Founded in 1204 by Mathilde de Garlande, seventeen miles from Paris, Port Royal was originally a Benedictine abbey. It suffered greatly during the English invasions and the wars of religion, and as a result by the beginning of the seventeenth century its discipline was completely relaxed. In 1608 it was reformed by Mère Angélique Arnauld, with the help of St. Francis de Sales. It became a center of reform, nuns trained at Port-Royal then spread all over France. By 1626 Port-Royal, a victim of its success was crowded and unhealthy. It migrated to Paris, and renouncing ancient privileges granted by the popes, the new abbey placed itself under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Paris. The nuns, devoted henceforth to the worship of the Holy Eucharist, took the name of Daughters of the Blessed Sacrament.
A lifelong friend of Cornelius Jansen, Duvergier de Hauranne , the priest of Saint-Cyran, became their spiritual director. It is due to his influence that the abbey became a centre for Jansenism. He would eventually be arrested by Cardinal Richelieu, who saw him as a threat and imprisoned. The atmosphere of serious study and Jansenist piety attracted a number of prominent cultural figures to the movement. Various ‘solitaries’ such as Pascal, and also a brilliant barrister Lemaistre and the politician de Fosse all gave up their careers to take up lives of asceticism and contemplation around the abbey. Perhaps even more strikingly, several important persons of the court were close to Jansenism due to the influence of Port Royal in Paris, such as the Duke of Luynes or the Duke of Liancourt and members of the influential Arnauld family, one of them a Minister of Louis XIV.
The abbey promoted the practice of refraining from the Eucharist until an interior renewal had been affected. Their schools or ‘the petites écoles’ had many impressive features. Breaking with the traditions of the Jesuits and the University, who taught in Latin, they taught in French. The child learned the alphabet in French, and was instructed in the mother tongue before studying the dead languages. They wrote in French before writing in Latin. Not everything in their system of education is worthy of admiration, but they contributed to the progress of pedagogy against the older Scholastic methods. In some ways the Jesuits with their hugely successful Ratio Studiorum were made to look dated for the first time. Therefore their successes only gave rise to greater competition with the Jesuits.