Before AD 850
Montmajour is located on one of the larger rocky hills (Notre-Dame-d’Ilon, Montmajour, Cordes, Castelet) 1 emerging from the ancient marshes from the city of Arles-Arelate to the Alpilles mountain range to the north, until the end of the Middle Ages, when Montmajour was only accessible by boat. Fig. 1
Its limestone bedrock from the Miocene 2 offers an excellent source for building material, extensively used for the Romanesque and post-Romanesque buildings on the site and served also as a burial ground for graves directly hewn into the bedrock. To the south the summit of the rock is shaped as a nearly vertical cliff hollowed by natural caves Fig. 2 and to the north as a strong steady slope ending in what seems to have been a rather narrow platform at the top. The fact that the Romanesque abbey church was erected on this uncomfortable ground suggests that the earliest monastic settlement was mostly restricted to the top or to the caves, which proved insufficient when the monastery was substantially rebuilt and enlarged in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.
Montmajour overlooks the entire marshland and its insular situation offered a convenient protection and isolation from the city nearby and from the roman roads crossing at Arles. Fig. 3
An investigation of the historical context of Montmajour must take into account the roman period as there is no clear documentary evidence of the site before the mention of a monastic community around 954. The prosperous roman colony of Arelate Sextanorum 3 which replaced Augusta Treverorum as Capital of the Seven Provinces at the end of the fourth century and metropolis of an important archdiocese was significant enough to be chosen by Constantine the Great for the concile of 314. In Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages the city maintained a certain status and ruled over a vast territory, including the site of Montmajour. The exceptional complex of the Roman mills at Barbegal and the remains of the monumental aqueduct nearby, five kilometres east of Montmajour, which supplied both the mills and the antique city with water from the Alpilles mountains, still bear witness to a well-organized rural economy. Inside the south-eastern angle of the city walls, the remains of an immense church rebuilt in the 6th century prove that Arles remained prosperous and important during the early Merovingian period.
Though there is no clear archaeological evidence of a permanent antique nor early mediaeval settlement at Montmajour before the foundation of the abbey in the mid-10th century. Pottery, tiles and a small stone basin from the Roman period were found at the south-western side of the hill 4 and an abundant Late Antique archaeological material on the site of the cellar of the Romanesque monastery.5
The choice of Montmajour by a monastic community is consistent with earlier local traditions: the bishop Honoratus, in the early 5th century, had founded the island monastery of Lérins near Cannes and was followed on the Episcopal see of Arles by one of his disciples, Honoratus. Though there is no historical support for a late medieval tradition 6, known since the 15th century when the monks pretended an earlier foundation of Montmajour by the legendary first bishop of Arles Trophimus (3rd century, at that time attributed to the 1st century) or by Charlemagne, according to which Trophimus would have hidden from prosecution in one of the caves which was later transformed into the 11th century church of St Peter’s. The account may indeed have been inspired by the occasional use of the caverns as lodgings or hermitages.7 Fig. 4
1 Gazenbeek, Michel, Occupation du sol et évolution environnementale depuis le Néolithique dans la Montagnette et la partie occidentale des Alpilles (Bouches-du-Rhône). Ph.D. thesis, University of Aix-en-Provence, 1995, p. 256, 123
3 For a detailed account of the history of Arles and its territory in the Antiquity and of the archaeological sites:
Heijmans, Marc, Arles durant l’Antiquité tardive. De la Duplex Arelas à l’Urbs Genesii, Rome (coll. De l’Ecole Française de Rome, 324), p. 224, 448
Rothé, Marie-Pierre and Heijmans, Marc, Arles, Crau, Camargue. Carte Archéologique de la Gaule, 13/5, Paris, 2008, p. 906
Rouquette, Jean-Maurice (dir.), Arles, histoire, territoires et cultures, Paris, 2008, p. 50-260
4 Benoît, Fernand, ‘Carte archéologique de la Gaule romaine. Carte (partie occidentale) et texte complet du département des Bouches-du-Rhône’, Forma Orbis Romani, V, Paris, 1936, p. 192, fig. 467
Rothé, Marie-Pierre and Heijmans, Marc, Arles, Crau, Camargue. Carte Archéologique de la Gaule, 13/5, Paris, 2008, p. 906, p. 721, fig. 401
5 Paone, Françoise, ‘Arles. Montmajour : Monastère Saint-Maur’, in Bilan scientifique. Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Service Régional de l’Archéologie, Aix-en-Provence, 1995, p. 116
6 Laget-Mognetti, Élisabeth, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Congrès archéologique de France, 134, 1976, Pays d’Arles, Paris, 1979, p. 186