The Abbey of Cluny is an abbey in France.
It was founded in AD 910 by William I, Count of Auvergne, who installed Abbot Berno and placed the abbey under the immediate authority of Pope Sergius III. The Abbey and its constellation of dependencies soon came to exemplify the kind of religious life that was at the heart of 11th-century piety. The town of Cluny, in the modern-day department of Saône-et-Loire in the region of Bourgogne, in east-central France, near Mâcon, grew round the former abbey, founded in a forested hunting reserve.
The Benedictine order was a keystone to the stability that European society achieved in the 11th century, and partly owing to the stricter adherence to a reformed Benedictine rule, Cluny became the acknowledged leader of western monasticism from the later 10th century. A sequence of highly competent abbots of Cluny were statesmen on an international stage. The monastery of Cluny itself became 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 Abbey was sacked and mostly destroyed in 1790 by a mob of revolutionaries. Only a small part of the original remains.
The Hotel de Cluny in Paris dates from around 1334, and was formerly the town house of the abbots of Cluny. It was made into a public museum in 1833, but apart from the name it no longer possesses anything originally connected with the abbey.
William I of Aquitaine “the Pious”, Duke of Aquitaine and count of Auvergne, founded the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, the fatherhouse of the Congregation of Cluny, on a modest scale in 910. In donating his hunting preserve in the forests of Burgundy, William gave Cluny the remarkable privilege of releasing the house 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, in order to free the new monastery from such secular entanglements, initiating the Cluniac Reforms. The first female members came into the order during the eleventh century.
The monastery of Cluny differed in three ways from other Benedictine houses and confederations: in its organizational structure, in the prohibition on holding land by feudal service and in its execution of the liturgy as its main form of work. 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 autocrat 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. Other Benedictine houses, even of earlier formation, came to regard Cluny as their guide. When in 1016 Pope Benedict VIII decreed that the privileges of Cluny also extended to subordinate houses, there was further incentive for Benedictine communities to insinuate themselves in the Cluniac order.
Partly due to the order’s opulence the Cluniac nunneries were not seen as being particularly cost-effective, which may also be reflected in the order’s apparent lack of interest in founding many new houses for women.
The customs of Cluny also represented a shift from the earlier ideal of a Benedictine monastery as an agriculturally self-sufficient unit similar to the contemporary villa that survived in 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. St Benedict of Aniane, the “second Benedict”, had acknowledged that the Black Monks no longer truly supported themselves simply with their physical labor, in the monastic constitutions he had drawn up in 817 to govern all the Carolingian monasteries, at the urging of Louis the Pious. Cluny’s agreement to offer perpetual prayer (laus perennis, literally “perpetual praise”) meant that specialization in roles went a step further at Cluny. Cluny became perhaps the wealthiest monastic house of the Western World and this allowed the House to hire managers and workers instead of the brothers themselves doing any work. Such wealth allowed the Brothers to spend their hours in almost constant prayer thus elevating their position into a profession. Despite the vows of poverty of the brothers the Abbey in Cluny was able to afford huge candelabras of solid silver and gold goblets encrusted with precious gems for use on the altars. Instead of the broth and porridge which was the traditional monastic fare the brothers ate very well, enjoying roasted chickens (a luxury in France then) and wines from their vineyards and cheeses that their employees made. The brothers wore the finest linen habits and fine silk vestments were worn at Mass. Many of the items proving the wealth of the Cluny Abbey are today on display at the Musée Cluny in Paris.
Cluniac Houses in Britain
All of the English Cluniac Houses which were larger than cells were known as Priories, symbolising their subordinance to Cluny itself. The coming of the eleventh century saw the spread of Cluny’s influence into the British Isles. As the head of their order was the Abbot at Cluny, all English Cluniacs were bound to cross to France to Cluny to consult or be consulted unless the Abbot chose to come to England; this he did five times in the 13th century, and only twice in the 14th.
At Cluny the central art was the liturgy itself, extensive and beautiful in inspiring surroundings, reflecting the new personally-felt wave of piety of the 11th century; monastic intercession appeared indispensable to achieving a state of grace, and lay rulers competed to be remembered in Cluny’s endless prayers, inspiring the endowments in land and benefices that made other arts possible.
The fast-growing community at Cluny demanded buildings on a large scale. The examples set at Cluny profoundly affected architectural practice in Western Europe from the tenth through the twelfth centuries. The three successive churches are conventionally called Cluny I, II and III; in building the third and final church at Cluny, the monastery constructed the largest building in Europe before the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome in the 16th century. The construction of Cluny II, ca. 955-981, begun after the destructive Hungarian raids of 953 led the tendency for Burgundian churches to be stone- vaulted.
The building campaign was financed by the annual census established by Ferdinand I of Leon, ruler of a united León-Castile, some time between 1053 and 1065. (It was re-established by Alfonso VI in 1077 and confirmed in 1090.) The sum was fixed at 1,000 golden aurei by Ferdinand, and doubled by Alfonso VI in 1090. For Cluny, the sum was simply the biggest annuity that the Order ever received from king or layman, and it was never surpassed. Henry I of England’s annual grant of 100 marks of silver, not gold, from 1131 looks puny in comparison. The Alfonsine census enabled Abbot Hugh (died 1109) to undertake the huge third abbey church. When payments in the Islamic gold coin extorted by León-Castile later lapsed, it was a major factor in bringing about the financial crisis that crippled the Cluniacs during the abbacies of Pons (1109 – 1125) and Peter the Venerable (1122 – 1156). At Cluny, the import of gold publicized the new-found riches of the Spanish Christians and drew central Spain for the first time into the larger European orbit.
