Ruins of Chaalis
with sixteenth-century renovated chapel
Stephanie A. Viereck Gibbs Kamath


"There, I seemed to see all the scholars of the Church, without exception, surrounded by their books and their treatises, inviting, no, even forcing and obliging those who entered, whether they would or no, to learn..."

The early fifteenth-century Latin letters of proto-humanist Jean de Montreuil (1409-1416), describing his visit to Chaalis, reflect the wonders of the Cistercian monastery's library even after a turbulent century of dropping monastic revenues, compounded by debased currency, the chaos of the Hundred Years War, and the ravages of the bubonic plague.   In describing the wonders of the library, Jean praises its well-corrected texts.  There may be no better example of the fervent desire to correct and improve on literary undertakings, even on one’s own text, and the fluid movement of the learning from the great storehouse of Chaalis out into the wide world, than the fourteenth-century pilgrimage allegories composed and revised by Guillaume de Deguileville (or Digulleville), specially mentioned by Jean de Montreuil as "frequently found in the hands of the unlettered."

The monk Guillaume dreams of setting out on pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem while in his bed at Chaalis (Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque Municipale Méjanes, ms. 110 (Rés. ms. 43),
circa 1390).

This chapterette covers the literary importance of Deguileville's works, describing how these allegories respond to the popular Roman de la rose, uniting Cistercian and classical sources, and spread widely outwards from Chaalis, as attested by the more than 70 surviving manuscripts and at least 10 early print editions; adaptation into French prose and dramatic forms; prose and verse translations in England, including a post-Reformation version; and translations into German, Dutch, Latin, and Castilian.  This chapter also suggests how the allegories reflect not only the library but also the wider context of Chaalis, the monastery's intriguing royal foundation history and its unusual geographic setting near the major center of Senlis, with possessions extending into the markets of Paris. The sources and subjects of the allegories reflect the often conflicted relations of Chaalis with the bishopric of Senlis, the Cistercian college of St. Bernard at University of Paris, and its mother house of Pontigny.  The concern with kingship in the allegories speaks to the alternately sweet and bitter relations of Chaalis with the French monarchy, from its initiation by Louis VI in memory of his assassinated brother, 'Chaalis' being derived from Karoli locus, to the foundation's ultimate decay through abusive power of the royal commènde.  The trilogy’s motifs of crusade and voyage to Jerusalem, moreover, not only help to explain the later outspoken admiration Philippe de Mézières expressed for these allegories but may also reflect the long shadows cast by the burning alive of Templar knights at Senlis and the rationale for the potentially controversial defenses of the Templar order voiced by the scholarly Chaalis abbot Jacques de Thérines.

In short, Chaalis from 1348 to 1415 represents a significant repository and generator of texts and a key locus for actual and literary travel.