Monday, July 14, 2014

The Abbey at Chelles

A 17th century depiction of Chelles Abbey
The 7th century saw a great trend in France and Britain of women entering religious houses. One of these became a great center for learning and for reproducing manuscripts—and a retirement home for aristocratic ladies.

Chelles Abbey, founded c.658, was previously a royal villa belonging to the Merovingian line. Its association with religion may have started about 511 when a chapel to St. George was installed by Clotilde, wife of King Clovis I (466 - c.511). That chapel eventually crumbled, but over a century later Balthild, wife of King Clovis II (637 - 657), founded the abbey in place of the chapel. Her financial support enabled the new abbey to build the Church of the Holy Cross. Balthild (c.626 - 680) retired to the abbey and died there, but not before it had gained a reputation for learning that also attracted men, leading to a second monastery for them.

Balthild was not the only royalty who entered the abbey. Its first abbess was the aristocratic Berthild of Chelles. Hereswith, a princess of Northumbria (whose son Ealdwulf was a king of East Anglia in the later 7th century), wished to pursue a religious life and went to Chelles as the only option at the time. Charlemagne's sister Gisela was abbess from 800-810. Ladies of the aristocracy and royalty considered Chelles an appropriate recipient of their charity and of themselves when they wished their worldly life to be over.

In the 800s the nuns became known also for their scriptorium. There are several different names signed to many of the manuscripts, but the form of lettering is the same, showing that there was careful attention to a "house style."  This particular style of lettering allows scholars to trace many medieval manuscripts to the copyists and writers of Chelles. The advanced education of the nuns is evident by the academic nature of what they were copying, which included highly philosophical works by important early Christian authors.

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