The Cluny movement

The revival was given conspicuous leadership by the monastery of Cluny and its abbots. Cluny was north of Lyons, not far from Macon and the Rhone River. Its first abbot and real founder was Berno. A Burgundian, Berno had already made a record as abbot of another monastery where he had held to the strict observance of the Benedictine rule. So many youths were attracted by his zeal that he deemed it necessary to begin an additional house. This he did in 910 at Cluny on land given by William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine. To prevent his successors from corrupting the foundation and diverting it from its original purpose, as lay princes had done with many other monasteries, Duke William placed it directly under the protection of the Pope. Like Gorze and Brogne, Cluny was profoundly affected by what had been done by Benedict of Aniane in his modifications of monastic life and ceremonies.

Many were hungry for the type of leadership given by Berno. As we have suggested, Christians of the day believed, as had many before and have many since, that the salvation of their souls was to be best attained by the monastic road. Men and women denied themselves here that they might win heaven hereafter. It was this impulse that constituted the wellspring of monasticism. Many entered upon the life from other motives, such as ease and physical security, or were committed to it by parents who wished to provide for their offspring, but had monasticism rested on these foundations it would not have endured. It was the urge for the attainment of wholeness of life, of meaning to life that would endure through eternity, which was the persistent source of recurring monastic revivals. To those who were impelled by it Cluny made a profound appeal.

Cluny grew in its enrollment and attracted gifts. Devout lay lords who had the nomination to abbacies asked Berno to accept the post and to undertake the reform of their houses. He acquiesced. On his retirement (926) because of age, he transferred most of his abbacies, including that of Cluny, to Odo.

Odo, who was abbot from 926 to 942, travelled extensively in France and Italy to promote the reform of monasteries. Of some he was made abbot. In others those in charge asked his advice. In the monasteries which he visited for that purpose he usually left one or more monks who had been trained at Cluny and whom he could trust to inculcate the spirit of that house.

For about two and a half centuries, with one exception, Cluny had a notable succession of able and devoted abbots. Scions of noble families, well educated according to the standards of the time, they gave themselves unstintedly to the work of their office, some of them refusing high ecclesiastical position to do so, and made their weight felt in Church and state. Under the fifth of the line, Odilo, who held the post for about fifty years (994-1048), the number of monasteries affiliated with Cluny rose from thirty-seven to sixty-nine. In addition, there were still more smaller groups, cellae, "cells," affiliated with the larger units. Although he was slight in build, short of stature, and nervous, Odilo inspired respect and was a forceful leader. Yet in discipline he inclined to mercy. By the beginning of the twelfth century the number of associated monasteries had risen to more than three hundred. Hugh the Great, who was abbot for approximately sixty years, from 1049 to 1109, ruling as he did eventually over more than three hundred widely scattered monasteries, was for years an efficient ally of the reforming Popes and was canonized a little over a century after his death. He had an unworthy successor who held the post for thirteen years, but the latter was followed by Peter the Venerable who was abbot from 1122 to 1157, or for thirty-five years, and who did much to restore the discipline of Cluny and its affiliated houses.

Cluny thus became the centre of a "congregation" of monasteries, the precursor of such orders as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits. Heretofore each monastery had been independent of every other. Through Cluny a family of monasteries arose.

In theory Cluny held to the rule of Benedict of Nursia. In practice it modified it. It stressed silence, except in group worship. As had Benedict of Aniane, it lengthened and elaborated the services. No longer did the monks work with their hands in the fields. That labour was left to serfs while the monks devoted themselves to prayer. Their abbey churches tended to be huge. That of Cluny, begun late in the eleventh and completed in the first half of the twelfth century and dedicated by the Pope himself, was said to have been at the time the largest church in Western Europe. Scholarship was not encouraged and the study of the non-Christian authors of classical antiquity was either forbidden or deprecated.

The influence of Cluny spread widely beyond the monasteries which were closely associated with it. Many existing houses were made to accord with its practice. That was true even of the mother Benedictine house on Monte Cassino. Numbers of new foundations were on the model or under the inspiration of Cluny. Moreover, as we shall see in a later chapter, from it came bishops and Popes who led in the reform of the Western Church.

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