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The History of Foigny

The Abbey of Foigny

A model of the abbey of Foigny, c. 18th century.

Foigny Abbey

The abbey of Foigny was a Cistercian monastery located the Thiérache, some 50km north of the city of Laon near what is today the border of France and Belgium. Founded in 1121, Foigny was one of the very first Cistercian houses, the third in filiation to Clairvaux and the eighteenth of the order in general.

Aided by the powerful prince-bishop of Laon, Barthélemy de Jur (r.1113-1151, d. 1158), and by alliances forged with some of the noblest families in France, the monastery quickly grew in wealth and prestige. By the thirteenth century, Foigny could boast territories in excess of 12,000 hectares, rights of pasturage and wagonage (free grazing and transport) throughout the region, and 100 monks and 200 conversi, or lay brothers. 

This prosperity was not to last. In the early fourteenth century, Philip le Bel, King of France (r. 1285-1314) launched a series of wars in Flanders, and this destruction was succeeded by widespread famine in the 1320s, the Black Death in 1349, and the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). To make matters worse, Foigny suffered under a long series of corrupt, greedy abbots, dealing the foundation a blow from which it never truly recovered. 

A shell of its former self, Foigny persisted through the next several centuries before finally being disbanded during the French Revolution. Today, all that survives of Foigny is the abbey's windmill, dating from the twelfth century. A small chapel, built in the late nineteenth century, marks the site of the abbey's church.

Modern Scholarship

The area around Foigny is one of the most well-studied regions in all of medieval Europe, if not history in general. Known as the "battleground of Europe," it was subject to near-constant warfare from the Middle Ages to the First World War. The academic literature on every aspect of the medieval period is thus massive, meticulous, and comprehensive, containing both the Positivist work of nineteenth century scholars who traced out the geneaologies and histories of the great families and the more nuanced examinations of contemporary historians.

Despite the attention devoted to the region, little has been paid to Foigny. Almost all of what we know about the history of the abbey is from the Historia fusniacensis coenobii (History of the Abbey of Foigny) by John de Lancy, monk and prior of the abbey. De Lancy's history is the primary source for the information on Foigny contained within the eighteenth century compendium on French church history Gallia Christiana, as well as Amédée Piette's 1847 book Histoire de l'abbaye de Foigny, ordre de Cîteaux, filiation de Clairvaux (History of Foigny Abbey, filiation of Clairvaux, Cistercian Order), which constitutes the most recent historical overview of the monastery.

Little additional information can be gleaned from modern scholarship. In the 1950s, the site of the abbey was subject to an archaeological excavation which concluded that the layout of the abbey's church was copied from that of Clairvaux. In 1983, Suzanne Martinet, one of the more prominent scholars of the region around Laon, surveyed the dozen or so manuscripts which have been identified as belonging to the abbey, mainly consisting of patristic or liturgical texts. More recently, in 2000, Bénédicte Doyen published a study of Foigny's land holdings as a case study of the cultivation of the Thiérache, and in 2001, Jean-Louise Tétart examined the life of Barthélemy de Jur, who became a monk at the monastery after retiring from the episcopate.

The History of Foigny