FONTÉVRAULT, ORDER OF (ORDO FONTIS EBRALDI): A Roman Catholic order, founded in the closing years of the eleventh century by Robert d'Arbrissel, who was born at Arbrissel (the modern Arbresec, in the diocese of Rennes) about 1047 and died in 1117. He was educated at Paris, and at the age of thirty-eight was appointed by Sylvester, bishop of Rennes, vicar-general for the administration of the diocese. Resigning from this office, he taught theology at Angers for a time, and finally retired to a hermit's life in the forest of Craon (Department of Mayenne). He gathered a band of followers, whom he formed, about 1094, into a community of canons regular. Robert built a number of cloisters, of which the most important was that at Fontévrault (8 m. s. e. of Saumur), consisting of a "great minster," dedicated to the Virgin and containing accommodations for 300 widows and virgins; an infirmary dedicated to St. Lazarus and receiving 120 sick or lepers; and a home for magdalens. A monastery with 200 monks was built beside the "great minster," but was subordinate to it, while the great church, dedicated by Calixtus II. in person in 1109, was for the entire community. In 1106 the order was confirmed by Paschal II., and in 1113 was withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the ordinaries, whereupon Robert appointed Petronella de Craon-Chemillé first abbess and prepared rule. The members of the Order, who were called pauperes Christi, were subject to restrictions of extreme asceticism, but the distinctive characteristic was the union of nunneries and monasteries under the control of an abbess, together with the most rigid separation of monks and nuns. The Order was under special protection of the Virgin. At the death of Robert, Fontévrault is said to have contained 3,000 nuns, while the cloister were the tombs of several of the Plantagenet kings of England.
The Order Fontévrault never spread widely outside of France, although it included fifty-seven priories in four provinces at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The congregations of Savigny, St. Sulpice, Tiron, and Cadouin had been formed as early as the twelfth century, and drifted away from the Order, which was not altogether free from disputes between the abbesses and the heads of the subordinate monasteries. The French Revolution annihilated the Order, and the last abbess, Julie Sofie Charlotte de Pardaillan, died in destitution in Paris in 1799, while the cloister was turned into a prison.