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Things to See in the Languedoc:   Historic Abbeys, Priories, Monasteries and Convents:   St-Hilaire Abbey

Located in the Aude département.

Saint Hilaire the first Bishop of Carcassonne built a chapel here in the Sixth century, and was subsequently buried in it.

The chapel was replaced in the Eighth century by a Church, built by Benedictine monks who founded the Abbey here.

The abbey was originally named after Saint Saturnin (or Saint Sernin) the first Bishop of Toulouse, but was renamed after Hilaire when his remains were discovered on 22nd February 970, on the instructions of Roger I, Count of Carcassonne and his wife Countess Adelaide. The Count and Countess were benefactors, and were later buried in the abbey around 1012.

The abbey flourished during the tenth century, bolstered by extensive donations. It grew ever more powerful between the eleventh and thirteenth century. It was damaged during the course of the Cathar Wars and restored by abbot William (1237-1260) who built the nave in the gothic style in 1257. The transverse ribs were intended to carry a wooden frame.

The cloister was constructed under Bertrand of Touron, Abbot from 1323-1340.

Saint Hilaire was the birthplace of the white sparking wine known as Blanquette de Limoux, the first reference is from 1531 - long before the method for creating sparkling wine was known elsewhere.

The abbey went into decline in the fourteenth century, presumably a consequence of the Black Death. In 1344 the Bishop of Carcassonne reduced the number of monks from 29 to 20.

Further decline followed. By 1741 most of the abbey's property had passed into private hands and only seven monks remained. Seven years later, by order of the bishop, monastic offices ceased. Ten years later still the abbey church was converted into a parish church.

The spire was built in 1898.

Today the abbey is in reasonably good condition, though as with many ancient monuments in France, parts are still in private hands and not accessible to the public.

Some things to see:

  • A twelfth century sarcophagus carved from a block of Pyrenean marble, sculpted on three sides. Images represent the story of Saint Sernin's arrest, reputed martyrdom, and burial in Toulouse in the year 250. This was used as the main alter. It was sculpted by the Master of Cabestany Next.
  • A reading chair, located up a stairway and set into the wall dividing two refectories. It was normal for a monk to read extracts from the scriptures during meals. The unusual feature here is that the reading monk could be heard in both dining rooms, though each room was not visible from the other. This is one of only two examples known in Europe. According to the publicity the two refectories were for monks and visitors, but one cannot help wondering if the monks here adopted the common Cistercian practice of employing poor lay brothers to work for them (and eat separately).
  • The fourteenth century trapezoidal cloister, with 12 arches on the Eastern side, 16 to the South, 12 to the West and 14 to the North. In the centre is a four leafed basin dating from the sixteenth century.
  • The chapter house, one of the rooms to the East of the cloister has sixteenth century groin vaulting. It was converted into a residence. In 1860 Canon Boudet commissioned the painting of coats of arms for the 55 abbot's, some of them clearly made up.
  • The cellars, used for food storage, are cut out of the living rock.
  • Reredos in the Virgin's Chapel (North transept) dating from 1726


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