Robert of Arbrissel
Itinerant preacher, founder of Fontevrault, B. C. 1047 at Arbrissel near Rhetiers, Brittany; d. at Orsan, probably 1117
Robert of Arbrissel, itinerant preacher, founder of Fontevrault, B. C. 1047 at Arbrissel (now Arbressec) near Rhetiers, Brittany; d. at Orsan, probably 1117. Robert studied in Paris during the pontificate of Gregory VII, perhaps under Anselm of Laon and later displayed considerable theological knowledge. The date and place of his ordination are unknown. In 1089 he was recalled to his native Diocese of Rennes by Bishop Sylvester de la Guerche, who desired to reform his flock. As archpriest, Robert devoted himself to the suppression of simony, lay investiture, clerical concubinage, irregular marriages, and to the healing of feuds. This reforming zeal aroused such enmity that upon Sylvester’s death in 1093, Robert was compelled to leave the diocese. He went to Angers and there commenced ascetic practices which he continued throughout his life. In 1095 he became a hermit in the forest of Craon (s. w. of Laval), living a life of severest penance in the company of Bernard, afterwards founder of the Congregation of Tiron, Vitalis, founder of Savigny, and others of considerable note. His piety, eloquence, and strong personality attracted many followers, for whom in 1096 he founded the monastery of Canons Regular of La Roe, becoming himself the first abbot. In the same year Urban II summoned him to Angers and appointed him a “preacher (seminiverbus, cf. Acts 17, 18) second only to himself with orders to travel everywhere in the performance of this duty” (Vita Baldrici).
There is no evidence that Robert assisted Urban to preach the Crusade, for his theme was the abandonment of the world and especially poverty. Living in the utmost destitution, he addressed himself to the poor and would have his followers known only as the “poor of Christ”, while the ideal he put forward was “In nakedness to follow Christ naked upon the Cross”. His eloquence, heightened by his strikingly ascetic appearance, drew crowds everywhere. Those who desired to embrace the monastic state under his leadership he sent to La Roe, but the Canons objected to the number and diversity of the postulants, and between 1097 and 1100 Robert formally resigned his abbacy, and founded Fontevrault (q.v.). His disciples were of every age and condition, including even lepers and converted prostitutes. Robert continued his missionary journeys over the whole of Western France till the end of his life, but little is known of this period. At the Council of Poitiers, November, 1100, he supported the papal legates in excommunicating Philip of France on account of his lawless union with Bertrade de Montfort; in 1110 he attended the Council of Nantes. Knowledge of his approaching death caused him to take steps to ensure the permanence of his foundation at Fontevrault. He imposed a vow of stability on his monks and summoned a Chapter (September, 1116) to settle the form of government. From Hautebruyere, a priory founded by the penitent Bertrade, he went to Orsan, another priory of Fontevrault, where he died. The “Vita Andrew” gives a detailed account of his last year of life.
Robert was never canonized. The accusation made against him by Geoffrey of Vendome of extreme indiscretion in his choice of exceptional ascetic practices (see P.L., CLVII, 182) was the source of much controversy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Other evidence of eccentric actions on Robert’s part and scandals among his mixed followers may have helped to give rise to these rumors. The Fontevrists did everything in their power to discredit the attacks on their founder. The accusatory letters of Marbodius of Rennes and Geoffrey of Vendome were without sufficient cause declared to be forgeries and the MS. letter of Peter of Saumur was made away with, probably at the instigation of Jeanne Baptiste de Bourbon, Abbess of Fontevrault. This natural daughter of Henry IV applied to Innocent X for the beatification of Robert, her request being supported by Louis XIV and Henrietta of England. Both this attempt and one made about the middle of the nineteenth century failed, but Robert is usually given the title of “Blessed“. The original recension of the Rule of Fontevrault no longer exists; the only surviving writing of Robert is his letter of exhortation to Ermengarde of Brittany (ed. Petigny in “Bib. de l’ecole des Chartes”, 1854, V, iii).