day in 1963, the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who had been
searching the Loire Valley for a monument where music festivals could
be organized, set his sights on the Grange de Meslay. He was charmed
from first glance by its exceptional interior and majestic
architecture. Every summer since then, the grange has become a temple of art appreciated
by sophisticated music lovers from around the world. This surprising
destiny makes it all the more intriguing to the historian.
The Grange de Meslay : an important agricultural domain of the Abbey of Marmoutier (9th-18th centuries)
The Grange de Meslay is undoubtedly the most remarkable example remaining in France and even in Europe of monastic buildings constructed for agricultural use. Accompanied by other buildings, it was originally situated in a vast enclosure of almost two hectares, surrounded by walls, whose vestiges clearly show their original outline.
A unique monument
The entrance gate to the domain, which has also been preserved, is in the form of a portico, and opens at the base of a two-story square tower. The quality of the stone work, the care taken in the construction of the arches, the geminate windows and rose window, and the finials rising from the gables, all testify to the workmanship of this monumental edifice. The barn itself has a stocky appearance. The large roof which envelops it rests on low, buttressed walls. The façade shows the same stylistic characteristics and quality of construction as the portico. Five windows are set in it and a triangular projecting wall with very pure lines reinforces the gable wall and gives a harmonious pattern to its surface. Inside the building, which measures 60 meters by 25, one is struck by the ample space. Beautiful oak heartwood pillars border a central nave which is flanked by four side-aisles and divided into 13 bays. The perfection of the style, the dimensions of the building, and the originality of its interior design make the Grange de Meslay with its monumental entrance a unique architectural ensemble.
Built by the monks of Marmoutier
This admirable construction is the work of the monks of the neighboring Abbey of Marmoutier—Majus monasterium, Latin for "great monastery"—which traced its beginnings to the 4th century and its illustrious founder Saint Martin, and owed its fortune to the counts of Blois, who raised it from ruins and founded it for a second time in 982. To be more precise, the Chronicles of the Abbots of Marmoutier tell us that Hugues des Roches, abbot from 1210 to 1227, the great builder who raised the Portal of the Crosier within the Abbey itself and began the reconstruction of the church, also built "the Grange de Meslay with the portico, dovecote, and walls of the manor": that is to say the architectural ensemble that remains today.
The priory of Meslay
The construction was less a beginning than a conclusion. Since the 11th century, Meslay had been recorded as a priory of the abbey. The circumstances of its establishment are not known with certainty. The monks of Marmoutier who in the 17th century served as the learned historians of their abbey and its priories say nothing about it. The donation made to the monks in 1061 by Renaud de Hodat has nothing to do with Meslay. The translation of the name is erroneous: it should be Renaud d'Oë, and the place which is the object of the donation or more precisely the restitution, is Campiniacus (today Champaigné, in the village of Notre-Dame d'Oë) which had belonged to the monks since 852. The archivist who made the inventory of the property titles belonging to the domain in the 18th century probably identifies this place with Meslay because the charter of the donation had been filed with these titles by mistake.
What can be said without risk of error, however, is that the foundation of the abbey was one in a line of many. In the 11th and 12th centuries more than 200 priories were established by Marmoutier from the Loire to the English Channel and even beyond to England, constituting its "empire" as it was somewhat pompously known. Meslay belonged to a ring of priories founded in the close vicinity of the abbey, in a radius of about 10 kilometers, including Négron, near Amboise; Notre-Dame-des-Eaux, in La Membrolle; Lavaré; Sapaillé; Les Sept-Dormans; and Fontcher near Villandry.
The foundation of a priory by a Benedictine abbey had at that time four objectives: to bring Christianity to the countryside, give value to the land, encourage population growth, and add to the wealth of the domain. Indeed, monks who settled in a place under the authority of a prior, and who were to live by the monastic rule if they numbered at least four, had as their mission to manage the property of their abbey, to serve the priory church which was often a new parish, and to attract the people who came to clear the surrounding land for cultivation and live in what was often a newly-established village.
Meslay in the community of Parçay
The case of Meslay, however, though far from unique, did not correspond exactly to this general rule. The priory was not in the center of a new village, but on the outskirts of one called Parçay. The reason is undoubtedly that the small "villa," the little center of rural life that bore that name, was, along with Saint-Symphorien and Champaigné, part of the property that King Charles the Bald had solemnly declared as belonging to the monks on April 3, 852. Located there was a church called Saint-Pierre whose ownership the monks had claimed in 993, which explains the foundation of the priory some distance away from the parish center. But the inventory of titles drawn up in the 18th century clearly shows that the monks had patiently built up a considerable domain in Parçay, where they dispensed justice, levied taxes on at least 4,000 tenures which were partially paid in kind (terrages), and were the principal beneficiaries of the tithe, that part of the harvest that was paid to the Church for the upkeep of priests and places of worship and for the poor.
