This has the distinction of being the most austere of the monastic orders to emerge from the Middle Ages. In the fullness of time it has been claimed by both the Order of St Benedict and the Canons Regular of St Augustine. In fact it owed allegiance to neither of these religious groups and its members always professed to be neither monks nor canons but hermits.
The date of its foundation has not been established precisely but it was around the year 1078 that the founder, St Stephen of Thiers, established himself and his followers in the forest of Muret some five leagues from the city of Limoges in the Limousin. The Order certainly pre-dates that of the Cistercians (1098) and the Premonstratensian Canons (1120).
During the lifetime of St Stephen the brethren followed a totally eremitical existence inhabiting separate cells grouped around a small stone oratory which was modelled on the simple rural churches prevalent in the region at the time. As the number of followers multiplied, new foundations or ‘cellae’ were established in the same area. The brethren adopted the cheapest and roughest cloth available for clothing and were totally vegetarian in their diet.
Following the death of St Stephen in 1124, a dispute with the local Benedictine monks over land rights forced the brethren to leave Muret. Bearing the body of their founder they moved to a new site at Grandmont that become the mother house of the Order until its suppression by Pope Clement XIV, less than twenty years before the French Revolution closed all the monasteries of France. In its early years the Order spread very rapidly, by the mid 13th century, point of maximum expansion, close on 150 cellae had been founded. Only five of these foundations were outside France, in addition to the three English houses there were two in Spain.
By the mid 13th century the monastic malaise prevalent throughout Europe affected the Order at the time. The numbers of religious declined, the life style of the remainder became increasingly decadent and religious observance began to be partially if not wholly neglected. The Order might well have sunk into total oblivion if Pope John XXII had not taken a hand. In 1317 he reformed and reconstituted it along more conventional monastic lines. Grandmont was raised to the status of an abbey with William Pellicier, the 23rd prior, appointed abbot. The remainder of the houses which had previously been known as ‘cells’, henceforth became ‘priories’ whilst their rulers, previously called ‘correctors’ became ‘priors’.
A system of annual visitation was instituted and priors were required to report regularly at the annual general chapter held at Grandmont. The Order recovered but its eremitical character disappeared forever and the Grandmontines began to have more in common with regular canons than the group of hermits who had left Muret for Grandmont.
The trials experienced by the Mother House continued throughout its history. It was under siege during the Hundred Years’ War and the brethren at one point were forced to flee before the army of the Black Prince. It suffered subsequently at the hands of marauding bandits, was pillaged by the Huguenots and reduced to dire financial straits by a succession of commendatory abbots.
The 17th century witnessed the spread of a monastic reform movement in France. The Grandmontines found their equivalent of the Cistercian reformer Abbot de Rance in Dom Charles Frémon, and in common with the Cistercians the Order was split into two groups representing the ‘strict’ and ‘traditional’ observance. This unfortunate division hastened the final disbanding of the Order. By 1767 the number of professed religious at Grandmont was down to nine and in 1772, Pope Clement XIV on the advice of the French Religious Commission ordered its total suppression. The great abbey of Grandmont was dismantled, the bulk of it being carted away to build a prison at Limoges. However, the pious local people managed to save sufficient stones to build the tiny chapel of St John the Baptist that alone identifies the site today.