

The priory grew in importance because of its geographical position. It stands along a major line of communication which runs from north to south across the county of Forez and links it up with trading regions such as Burgundy, Champagne and Languedoc - known as the Grand Chemin de Forez. Once fairs and markets sprang up along this road, they attracted all kinds of people to move in nearby. In addition to this, one of the routes of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela which grew in the 10th and 11th centuries lies near Pommiers Priory; this is the road which leads from Cluny to Puy-en-Velay. There were many pilgrims travelling along this road and they could stop off in Pommiers.

So the religious, political and economic influence of Pommiers Priory can be dated to the 12th and 13th centuries.


The fortification and new layout of the site (14th-15th centuries)

The priory became an important ecclesiastical seigneury. In the 13th century, it was the centre of an archiprêtré (a territorial division of the church ranking between a diocese and a parish) which stretched over thirty-six parishes in the diocese of Lyons. The priory (and thus the prior) was in charge of exercising the ecclesiastical jurisdiction over these parishes[1] and of supervising the faithful. At that time the prior had the right to administer high justice (both penal and criminal) on the site, although convicts sentenced to death by the prior’s ecclesiastical court had to be executed by the Count of Forez[2]. In addition to this, the priory was a major landowner (especially as a result of donations) and received rent from its tenants either in money or in kind, thus making it part of the local economy. As a result of its status, the priory also had a duty to protect the people living on the land it owned.

The 14th century was a major period of political, social and economic unrest caused, amongst other things, by epidemics of plague and, especially, the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Even when there were no clashes going on between the powerful lords, what is now France was ravaged by bands of routiers (demobbed mercenaries organised into armed groups who attacked and plundered towns, villages, monasteries, etc.) In order to protect themselves, the priory’s monks had three large defensive towers, twenty-five metres tall, raised up on the southern side. This project required considerable earthworks in order to lay out the land, which sloped at the time, so they took the opportunity to strengthen the defence of the village which had grown up around the monastery.

In the 15th century, the monks embarked on further arrangements. They stabilised traffic levels by raising the buildings up onto a platform and then reused the earth that had been excavated to build the towers to fill in the monastery’s inner courtyard and the church square. The original priory then became a basement and its various rooms were used as storage space.

[1]Doyens de chrétienté et archiprêtres, des temps carolingiens à l’époque moderne - Portail Universitaire du droit (univ-droit.fr)
[2]L'Armorial de Guillaume Revel - Pommiers ? - Alpara (openedition.org) DELOMIER Chantal, Le prioré de Pommier, p. 432-437 in LAFFONT Pierre-Yves (dir.), L’Armorial de Gruillaume Revel, Châteaux, villes et bourgs du forez au XVe siècle, Alpara, 2011.


The commendatory system (15th-18th centuries)

After his victory at Marignan, King François I signed the Concordat of Bologna with Pope Leon X in 1516. This agreement governed the relationship between the church in France and the papacy up until the French Revolution. It allowed the King of France himself - and his successors - to appoint the holders of ecclesiastical seats in his kingdom (archbishop, bishop, abbot and prior) by an extension of the commendatory system (ecclesiastical benefit). These were usually lay members of the nobility given the task of managing estates that they held on a commendatory basis.

The commendatory prior handled the administrative and financial management of the priory and even directly received part of its income. He also had the right to dispense middle and low justice, although he had no authority over religious discipline, which remained the prerogative of the claustral prior. In 1535, the prior built and arranged quarters with ostentatious architecture to the west of the monastic buildings (arches, casement windows, ornamental tower, etc.) which are in contrast with the austere restraint of the monastic buildings.

Having to cohabit with the commendatory prior was a source of fresh tensions at Pommiers Priory. Over the centuries, the commendatory priors spread themselves beyond their own quarters and took over spaces which had ordinarily been reserved for use by the monks (the west and south wings of the priory). By the 17th century, the monks were only living in limited areas (east wing).


Modern works (17th-18th centuries)

In 1680, the monks took the commendatory prior to court and won, recovering the buildings to the south and west of the church. At that time they embarked upon a major phase of works. They laid out a large, bright new refectory in the south wing and decorated a room which had surely been used by the commendatory prior as an office; the monks then reused it as a library or claustral prior's office. The building to the east contains the sacristy, the parlour and the warming room. The chapter house which once stood there was moved westward when the monks had a monumental staircase built, partly laid out in the southern arm of the church’s transept.

The monumental staircase leads up to the floor where the dormitory is located. Originally this was a shared dormitory, although the monks rearranged the space into individual cells. They carried out this work both as part both of the modernisation of the priory and of the Cluniac reform known as “Strict Observance” (prayer and individual poverty, divine office, clothing, etc.) With this reform the Cluniac order hoped, amongst other things, to attract new vocations after it had been weakened by the Protestant reform and the Wars of Religion. The monks at Pommiers, of whom there were now only six, also hoped to attract new members and planned to convert the attic space to create new cells, although this plan was never completed.


From priory to private residence

The French Revolution brought the priory's plans to a halt. In 1789, the clergy’s assets were nationalised and Pommiers Priory was confiscated. The last monks left in 1792. The whole of the priory was sold and bought by various noblemen or members of the middle classes until a local family called the Bourganels acquired the monastery in around 1820. They rearranged the east wing along with the cells in the dormitory, making them more comfortable with the addition of fireplaces. The fact that the priory was used as a private residence up until the mid 20th century meant that it remained well-preserved and avoided destruction.


The return to a religious function / Coming full circle…

In 1946, a charity founded by Mademoiselle de Rosemont, an oblate (a person added to a religious community, usually after having donated his or her property to it, who observe its rules but without making any vows or renouncing lay dress), bought the priory. She turned it into a retirement and rest home for members of the clergy. The monastery’s layout was changed yet again, as the lounges in the east wing were used as offices, the cells in the dormitory were rearranged (door frames, door numbers and name holders) and a chapel for the use of inmates was created in the west wing in the 1950s.

After Mademoiselle de Rosemont died in 1957, the charity which managed the retirement and rest home carried on her work and admitted members of the clergy up until 1988. The charity also took care of maintaining the premises and, amongst other things, restored the roofs of the priory - the Department of the Loire completed this work in the 1990s.


Turning the priory into a heritage site

The church of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul was the first of the priory’s buildings to be subjected to a series of archaeological digs and restoration work on the initiative of the Amis du Vieux Pommiers association. Between 1936 and 1938, work indoors, partly aiming to get rid of some of the whitewash, revealed the murals in the northern absidiole and on a pillar in the central nave, along with various tombs. The murals, which had been seriously damaged by the hammering work carried out in previous centuries in order to make sure the whitewash stuck[1], were meticulously restored between 1942 and 1945.

The priory was partially listed as a historic monument in 1983 and was purchased, for a symbolic price of one franc, in 1990 by the Department of the Loire, who completed the restoration of the 15th and 18th century roofs. Archaeological digs carried out across the whole of the priory in the 1990s and 2000s helped to teach us more about the site allowing us to gain a better understanding of it, especially as far as the medieval part of the priory is concerned. Since purchasing the priory, the Department has been regularly carrying out heritage restoration operations.

Since 2018, the Federation of Cluniac sites and the owners of various such sites have committed to applying for those in Europe to be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The selected sites include both Pommiers Priory and Charlieu Abbey, both of which are owned by the Department of the Loire.


[1] Translator’s note: there is no real context but I would guess that “badigeon" is whitewash here.

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