Cluny & the Origins of Medieval Monasticism

IN order to address the question of monastic revival with regard to Cluny, it is important to first examine how Cluny itself was established. Secondly, I will look at the contribution made by Cluny’s four most prominent rulers, Odo (926-944), Mayeul (965-994), Odilo (944-1048 ) and Hugh (1049-1109 ). Thirdly, the actual influence of Clunaic reforms will be examined in relation to two specific European monastic communities and, finally, I will conclude by accounting for the actual spread of Clunaic influence itself.

In 909 Duke William of Aquitaine laid the foundations for a new monastic establishment on his Burgundian hunting grounds, permitting Abbot Berno and his fellow monks to practise the Benedictine rule and retain their administrative independence by controlling the interior affairs of the community. This was a very rare privilege during the early part of the tenth century because many aristocratic benefactors frequently tried to interfere with the decision making processes within monasteries, often reserving the right to choose a new abbot or abbess in the event of a death. In short, despite its lack of buildings and prevailing air of poverty, Cluny’s qualitative combination of administrative and religious fortitude meant that Berno was able to pass on an effective monastic machine to the four Clunaic reformers who were poised to succeed him. In 926 Odo took over the running of the monastery and was seen by many as “a living embodiment of the Benedictine ideal”[1] Odo had gained his experience at Baume and his very actions seemed to encapsulate the monastic piety which had arisen from a strict avoidance of worldly distraction. It was Odo’s personal example which contributed to the growing influence of the Clunaic ideal and, between 927 and 942, he was invited to extend his capable reformist abilities to other monasteries; among them Romanmotier in Burgundy, Aurillac in Aquitaine (which was transformed with the assistance of Count Gerald, whom Odo “presented to lay aristocrats of his day as a model of piety”)[2], Jumieges in Normandy and Fleury-sur-Loire (which was particularly significant in that it housed the body of St. Benedict, Cluny’s spiritual mentor). Odo even travelled to Rome in order to assist Senator Alberic with monastic reform in Northern Italy, although Alberic himself had formerly been known as “an unscrupulous oppressor of the monks”[3] by way of his greedy expropriation of monastic land and property. The fact that Odo was willing to forgive him and accept the Roman ruler’s sudden change of policy seems illustrative of the Saint’s own humility. On the other hand, Odo was never a man to pass up an opportunity of propagating the Christian faith – and particularly the example of the Clunaic ideal – in any way he could. Some historians have attacked Alberic’s new-found allegiance to the rule of St. Benedict, claiming he was more interested in weakening the power of his own aristocracy than in the formulation of a monastic revival. In his case, secular self-interest appeared to inadvertently contribute to Odo’s more spiritual expansionist designs.

In 931, Cluny had secured the protection and guardianship of the Holy See in return for a tribute of ten solidi every five years. Cluny was also able to undertake the direction of other monasteries and, by becoming the first abbey to be “exempted from Episcopal oversight”[4] and thus remaining immune from any direct dependence upon the diocesan bishop, was granted permission by Pope John XI to take in dissatisfied fugitives from other abbeys. In addition Cluny became a refuge for the poor, the needy, weary strangers and travelling pilgrims who

“bringing nothing with them but their goodwill, might find in its superfluity their abundance.” [5]

Needless to say, these important material factors played a large part in Cluny’s subsequent emergence as the dominating spider at the centre of a growing monastic web, although it was the spiritual nature of the community’s adherence to the Benedictine rule which was to inspire others with its strict observance of chastity, obedience and a committed devotion to both study and prayer; qualities which had their roots in Benedict of Aniane’s own observances almost a century earlier. However, it is worth noting that Cluny departed from the Benedictine rule in two very crucial areas. Firstly, by increasing the time monks were occupied in the choir Benedict’s original division of the day between prayer, manual labour and reading was significantly altered. Secondly whilst the Benedictine rule asserts that an abbot should “be the representative of Christ in the monastery”[6], it soon became apparent that those included within the sphere of the Clinic empire were considered as monks of Cluny rather than as independent monastic entities in themselves. As Laurance Golder explains:

“It was in fact a vast feudal organisation, more like an army to command it than a group of families, each with its own father.” [7].

