Floreffe, a Mother Abbey
On his return from Cologne where he had gone to receive relics for his foundation of Prémontré, Norbert stopped for some time at Namur. To comply with the wishes of Count Godfrey and his wife Ermesinde who supported Gregorian reform, he agreed to establish a community in the region. The choice finally fell on Floreffe, a secondary residence of the family of the Counts of Namur. However, at the time when Norbert was founding this monastery, the community of Prémontré had not yet opted for a Rule of life and it was not until Christmas of that year that the first professions were forthcoming.
From the first years which followed its foundation in November, 1121, the community of Floreffe prospered greatly. Numerous foundations of monasteries and nunneries took place very rapidly, not only in the territory of present-day Belgium (Leffe, Postel, Beaurepart, Heylissem, Mont-Cornillon...) and of neighbouring countries, but also, under the impact of the crusades, as far as the Holy Land. It should also be remembered that at that period, close relations existed with central Europe, especially with Hungary, where king Andrew II had married Yolanda of Namur. This promoted the founding and prosperity of Premonstratensian religious.
At several junctures in its history, Floreffe played a decisive part in the affairs of the Order. From the very beginning, Floreffe occupied an important place; its abbot was one of three prelatic advisers to the Order and, as such, was one of the inspectors responsible for the maintenance of the Rule in the Abbey of Prémontré itself.
From the XVIth century onwards, many abbeys were placed in commendam, receiving a nominal abbot, ecclesiastical or lay, who appropriated a large part of the abbey’s revenues, but fulfilled none of the religious obligations normally corresponding to his title. Since, in contrast to the three “mother-houses” (Prémontré, St. Martin of Laon and Cuissy), the Abbey of Floreffe was always spared this practice, its abbot was sometimes the only regular abbot among the abbatial “fathers of the Order”.
Seriously weakened by the revolutionary upheavel, the radiating Premonstratensian beacon was finally extinguished in about 1830.
Foundation in Leffe
Around 1140, Henry, called the Blind, Count of Luxembourg and of Namur, received Leffe in fief from Frederick Barbarossa, King of the Romans. He professed high esteem for the Premonstratensian religious, whom his father Godfrey had established on his lands at Floreffe in 1121 and to whom he himself had been very generous. He wished to see them also established at Leffe, in the church of Our Lady. He actually felt that the secular canons who served it, did not have the spiritual influence that he might have expected. The Count of Namur explained his project to the canons, promising that if they agreed to it, he would provide for them generously. All members of the chapter agreed to the proposed arrangements. Having achieved his objective, the Count gave the church of St. Mary of Leffe with all its dependencies and revenues, to Gerland, abbot of Floreffe, on condition that he would establish the religious of his Order there, under the direction of a prior. He instituted this foundation by a charter. The spirit of faith and humility which appears to have inspired it, does not appear to correspond with the mentality of the Prince who had granted it: after passing the greater part of his life in warlike enterprises and bloody battles, he was struck with blindness and, on reaching extreme old age, did not however renounce force of arms to suppress family disputes.
The following year, 1153, the German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa confirmed and approved the donation, which was also approved by a Bull of Pope Adrian IV on 22 April 1155 and by Pope Alexander III on 12 May 1178. This having been arranged to the satisfaction of both parties, the new religious community moved to Leffe in 1152, under the direction of a prior and under the authority of the abbot of Floreffe.
The year 1155 witnessed the rise of a new church built by incoming monks on the site of the old one. Over some fifty years, the number of novices had grown to such a point that Jean d’Auvelais, 5th abbot of Floreffe, judged it necessary around the year 1200, to raise the priory to the dignity of an abbey.
From then on and until the end of the XVIIIth century, the house of Leffe always had it own abbots, elected by its own religious, approved by the abbots of Floreffe and blessed by the Prince-Bishop of Liège.
Prosperity and destruction
In this way, the Abbey of Leffe witnessed an appreciable increase of its possessions and revenues. During the XIIIth century, the estates of the Abbey of Leffe increased as a result of numerous donations or purchases.
The first abbot of Leffe, Wéric, elected in 1200, left Leffe in 1208 for Floreffe, where, because of his knowledge and virtues, he was called upon by his former brethren to succeed abbot Jean d’Auvelais. Many abbots succeeded him during the first century of the Abbey’s existence; fourteen in one hundred years.
