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.