With the advent of Mayeul in 965, the expansionist tradition was continued. Mayeul had been a keen student of Classical philosophy and the liberal arts, but his own sincerity and commitment to the Clunaic phenomenon caused him to discard such worldly pleasure. Indeed, Mayeul made many sacrifices during his lifetime, most notably his refusal to accept the vacant papacy at the behest of Empress Adelaide and Emperor Otto II. As far as the humble Mayeul was concerned, the furtherance of the Cluniac spirit and the fatherly care of his monks were of far greater importance, and during his abbacy the wave of reform spread through Lerins and Valence and on through the Italian monasteries of Santa Maria e Salvatore in Pavia and St. Appollinare in Ravenna. At a time when secular rulers were embroiled within their own private battle with rich landowners, Mayeul’s humility and radiance of faith seemed to embody strict Clunaic principles and without doubt contributed to their influence throughout European Christendom.

By the end of the tenth Century, Clunaic influence was once again accentuated when Odila became abbot in 994. Indeed , Cluny appeared to have no shortage of charismatic father-figures who had the ability and drive to inspire by their own personal affiliation to the increasingly popular Benedictine rule. Whilst Odo and Mayeul managed to shift Clunaic influence onto a decidedly internationalist footing, Odilo was the man who was able to more fully consolidate the mighty Clunaic empire itself. Apart from those monasteries which chose to reform themselves in accordance with the Burgundian model, there was also a growing number of monasteries which had been donated to Cluny by their aristocratic benefactors. Such a process meant that such establishments became wholly dependant upon Cluny to the extent that they gave her their unquestionable loyalty and obedience. By continuing to maintain good relations with the Papacy, Odilo managed to preserve Clunaic independence from Episcopal interference and, in 988 Pope Gregory V even agreed that no bishop should celebrate mass at Cluny without the abbot’s approval. In the Eleventh Century the exemption process went even further when Pope John XIX’s decree of 1027 announced that Cluny must be autonomous and remain outside the Bishop of Macon’s jurisdiction. It was also impossible for the local bishop to excommunicate any of the monks, and Cluny was consequently under the control of the Holy See. There was no doubt that Cluny and the Papacy were acting in strict accordance with one another, and that a strong link had been established between the Pope and his most worthy Catholic supporters. When Clement was made pope, Odilo was present throughout the whole process, participating in and assisting at the ceremonial proceedings. Without doubt, the

“Cluniacs seem to have regarded the Pope as a friend and far from an imperial catspaw.” [8].

After significantly increasing the numbers within Cluny’s resident community, Odilo set about enlarging and improving its monastic buildings. The spirit of restoration also had an influence elsewhere and land was both reclaimed and redeveloped under the guidance of the Clunaic abbot. Odilo also began to travel extensively and he was not merely seeking to export the spiritual practices of Cluny as Odo and Mayeul had done before him, but openly attempting to extend the monastic empire by creating a series of strong Clunaic outposts, complete with large amounts of land and property. Odilo was acting like the regional organiser of a dynamic political organisation; recruiting by example, establishing new branches and more importantly, winning the allegiance of those who pledged their allegiance to the Clunaic prototype.

On 22nd February, 1049 – at the tender age of twenty four – Hugh became the sixth abbot of Cluny and embarked upon a reign which lasted over sixty years, something which was to finally consolidate the Clunaic empire. The same year signified an important turning point in the nature of the Papacy and Pope Leo IX’s pontificate became a nightmare for

“the growing party of high-minded churchmen who were pressing for the reform of abuses and an end to the secularisation of ecclesiastical office.” [9].

In fact Leo IX was so concerned about those prelates who obtained their position by monetary means, that he sought to resolve the situation once and for all by calling meetings at Mainz and Riems. These were followed soon after by a long and overdue bout of excommunications and suspensions. Historians attribute these ecclesiastical purges to the growing influence of Cluny which, by creating a climate in which both itself and the Papacy were inextricably linked, had always been destined to become embroiled in the conflict between the Pope and the corrupt secular leaders. The Clunaics were beginning to have an influence upon the highest levels of the Church and its supporters were able to play a prominent role in the investiture struggle between Gregory VII and Henry IV, with their own freedom from Episcopal interference making them “natural allies of the Papacy in its struggle to assert its spiritual authority over Christendom[10]. However with Hugh at the helm the Clunaic tradition – which was “not the outcome of any clearly formulated design” [11] – had already achieved a great deal; despite the coincidental commitment to reform which now emanated from the Church.

