Molesme Abbey was founded in 1075 by Robert, afterwards known as Robert of Molesme and Saint Robert. He had previously been abbot of the abbey of Saint-Michel, Tonnerre, which had gained a reputation for laxity in observance. He was unable to reform the monks and had returned to his previous monastery at Montier-en-Celle. At about this time he consented to repeated requests from a group of hermits to lead them in founding a new community of rigour and austerity of life. They settled in 1075 on a piece of land in the present Molesme, once the site of the Gallo-Roman settlement of Vertilium, on a hillside by the River Leignes given to Robert by Hugo de Norlennac, where they built a house and chapel from the branches of trees. Here the community lived in extreme poverty until a bishop visited them, and, seeing their need, sent them a supply of food and clothing.
News of the rigour of the new foundation and of the holiness of its members soon spread, and attracted many members of noble families, who in many cases brought with them their worldly possessions. These gifts, together with the many benefactions the new abbey received, enabled the community to build a magnificent church, as well as suitable monastic buildings.
The increase in numbers and wealth however caused a temporary loss of rigour, in that many of the new monks were not keen to work in the fields, preferring to live on the alms given them. This dissatisfaction reached the point of open rebellion and Robert therefore left Molesme in 1098, accompanied by only the most fervent religious, and this time founded Cîteaux Abbey, which although it was originally intended as a Benedictine monastery, became the first and mother-house of the Cistercian Order.
The monks of Molesme meanwhile repented of their faults, and begged Pope Urban II to oblige Robert to return to them, which he did in 1099, and continued to govern them and to make of Molesme a centre of strict Benedictine observance until his death in 1110.
Besides Cîteaux, Molesme founded seven or eight other monasteries and had about the same number of Benedictine nunneries under its jurisdiction. The monastery with its church was destroyed and its possessions confiscated in 1472 during the war between France and Burgundy. The buildings were again burned by the Huguenots towards the close of the sixteenth century in the French Wars of Religion. In the seventeenth century the spiritual life of the monastery was revived on the introduction of the reform of St. Maur in 1648. The buildings were comprehensively restored during the 18th century, but the abbey was suppressed during the French Revolution and most of the buildings, including the abbey church, were destroyed.
The principal survival is the Church of Sainte-Croix, built in the second half of the 13th century as a chapel for the abbey's novices, which remained in use as a church after the destruction of the rest of the abbey. In the 19th century a new belltower was constructed. The building was damaged in 1940 during fighting between French and German troops in World War II, and traces of this damage are still visible.
The abbey site has been a listed monument historique since 1985. It is accessible by prior arrangement only.
- Laurent, J. & A.M.J.J., 1907: Cartulaires de l'abbaye de Molesme. Paris: A. Picard & fils