Tithes and terrages were to be transported to the tithe or terrage barn of Parçay. There is no doubt that this refers to the superb edifice built in 1220. It would be hard to imagine that the monks would build another barn to store the harvest one kilometer from Meslay. In addition, Meslay had always been considered as belonging to the community of Parçay; an act of 1369 testifies to that. And the tradition of calling the community Parçay-Meslay, introduced in 1814, is even better proof.
A great agricultural domain
However, almost all the neighboring priories as well as the nearby abbey also had a barn for the same purpose. Why then was Meslay built on such a grand scale? The explanation can be found in the only two buildings of the same period whose current state allows for comparisons to be made: the Grange de Vaulerent north of Paris between Roissy and Senlis and the Grange of Ter Doest in Lissewege, near Bruges, Belgium. But these two barns, beautiful although less imposing than Meslay, belonged to Cistercien abbeys, whose "white monks," followers of Saint Bernard who did not accept tithes or terrages. They worked their own land and so needed vast storehouses for their harvests. But the "black monks" of Marmoutier were Benedictines of the old order, who devoted themselves to liturgical rites and intellectual pursuits, not to the land, which supported them through taxes and tithes.
The existence of the Grange de Meslay shows, however, that these contrasts should not be carried to extremes. Indeed, within the seigniory of Parçay, Meslay was the center of a vast agricultural domain that was never divided into peasant tenures. The commentary of a map drawn up in 1745 and lost today describes a farm of 227 hectares of which 157 were arable land (according to a survey of 1644) and 23 meadow and pasture. The official visit of the priory made in 1321 by the abbey inspectors, whose report has been preserved, reveals the existence of a considerable amount of livestock, including 26 oxen, proof that at that time the domain of Meslay was also worked directly. It is true that during certain periods, in particular from the end of the 16th century to the end of the 17th, the domain, also called the métairie of Meslay, was rented out, but never to more than two farmers at one time.
The building erected by Abbot Hugues was thus both the tithe and terrage barn of Parçay and the central storehouse that a large rural domain required. In the 14th century the revenues of the abbey, which until that time had been at the sole disposition of the abbot, were henceforth divided among the main departments of the monastery. The priory of Meslay and its domain were assigned to the chambrerie of the abbey, the service responsible for clothing and lodging the monks.
A place of prayer and hospitality
The description of the site reveals that Meslay had still other functions. The visit of 1321 shows that the chapel, no longer in existence, was amply supplied with liturgical ornaments and sacred vases and that the priory was still a place of monastic life occupied by a not insignificant number of monks. The rooms in the portico and the surrounding buildings could be used as a second home for the abbots and as lodging for visitors to the abbey. The abbot Etienne de Vernou died there suddenly in 1283. In 1417, when representatives of the city of Tours wanted to greet their new lord, the Dauphin Charles (the future King Charles VII), who was arriving from the north, they went to meet him at Meslay.
Meslay from the 15th century to the present
It was also in the 15th century that the priory was damaged by Scottish soldiers, who were the largest component of the prince's regular army. These poorly paid allies turned to pillaging in Touraine on returning from a military campaign. September 13, 1422, on the eve of the festival of the Holy Cross, "they burned," says the Chronicle of the Abbots of Marmoutier, "the great and beautiful Grange de Meslay, which was filled with grain, wine, and hay." Ten years later, in calmer times, the barn was rebuilt from its ruins with the beautiful wooden framework we admire today.
After this serious incident, the priory of Meslay was always properly maintained by the abbey, which devoted 9000 pounds to the maintenance of the barn in 1779. But when the newly-formed National Assembly decreed that religious orders would be eliminated and their assets placed at the disposal of the nation, the domain of Meslay was sold April 20, 1791 to a Mr. Derouët, an architect from Tours and an ancestor of the current owners. Over the years as a result of various inheritance arrangements, the domain was divided up. Its owners fought over the use of the barn, which was partitioned. It was, however restored to its original form in the 20th century. It had been threatened by the Wars of Religion in 1589, by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 during the fighting in nearby Monnaie and was much more severely affected by war in 1944, but the worst was always avoided.
In spite of some temporary threats around 1890, when a proposal was made for its demolition, the proud achievement of Abbot Hugues des Roches, now listed as a historic monument, has thus survived virtually intact until our day.
Bernard CHEVALIER (Université François-Rabelais de Tours).
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