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10 Dec 2012

Abbaye Blanche, Mortain 900 years old

 This year is the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Abbaye Blanche in Le Neufbourg, Mortain. Unlike the Abbey at Lucerne d'Outremer, which I wrote about in this blog post, or the Abbey at Hambye, this is a relatively little known historic place. I only found it because I had a meeting at the nearby bar restaurant, and saw a sign pointing to it down a little road.

L'Abbaye Blanche, Le Neufbourg, Mortain
Mortain itself was once important, but is now known for two things: the cascades on the River Rance, and the virtually complete destruction of the town in 1944. Its history has effectively been overwritten. The Abbey survived the war, although the Battle of Mortain was a critical moment when the Counterattack by Germany was halted, mainly because it was beside a key US army control point. A mad US officer had demanded that 'Mortain be totally destroyed, so that nothing can live there', and that was very nearly achieved. You can find information from one of the US Army unit's records, including photos of the destruction, one of which includes the comment that 'now you know why some Frogs (French) hated us: we tore the Hell out of their cities'.  For a more unbiased and reliable description of this battle and the whole campaign, Antony Beevor's D-Day – The Battle for Normandy has the definitive information; this Washington Post review is helpful.
The seminary (not even all of it) at l'Abbaye Blanche, Mortain

Today, the Abbey is effectively abandoned. The huge seminary still stands, in good shape apart from a couple of broken windows, but has had no priests in training for over 30 years. It is a lovely building, but what purpose could be found for it today? It is just too big for any conceivable use, and in the wrong place for a massive hotel.

The cloisters
The abbey church is still used occasionally, like most churches these days, and is open, so one can just walk in and look around. The exterior has cloisters that are very similar to those of the Abbey of Mont St Michel, and may have been built by the same people. Because of the seminary having closed so recently, comparitively speaking, the outbuildings, kitchen gardens, pathways are still there, though decaying.

The church at l'Abbaye Blanche, Mortain

The interior of the church is elegant, clean, and very unfussy. Interestingly, there is a Green Man carved into a misericord under one of the choir stall seats, only the second  have seen in France.
A Green Man carved on a misericord

1 comment:

Deborah said...

Hi - interesting to see that you seem to have been impressed by this amazing set of buildings as were my partner and I when we visited in June this year. I am particularly intrigued by the windows in the church which look similar to the style of Chagall and I wondered if you had any information about them. The whole place made a huge impression on us both and it still resonates with me know. What a waste of an amazing complex when so many people are homeless..