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Reconstructing Monasticism


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The people of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes came from a wide range of social situations and filled a range of functions for the abbey. Our best evidence for identifying who these people were, where they came from, and what they did for the abbey comes from three different sources, two textual and one archaeological.

The two types of textual sources are the abbey's obituary and its two cartularies. The first gives us the names of members of the community from the officers (or obedientiaries), to its lay brothers and lay sisters (conversi/conversae). People important to it, like the bishops of Soissons, and people from the town and region who were donors to the abbey, are also listed. The cartularies name people who gave substantial property gifts to the abbey or who were witnesses to such gifts. The cartularies also record the names of people involved in, and witnesses to, dispute settlements as these relate to the abbey's social and legal struggles. None of this evidence is immediately transparent, but must be subjected to rigorous prosopographical (family history) analysis and interpretation.

adult male skeleton

The third source comprises the total of some eighty individual burials excavated at the abbey in both intact and disturbed conditions. None of the burials can be individually identified (although a single, possibly female, burial in the chapter room may be the Adala´de mentioned in the obituary as being interred there). Osteological analysis of the intact burials and some of the disturbed ones inform us about the stature, age at death, nutrition and disease of the monastic community.

Who, then, belonged to the communitas of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes? At the beginning (in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries), the brethren and the abbey officers evidently came from the local and regional nobility. By the late middle ages and certainly during the early modern period, (c. 1450-1790), more and more brothers came from the upper echelons of the urban middle class of Soissons and other important towns of the larger region.

Also within the walls of the abbey were lay brothers, many of whom seem to have been craftsmen and to have come from the lower classes. There were, however, some exceptions, especially in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when some men at arms — presumably from the lesser nobility — joined the community as lay brothers to live out their last days in a holy state.

As an Augustinian monastery, Saint-Jean was committed to parish service. The abbey possessed more than forty parishes and priories distributed throughout the diocese of Soissons, with several found in the diocese of Meaux. Brothers and lay brothers of the abbey served in these outlying churches, and are mentioned in the obituary, but we have written evidence for the movement of people between abbey and parish only for the early modern period.

Surprisingly for a community of men, Saint-Jean-des-Vignes counted among those who belonged to the abbey a number of women. The customary devotes an entire section to this topic

Infra portam quae est ad domum portarii mulieres non intrent sine aliquo conductu et in claustrum non intrent, nisi aliqua nobilis vel valde religiosa quae causa devotionis et orationis intrare velit. Et illae quae ad processionem veniunt, quae statim debent egredi. Mulieres infra officinas claustro continguas non debent comedere vel jacere, sed in domum supra portam, vel alibi ducantur.
Women may not enter within the gate at the porter's lodge without an escort, and they may not enter the cloister except where a noble or very pious woman wishes to enter for purposes of devotion or prayer. And those who come in procession should leave immediately afterward. Women ought not to eat, nor to lie down in the buildings near the cloister, but in the house above the (porter's?) door, or they should be led elsewhere.

Clearly, women entered the precincts at Saint-Jean-des-Vignes. Many were probably lay sisters, or conversae, others may have been guests. Nuns and abbesses from nearby convents (such as Notre-Dame or Saint-Etienne) Could have gained access. Other noble women would also have been admitted. The customary is very clear, for example, that female visitors were only permitted to stay in the porter's lodge.

Some of these women were lower class craftswomen who joined the community as lay sisters, and who served in such functions as seamstresses and laundresses. A number of such women are mentioned in the obituary, like “Gibernia, a lay sister of this church” who is named in an entry for March 5th. There were, however, also a few noble women identified in the obituary as lay sisters, like “Aveline du donjon, of this church a lay sister” who is mentioned in an entry for May 17th. It is not yet clear what this status meant for noble women, nor what privileges it afforded them. We assume that none of the lay sisters actually lived within the abbey precinct., but came on occasion to perform tasks or to enjoy privileges.

A number of other people living outside the abbey walls were intimately associated with it. These included donors and supporters, both noble and middle class, and serfs or hired labor (homines), most of who may have worked for the abbey on its dozen farms. Some of these were clearly women, as the obituary lists many female donors.

Finally, the abbey had special ties not only with the secular nobility of the town and region, but with the ecclesiastical nobility as well. The obituary lists a number of other Augustinian abbeys with which Saint-Jean had prayer associations. From the late eleventh century (1088-1090), the abbot held a prebend in the cathedral of Soissons, thereby linking the two communities in particular ways. These links began with the bishop's role in the abbey's formal foundation in c. 1076, and continued in a liturgical association that brought the cathedral community in procession to the abbey twice a year to celebrate Mass and to share a meal in the refectory.

Not all relationships with other communities were positive ones. Saint-Jean was frequently involved in litigation with the nearby Cistercian abbey of Longpont. The two houses argued over land rights and donations. Connections between the two were, in a sense, close but contentious.

All of these different people and social groups constitute a set of concentric circles around the abbey, reflecting various levels of connection to this regionally powerful reform abbey.