Between the 10th and 11th centuries the land and the Abbey belonged to lay families, first the Gabarret family, then by marriage to the Durfort family.
In 1082 Bernard-Raymond de Durfort gave the Abbey as a gift to the abbot of Moissac, as is attested by a charter written in the 1115 register book of Cluny. The monks thus became Cluniac Benedictines. However, there is an earlier indication that the Abbey existed before 1000 AD : the mortuary encyclical rolls of Catalonia, announcing the death of the abbot of Ripoll in 1008, gave his title as: SN Maurino Agenense.
Why did an important abbey exist not far from Agen ?
It was because the Abbey of Saint Maurin perpetuated the veneration of a victim of Christian faith. Maurin, who would have lived his short life in the 6th century, was a Christian of Gallo-Roman origin who was martyred (being decapitated) near a fountain within the Agenais area, near the present village. His death, and the miracles which followed, inspired the establishment of a cult and the construction of a basilica, later replaced by a monastery.
This part history, part legend, is related in an 11th century manuscript, BN.Lat17002.
In the 11th century, the first part of the Abbey church built (or rebuilt) was the south arm of the transept, flanked by a semi-circular chapel dedicated to Saint Benedict. The chapel was dedicated on 3rd January 1097, as attested by an exceptional lapidary (stone) inscription which is still visible on the walls. The bell tower was raised above the south transept. It resembled the tower built above one of the transepts of the immense church of Cluny.
In the 12th century the choir and the north transept were begun, followed by the building of the nave.
Some of the capitals in the choir illustrate the death of Saint Maurin. They are remarkable for their fineness of line, their proportions, the gravity of the faces and the restrained postures of the figures. They are regarded as among the most beautiful in Aquitaine.
The single nave was possibly topped by a row of cupolas. Stone remnants found suggest that this was the case. Other churches in the region had rows of cupolas too, e.g. Périgueux, Cahors and Souillac.
During this period (the beginning of the 12th century) the chants for liturgical processions, particular to Saint Maurin, were composed, perhaps in the scriptorium of the Abbey.
They are preserved in the national library, listed under BN.Lat 2819. In 1997, members of the association used them to create a theatrical performance commemorating the 900th anniversary of the consecration of the Abbey.
This occasion marked the first publication of the processional chants in a booklet. The booklet included the manuscript BN.Lat17002 together with the processional chants, the whole entitled: Que vive la mémoire, la légende et les chants de processions (1997). It is available from the association.
The cloister was built north of the nave during the 12th and 13th centuries, together with the surrounding buildings. They were largely destroyed and rebuilt with modifications several times during the Hundred Years’ War.
To understand these overlapping developments, one has to know how to ‘read’ the stones. This is exactly what Dr. Christian Corvisier, medieval archaeologist at the University of Paris 1, did in his work : Abbaye de Saint-Maurin, Histoire de l’architecture (2002). It is available from the association.
Over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries the village of Saint-Maurin grew up around its monastery, at first inside the surrounding walls, then outside them. In the 13th century the Abbey estate prospered, encompassing 25 parishes and chapels in the dioceses of Agen and Cahors. At the beginning of the century the abbot freed the Abbey from the authority of Moissac and managed it independently, though it remained a Clunisian establishment. At the time there were a dozen monks and the abbot. By 1324 the number had risen to 25 monks.
During the Hundred Years’ War the Abbey suffered the same fate as most of her sister abbeys. In 1345 the Earl of Derby comprehensively pillaged the Abbey and its riches. Then in 1355 the Black Prince swooped upon the village and burned it to the ground, not sparing even the Abbey church…Just four of the seventeen monks – and the abbot – survived.
After this the Abbey and the village stagnated for almost a century. Then, little by little, they returned to life.
At the end of the 15th century the Abbey fell under the tenure of the de Lustrac family. The tenure allowed them to carry out ambitious reconstruction projects. These added to both the personal prestige and the comfort of the abbot.
Three members of the de Lustrac family succeeded each other as abbots: the first, Herman, fairly quickly resigned the role (in 1481) to his nephew Bertrand, who was barely 16 years old. Under Bertrand’s abbacy, in 1500 the chateau (the abbot’s house) was built in the late Gothic style. This chateau must have been most agreeable to live in, with its vast rooms and magnificent sculpted stone chimney breasts. It was also endowed with a private chapel, its walls painted with frescoes. Bertrand died there on 27th April 1511 and was buried in the choir of the Abbey church. He had also been bishop of Lectoure, but preferred his Abbey at Saint-Maurin.
Another nephew, Jean de Lustrac, succeeded him. He restored the cloister, the chapter house and the monks’ cells in the north wing, which had a square tower at its end. These works were completed in 1545.
During the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants the Abbey was again sacked and burnt. From 1561 to 1580 pillaging and other violent crimes committed by local bands caused much suffering. Three or four monks hid themselves in nooks and crannies of the monastery.
The Abbey had to await the arrival of abbot Pierre de Villemont in 1604 to be restored. It seems prosperity returned in 1624.
Pierre de Villemont’s successor, abbot Mathurin Mangot, in 1645 introduced the reforms of Saint Maur to the Abbey. In 1657 the Maurist Dom du Laura pieced together its history, recording important details and giving us our best description of the Abbey in his account, the Chronicon monasterii Sancti Maurini, doc. BNF.Lat 12829. At the same time Dom Plouvier drew up plans for improvement. These documents are extremely precious, and extracts can be found in the book by Christian Corvisier cited above.
By the end of the 17th century the gardens, the enclosing wall, the two defensive turrets (of which only one remains), the fishpond, and improvements to the furnishing of the Abbey church, were completed.
On 6th February 1790 the disruption brought by the Revolution came to the village and inevitably the Abbey suffered.
The Abbey chateau, bought by the municipality, was partly preserved. A few families acquired the monks’ buildings. The choir, the apse and the apsidioles of the transepts became dwellings. The walls of the nave were completely dismantled and the stones sold off – it was as though the nave were a quarry.
Despite all these depradations, the Abbey was not dramatically changed by its various reconstructions. It is still present in essence within its original enclosure. We hope that, with the programme of restoration that has begun, we shall see emerging from the ruins these buildings steeped in history and memories.