Abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, France
The abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert in the Gellone valley (30 kilometres northwest of Montpellier) owes its name to Guilhem, a French knight of the medieval period. Born sometime in the late 8th century, Guilhem was the grandson of Charles Martel, the Duke of Aquitaine, and one of the Emperor Charlemagne’s chosen knights. He fought bravely against the Saracens (Muslims) of Spain and became famous as the hero of medieval ballads due to his knightly prowess and chivalrous character. A devout Christian who ended his days (died 812 AD) in the monastery at Gellone, he endowed the abbey with a relic of the True Cross, given to him by Charlemagne. Because of this relic, the monastery soon prospered and became an important place of pilgrimage in southern France.
With the development of the great medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (the shrine of Saint James in northwestern Spain) in the 10th century, Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert became a recognized stage on one of the four major routes leading to Compostela. By the middle of the 11th century, this influx of pilgrims to the Gellone valley enabled the monks to rebuild their monastery on a larger scale, using the architectural techniques of the early Romanesque style. The present abbey church dates from that period.
The life of the monastery continued, influenced from time to time by national events and the wider crosscurrents of history until its slow decline in the 18th century and its suppression during the French Revolution in 1790. In the 19th century, the abbey was vandalized and fragments of its buildings are found scattered all over the region, even as far away as the Cloisters museum, north of New York City. Reconstructed in the 20th century, today the abbey is the parish church of the small, picturesque village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert. No archaeological evidence has come to light indicating the sanctity of the site in pre-Christian times.
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