1804 - 1963 : one of the toughest prisons in France

Transformation of the Abbey into a prison

Monastic life ended with the Revolution in 1792. The site became property of the state and after the revolutionary period the Abbey was converted into a central prison in 1804. It was thus saved from certain destruction.

The prison city of Fontevraud was planned for 1000 prisoners and required extensive changes in order to accommodate the numbers. The work aimed to maintain the “ initial forms and order, respecting the similarity in the type of construction and use of materials ”.

The barracks (now the reception building) was situated in the outer courtyard. All the monastic buildings were converted into dormitories, workshops and common areas and new buildings were built (where the gardens are now, alongside the Abbey).

Work and prison

The first prisoners, men, women and children, arrived in 1814. The center held up to 2000 inmates in Fontevraud and was considered the “toughest in France, after Clairvaux”. Inmates worked in various workshops: lockmaking, weaving, mending chairs and making pearl buttons.

From one institution to another, a similar community life filled with silence, work and rituals. The prisoners’ graffiti expresses their despair, loneliness and anger. Attempts to escape were many, but few succeeded. They left a memory that would contribute to the reputation of the prison.

Beginning of the restoration

Ironically the site was restored and partially open to visitors during those dark years. It was ranked first on the list of historical monuments by Prosper Mérimée in 1840. As early as the end of the 19th century the site saw extensive restoration campaigns, including that of the abbey church, led by the architect Lucien Magne.

Jean Genet and the prison

Of all the central (prisons) of France, Fontevrault is the most troubling. It gave me the strongest impression of distress and desolation, and I know that inmates who have known other prisons have felt, even hearing the name, an emotion, a comparable suffering.

With these words, Jean Genet introduced his book “Miracle of the Rose”. The book serves as a guide, both dark and light for the life of prisoners of Fontevraud in the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibition is located in the former prisoners’ visiting rooms.

As you visit the old visitor’s rooms, you will follow the exhibition recounting prison life, with a special focus on the experiences of Jean Genet.Archived documents, photos of the work carried out on the prison, as well as prisoners’ letters and copies of the graffiti they etched into the walls all stand testament to the darkest period in Fontevraud’s history.

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