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History of Étival en Charnie

Étival abbey is 900 years old

The tourist guides do not mention this site. It's been forgotten outside our neighbourhood. Nevertheless the Benedictine abbey of Étival en Charnie (reduced to-day to some walls transformed into a chapel) was famous for centuries in Maine and beyond. Although isolated from the rest of the world, as well as in the archives of Sarthe and Benedictine convents. Nine hundred years have passed since the abbey was founded. This anniversary seems to us a good opportunity to put right the neglect which befell this place connected indissolubly to the forest of Grande Charnie.

A country of hermitages

Hermitages were abundant in the eastern part of Grande Charnie. Until the 19th century the area was named« the second Thebaïde » ( Thebaïde was the desert of upper Egypt where the first Christian hermits lived. It is not surprising that in 1109 Raoul VII , Lord of Sainte Suzanne, chose this part of the forest to build the abbey. He was the son of Hubert II of Beaumont who, 22 years previously won a battle against a redoutable opponent who besieged his castle : William the Conqueror himself! Sainte Suzanne castle which is 12km from Étivalon the Mayenne side of Charnie, remained in history as the only castle to resist to William's assault. His son Raoul thus, doubtless to redeem himself, wanted to build an abbey.

Prestgious abbesses

Raoul founded a Benedictine convent and appointed his sister Godehilde as the abbess. Alleaume, a hermit, was her spiritual guide.He had been educated by Robert d'Arbrissel, the famous founder of the prestigious abbey of Fontevraud.The Abbey of Étival was one of the best provided in Maine : a vast 1200 hectare domain principally livingfrom the resources of the forest and the water with a mill and a fishery. Over the years, the abbey became an important place of worship and culture. Translations of Latin works as well as miscellaneous writings and religious texts were made there. The convent was also a refuge for the persecuted during difficult times, in particular the Inquisition. From 1109 up to the revolution thirty-one abbesses, mostly from nobility, succeeded one another. Some of them were famous for what they did. At the end of the 15th century, Jeanne de Laval was very enterprising. She enlarged the domain by digging a second 7 hectare pond to increase fish production.

Immortalized by art and litterature

In the 17th century, Claire Neau wanted to impose a more rigorous way of life on her nuns. She was a commoner and very austere. The nuns, who were mainly of noble birth, set a deep resistance to her.The abbess was mocked by Scarron , ex-secretary to the bishop of Le Mans, in the famous « Roman Comique ». She is represented in one of Pierre Denis Martin's 20 paintings illustrating the work. There is a permanent exhibition of the collection on the first floor of the Museum of Tessé .

The Abbey given a rough ride

In the 18th century, the abbey of Étival began to decay. It suffered the same fate as many others during the Revolution. The abbess took refuge at Asnières-sur-Vègre. The revolutionaries destroyed the major part of the building. Since then good luck has come to Etival. The first restauration was undertaken at the end of the 19th century thanks to subscriptions mainly from Solesmes. The only part left was the ancient north crosspiece of the transept ; it was transformed into a chapel. Several recumbent effigies were excavated and are now kept in the Museum of Tessé as well as a statue of the hermit Alleaume who was immediately canonized after his death.

A restored abbey

Classified as an « history monument » in 1973, it is the property of the municipality of Chemiré-en-Charnie (truly concerned in its conservation). The building now benefits from a programme of restauration managed by the Cultural Association for the protection of the Chapel of Etival with the support of the local, departmental and regional authorities. Because of the restauration the Chapel receives some 500 visitors every year. At the edge of the pond of Etival the ancient mill was acquired by the Federation of Fishing. After important restoration work with the support of the Communities of Sarthe, the Region and the European Union it is now the « departmental window » of the Federation. Groups or families can now benefit by renting it at weekends. The commemoration The 900th anniversary of Étival en Charnie abbey will permit to rediscover the historical and archeological heritage which belongs both to Mayenne and Sarthe. « Charnie environnement » has decided to support the « Cultural Association for the Safeguard of Étival Chapel » and the « animation loisirs » association of Chemiré-en-charnie by organizing three cultural events : in the afternoon, a meeting in Étival Chapel with historians ; Father Thierry Barbeau, priest of Solesmes has committed to come. An exposition relating the history of the abbey with the wished participation of the Record Office and Tessé Museum In the evening, a concert of sacred music with famous musicians in the church of Chemiré-en-Charnie
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