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Cluny Abbey

The Cluny Abbey was founded in the Duchy of Burgundy, in A.D.910. The uniqueness of Cluny Abbey consisted in its complete independence from feudal or ecclesiastical control except that of the Pope. The autonomy of Cluny Abbey was helped by the geographical location, as a balance of power existed between France and Germany, and the Duke of Burgundy possessed only nominal authority. In 939, Louis IV d'Outremer confirmed the privilege which made the abbey completely independent of the temporal power, and from its inception, Cluny Abbey had no secular master.

Cluny Abbey
Cluny Abbey in the 12th Century

The monks of Cluny were models of ascetic devotion, and the abbey soon acquired great fame due to its revival of monastic ideals. Cluny became so famous that monks everywhere in Europe wanted to join it. As a result, the "Congregation of Cluny" was formed. More monasteries were founded, following a new administrative rule. They were all subordinated to the abbot of the mother monastery at Cluny, not to their own abbots. The abbot of Cluny appointed a prior for each monastery. In the 12th century, there were over three hundred priories.

In the 11th century, a reform movement began in the Church, largely due to the influence of Cluny, which had abbeys all over Catholic Europe and whose monks detained high positions in the Church. The Cluniac monasteries reformed the parish priesthood. Instead of the feudal lord recommending the candidates to the bishop, Cluny Abbey succeeded in acquiring this privilege for itself, thus naming only holy men for the office.

It was Cluny’s doctrine that the Church as a whole should be freed from the control of kings and feudal lords, and that the spiritual power should always take precedence over the temporal power. Even kings and lords should be subject to the correction of the clergy and the Pope. To ensure that the clergy does not become worldly, the rules against the marriage of the clergy were strictly enforced.

William of Aquitaine, the founder of the Cluny Abbey, attached it from the very beginning to the center of Christianity, the Roman Church. Every five years the monks were bound to make a payment at Rome of ten golden sous for the maintenance of the light in the apostolic church, and Cluny belonged to the Holy See as an inalienable property. The Popes of the 10th and 11th centuries legislated in favour of the great monastery. They recognized its right to coin special money, its independence form the diocesan bishop, they forbade any bishop to excommunicate it, and conferred to the head of the abbey the Episcopal insignia and the title of "arch-abbot." A host of new monasteries were dedicated to St. Peter, and incorporated in the congregation founded by the Cluny Abbey.

Cluny Abbey Today
Cluny Abbey Today

Fifty years after its foundation, the modest religious house in which William of Aquitaine had placed twelve monks attracted the attention and the riches of all Europe. At the end of two centuries, it was the capital of the vastest monastic empire Christianity had ever known. Beside France, England, Germany, Poland, Italy, and Spain were filled with its priories. The abbots of Cluny chose their own successors and trained them for this task. Finally it became the custom that the Grand Prior should always succeed to the abbotship. This ensured that great people, really devoted to the Church were the leaders of Cluny Abbey for centuries.

A close community of ideas and interests united the abbots of Cluny and the Papacy. They became counsellors and official diplomats of the Papal power, and served as intermediaries at the courts of Europe. The union became complete when Urban II, a militant Cluniac, ascended the papal throne.

The Congregation of Cluny had only one abbot, the abbot of the mother abbey, and the subordinated monasteries were ruled by priors, nominated by the abbot-general. This right of nomination was a novelty opposed to tradition, to the Benedictine rule, and to the sacred principle of the freedom of abbatial elections. Thus, supported by bishops suspicious of the growing influence of Cluny, a number of abbeys refused to accept the abbots and monks sent to them from Burgundy. But the Cluny Abbey managed to bring all rebellions under control, as its goal was to liberate the cloisters from moral and material disorder, and to regenerate the monastic world through the lesson of obedience.

The "chapter-general," which was the assembly of the priors, was held periodically at Cluny Abbey under the presidency of the arch-abbot. The chapter-general did not become a regular institution until the beginning of the 13th century, when it became a complex organism of political, administrative, and judicial bodies, with its personnel of "visitors" and of definitors. In the 11th century, the synod was only a consultative body, and the autocracy of the abbot was complete. In the 14th century, the chapter-general tended to become a sort of representative assembly, transforming the absolute authority of the abbot-general into a limited monarchy.

The observance of a common rule was the moral bond which united the members of the order. The rule of Cluny Abbey was a revision of the general rule of St. Benedict, adapting it to the transformations of the monastic life. The first transformation consisted in the great emphasis put on mental labour. Manual labour was retained by Cluny, but only to recall the precept of humility, one of the fundamental principles of monasticism. The rule obliged the monks to shell beans, pull up weeds, make bread. Other then that, the hours which were not allocated to prayer were dedicated to learning, singing, copying manuscripts, and reading works of sacred and even profane literature. The struggle against ignorance was one of the first articles in the reform program. The great abbey was a center of teaching where great masters instructed and educated the novices.

Cluny held the duties of hospitality and charity in high esteem, and developed the institutions of public assistance, naming special functionaries in charge with these tasks. The "guardian of the guest-rooms," received the horsemen, while the "almoner" was charged with welcoming pedestrians and mendicants. Every day, abundant alms were distributed to the poor of the locality and to outsiders as well. The 11th century was the apogee of the order of Cluny. Later, the prestige of its monks declined, and the 12th century saw the first signs of its decadence. Superabundance of goods cooled the fervour and weakened discipline. The powers of the abbot were shaken by the increasing authority of the chapters-general. The Pope and the king of France finally secured the right to nominate alternately the abbot, and as a result, Cluny Abbey lost its independence, entering an irremediable fall.

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