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Vézelay is a French commune located in the Yonne department, in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region. Renowned for the Sainte-Marie-Madeleine basilica and the hill classified as World Heritage, it is the starting point of one of the main pilgrimage routes of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, the Via Lemovicensis. Great writers of the twentieth century, such as Romain Rolland, Georges Bataille or Jules Roy, lived on the “inspired hill”.



The first vestiges of human settlement in the vicinity of Vézelay date from 2300-2200 BC near the sources of the Salted Fountains. In the 1st and 2nd centuries, nearly two thousand mine shafts were operated southwest of Vézelay by around five hundred to eight hundred slaves. These mining operations allowed the creation of an economic activity center (market), a refuge and probably a place of pilgrimage.

From the 1st century, the Romans set up wine culture on the hill of Vézelay. A temple in honor of Bacchus was discovered by the priest Guenot in 1689 in the foundations of the old Saint-Etienne church during the construction of a new bell tower, which shows the importance of this culture in the region .

Middle Ages
High Middle age
The human settlement on the hill of Vézelay dates back a long time to the Benedictine abbey. Merovingian sarcophagi were found in the basement of Saint-Pierre church, and under one of them an older sarcophagus. In 2012, a Carolingian wall was discovered under the cloister of Vézelay.

Girart de Roussillon receives the region by a favor of Louis the Pious19 and chooses around 858 to ensure the sustainability of its possessions by transforming them into two Benedictine communities, male and female respectively: Pothières and Vézelay. He thus founded a monastery of women on the current site of Saint-Père. He owns a villa, surrounded by large estates. The finage in which the houses are located bears the name of Vezeliacus which becomes Vizeliac then Vézelay.

The existence and the organization of this primitive Vézelay however have only a weak posterity since it comes to an abrupt end around ten years later, between 871 and 877, when the Normans push the nuns to flee. Girart asks for their replacement by a community of men. The abbey is then transferred to the hill and Benedictine monks replace the nuns. The position of the monastery attracts many families to take advantage of the protection of the walls of the new establishment. This one is dedicated to the Virgin and to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.

Its statute is rather particular because it is affiliated with Cluny which profits from an exemption until 1744: “for the annual royalty of a pound of silver, which it paid to the Holy See, it was authorized not to recognize no head of order, no diocesan bishop, no prince, no lord whatsoever. It forms a kind of theocratic republic, detached first from the Carolingian monarchy, then from French feudalism, and retaining, neither with one nor with the other, any link, no relation of subordination. "

Some authors claim that in 882 the monk Badilon would have brought from Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume to Vézelay, relics of Mary Magdalene. But Eudes is mentioned as the first abbot in 897.

At the end of the Carolingian period, the village was devastated by the Normans.

The grandeur of Vézelay abbey
Elected in 1037, Abbot Geoffroy reformed the abbey and convinced his contemporaries that the abbey had the remains of Marie-Madeleine: hence pilgrimages, therefore offerings and donations.

Between the years 1050 and 1250, Vézelay was the largest Magdalenian sanctuary in Western Europe. This naturally benefited the inhabitants and the village became a small town. "Hence, among them, a spirit of independence which was irritated by monastic despotism, and which soon manifested itself in bloody revolts, stubborn struggles". It was not until a papal bull that Madeleine officially became the patron saint of the abbey (1050). Such prosperity attracted Cluny: it subdued Vézelay and imposed on him the Cluniac Abbot Artaud.

In 1060, Vézelay obtained the right to commune.

In 1095, Urban II preached the first crusade; the construction of the abbey is decided. It was consecrated in 1104. The tax established to carry out this business exasperated the inhabitants who revolted in 1106 and assassinated Abbé Artaud. After many vicissitudes (revolts, seigniorial conflicts, fire of 1120 caused by lightning), the narthex or church of the penitent pilgrims was built; it was not dedicated until 1132. In 1137, Abbé Alberic signed a charter with the inhabitants which defined the rights of the abbey and the bourgeoisie: an act of wisdom which was praised in laudatory terms by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.


