In the early 12th century, the future Saint Bernard left the Cîteaux Abbey to found Clairvaux. The new Cistercian Order planned to create their communities in places both remote from the world, to be able to devote themselves to prayer, and well served by natural resources, to be entirely self-sufficient.

A true model of a Cistercian abbey, Clairvaux is situated in the clearing of the Val d’Absinthe in the heart of a vast forest traversed by the river Aube. This location made it possible to create mills and fish ponds and use the forest for timber and raising livestock. Their exploitation of land devoted to agriculture and viticulture, and also their mines and forges, quickly lead to the monks and the “laypeople” of Clairvaux innovating and developing new techniques in several domains (ranging from architecture to metallurgy to viticulture). They enjoyed the fruits of their research thanks to a large network of regional monastic granges numbering in the forties, and dispersed them through a filiation of more than 350 abbeys across Europe.

On the eve of the Revolution the abbey, a wealthy estate covering over 20,000 hectares (including 16,000 of forest), still presented itself as a religious city, with multiple buildings constructed over the centuries within an enclosure three kilometers long. The inhabitants nurtured Saint Bernard’s reputation, defending his theological work and reminding all that he was, between 1120 and 1150, the “conscience of his time”, arbitrator between princes, and advisor to popes.

At the time of the Revolution, Clairvaux was sold as “National property” but not demolished. In 1808, Napoleon changed the French penal system. The penalty of deprivation of liberty which was established required the provision of prisons.  He bought the abbey to make it the largest prison of his time. The walls of the abbey housed detainees up until 1971. At that point the new central prison, which still occupies a large part of the area, was built on the site of the foundations of the former abbey, freeing up most of the historic buildings so that, starting in 1979, a cultural activity could operate albeit under certain security conditions.

The story of Clairvaux prison accompanies stories of great trials and famous political prisoners in France over the last two centuries. The first prisoners were, in 1813, rebels of the great Napoleonic army. In 1832, Clairvaux became the center of a new social debate: Victor Hugo published Claude Gueux, the name of a prisoner whose sad story has become the pretext for his first book against the death penalty. Then in 1848 with Georges Duchesne and in 1871 with the Communards, Clairvaux became the prison of the revolutionaries. Blanqui was locked up there for many months. Prince Kropotkin and the anarchists of Lyon spent time in Clairvaux in 1883. Then there were rebels from Verdun in 1916, Marty the mutineer of the Black Sea in 1921, the Cagoulards (Hoods) in 1934, resistance fighters – including Guy Môquet – between 1940 and 1944, several Vichy ministers and collaborators at the time of the Liberation, FLN officials and three of the putschist generals at the end of the Algerian war, then autonomists and international terrorists.




From 1115, after three years of monastic life in Cîteaux, Bernard was sent to Clairvaux to found the abbey where he remained father abbot until his death. Far from remaining cloistered, he traveled the roads of Europe becoming, as has been written, “the conscience of the Church of his time”. He came to Paris several times, to Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, to the chapel of Martyrium, and to the Saint Aignan chapel where he often came to pray before the statue of the Virgin which is now at Notre-Dame of Paris. He also traveled to Germany (Speyer), where his sermons helped protect the Jewish communities implanted in the Rhineland villages.

His abundant correspondence with princes, monk brothers, and young men who required his advice did not prevent him from devoting himself to contemplation as well as to direct action in the society of his time. An indefatigable founder, he was often seen on his mule, trailing his failing health and spiritual enthusiasm down the roads of Europe. His monastic reform was in opposition to the Order of Cluny, whose interpretation of the rule of St. Benedict he considered too accommodating.

When he died in 1153, three hundred and forty-three Cistercian abbeys had risen from the European soil.