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13.09.06, Evans, ed., L'abbaye cistercienne de Bégard

13.09.06, Evans, ed., L'abbaye cistercienne de Bégard

Claude Evans has been studying the charters of the Cistercian monastery of Bégard in Brittany for some forty years. Founded in 1130--at least according to later accounts--Bégard was established in the diocese of Tréguier as a daughter of the Chartrain house of l'Aumône. Like many Cistercian houses, it had apparently been an isolated hermitage before the monks arrived. The monastery, as well as its possessions in Brittany, acquired granges and a priory (Begar in Yorkshire) in Great Britain. It is now much less well known than the Breton monasteries of Redon (a Carolingian-era foundation from which a great many charters still survive) or Beauport (a Premonstratensian house founded in the twelfth century), yet it attracted attention and gifts throughout the Middle Ages.

Originally Evans was interested in the records of Bégard because of the proper names, both of people and of places, found in them, many of which have Celtic (Breton) roots. Now he has published an important work containing both a close study of Bégard, comprising about a quarter of the volume, and editions of all its known medieval charters. For the edition, he was assisted by Cédric Giraud and Christelle Balouzat-Loubet, both credited on the title page.

The archives of the monastery were dispersed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as various erudites set out to collect Breton documents in order to write a history of the province, and further losses were suffered at the time of the French Revolution. Thus a great many documents that were known to exist in the early modern period were lost, including the monks' cartulary. Evans has tracked down the surviving charters and copies of those now lost, locating them in archives and libraries in France, England, and the Vatican. In total, his edition comprises 272 acts, although a number of these are only brief mentions, based on references to charters that no longer exist as found in charters that do. Evans also includes papal and English royal documents that mention the monastery and its dependencies, even if these documents might never have been in the house's archives. The largest number of acts come from the fifteenth century, especially from the abbatiat of Vincent of Kerléau (1443-1476). Not surprising given their dates, over half the acts are in Old French rather than Latin, and one is in Middle English (no. 217). None of the documents were written in Breton, even though that was the normal spoken language of the region, and reference was sometimes made to the need to translate proceedings into the local language (such as act 105, one of the few preserved in the original).

The long Introduction both begins and ends with the charters themselves and a discussion of the principles Evans followed in identifying and editing them. In between he covers, in no particular order, the abbey's social and historical context, its foundation, its possessions, its relations with its English priory, its relations with the broader Cistercian order, the monks and the abbots, the use of Breton names, and what he labels "Breton peculiarities" in money, weights, and measures. He attempts to sort out such issues as the date of the monks' arrival in Brittany, whether the house was Cistercian from the beginning or was later incorporated into the order, and even the origins of the name Bégard, later assumed to be a variation of the English word "beggar," which word did not in fact yet exist in the twelfth century--he argues instead for the Breton root beg-, meaning a summit or peak, such as the outcropping on which the house was built. Many of these issues have been complicated both by the loss of so many of the abbey's original documents and by efforts of the monks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to re-remember their house's origins.

In an attempt to characterize the different types of acts, Evans goes further than anyone who has not spent so much time with Bégard will probably want to follow, including (31-35) breaking down a selection of some seventy acts by type of author (abbot of Bégard, abbot of another Cistercian house, great noble, local noble, and so on), then within each category separating sales, donations, agreements, confirmations, and so on, and finally, for each document, indicating whether it is an original, a copy, a mention, a vidimus, or known from an earlier edition.

In between such complex tables and charts, he has some quite interesting information about the monastery and its neighbors, information which suggests that the Cistercians of Brittany were not so different from Cistercians elsewhere. The principal benefactors for this Breton house, he indicates, were knights, local petty nobles, and members of the wealthier bourgeoisie--the same group that patronized the Cistercians in their homeland of Burgundy. Again as in Burgundy, when the monks quarreled with their secular neighbors they often turned to their dukes for protection and justice. Unlike the Burgundian houses, however, Bégard had vassals who held from them in liege homage. (In none of these cases does Evans himself draw the comparisons with Burgundy, which would have been worth making.)

It is good to see how many medieval documents have been newly edited and published in recent decades. In some cases (and here Clairvaux provides a good example) publication of a cartulary may make more accessible and more easily consulted records that otherwise could be used only in the archives. In other cases, such as that of Bégard, the scattering of the monastery's records means that no one would be more than dimly aware of the house's existence, much less its activities, if it were not for serious, long-term editing projects like Evans'. A scholar making a study of a particular monastery will of course track down its charters, but a great deal of scholarship is built on sources from many different houses. Someone interested in, for example, the role of noble women in the support of monasticism would totally miss a relatively document-poor monastery like Bégard and the detail that the monks of the late fourteenth century still remembered with great clarity the piety and generosity of Duchess Constance of Brittany, two centuries earlier (act no. 100). Similarly, anyone interested in medieval landholding patterns and agricultural practices will need to refer to as many different collections of documents as possible.

The edition is well done, following French standard practice of indicating manuscripts with a capital letter and editions with a lower-case letter, adopting modern capitalization, punctuation, and use of -v- and -j- versus -u- and -i-. The volume is completed by a list of medieval abbots, an extensive bibliography that includes many works in English as well as French, and an index of proper nouns. One does regret, however, the lack of a map. The volume will be of immediate value to anyone studying the history of medieval Brittany or the Cistercian order in the late Middle Ages.