In the 12th century, Vézelay developed. In 1146, his reputation was such that Bernard de Clairvaux preached the second crusade there at a place called the Saint Bernard cross. The place of the preaching was transformed into a commemorative church: there remained some remains known as the Cordelle. Father Ponce de Montbossier temporarily restores the abbey to its old privileges of independence (“pote, potestas Vezeliacensis”). The abbots receive enormous prerogatives from the Vatican: the right to wear the miter, the stick, the ring and the sandals (privileges of the bishops).

At the same time, the city continued its development and was fortified in 1150 with 2,000 meters of curtain walls and the construction of the Porte Sainte-Croix. After a new revolt in 1152, the city obtained municipal institutions, which were withdrawn from 1155 by Louis VII the Younger. After the revolt of 1167, the inhabitants obtained from the monks a written charter which guaranteed them enviable freedoms in the region (“libertas Vezeliacensis”). Vézelay has a leper colony (sickness center) no later than the thirteenth century.

In 1190, Philippe Auguste and Richard the Lionheart met there for the third crusade. The choir of the Romanesque church is rebuilt in a larger space. Abbot Hugues, a corrupt man, squandered the abbey's wealth and was dismissed in 1207. The abbey's decline began, coinciding with the decline of the monastic orders and that of the Benedictines in particular.

The decline of the abbey and the end of the pilgrimage
If around 1215 the abbey church was completed, the conflicts with the counts of Nevers resumed. The various popes and kings of France cannot protect the religious community. The protection of the relics of the Madeleine seems ineffective, and the pilgrims turn away from this city agitated by so many conflicts (uprising of 1250). Pope Clement IV launches an investigation to understand the reasons for such a downfall and orders a solemn verification of the relics of the Madeleine. King Saint Louis joined in the ceremony (April 24, 1267). But in 1279, the Pope proclaimed that the body found in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume was indeed the body of Marie Madeleine. The pilgrims turn away from Vézelay and prosperity too: besides the contribution, feast of Vézelay, changes date and is celebrated on the day of Quasimodo.

In 1280 an ordinance signed by Philippe le Bold proclaimed the more or less complete attachment of Vézelay to the royal domain. Pope Martin IV approves the decree. The 1312 ordinance of Philip the Fair confirms that the town and the abbey are an ordinary dependency of the royal domain. The inhabitants accept this authority which allows them to contain the abbey omnipotence and to escape the brutalities of feudal lords. Vézelay enters the restricted circle of the good cities of the kingdom (there were then only 16).

In 1360, the wall was rebuilt and reinforced with round towers with machicolations.

On July 27, 1421, the troops of the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe Le Bon, await the relief army in Vézelay. They make their junction with the English contingents of King Henry V, commanded by his brother, the Duke of Bedford, John of Lancaster. The two armies, which numbered 12,000 men, united to counter the forces of Dauphin Charles at La Charité-sur-Loire.

Father Hugues de Maison-Comte, adviser to Charles V, is recognized for his fairness in his relations with the inhabitants of Vézelay, (1353-1383). Abbé Alexandre, advisor to Philippe Le Bon, played a diplomatic role: he urged the Vézeliens to leave the Anglo-Burgundian league and contributed to the rapprochement between Philippe le Bon and Charles VII and caused the meeting of the Council of Basel in 1431. He finally participated in the development of the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges in 1438.

Louis XI does not tolerate that the abbots are linked to the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. In order to ensure a stronghold, he imposed authority on one of his courtiers, Pierre de Balzac.

At the end of the 15th century, a new gate was built in the enclosure: the New Gate, defended by two round towers of about twelve meters in diameter with walls three meters thick, and two harrows were added to the door in order to prevent access.


In 1538, a bull grants what the monks have been asking for for a long time: namely secularization. The abbey becomes a simple collegiate church, a chapter of canons replaces the Benedictine monks and above all the domain is placed in the hands of commendatory abbots. François I tries in vain to get Vézelay to become a bishopric.

The bull of 1541 was not registered by the Parliament of Paris until 1653. It only left the chapter with insufficient income and favored commendatory abbots.

Vézelay in the wars of religion
During the wars of religion, it passed at the discretion of its abbots, from a stronghold of the Reformed to a citadel of the League. The influence of Théodore de Bèze, the abbey in full decline, made Vézelay one of the first towns in the region to become Protestant. In March 1569, the city was taken by the Protestant troops of Captains Sarrasin and Blosset, anxious to gain a good military position.

