Montmajour Abbey is a 10th-century fortified Benedictine monastery just outside Arles, between Avignon and the Camargue in the South of France. Only partly in ruins, the abbey complex includes part of a Maurist monastery, hermitage and chapel, church cloister and a tall tower.
Human-shaped tombs are carved into a solid stone cemetery, and a small 12th-century chapel stands sentinel a few hundred meters away.
The Abbey of Saint Peter was founded in 948 by Benedictine monks on Mont Majour, a small hill that was once a 43-m high island on the open wetlands of the Rhône valley beside the Roman town of Arles.
- Apr-Sept: 7 days; Oct-Mar: Tue-Sun, closed Mon
- Closed: 1 Jan, 1 May, 1 Nov, 11 Nov, 25 Dec
- June-Sept: 10h-18h30; Oct-May: 10h-17h
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The low rocky island of Mont Majour was used as a cemetery as early as the 3rd millennium BC, and the individual graves carved into the rock date back to then. During the 9th and 10 centuries the island was used as a sanctuary against the Saracen and Norman invasions of the area.
One legend is that the stone graves are those of the soldiers of Charlemagne who fought the Saracens at the end of the 8th century. Another legend is that the island was a sanctuary of Saint Trophimus who had been sent from Rome to Arles in the 1st century AD to convert the Gauls. He is said to have taken shelter in a cave on the island and received disciples there. A rock cell under the church is called "The Confessional of St. Trophimus."
A third legend has it that the first church was founded by King Childebert I, the son of Clovis [see Kings], when he saw the enthusiasm of a group of hermits on the island. (Note, the Merovingian King Clovis had attacked Carcassonne -- unsuccessfully -- in the 6th century.)
In 949 Teucinde of Arles, a Frankish noblewoman, acquired Mont Majour island from the Archbishop of Arles. She then left the island in her will to a group of hermits residing on the island, with the provision that they create a monastery following the Rule of Saint Benedict. Fifteen years lager, Pope Leo VIII put the monastery under his direct patronage and raised it to the status of an abbey.
The first abbey church was built in the middle of the 11th century, between 1030-1069, with the Chapel of Saint Peter excavated into the rock on the south side of the hill, near the cemetery. The crypt of the church was consecrated by the Archbishop of Arles in 1019, and the church became the burial place of the Counts of Provence.
In 1030 the abbey acquired what it believed was a fragment of the True Cross, from a larger piece which had been venerated in Arles since the 4th century. Montmajour's Chapel of St Benedict was dedicated to the relic and the abbey became a major pilgrimage site.
By the 12th century the site had become so popular with pilgrims that the abbey decided to create a separate church for the holy relic. The Chapel of the Holy Cross was built outside the abbey complex, 300 meters to the east. Today it sits beside the Domain de Montmajour, a small farm.
A second abbey church was built in the 12th century, on the site of the original church. By this time the abbey had expanded in wealth and influence. It had farming lands, vineyards, olive groves, mills, fisheries and forests. It had a network of 56 priories and lands all over Provence, as far away as Frejus, Sisteron and Grenoble.
The 14th century was the time of the Black Plague, with half the population of Provence dying. Local wars, the Hundred Years War and various marauders ravaged the countryside. Pons de l'Orme, the Abbot of Montmajour, built the massive, fortified tower to protect the abbey.
During the Wars of Religion in the 16th century to monks were forced to move to Arles. When they returned, only two years later, the monastery was in ruins.
Further centuries brought their highs and lows, and at the time of the French Revolution there were only nine monks left at the abbey.