The Cluny library was, arguably, one of the richest and most important in France and indeed Europe. It was a storehouse of a large number of very valuable manuscripts. The sacking of the abbey by the Huguenots in 1562 led to many of these items’ destruction or dispersal. Of those that were left, some were burned in 1790 by a rioting mob. Others still were stored away in the Cluny town hall.
Many of these volumes, along with others that fell into private hands, have been recovered by the French Government and are now to be found at the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris. At the British Museum there are also some sixty or so charters originating from Cluny.
- Herman I, Margrave of Baden
- Philip I, Duke of Burgundy
- Pope Gelasius II
In the fragmented and localized Europe of the 10th and 11th century, the Cluniac network extended its reforming influence far. Free of lay and episcopal interference, responsible only to the papacy, which was in a state of weakness and disorder with rival popes supported by competing noble gangs, Cluniac spirit was felt revitalizing the Norman church, reorganizing the royal French monastery at Fleury and inspiring St Dunstan in England, though there were no official English Cluniac priories until that of Lewes, founded by the Anglo-Norman Earl of Warren, at Lewes, c 1077. The best preserved Cluniac houses in England are Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, and at Wenlock, Shropshire. It is thought that there were only three Cluniac Nunneries in England – one of them being Delapré Abbey at Northampton.
Until the reign of Henry VI all Cluniac houses in England were French, governed by French priors and directly controlled from Cluny. Henry’s act raising the English priories to independent abbeys was a political gesture, a mark of England’s national consciousness.
The early Cluniac establishments had offered refuges from a disordered world, but by the late 11th century Cluniac piety permeated society. This is the period that achieved the final Christianization of the heartland of Europe.
Well-born and educated Cluniac priors worked eagerly with local royal and aristocratic patrons of their houses, filled responsible positions in their chanceries and found themselves appointed to bishoprics. Cluny spread the custom of veneration of the king as patron and support of the Church, and in turn the spiritual outlook and conduct of 11th century kings underwent a change. In England Edward the Confessor was later canonized. In Germany, the penetration of Cluniac ideals was effected in concert with Henry III of the Salian dynasty, who had married a daughter of the duke of Aquitaine. Henry was infused with a sense of his sacramental role as delegate of Christ in the temporal sphere, which gave him a spiritual and intellectual grounding for his control over the German church, culminating in the pontificate of his kinsman, Pope Leo IX.
The new pious outlook of lay leaders enabled the enforcement of the Truce of God movement to curb aristocratic violence.
Within his order, the Abbot of Cluny was free to assign any monk to any house, creating a fluid structure around a central authority that was to become a feature of the royal chanceries of England and of France, and of the bureaucracy of the great independent dukes, such as Burgundy. Cluny’s highly centralized hierarchy was also a natural training ground for Catholic prelates: four monks of Cluny became popes: Gregory VII, Urban II, Paschal II and Urban V.
Cluny was guided by an orderly succession of able and educated abbots drawn from the highest aristocratic circles, three of whom were canonized: Saints Odo of Cluny, the second abbot (died 942), Hugh of Cluny, the sixth abbot (died 1109), and Odilo, the fifth abbot (died 1049), who continued the work of reforming other monasteries, but he also encouraged tighter control of the far-flung priories by the Abbot of Cluny.
Cluny and the Gregorian reforms
Cluny was not known for its severity or 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, rich and dignified and worldly. 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 last days 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 8 towers remains of the whole monastery.
Modern excavations of the Abbey began in 1927 under the direction of Kenneth John Conant, American architectural historian of Harvard University, and continued (although not continuously) until 1950.
Decline and destruction of the buildings
Starting from the 12th century, Cluny had important financial problems, caused mainly by the construction of the third abbey. Charity given to the poor increased the expenditure. The influence of the abbey weakened gradually as other religious orders rose (Cistercians, then Mendicants to the 13th century). Bad management of the grounds and unwillingness of the subsidiary companies to pay the annual taxable quota helped to lessen Cluny’s revenue. Cluny raised loans and ended up being involved in debt to its creditors, who were merchants of Cluny or Jews of Mâcon. The conflicts with the priories multiplied and the authority of the pope became heavier. To the 14th century, the pope frequently named the abbots. The crises of the end of the Middle Ages and the wars of religion in the 14th century weakened the abbey a little more. The monks lived in luxury and there were not more than about 60 monks in the middle of the 15th century. With the Concordat of Bologna in 1516 overseen by Antoine Duprat, the king gained the power to appoint the abbot of Cluny.
The years following the French Revolution were fatal to all the monastic buildings and its church. In 1793 its archives were burned and the church was delivered to plunderings. The field of the abbey was sold in 1798 for 2,140,000 francs. Until 1813 the abbey was used as a stone quarry to build houses in the town.
Today, there remain only the buildings built under the Old Mode as well as a small portion of Cluny III. Only the southern bell-tower of the large transept still exists. It represents less than 10% of the surface of Cluny III, which was the largest church of Christendom, until the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, five centuries later. The abbey has sheltered since 1901 a forming center of the École nationale supérieure d’arts et métiers of the engineers of the Art-and-Trades (Gadzarts, in student’s slang).
In 1928 the site was excavated and recognized by the American archaeologist Kenneth J. Conant and of Medieval Academy of America.
- (Universität Münster: Institut für Frühmittelalterforschung) Cluny.
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Congregation of Cluny
- Christopher Golden, “Cluniac Order”
- Societas Christiana Encyclopedia:
- Herbert Green, “Lenton Priory”:
- Charter of the Abbey of Cluny
- Large archive of photographs of the abbey
- The History of Romanesque Cluny Clarified by Excavations and Comparisons, by K.J. Conant
- Paradoxplace – Cluny Page – Photos
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- Odilo von Cluny