C. H. Lawrence has described Cluny as “the spiritual Everest in a landscape containing many peaks”[12], and one nation which managed to develop a revival of the Benedictine rule along similar lines was Germany. In the Eighth Century, Chrodegang had founded the abbey of Gorse, near Metz, which subsequently deteriorated until monastic life no longer existed there. However in 993, John of Gorze and Archbishop Einold of Toul decided to renovate the monastery and establish the Benedictine observance, soon allowing Gorze to become the spearhead of a tenthcentury monastic revival which spread throughout Germany. The German ideal, however was different to that of the Clunaic and the Gorze lectionary and some of its liturgical practices were known outside Germany. In an organisational sense, too, Gorze had little in common with Cluny and did not manage to develop an empire in any sense of the word. Whilst the Clunaic pyramid had a commanding abbot, Gorze was only the first in a series of “co-equal”[13] monastic establishments linked through common prayer and friendship. No one monastery was able to exert any judicial control over another. Despite Wolfgang’s attempts to evangelise Hungary in 971, the Gorze revival was fairly much contained within Germany and never created or indeed was able to export anything like the kind of influence which had been generated by Cluny.

By total contrast, England represented a living testimony to the steady growth of Clunaic appeal. Prior to the Viking invasions, the English monasteries had for years been centres of artistry, scholarship and intellectual excellence. However, King Alfred of Wessex reported that towards the end of the Ninth Century learning had been in great decline with very few people able to “understand their divine service in Latin or even translate a single letter from Latin into English”[14]. But by 940, King Edmund – also King of Wessex – had made Dustan abbot of Glastonbury and the scene was set for a new monastic revival.

There is no doubt that Dunstan’s appointment marked “a turning point in the history of religion in England”[15] and he spent the next fifteen years constructing a springboard from which a renewed and vigorous monastic renaissance could be launched. Dunstan set about repairing Glastonbury’s monastic buildings and encouraged the new community to follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Eventually Dunstan was exiled to Ghent in 956 before being recalled by king Edgar, who made him Bishop of Worcester and London before appointing him Archbishop of Canterbury in 959, where Dunstan became associated with the revival of liturgical detail and the visual arts (which were also greatly inspired by French Clunaics). However whilst the influence of Cluny inspired Dunstan during this time at Glastonbury and caused him to reform the community along Continental lines, it was at Canterbury that he attached himself more closely to the Clunaic model. The Bosworth Psalter, which is contemporary with Dunstan, contains all the main texts for the recitation of the Benedictine observance.

Another figure who is considered to be one of most prominent English reformers is Ethelwold. The Glastonbury community had left Ethelwold unmoved and he considered travelling abroad in order to seek a more purer strain of monastic reform. Instead, however, he accepted an offer from King Eadred asking him to restore a monastery at Abingdon. In 959 when King Edgar had ascended to the throne, the reformers received his full backing and Glastonbury, Abingdon and Oswald’s Westbury-on- Trym (see below) soon became the central pillars of the revival. This monarchic support was very similar to that which contributed to the Clunaic reforms on the European mainland, and King Edgar, just like Senator Alberic before him, weakened the power of both aristocracy and the secular canons by ordering all expropriated land to be donated to monastic communities (Edgar’s action later resulted in the ‘anti-monastical’ reaction, which, despite its name was a purely political backlash instigated by resentful earls sensing a decline in their economic interests).

During his time at Winchester, Ethelwold gave the resident community an ultimatum. If the old clergy were not prepared to accept the reforms, they were expelled and replaced with those who would. Eventually Winchester developed into an English version of Cluny and incorporated Ely and Peterborough within its new ecclesiastical empire. To Ethelwold, Winchester represented the very heart of a thriving network of monasteries and the support that he received from the young King Edgar – whose “inborn zeal of temperament”[16] he had carefully nurtured – allowed him to act in an incredibly confident and high handed manner.

