Catholic World – The Congregation of Cluny

Cluny AbbeyAt the close of the ninth century the great wealth of the Benedictine Order in France had produced a relaxation of discipline and a departure from regular observance in many of its monasteries which brought it into a state of decadence. One principal source of this degeneracy lay in the want of all organic union binding together the distinct monasteries, each one of which was exclusively subject to its own abbot. It is true that in earlier times the bishops exercised a certain jurisdiction over them; but this was seriously impeded by the fact that the abbot was frequently equal to the bishop in power and in external consideration. The pope was too distant; disorder could strike deep root before any information would reach him, and even then he was ordinarily able to employ only indirect methods of remedying the evil. This seems to have been felt by all those who, from the tenth century onwards, endeavored, by various additional statutes, explanations, and stricter applications of the Rule of Saint Benedict, to bring back those who were subject to it to a more conscientious fulfilment of the obligations of their religious profession. At the time when the Carlovingian dynasty, represented in the person of Charles the Simple, was verging toward extinction, William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Auvergne, in concert with his duchess, Ingeburga, formed the plan of founding a new monastery. He took counsel respecting the carrying out of his design with Hugh, Abbot of Saint Martin’s at Autun.

In company with the duke and duchess Hugh made an exploration of their domains in search of a suitable location, and selected a meadow on the banks of the little river Grosne, near an agreeable cascade, where a chapel in honor of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Peter had been already erected. The duke objected that this was his favorite hunting-ground, and that the noise and tumult of deer-chasing would frequently disturb the quiet of the monastery. “Well, then,” replied the abbot, “drive away the hounds and bring in the monks; you well know which of the two will bring you the most favor with God.” The duke cheerfully assented to this proposition, and took measures for the erection of a monastery in honor of the apostles Saints Peter and Paul upon this territory, of which he had but recently acquired the possession.

At the recommendation of Hugh, Berno was invited from a neighboring monastery to become the first abbot. He was succeeded by Odo, the son of a Frankish knight, who had been brought up at the court of Duke William, had afterwards devoted himself to the religious state, and was at the time of his election in the maturity of his manhood. Odo saw that in many monasteries the end of the religious vocation had been entirely forgotten, and, in order that he might restore the primitive discipline of Saint Benedict, he determined to reform the monastic state in accordance with its original spirit and intention, and to induce the monasteries in his own vicinity to adopt his reformation. He was a man well fitted to undertake such a task, by his personal austerity, his self-devotion to the good of others, and his extraordinary charity, which was so great that he was ready at any time to bestow all he had upon the poor, without any thought of reserving on one day what might be necessary for the next. The influence of his personal character, and the effect of his active efforts during a prolonged life, were so great that a number of monasteries became affiliated to the one over which he immediately presided. He is, therefore, properly speaking, the founder of the Cluniac Order.

His meek and humble successor, Aymard, won for himself by his amiable virtues the confidence of all the brethren of the order, and the favor of the great and powerful, who were profuse in conferring upon it liberal gifts, charters of protection and privilege. His successors in office, Majolus, Odilo, and Hugh I, were all equally eminent by their able administration, their great influence in all the most important ecclesiastical and political movements of their time, and their high favor with emperors, kings, and princes. Emperors, kings, popes, and bishops maintained intimate relations with the abbots of Cluny, and all the great and powerful nobles of the country sought their advice in matters of importance. Three Sovereign Pontiffs were taken from Cluny to fill the chair of Saint Peter. When the son of a king was obliged to become a fugitive, he sought for a refuge at Cluny, and princes who were weary of life and disturbed by remorse of conscience came there to do penance among the brethren. The rulers of foreign countries were lavish of their donations to the order, the popes were equally munificent in conferring marks of their high favor, and bishops were eager for the affiliation of the most important monasteries in their dioceses with Cluny. The immense revenues which flowed into its coffers from all countries in the world became at last proverbial.

The internal discipline and external splendor of Cluny were maintained in an undisturbed permanence and stability for a period of two centuries. At the end of that time both were grievously shattered by the disastrous administration of the unworthy Abbot Pons, a man of worldly levity in character and manners, haughty and ambitious in his disposition, whose whole course of official conduct was such as to threaten the complete downfall of the order. After a length of time he was formally impeached and tried at the tribunal of Rome, by which he was deposed from his office as abbot. Disregarding this sentence, he seized anew on the possession of the monastery of Cluny by force of arms, but was soon after overpowered and cast into a prison, where he was carried off by a sudden attack of fever.

After a short period of only three months, during which the abbatial chair was occupied by Hugh II, Peter the Venerable was placed over the Cluniac Order, which he ruled for thirty-nine years, precisely during the period of Saint Bernard, who was his intimate friend, and whom he survived about three years. His activity, prudence, and universal reputation, the intellectual power, deep learning, and exalted virtue which merited for him the appellation of Venerable by which he is designated in history, sufficed not only to heal Cluny from the wounds inflicted on it by the Abbot Pons, but to raise the whole order to its highest summit of importance, and to make the monastery which was its centre flourish in a state of unexampled spiritual and temporal prosperity. If we consider the many journeys which this great abbot undertook on affairs of the utmost importance connected with the public interests of the day, it would seem that he was exclusively a statesman; his vast correspondence seems sufficient to have employed the time of one whose whole attention was given to counselling all sorts of persons seeking his advice by letters; his theological works are like the productions of one actively occupied in study; the strictness with which he observed and enforced upon his subjects in the cloister the monastic rule indicates a contemplative ascetic; his administration of the temporalities of his monastery presents him in the light of an able financier and man of business. The world was filled with his fame, and his order attained the highest zenith of its glory during his administration, which ended at his death, during the Christmas-tide of the year 1156.

