History of the Chartreuse (1/2)

Posted on09/02/2020 by


In a series of episodic newsletters dedicated to the Chartreuse liqueur, we've told you about its origins, its history during the 17th century, the specificities of its different years of production... The Chartreuse liqueur is a part of the Carthusian Order, the monks who've been making it for more than 400 years. Here's the first part of its story.


Ep.1: The Legend of Saint Bruno

The founder of the Order is a man called Bruno, son of a wealthy merchant whose name we don't know, born in Germany in 1033. This very pious boy begins his ecclesiastic career as the canon of St. Cunibert's, in his native city of Cologne. Then, once he's reached the age of 15, he decides to leave his family and sets his sights on Reims.

Why Reims, you ask? Well, it was quite famous for its cathedral school, meaning a school that specializes in training men of the Cloth. There, Bruno becomes such a fine pupil, that he manages to become a schoolmaster himself, also called "scholarum magister" in latin, after a few years.

The Archbishop of Reims, Gervais de Belleme, is the one who gave him this opportunity when canon Hermann, the former schoolmaster, resigned. The perfect job for Bruno, who now teaches theology and lives a comfortable life, thanks to the tithe (a tax given to the Church by the people). Until the death of Archbishop Gervais, in 1067.


Ep.2: Bruno against the Archbishop

When Archbishop Gervais de Belleme dies, tensions are high between the Holy See and King Philip I. Thus, nobody succeeds Gervais before 1070. That year, the King of the Franks tries to strengthen its weakened relationship with the Church and chooses to elect Manasses de Gournay, one of his very close friends, as the new Archbishop of Reims.

Things take a bad turn right away. In 1071, Manasses I violently opposes the election of the new abbot of Saint-Remi and confiscates the abbey's goods. As a reaction, the monks send a delegation to Rome, and thus begins a long struggle between the Archbishop and Pope Gregory VII. Upon hearing the news, Manasses gets mad and excommunicates all the monks of Saint-Remi.

In 1075, Manasses I offers Bruno not only the title of Chancellor of the Cathedral of Reims, but also the title of Dean of all the schools in the city. The Archbishop wants to have him in his pocket, but Bruno knows better. He is aware of Manasses' reputation: tyrannical, violent, corrupt, impatient, insolent... the man seems to have many vices.


Ep.3: Bruno, the Exiled

Bruno, who supports the Gregorian Reform, helps the monks of Saint-Remi in their fight against Manasses I. In 1076, after having officially denounced the Archbishop's wrongdoings, Bruno is condemned to exile. Stripped of all his titles, he is forced to leave Reims with a few other canons and finds refuge in the Castle of his friend, Count Ebal de Roncy.

In 1077, the pontifical legate Hugh of Die also accuses the Archbishop of Reims of being a heresiarch (the leader of a heretical sect), during the Council of Autun. Three years later, Manasses is finally excommunicated by the Pope, after the Council of Lyon. The fallen Archbishop vows to have his revenge and decides to side with Henri IV, against Pope Gregory VII.

As for Bruno, who is offered the position of Archbishop of Reims, he is tired of all these political intrigues. He kindly declines and leaves the city in 1082, with two of his companions (Fulcius and Raoul). A year later, Renaud du Bellay is chosen as the new Archbishop. Bruno renounces all his earthly possessions and becomes a hermit, in order to get closer to God.


Ep.4: The Revelation of Saint Bruno

The year is 1084 and Bruno is 51. He's trying to live with some other monks (under the guidance of his friend, Robert of Molesme, the future founder of the Cistercian Order) in a little abbey, deep within the Forest of Seche-Fontaine. He soon realizes that he cannot truly be at peace here, and decides to build his own hermitage. To do so, he will need some help.

Following Robert's advice, he leaves Burgundy to seek an audience with the young Bishop of Grenoble, Hugh of Chateauneuf, whose piety is on par with his faith in the Gregorian Reform. What Bruno doesn't know, is that the Bishop foresaw his arrival. He saw it in a dream: seven stars shining bright, lighting the way for seven holy men.

In 1085, Bruno and his friends get to work, and the first wooden chapel sprouts from the ground, along with a few monastic cells. Just like the vision said, Hugh gave them permission to come live in the Chartreuse Mountains, towering over Grenoble. There, in the wasteland many people call "desertum Cartusiae", the Carthusian Order is created.


Ep.5: Bruno, in Peace

Bruno has finally found his true calling: living here, with his hermit brothers, praising God every day. For years, he molds the new Order, creating different rules for the monks to observe (those rules would later be written by Prior Guigues, in 1125). Their daily life is a never-ending quest for inner peace, made of heavy manual work, silence and prayer.

After six years, in 1090, Bruno receives a message from one of his former pupils, when he was a teacher in Reims: Odo of Chatillon, now Pope Urban II, needs the help of his old master regarding the Gregorian Reform of the Church. So, with a heavy heart, Bruno leaves the monastery in the capable hands of Brother Landuin, and goes to Rome.

His stay at the Papal Court is short-lived. Bruno refuses to become Archbishop of Reggio and, in 1092, Pope Urban II (who fled to the South of Italy, hiding from Henri IV) allows him to build a new hermitage in Calabria: Santo Stefano del Bosco. It's there that Bruno dies in 1101, at 68 years old, having never returned to his beloved Chartreuse Mountains.


Ep.6: The Legacy of Saint Bruno

The Carthusian Order has lost its founder (who would be "canonized" in 1514), but his teachings are eternal. In their desertum, as real as it is symbolical, the monks seem to exist in a bubble. To feed themselves, they decide to plow the earth and raise livestock. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Grenoble has sworn to cut off the monastery from the outside world.

Thus, in 1101, Rome and the local authorities officially recognize the existence of the "Desert" and offer the monks a form of independence. They even start to delimit borders, as a way to preserve the sanctuary. As for the brothers, they turn to craftsmanship, exploiting the iron from nearby mines and deforesting the perimeter around the monastery.

This is why, between the 12th and 13th century, a furnace is built in a place called Fourvoirie, not very far from the Grande Chartreuse. There, the monks forge the metal taken from the depths, in huge charcoal ovens. The Carthusian Order is slowly developing and new monasteries start to appear in the Alps, the Jura, the Ardennes...


Ep.7: Prosperity for the Carthusians

The Carthusians are settling all over France, and even go beyond its borders. The Order has reached countries like Spain (where Saint Bruno is buried), England (thanks to Henry II of England, in 1181), Italy, Denmark... In total, 195 monasteries, or "Chartreuses" as they are now called, have been built, from the end of the 13th century to 1521.

The Order's relationship with the current elite are impeccable. The rich even help the monks build new places, allowing them to expand even more and to spread their teachings. During the 16th century, there are 4000 fathers and brothers across western Europe. Unfortunately, from 1555 onward, inter-religious conflicts set the Kingdom of France ablaze.

Reformists opposed to the Catholic Church ("Huguenots", led by the Baron of Adrets, a convert to Calvinism) have radicalized and start attacking convents and monasteries. In 1562, the Grande Chartreuse is looted and burned, leaving the monks lost without their "Desert" for three years. The chaos would only stop in 1598, with the signature of the Edict of Nantes.

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