For over two centuries, the estates of the Abbey prospered, particularly because of the generosity of the local lords.
This kind of liberality often represented a reward for services rendered in a certain place or parish. In fact, even
in these distant times, the Premonstratensians of Leffe ministered to the parishes of Saint-Georges in Leffe, of Saint-Médard in Dinant, of Waha, of Sart-en-Fagne, of Awagne, of Jassogne and of Courrière.
The XVth century was a truly disastrous one for the Abbey of Leffe. According to certain authors, its abbot, Albéric de Pecheroux and seven other religious fell victim to the plague in September 1400. In 1408, abbot Wéric de Beaumont resigned without authorisation. The abbatial office remained vacant for a long time and the religioous tried to ignore orders given by the father abbot, the prelate of Floreffe. On 7 August 1460, the church of Leffe was so badly damaged by a heavy and sudden flood that only its four walls remained standing. The abbot of the monastery, Jean Ghorin, was drowned. The other canons had a good deal of difficulty in finding refuge in the tower. Hardly had the flood damage been repaired, when the Abbey had to endure a second trial. In 1466, Dinant, which had revolted, alongside the population of Liège, against Bishop Louis of Bourbon, was sacked and burnt by the armies of his uncle, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The Abbey of Leffe touched on the line of the outer fortifications of Dinant. On 17 August 1466, Charles the Bold lodged and set up his headquarters there during the siege of the city by the armies of his father, Philip, Duke of Burgundy. The main battery of the besieging army was set up just next to it and from there the first cannon salvoes were fired, thus enabling the Burgundian army to seize the suburb of Leffe on the following day. On 23 August 1466, the city of Dinant was forced to surrender and was sacked, pillaged and burnt.
The Abbey suffered the fate of the city: it was devastated, the church was set on fire and almost entirely destroyed, together with its outbuildings. Abbot Wauthier de Wespin and his religious were taken prisoner and for a period of six months, the Abbey remained derelict. When, after this interval, the religious were freed and returned to the Abbey, they found little more than ruins. The Duke of Burgundy, having ordered the seizure of the Abbey’s treasure, demanded one hundred Rhine guilders as ransom for the abbot and the return of the Abbey’s objects of worship. The money had to be borrowed.
The walls of the Abbey were hastily rebuilt. The many commotions brought about by the war, were followed by a period of restoration of order and of recovery. New donations contributed to this, such as the testamentary transfer in 1489 of the lordship of Haute-Sorinne by Barthélemy de Spontin and his wife. Mills erected on the river on the “estates of Leffe” became a useful source of revenue. Old texts do not hesitate to speak of “factories” built around these operations which, initially familial, rapidly underwent considerable expansion. Due, in particular, to these new resources, the community passed through a century of recovery between 1484 and 1583, notwithstanding the disappearance of archives and the succession of legal actions which it involved as well, as notwithstanding a succession of rather short abbacies and a decidedly unfavourable socio-economic context. In fact, between the reign of Charles V and that of Maria Theresa (1515-1740), Belgium was almost continuously the scene of bloody wars between France and Spain and then between France and Austria. Friendly and hostile armies scoured and rode roughshod over all the provinces, most frequently sowing ruin and desolation. Occasionally, a short truce was concluded, usually due to a lack of men or resources.
The Abbey’s horizon brightened, when Georges du Terne was chosen by acclamation to direct the destinies of the monastery. It devolved on him to begin on the task of rebuilding the monastery once again. It is still possible to see a building bearing the date 1604, dating from the period of his abbacy. During this period, the Abbey enjoyed a relative tranquillity, although there were a number of natural calamities. In 1577, an epidemic of the plague broke out in Bouvignes and in Dinant and claimed numerous victims. In 1587, a widespread famine occurred which had an impact on the social and economic life for a long time. From 1617, a fresh epidemic of the plague devastated the region of Dinant. The disease continued to rage intermittently and, in 1636, the abbot of Leffe, Jean Noizet, died from it.