Edgar must also have been flattered by the Winchester Psalter , a text of gospel-like appearance which carried an illustration of the King himself seated between Dunstan and Ethelwold. By 970 all English monasteries were Benedictine and followed the new Regularis Concordia, a code of observance drawn up by Ethelwold with the intention of bringing all monasteries into a uniform rule of conduct. From the Preface of the Regularis Concordia it is possible to detect the influence of the Cluniacs, because Fleury willingly provided monks to assist in the preparation of the document. Another example of such collaboration can be found in the Concordia’s instructions, which include the same additions to the divine office first devised at Cluny. Furthermore, Ethelwold’s attempts to construct an empire similar to that of his Clunaic contemporaries is illustrated by the fact that

“immunities were obtained which gave private jurisdiction to the monks over a considerable territory.” [17].

There is further evidence to suggest that the German reformers at Groze had also had a continuity of personnel during this period and that his reforms were comparatively more gradual. The Ramsey Psalter is a surviving example of Oswald’s symbolic reforms.

By way of conclusion, the spread of Clunaic influence must be attributed to a diverse yet distinctively beneficial set of circumstances. Firstly, in terms of the more spiritual perspective Noreen Hunt contends that Cluny offered

“a clear concept of the monastic life and how to interpret it in terms of practical living, a fidelity to the way herself and a confidence in it value as a way of life for others. Her customs were clear and easily adaptable.” [18].

Secondly, whilst Clunaic monasteries were incorporated within a centralised framework they were able to retain a degree of large independence from Episcopal interference, thus managing to accelerate the drive towards all out reform. Thirdly, Clunaic expansionism seemed perfectly suited to the aims of certain European monarchs with a desire to strengthen their own domestic power and stave off the challenge of the rich landowners and an upwardly mobile nobility (depending on local conditions). By seeking to expand their growing empire, therefore, the Clunaic reforms inadvertently aroused a fierce debate over land rights. This factor significantly contributed to heir own influence as the likes of Senator Alberic of Rome and King Edgar of England backed them to the hilt in order to fulfil semi-politcal objectives, placing both funds and resources under Clunaic control. Despite the various circumstances which account for the influence of Clunaic and related reforms in Tenth and Eleventh Century Europe, perhaps Herbert B. Workman can provide the most simple and, indeed, most fitting description of this remarkable age from the perspective of the reformers themselves who, in his opinion, “had on their side the moral consciousness of Europe awaking from the long night of barbarism to a new life and larger hopes.”[19]


1. C.H. Lawrence; Medieval Monasticism (Longman, 1993), p. 88.

2. Mary Skinner; ‘Aristocratic Families’ in Benedictus (Ed.), E. Rozanne Elder (Cistercian Publications, 1981), p. 84.

3. L.M. Smith; The Early History of the Monastery of Cluny (Oxford University Press, 1920), p. 22.

4. Laurence Goulder; Church Life In Medieval England (Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, 1967), p. 22.

5. L. M. Smith, ibid., p. 13.

6. Justin McCann (Trans.); The Rule of Saint Benedict (Sheen and Ward, 1976), p. 6.

7. Laurence Goulder, ibid., p. 22.

8. L. M. Smith, ibid., p. 152.

9. C. H. Lawrence, ibid., p. 92.

10. Ibid., p. 94.

11. Ibid., p. 96.

12. Ibid., p. 102.

13. Ibid., p. 104.

14. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (Ed.); ‘Prose Preface to Gregory’s Pastoral Care’ in Alfred the Great (Penguin, 1985), p. 125.

15. Tim Tatton-Brown; ‘The Images of St. Dunstan’ in History Today, April 1988, Vol. 38, p. 36.

16. Dom. David Knowles; The Monastic Order In England (Cambridge University Press, 1963), p. 40.

17. Ibid., p. 53.

18. Noreen Hunt; Cluny Under St. Hugh: 1049-1109 (Notre Dame Press, 1967), p. 139.

19. Herbert B. Workman; The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal (The Epworth Press, 1927), p.235.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *