In 754, Pepin d’Aquitaine founded a Benedictine Abbey. Notre-Dame de la Sagne, at the foot of the Montagne Noire in the diocese of Toulouse. The Abbey was pillaged and destroyed by the Normans in the 10th century. It was restored and enjoyed a period of prosperity. Razed to the ground in the 16th century during the Wars of Religion, in the 17th century it was rebuilt once again, affiliated to the Congregation of Saint-Maur and dedicated to “Our Lady of Peace”.
In 1682 Dom Jacques Hoddy opened a school known as a “seminary” for the children of impoverished noble families. The monks, following Benedictine tradition, taught the youngsters the basic elements of reading, writing and religion. In 1757, dom Victor de Fougeras put an avant-garde plan of study into operation; the abbey school then became highly renowned for its teaching methods. This reputation brought about its elevation by Louis XIV, in 1776, to the status of one of the twelve Royal Military Schools of the kingdom.
These establishments trained the future officers of the army. (Napoleon Bonaparte was a pupil of the Brienne Royal Military School). During the Revolution, the monastic orders dissolved and the Royal Military Schools abolished. François Ferlus, director of the school, bought the buildings in the revolutionary Year IV and kept the educational activity going. Amongst the subjects taught (in French, which was unusual at that time), modern languages, mathematics and sciences formed a large part of the curriculum along with the arts (drawing, painting, writing, music, dancing) riding, fencing, swimming and fitness.
In 1854 Father Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, instrumental in the renewal of the Dominican order in France, took over the headship and gave the school a new impetus.
“Sorèze, with its wide-ranging curriculum…, is neither a cloister exclusively for the teaching of Latin, nor a barracks dedicated to physical sciences…nor a finishing school where the heirs of the wealthy are groomed for the pleasures of society life: it is a school in which Religion, Letters, the Sciences, and the Arts “Religioni, Scientiis, Artibus and Armis” _, i.e. divinity, reality, beauty and sociability, share a young man’s time and compete for his interest, in order to implant in him the difficult and complex foundations of a man’s life” (Lacordaire).
Sorèze reputation continued to flourish well beyond the borders of France; pupils came from Santo Domingo, the West Indies, Canada, Chile, the Unated States, Spain, and Italy…
The Dominicans continued to run the school until 1978.During its final years, it became co-educational, but the school, one of the oldest in Europe to have existed in the same buildings without a break, finally closed in October 1991.
The buildings and grounds have been listed as Historic Monuments since 1988.In 1993, the Midi-Pyrénées Region, the Tarn Department and the town of Sorèze formed a “syndicat mixte” in order to acquire and conserve the site. The Abbey School has resumed its cultural and educational vocation once more: the museum displays bring to life its fascinating history, created by those who lived and studied here.
The Red’s Courtyard
Each division had their own dormitory and courtyard. The Red’s courtyard was the largest. It was for the senior pupils (lower and upper Sixth) who wore jackets with red collars. Names can be seen engraved on the stones around this courtyard: these engravings are authentic, as the pupils of the Red’s courtyard used to buy a piece of stone, places more or less high up according to their financial means. They would then engrave their names on the stone. Some of these engravings were done with great skill. In fact, the wealthiest pupils used to hire the services of a professional engraver to immortalize their passage through this school. The Red’s courtyard plays host each year to the capitol National Orchestra.
The pupil’s uniform
Right from the school’s creation in the 17th century, pupils wore uniform so that no distinction could be made between bursary students and the others. Around 1880, pupils used to wear jackets of brown cloth, which had collars in the colour of their division, buttons with the school coat of arms, and a half-belt of plaited braid. In the 20th century, a much simpler brown outfit was introduced for both boys and girls.
The school rules laid down and modified over the long history of the establishment show that the pupils’ day were busy ones, that they always washed in cold water and that lessons alternated with study periods and free time. Every Sunday, the week’s marks were read out and each month, congratulations the best pupils were posted on the honours board. The hounours boards in the cloister are reminder of this succession of adolescents who, over a period of three centuries, strove to attain the ultimate reward: that of being the student of honour.
New teaching methods
The history of Sorèze Abbey School extends over 13 centuries. Benedictine monasteries, in all eras and in all countries, have been centers of learning. The school, close to the abbey, was open to local children, and the monks taught them to read and write.
In the 17th Century, after the reconstruction of the abbey, the monks of Saint-Maur opened a school known as a seminary and took in the poorest young men of the province. Raised to the status of Royal Military School by King Louis XVI in the century, young future officers of the kingdom came to Sorèze to gain a high-quality academic and social education.
Dom de Fougeras, an educator in advance of his time, introduced a very innovative method of study when the school reopened in 1757. The teaching emphasis moved away from ancient languages to combine the discipline necessary for a future officer with exercises destined to form a perfect gentleman.
This study method continued into the 19th century. Father Lacordaire, deeply worried b the problems facing young people, and maintained his predecessors’ methods, enriching them with his own experiences.
The Sorèze Abbey School, run as a private concern after the Royal Military Schools were suppressed in 1793, was run in association with the State from 1961 onwards. The educational establishment closed in 1991.
Listed as Historic Monument in 1998, the Abbey School still wishes to defend the values which brought fame, reaching well beyond local, national and international boundaries, to an abbey and school whose motto, in the early 21st century, could be said t be, “Sorèze, the intelligence and living memory of a place”.
The construction of the Abbey School buildings spread over three centuries, the first three abbeys having been destroyed. The 18th century buildings (occupied largely by the France-Patrimoine hotel group) offer an unadorned, sober, but elegant architecture.
The 18th century buildings include the North and South ranges bordering the Reds’ Courtyard and the monumental group which closes off this courtyard. The western façade gives on to the Rue Saint-Martin; the eastern façade follows the Saint Maur Benedictine tradition with its cloister-gallery. The pupils’ chapel dates from the 19th century and the assembly room, nowadays called the “Salle des Bustes” was built by Father Lacordaire in 1857.