The scourge, which was responsible for the death of the prelate Jean Noizet and of several other religious, disrupted monastery life for some time. After some months, the former parish priest of Lisogne, Désiré Gouverneur, assumed the direction of Leffe and did so with wisdom and discretion until his death in 1653. He was succeeded by Jacques Malaise who, unfortunately, died 40 days later, even before becoming consecrated as abbot. Malaise was the composer of several motets for three voices, which have now disappeared and about which the famous musicologist Fétis was able to say in his universal bibliography of musicians that they are “of a very agreeable melodic colour and of a serious and solemn character”. Perpète Noizet took up the reins of administration between 1653 and 1672. His epitaph states that he was very beloved by his religious and endowed with great qualities of body and soul. His merits won him the esteem of the general chapter of the Order, which conferred on him and his successors the title of abbot of Iveld, a monastery in the diocese of Mainz, which had become Lutheran. Thanks to this fiction, the abbots of Leffe at last obtained the mitre and the pontifical insignia, which the majority of Premonstratensian abbots had enjoyed since the XIVth century. In 1661, Perpète Noizet erected a building wing which has been perfectly preserved to the present day and which bears the date of its construction and the motto “Virtute perenni”.
The successor of abbot Perpète Noizet, Pierre Lefèvre, in contrast with the majority of other abbots of Leffe, had not been a parish priest. He had always lived at the Abbey, where he filled the office of sacristan, master of novices and provisor. Familiar with all the requirements of monastery discipline, he was well-prepared to maintain the monastic life. He did not hesitate to recall an unworthy parish priest, to show himself stricter in training novices or to send some of them away. His financial skill was also welcome in those troubled times; in 1683, King Charles II of Spain had to oppose the claims of Louis XIV by force of arms. To pay for the cost of the war, he raised considerable taxes from the provinces of the Netherlands. This step once again exhausted the resources of a large number of abbeys. In 1690, after the battle of Fleurus, the victorious French imposed a heavy contribution on the province of Namur. The Abbey of Leffe naturally had to pay its share. A declaration of 1700 relating to property situated in the region of Namur, indicates that these ruinous imposts continued. Fortunately, these became more moderate. Thus, in 1696, Louis XIV remitted to the Abbey of Leffe the tribute of twenty-five and a half sacks of oats, due to the estates. Twenty-one years earlier, the French under the leadership of the King, had made themselves masters of Dinant, where they set up an entirely new system of defences. They built, among other things, a fortress on the land of the Malaise farm belonging to the Abbey. Dominating the ravine of Saint-Jacques, this fortress protected the citadel on its weakest side, but it caused great damage to the Abbey, by taking away excellent agricultural land and a quarry giving a good return. By way of compensation, abbot Lefèvre requested the remission of the aforementioned tribute, which King Louis XIV graciously granted by decree. It was undoubtedly this lightening of the burden which allowed the abbot to add to the monastery an entire building wing which still exists and bears the date of 1682. A good religious and a prudent administrator, Father Lefèvre appears also to have possessed a strong enough consciousness of the spiritual brotherhood which should govern the relations between different Premonstratensian communities. The Abbey archives still contain a copy of a pact of friendship and solidarity concluded between the community of Leffe and that of Beau-repart in Liège. This concerns a mutual undertaking to pray for the souls of the dead and the respective intentions of each community.
Walking in the footsteps of his predecessor, Perpète Renson (1704-1743), formerly parish priest of Dorinne, followed the climb towards greater religious perfection. From the beginning of his prelacy, he favoured a tendency towards renewal, known under the name of “ancient rigour”, introduced during the previous century in a part of the Order by the Lorraine reform of abbot Servais de Lairuels. He decided to reintroduce the original observance of the statutory rules, principally in respect of the vow of poverty, which had become softened by certain customs. In 1707, he suppressed the gratuity which was paid personally to each of the brethren and which his predecessors had not dared to touch. He reintroduced the common wardrobe under the direction of a religious who had the duty to provide the brethren with everything they might reasonably require. These reforms had their origin in a very exact programme whose purpose was to bring the community back to a more austere and simpler lifestyle, more in harmony with the condition of a religious. Following the example of his predecessor, he did not hesitate to send home anyone who did not appear determined to persist in their vocation.
