Vézelay is a commune in the department of Yonne in the north-central French region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. It is a defensible hill town famous for Vézelay Abbey. The town and its 11th-century Romanesque Basilica of St Magdalene are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Vézelay’s hilltop location has made it an obvious site for a town since ancient times. In the 9th century the Benedictines were given land to build a monastery during the reign of Charles the Bald. According to legend, not long before the end of the first millennium a monk named Baudillon brought relics (bones) of Mary Magdalene to Vézelay from Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume.
In 1058 Pope Stephen IX confirmed the authenticity of the relics, leading to an influx of pilgrims that has continued to this day. Vézelay Abbey was also a major starting point for pilgrims on the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela, one of the most important of all medieval pilgrimage centres. This was crucially important in attracting pilgrims and the wealth they brought to the town.
Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade at Vézelay in 1146 with King Louis VII of France present. The crowd was so large that a large platform was erected on a hill outside the city. The full text has not survived, but a contemporary account says that “his voice rang out across the meadow like a celestial organ” When Bernard was finished the crowd enlisted en masse; they supposedly ran out of cloth to make crosses. Bernard is said to have flung off his own robe and began tearing it into strips to make more. Others followed his example and he and his helpers were supposedly still producing crosses as night fell.