Thirteen hundred and twenty-two years ago today, Saint Wandrille (or Wandregisilus) did not die a gruesome martyr’s death. He was not charbroiled on the pyre and then removed for beheading while having his entrails drawn out on a windlass. He was not thrown into the roiling water with a millstone tied around his neck. He was not mauled by a bear, chewed by a lion, or devoured by a dragon. He was not skinned alive while being forced to watch Mel Gibson’s all-Aramaic “The Passion”. No, in mid July he took to bed with a slight cold, had an ecstasy and died surrounded by his faithful monks.
Before his unmartyred death, Saint Wandrille founded the Abbey at Fontanelle in Normandy, which Maurice Maeterlinck and his lover Georgette Leblanc would rent in 1906, while Maeterlinck was experiencing depression and the two of them were having relationship issues, although they called it neurasthenia. While staying at the abbey Georgette often wore an abbess’s habit and Maurice roller-skated through the abbey’s vast halls and courtyards; he also wrote his great socialist essay, The Intelligence of Flowers.
I am interested in Maeterlinck because he is Belgian and because he wrote one of the most beautiful books ever written about bees, The Life of the Bee. I don’t know what the connection is between those two facts, but I do know that there are four bee museums in Belgium, where most countries have none and others have one. And perhaps while my parents are in Brussels this week*, they will visit one of those four bee museums, although because this is Belgium, it will probably be closed all week and my father will have no memory of the visit two weeks later. But that is fine because he will surely remember the first time he and my mother visited Belgium after they were married in 1951, and they dined with her beloved Oncle Augustín who kept a life size horizontal portrait of his entombed dead son, the great Belgian resistance hero, Paul Brancart, hanging above the sideboard in the dining room. Paul died young to protect the integrity of Belgium, so that it could go on to argue about the supremacy of French or Flemish well into the next century.
How were Maeterlinck and LeBlanc able to rent an entire monastery for their rest cure, you may well ask, and how can I do the same? Sorry. Not this one. In the anti-church hysteria concomitant with the French Revolution (consider the poor nuns in Dialogues de Carmelites), the monastery of St Wandrille was suppressed in 1791 and then sold at auction to become a factory. Later still the Stacpoole family owned it until 1896 when a very religious Stacpoole returned the abbey to the Benedictines; in 1896 they installed their first abbot since the French Revolution.
This does not explain how ten years later, in 1906, the depressed Maeterlinck and his lover were able to rent the place. Roller skating has since been banned in the cloister.
Nor does it explain this passage from Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1882 edition of his Lives of the Saints:
“Of [Wandrille’s] relics only two arms remain, one at Fontanelle the other at Bron. Of the noble abbey, the cloisters exist and part of the abbey I turned into a factory. Of the four churches, one the great abbey church, a magnificent specimen of architecture of the 13th century, nothing remains. In 1828 much of this great church existed. Since then the proprietor M. Cyprien Lenoir – let his name go down gibbeted to posterity – has blown it up with gunpowder.”
Baring-Gould does not mention the skull of St Wandrille, perhaps because it was not found, in Liège, Belgium, until sometime in the 19th century. And then returned to the Abbey in 1967. Clearly, neither the arms nor the skull were at the abbey when Maeterlinck was roller-skating through its unhallowed halls.
Just now, the Abbey is closed for renovations until Christmas. Which would not be at all surprising if it happened to be in Belgium. But it is not.
*Staying with a second cousin who has planned every meal well in advance. Tonight they will dine on tomate-crevettes, followed by a pheasant Brabançonne with frites, an endive salad, ending with stinky cheeses from Didant.