Cluny and the Monastic Reforms of the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries

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Cluny and the Monastic Reforms of the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries

The Flowering of Cluny.

As the pervasive presence and influence of Benedictine monasticism emerged from Carolingian reforms of the ninth century, a particularly powerful house at Cluny (in the Burgundy region of eastern France) became the embodiment of church leadership, independence, and success in Western Christianity. Through cooperation with its benefactor, Duke William the Pious of Aquitaine, the monastery (founded in 909) adopted an original charter that allowed the monks to choose their own succession of abbots without interference or intervention from outside secular or church authorities. The abbot and community were also to have complete control over all of the monastery's properties, being answerable only to the Apostolic See in Rome. A string of influential and creative abbots—Odo (926–944), Mayeul (965–994), Odilo (994–1048), and Hugh (1049–1109)—caused the house to become a major center of spirituality that quickly spread its influence over much of Europe. The notion that the present evil age was signaling the end of the world and that monastic life was the most perfect embodiment of the Christian vocation became cornerstones of Cluniac spirituality. The monks believed that if they renounced the world and undertook a life of silence and interior transformation they would experience God in the unceasing prayer of their community and the paradise of the cloister. Due to their high standards of observance, European houses as far away as Italy and Spain asked the Cluniacs for assistance with their own reforms. Although the community was poor at first, it did not take long for admirers of their lifestyle to become supporters and benefactors, creating a wealth of endowments. Secular estates and even entire monasteries were given over for Cluny to manage.

Architectural and Political Expansions.

During the abbacy of Odilo, further exemptions from outside secular or episcopal influences were obtained, placing Cluny and all its daughter houses and dependencies under direct control of the pope. This was highly unusual for the time since local bishops and lords commonly exercised certain jurisdictions and rights of taxation over the monasteries. As the number of filiations grew, however, their care and management continued to be shouldered by the abbot of Cluny, the spiritual father of all Cluniacs throughout Europe and the one to whom postulants, novices, and newly professed monks from all the dependent houses took their vows. Portions of the incomes from these dependent houses also flowed into Cluny itself, financing a period of architectural expansion replete with elements of religious grandeur. Under Abbot Hugh, a 530-foot basilica with four transepts, fifteen towers, and five radiating chapels was constructed. After subsequent additions, Cluny boasted the largest Christian church that had ever been built in Europe up to this time. By the early twelfth century, Cluny had become one of the wealthiest and most influential establishments in all of Christendom. Within the next fifty years, Cluniac dependencies numbered over one thousand. Many leaders of the Cluny organization were from the most significant noble families of Europe. Not only was there a close relationship between Cluny and Rome, but the abbey also forged strong links with the Holy Roman emperors. Abbot Hugh was the godfather of Emperor Henry IV, and he arranged for a marriage between his niece and King Alphonso VI of León and Castile. Pope Urban II was a former grand prior of Cluny, and a long list of monks to follow (from both Cluny and its filiations) went on to serve in the episcopal ranks.

Liturgy and Lay Connections.

The liturgical practices at Cluny were rooted in the notion that the monastic life was the only sure way to salvation, and this idea applied not only to the monks themselves, but to members of the surrounding lay communities as well. The monks believed that the monastery should be a place where continuous prayer was lifted up to God. According to the order's customals (books containing instructions for monastic daily life), the monks extended the time for prayer well beyond the earlier Benedictine directives to the point where as many as eight hours of their day were dedicated to activity in the choir, the special seating area near the altar. In addition to the extra offices, two daily community masses were often celebrated. Extra psalms recited for benefactors, longer night offices on saints' days, and the chanting of the entire books of Genesis and Exodus prior to the Lenten season also served to lengthen the time of prayer. During Lent so many prayers were added that the offices became almost continuous. Those laity who could not make such an extreme commitment to the monastic lifestyle might share in the merits of the monks' work by associating themselves with the monasteries. This could be accomplished through donations, sending family members (sometimes child oblates) to the monasteries, being buried on the monastic property, or requesting the prayers of the monks during their various offices. One could even apply for confraternity, an arrangement by which the community chapter would vote to accept a person as an associate member of the house, sharing in the same spiritual benefits as the monks and even being remembered in the Office for the Dead like a regular member of the community. Lay members' names could also be written in the Liber Vitae (Book of Life), which occupied a place on the high altar during Mass. Much of the theology behind lay association with the monasteries was linked to the belief in petitionary prayer, which allowed individuals to direct specific requests to God.

German Reform Movements.

Cluny was not the only major reform group from the tenth and eleventh centuries, nor did it offer the only new model for monastic organization and liturgy. In 933 the Abbey of Gorze (near Metz, Germany) began a revival of the community once formed by Chrodegang in the eighth century. During the ninth century it had been run by a series of lay abbots. With the help of German nobility and bishops, the new Gorze reform extended to Trier, Verdun, and Lorraine (now in France), as well as Hesse, Swabia, and Bavaria. The customal of Gorze soon began to be used by over fifty monasteries. Houses of women also took up the customs in Bavaria during the 900s. While Gorze followed the Benedictine traditions as introduced during the Carolingian era by Benedict of Aniane, there were a number of differences from the Cluniac foundations. Some of the early reform abbots (Arnold, John, and Immo) had placed themselves in positions of obligation to lay patrons, nobles, and bishops who had invited the Gorze reformers into their territories. Control of the Gorzer monasteries resided with the bishops. Also those German abbeys and daughter houses that embraced the Gorze reform were not dependent upon the motherhouse but operated in an autonomous fashion. There were a number of core monasteries connected to the reform that became the nucleus of a group of confraternal houses. The Gorze lectionary and liturgical ceremonies were also different from Cluny's. What turned out to be most significant were the liturgical enactments and performances that were linked to the seasonal celebrations such as Easter. These are said to have been the origins of the mystery plays that evolved into medieval drama.

English Reform.

The English monasteries of the tenth and eleventh centuries were affected in various ways by both Gorzer and Cluniac reforms. As was the case at Cluny, carrying out the liturgy of the daily offices became the primary focus of the monastic life. However, more in keeping with the Gorzer model, connections between English monasteries and English monarchs were quite strong. In 970 abbots and abbesses from all over the realm attended a royal assembly at Winchester where an agreement of customs known as the Regularis Concordia was drawn up. The result of this convention was that the king became the overseer of a uniform set of monastic observances. Prayers for the king and queen were included in most of the daily offices. Monasteries were even given by the crown certain jurisdictions over secular matters, such as land management and the courts. Thus, a unique type of unity developed between the monasteries and the monarchy, one that was also linked with the English people themselves.


H. E. J. Cowdrey, The Cluniacs and the Gregorian Reform (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1970).

Noreen Hunt, Cluny under Saint Hugh 1049–1109 (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1968).

C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism (New York: Longman, 1984).

Barbara Rosenwein, Rhinoceros Bound (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).

see also Architecture: Monastic Architecture

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Cluny and the Monastic Reforms of the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries

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