Moreover, abbot Renson made extensive and intelligent use of the savings of his predecessors as well as of those he himself had accumulated. The church and the monastery had suffered many privations resulting from the wars and disasters of the time; he undertook the repairs. In 1705, he restored the religious’ dormitory and in 1707 he enlarged and embellished the garden for their use. Between 1707 and 1710, he bought two properties close to Ciney. In 1710, he built a large series of buildings, a mill, barns and sheds. Four years after these constructions, which were already large, abbot Renson ordered the complete rebuilding of the church and laid its foundation stone on Easter Tuesday, 3 April 1714. Completed in May 1719, it received on the 16th of that month a visit and congratulations from the Prince-Bishop of Liège, who set 23 July for its consecration. Since, however, he had fallen severely ill, he sent Ferdinand-Paul, Bishop of Namur in his stead.
The 1714 church was two hundred feet long and eighty feet wide and was divided into three naves by two rows of Doric columns, the central nave being appreciably raised. The choir was ornamented with sculpted medallions representing saints of the Premonstratensian Order, and under the marble floor of the sanctuary there was a crypt dating back to the XIIth or XIIIth century, supported by a double row of columns. Two rows of piers decorated the portal, which ended in a pediment. The woodwork was regarded as a piece of beautiful joinery and sculpture. It had life sized representations of the four Evangelists and the four great Doctors of the Church. The side aisles were ornamented with excellent paintings representing episodes from the life of St. Norbert.
Augustin Lambreck, successor of the prelate Renson, received the abbatial appointment on 23 October 1743 and being known as a faithful guardian of religious discipline, he contributed to a warming of relations with the mother-Abbey of Floreffe. Pursuing the work of his predecessor for whom he had worked as an architect, he built the main building which bears the motto: “Pax huic domi 1747”. He died on 13 December of the same year.
The French Revolution
The city administration was in a deplorable state, its finances unsound. At the time of the last constitutional recasting in 1772, the Prince-Bishop, François Charles de Velbrük, concentrated the power of the city in the hands of a minority.
On 27 June 1790, the Austrians encamped on the estate of Viet, property and refuge of the Leffe Premonstratensians and set up their headquarters there. Next, they invested the estate of Leffe and installed in the Abbey, precipitately abandoned by the community, a battery of cannon pointed at Bouvignes. The patriots returned to the assault, the fighting was desperate, to the point of forcing the Austrians to retreat towards Viet, leaving ten men on the field.
The victory of Jemappes, won on 6 November 1792 by the French general Dumouriez, decided the fate of Dinant, already subjected to the incursions of the French garrison at Givet. At Dinant, people were far from delirious, particularly because on 8 November the Republican troops set up their winter quarters in the city and its environs. On 16 December, the citizens of Dinant who were on the side of the new order, called the population to the church of the Jesuit college, by means of posters and the “sound of cash”. The population was invited to elect a provisional assembly. The city and its suburbs were divided into 6 sections with the Abbey and the “estate of Leffe” forming the first section and the meeting of the new citizen electors took place in the Abbey, as did those of the other sections assembled in the principal religious buildings of the city. Sixty-six electors were chosen and they, in their turn, appointed 27 administrators and 5 jurors for the city. On New Year’s day 1793, after having intoned the Marseillaise instead of the planned Te Deum, they proclaimed the Republic in the collegiate church of Our Lady. This did not yet amount to annexation, but all swore an oath according to the decree of 15 December, abolishing the Ancien Régime and its feudal rights. All property of lay and religious associations was confiscated and churchmen and women were required to make their contribution.
Frédéric Gérard (1780-1794)
On 7 February, the doors of the Abbey of Leffe were forcibly penetrated. In the presence of three representatives of the municipality, the Justice of the Peace interrogated abbot Gérard about the disappearance of movable property. The abbot remained silent and because the ransacking of the monastic buildings did not reveal anything, Citizen Bosque ordered abbot Gérard to be kept under watch and had the registers and papers of the monastery taken away by his men. For four days, Frédéric Gérard was locked in his room to meditate on the “error of his ways”. On the orders of the municipality, he was then brought in to undergo close interrogation. Nevertheless, the abbot dug in his heels, for the good reason that the coveted objects were hidden at Namur. He was then locked up in a house next to the town hall and his detention was to be long and distressing. His jailers insulted him and called him “the leading tyrant and greatest despot in Dinant”. The other religious of the community were also disturbed. They had to appear more than once before the communal authorities who were rather embarrassed by the whole affair. They demanded a surety of 50,000 florins to set Gérard free, but Bosque opposed it. The detention continued and proved worthwhile. The cache was revealed. Taking the inventory of the movable property began on 13 February and continued on 26 February and 5 March. In all, more than 1,700 ounces of silver valued at 8,554 livres were listed by Henri Nalinne, citizen silversmith of Dinant; from the processional cross, six large chandeliers from the main altar, the abbatial cross, chalices, and censers, to tablecloths and even a stew spoon, nothing escaped control.