The city is soon besieged by the armies of Charles IX commanded by Louis Prévost de Sansac. The cavalry was launched on Vézelay on October 6, but the captains entrenched in the city defended themselves very well by attacking in turn. The bombardments from Asquins and Saint-Père gave nothing. The siege turns into a blockade to starve the city.

The city does not surrender despite eight months of siege and intense fighting, thanks to a relief supply of Protestant troops. Sansac breaks camp, leaving the city undefeated on February 25, 1570.

With the treaty of Saint-Germain (1570), Vézelay is one of the two cities of the government of Champagne to authorize the Protestants to exercise their worship freely.

In 1594, Edme de Rochefort, Sieur de Pluvault, who governs the city in the name of the League, gives way to Henri IV and takes the head of the royalist troops to take Avallon.

His successor Érard de Rochefort strove to repair the church of the Madeleine and its outbuildings, in particular the lower chapel: he made fair concessions to the population. But the calamities befall the region again with the appointment of Louis Fouquet brother of the superintendent: they are interminable trials, the abandonment of the privilege of escaping the jurisdiction of the ordinary and finally the persecutions of the Protestants and this long before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

In 1696-1697, Vauban wrote the Geographical Description of the Election of Vézelay, a precise statistical document which meticulously describes the state of misery and ruin of the country. The parish of Vézelay is described there as a “rough, dry and stony country, which yields only very mediocre wine and little wheat. ".

It is under the abbot Jacques Berthier, preacher of the king, that the castle gaillard is destroyed: the abbot of Cours finds it too sad and prefers a construction more to the taste of the time (1752-1769). On the eve of the Revolution, Vézelay lost its municipal privileges, saw its population decrease and was no more than a small town.

On September 6, 1790, the members of the Directory of Avallon, acting under the laws passed by the Constituent Assembly, and in execution of the special decrees of the Directory of the department, signified to the canons that henceforth the Abbey of the Madeleine had ceased to be 'to exist.

Viollet-le-Duc and the reinvention of Vézelay
In August 1834, Prosper Mérimée discovered the abbey church of Vézelay in Burgundy. Immediately, he alerted the Minister of the Interior on the state of the monument:

“I still have to talk about the appalling damage to this magnificent church. The walls are lumpy, rotten with humidity. It is difficult to understand that the all cracked vault still remains. When I was drawing in the church, I heard every moment small stones come loose and fall around me ... well, there is no part of this monument that does not need repairs ... If we still delay to give help to the Madeleine, it will soon be necessary to take the party to destroy it to avoid accidents. "

From 1840 to 1859, the very long restoration campaign of the abbey church of Vézelay was led by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, assisted by his works inspectors, François Nicolas Comynet and then Émile Amé.


The revival of Vézelay and the Catholic reconquest movement
The local ecclesiastical and administrative authorities decide to relaunch the pilgrimage of Sainte-Madeleine.

On July 22, 1876, the feast of Saint Madeleine was reestablished and Mgr Bernadou, archbishop of Sens, returned to Vézelay the relic given in 1267 to the Cathedral Chapter of Sens by Pope Martin IV and the pilgrimage was re-established. The activity of Abbé Barret, a priest campaigning for a Catholic reconquest, came up against the Republicans, who did not hesitate to disturb the processions and even to steal the new relics in 1898.
In 1919, Mgr Chesnelong, archbishop of Sens, appointed Canon Marie-Augustin Despiney as senior parish priest, who launched a real cultural policy to promote Vézelay for 25 years.
In 1920, the old abbey church, a parish since the Revolution, received the title of Vatican basilica, to signal its historical importance for Christendom.
In 1993, Vézelay saw the return of a Catholic monastic community, with the installation near the basilica of the monastic fraternities of Jerusalem.

The rescue of Jewish children 1942-1944
The school of the sisters of Sainte-Madeleine, today the Center Sainte-Madeleine, was the shelter of fifteen Jewish refugee students between 1942 and 1944. They were welcomed by the director, Sister Léocadie, Marie Arnol ( 1880-1952), elevated to the rank of Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel in 2006.