This article examines the religious and architectural history of the Royal Abbey of Fontevrault, in the French province of Anjou, investigating the active and deliberate role women played in shaping the physical and symbolic space of this female monastic community. Founded in the early 12th century and active until the French Revolution, the abbey was a rare institution in which administrative power was in the hands of women, enabling them to exert almost complete control over the built environment. The nature and impact of this control is examined by tracing the development of the abbey from an initial settlement of rough dwellings into a large monastic complex comprising five distinct communities. By exploring the planning and building of Fontevrault in the context of typical monastic design as well as contemporaneous Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture, the article reveals the extent and significance of this gendered construction of space.

Author Biography

Gabrielle Esperdy is an architectural historian whose main area of interest is architecture and urbanism in the United States in the 20th century. Much of her work examines the development of a modern architectural vernacular, especially in the commercial landscape before World War II, and pays particular attention to the minor or everyday buildings that constitute much of the urban and suburban fabric. As a scholar she is particularly concerned with the ways in which social, economic, and political issues shape the built environment, both historically and today; these interests have led her to investigate how such issues as consumerism, gender, and public policy are brought to bear on architecture and architectural discourse. Her work has appeared in Perspecta, Architectural Design, and History of Photography, among other journals. She has conducted field work and research on 20th century landscapes for HABS/HAER and has taught at Pratt Institute. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology where she teaches the history and theory of architecture.