Against all expectations, Frédéric Gérard remained under arrest. Although Liège was reoccupied by the imperial troops on 5 March, Bosque and Lehoday felt strong enough to refuse, up to the last possible moment, to release Gérard, who did not rejoin his community until after the departure of the French on 18 March.
On that 28 May 1794, 11 Premonstratensians of Leffe, including abbot Gérard, precipitately boarded barges hired from a Leffe innkeeper who took them, hidden under bales of straw, as far as Maastricht. It should be noted that the prudent innkeeper invoiced these bales when the religious had returned on 8 November! A second group left the Abbey on the following day, 28 May. These departures created a state of anarchy. The property of the émigrés was pillaged: bells, iron and copper, corn, furniture and the contents of the library. On returning from exile, the Premonstratensians found their house gutted.
On 5 May 1795, the Republic rented out, whilst awaiting their final sale, the gardens and vineyards belonging to the Abbey, which the religious had had to abandon. On 1st September 1796, the government suppressed, in Belgium, “regular congregations and orders, monasteries, abbeys, priories, canons and canonesses regular and in general, all religious houses and foundations of either sex”; it confiscated all their property, movable and immovable and gave vouchers for fifteen thousand francs to male religious, five thousand francs to lay brethren, ten thousand francs to female religious and three thousand three hundred and thirty four francs to lay sisters. These vouchers could not be used otherwise than for the acquisition of national property in the Netherlands.
The religious no longer existed in the eyes of the State, he or she was simply a citizen subject to the laws of the land, relieved of the duties of his or her profession and able to marry, trade and acquire possessions. The vow of poverty made these religious unable to have possessions; from an ecclesiastical point of view, they would not even have been able to accept the vouchers which the government was offering them as a subsistence pensions, if Pope Pius VI had not given them the necessary dispensation. When pooled, these vouchers enabled the religious to repurchase some of their property.
The Industrial Occupation
Apart from the repurchase of farms and other property which had belonged to the Abbey, two religious, in particular abbot Gérard and Father Georges with the help of other brethren and even that of laymen, secured the repurchase of the Abbey, its church and adjacent properties, no doubt in the hope of later re-establishing religious life at Leffe. Better days proving slow to return, the property was again sold by certain among them. Saint-Hubert de Sir de Melin, a layman associated with the first sale, became the second purchaser of the church, the monastery and its outbuildings. He had the church demolished, of which only the sections of the walls which had resisted mining and blasting, remained. Parts of them can still be seen.
As for Frédéric Gérard, on 12 October 1812 he bequeathed all his property to his niece, directing that she should restore the Abbey when that should become possible. He died in 1813.
Resold in 1816 to a French company of Monthermé managed by Auguste des Rousseaux, the Abbey was converted into a glass works; furnaces and a manufacturing shop were set up in the ruins of the church, workmens’ families were accommodated in a part of the monastery.
The industry lasted for 15 years and the company collapsed in 1830. Creditors took over the property themselves and kept it until 1839. Put up for sale once again at that time, it did not find a buyer. A part of the Abbey was then converted into a paper factory and later into a linen works; the other part, namely, the farm containing the brewery, the cattle sheds, the stables, the storerooms, three main buildings and the old quarters of the Father Abbot and the canons, was sold in 1842 to M. Jean-Joseph Wauthier of Leffe. On the death of his wife on 13 February 1883, it was decided to put the property up for sale. Like other religious houses, the Abbey of Leffe appeared doomed to oblivion. In 1844, the last surviving religious died. Everything appeared to be finished, when a strange event contributed to a revival of the Abbey.