The Cluny Abbey in Burgundy

Friday, 1 September 2017 - 12:00 pm (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, European Union, House of the Month
Reading Time:  22 minutes

© Jan Sokol/cc-by-sa-3.0

© Jan Sokol/cc-by-sa-3.0

Cluny Abbey is a former Benedictine monastery in Cluny, Saône-et-Loire, France. It was dedicated to St Peter. The abbey was constructed in the Romanesque architectural style, with three churches built in succession from the 4th to the early 12th centuries. The earliest basilica was the world’s largest church until the St. Peter’s Basilica construction began in Rome. Cluny was founded by William I, Duke of Aquitaine in 910. He nominated Berno as the first Abbot of Cluny, subject only to Pope Sergius III. The abbey was notable for its stricter adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict, whereby Cluny became acknowledged as the leader of western monasticism. The establishment of the Benedictine Order was a keystone to the stability of European society that was achieved in the 11th century. In 1790 during the French Revolution, the abbey was sacked and mostly destroyed, with only a small part of the Abbey surviving. Starting around 1334, the Abbots of Cluny maintained a townhouse in Paris known as the Hôtel de Cluny, which has been a public museum since 1843. Apart from the name, it no longer possesses anything originally connected with Cluny.

In 910, William I, Duke of Aquitaine “the Pious”, and Count of Auvergne, founded the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny on a modest scale, as the motherhouse of the Congregation of Cluny. The deed of gift included vineyards, fields, meadows, woods, waters, mills, serfs, cultivated and uncultivated lands. Hospitality was to be given to the poor, strangers, and pilgrims. It was stipulated that the monastery would be free from local authorities, lay or ecclesiastical, and subject only to the Pope, with the proviso that even he could not seize the property, divide or give it to someone else or appoint an abbot without the consent of the monks. William placed Cluny under the protection of saints Peter and Paul, with a powerful curse on anyone who should violate the charter. With the Pope across the Alps in Italy, this meant the monastery was essentially independent. In donating his hunting preserve in the forests of Burgundy, William released Cluny Abbey from all future obligation to him and his family other than prayer. Contemporary patrons normally retained a proprietary interest and expected to install their kinsmen as abbots. William appears to have made this arrangement with Berno, the first abbot, to free the new monastery from such secular entanglements and initiate the Cluniac Reforms. The Abbots of Cluny were statesmen on the international stage and the monastery of Cluny was considered the grandest, most prestigious and best-endowed monastic institution in Europe. The height of Cluniac influence was from the second half of the 10th century through the early 12th. The first female members were admitted to the Order during the 11th century.

Palais du pape Gélase © Jan Sokol/cc-by-sa-3.0 © Jan Sokol/cc-by-sa-3.0 © Jan Sokol/cc-by-sa-3.0 Grand Cloister © Calips/cc-by-3.0 © Libriothecaire/cc-by-sa-3.0
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Palais du pape Gélase © Jan Sokol/cc-by-sa-3.0
The reforms introduced at Cluny were in some measure traceable to the influence of Benedict of Aniane, who had put forward his new ideas at the first great meeting of the abbots of the order held at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) in 817. Berno had adopted Benedict’s interpretation of the Rule previously at Baume Abbey. Cluny was not known for the severity of its discipline or its asceticism, but the abbots of Cluny supported the revival of the papacy and the reforms of Pope Gregory VII. The Cluniac establishment found itself closely identified with the Papacy. In the early 12th century, the order lost momentum under poor government. It was subsequently revitalized under Abbot Peter the Venerable (died 1156), who brought lax priories back into line and returned to stricter discipline. Cluny reached its apogee of power and influence under Peter, as its monks became bishops, legates, and cardinals throughout France and the Holy Roman Empire. But by the time Peter died, newer and more austere orders such as the Cistercians were generating the next wave of ecclesiastical reform. Outside monastic structures, the rise of English and French nationalism created a climate unfavourable to the existence of monasteries autocratically ruled by a head residing in Burgundy. The Papal Schism of 1378 to 1409 further divided loyalties: France recognizing a pope at Avignon and England one at Rome, interfered with the relations between Cluny and its dependent houses. Under the strain, some English houses, such as Lenton Priory, Nottingham, were naturalized (Lenton in 1392) and no longer regarded as alien priories, weakening the Cluniac structure. By the time of the French Revolution, the monks were so thoroughly identified with the Ancien Régime that the order was suppressed in France in 1790 and the monastery at Cluny almost totally demolished in 1810. Later, it was sold and used as a quarry until 1823. Today, little more than one of the original eight towers remains of the whole monastery. The Abbey of Cluny differed in three ways from other Benedictine houses and confederations:

  • organisational structure;
  • prohibition on holding land by feudal service; and
  • having the liturgy as its main form of work.

Cluny developed a highly centralized form of government entirely foreign to Benedictine tradition. While most Benedictine monasteries remained autonomous and associated with each other only informally, Cluny created a large, federated order in which the administrators of subsidiary houses served as deputies of the Abbot of Cluny and answered to him. The Cluniac houses, being directly under the supervision of the Abbot of Cluny, the head of the Order, were styled priories, not abbeys. The priors, or chiefs of priories, met at Cluny once a year to deal with administrative issues and to make reports. Many other Benedictine monasteries, even those of earlier formation, came to regard Cluny as their guide. When in 1016 Pope Benedict VIII decreed that the privileges of Cluny be extended to subordinate houses, there was further incentive for Benedictine communities to join the Cluniac Order. Partly due to the Order’s opulence, the Cluniac monasteries of nuns were not seen as being particularly cost-effective. The Order did not have an interest in founding many new houses for women, so their presence was always limited. Partly due to the Order’s opulence, the Cluniac monasteries of nuns were not seen as being particularly cost-effective. The Order did not have an interest in founding many new houses for women, so their presence was always limited. The customs of Cluny represented a shift from the earlier ideal of a Benedictine monastery as an agriculturally self-sufficient unit. This was similar to the contemporary villa of the more Romanized parts of Europe and the manor of the more feudal parts, in which each member did physical labor as well as offering prayer. In 817 St Benedict of Aniane, the “second Benedict”, developed monastic constitutions at the urging of Louis the Pious to govern all the Carolingian monasteries. He acknowledged that the Black Monks no longer supported themselves by physical labor. Cluny’s agreement to offer perpetual prayer (laus perennis, literally “perpetual praise”) meant that it had increased a specialization in roles. As perhaps the wealthiest monastic house of the Western world, Cluny hired managers and workers to do the traditional labour of monks. The Cluniac monks devoted themselves to almost constant prayer, thus elevating their position into a profession. Despite the monastic ideal of a frugal life, Cluny Abbey commissioned candelabras of solid silver and gold chalices made with precious gems for use at the abbey Masses. Instead of being limited to the traditional fare of broth and porridge, the monks ate very well, enjoying roasted chickens (a luxury in France then), wines from their vineyards and cheeses made by their employees. The monks wore the finest linen religious habits and silk vestments at Mass. Artifacts exemplifying the wealth of Cluny Abbey are today on display at the Musée de Cluny in Paris.

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