All the special rules of the Cluniac Order were based upon the Rule of Saint Benedict. The ecclesiastical chant and the service of the choir employed much more time and attention, according to the customs of Cluny, than in other Benedictine monasteries. As far as possible, uniformity was enforced in the different houses after the model of the mother-house. Besides the special prayers which each one said according to his own devotion, one hundred and thirty-eight psalms were prescribed to be recited daily, which was usually done while engaged in performing the various tasks; and even in the great heats of summer, on the days when talking was permitted, there was only time for a recreation of half an hour. Every negligence or mistake in the choir-service received instantly a reproof. This was regarded as a spiritual military service, in which no individual caprice or negligence could be tolerated. Special care was exacted on the greater festivals of the church, and their high importance was recognized by the greater length of the choral song, the reading of longer lessons, and a more fervent devotion. During High Mass no Low Masses were allowed to be said, so that no one could in that way consult his own convenience and escape from the public and solemn celebration. The moment of the departure of one of the brethren from this world was treated as a specially solemn occasion. As soon as he had received Extreme Unction a wooden cross was put under his head in place of a pillow. All who could possibly attend were obliged to assist at the last agony of the dying man, and, although at other times running through the corridors was strictly forbidden, it was specially ordered whenever the passing-bell announced that one of the brethren was about to depart this life. Special revenues were devoted to all charitable purposes, and their conscientious expenditure strictly enjoined. There was a particular endowment for eighteen poor men who were perpetually supported by the mother-house. Six brothers were appointed for the service of the poor, one of whom waited on them, another acted as porter of their hospital, two others furnished the wood out of the forest for their fires, and two had charge of ovens for baking bread, to be given away in alms to the poor. Everything remaining on the tables of the refectory after the meals was taken by the almoner for distribution among the poor. A cover was laid for each one of the most distinguished benefactors at every meal, even though they were living at a great distance or had been long dead, and all their portions were taken for the poor. Twelve loaves, each weighing three pounds, were prepared each day for widows, orphans, feeble and aged persons. On Holy Thursday the ceremony of foot-washing was performed for as many poor men as there were brothers in the community, all of whom were afterwards served at dinner. On certain special occasions, and on all the festivals when the table of the brethren was better served than usual, more abundant alms were distributed. The almoner was bound to make a weekly visitation of the houses in the village near the monastery, that he might find out every poor person who was sick, and furnish him with food, wine, and medicines. The number of poor persons who regularly received aid was estimated at seventeen thousand. The Abbot Odilo sold the ornaments of the church and a crown presented by the German emperor Henry II in order to relieve the wants of the people during a famine. The subordinate monasteries were required to imitate in this generous alms-giving the example of Cluny, and a similar observance of hospitality was also exacted. Precise rules were laid down for the reception of visitors of different ranks and conditions, who were continually arriving at the monastery on foot or on horseback. If they were ecclesiastics, they were not only invited to partake of the hospitality of the monastery, but also to participate in its religious exercises. Every one who travelled on foot received a certain amount of bread and wine on his arrival and at his departure. If the poverty of the house did not permit anything more than a temporary shelter and a friendly reception, this, at least, was to be cheerfully given to every one. The prior was not to consider what was within his means, but to go beyond them in providing for the wants of strangers. Frequently, when they had consumed all the provisions of the larder, the monks had to endure hunger until new supplies, which often came unexpectedly, were furnished by royal and noble benefactors.

The life of the monastic brethren was austere. Besides the regular and very long choir-service, which no one was dispensed from attending, the fasts were frequent. The flesh of quadrupeds was never allowed, and on the ferial days and the entire period from Septuagesima to Easter, not even fat could be used in preparing the food. The principal article of their daily diet was beans, with an occasional allowance of eggs and cheese, and more rarely of fish. After night prayers no one could taste food or drink anything without special necessity and permission. The violation of these rules and of the law of strict poverty was considered as a grievous transgression, exposing the offender to excommunication and privation of Christian burial.

Obedience, the pivot of all the virtues of an ecclesiastic, was regarded as having a higher and more extended obligation for religious. Its disregard was esteemed worthy of the severest punishment, and the incorrigible were subject to expulsion. Priors and other officials were twice admonished, and afterwards deposed without any hope of restitution. The observance of a strict rule of silence was regarded as a specially efficacious help to the acquisition of perfect spiritual virtues, and, in the opinion of the Abbot Odo, monastic life was utterly worthless without it. Absolute silence was invariably observed during meal-times, and during all times of the day throughout Lent and several other penitential seasons. The Cluniac monks became so expert in the use of the sign-language through their disuse of speech that they might have dispensed with talking altogether without the least inconvenience. The most perfect silence and stillness, undisturbed even by hasty and noisy walking through the cloisters, reigned throughout the monastery.

Every fault must be expiated by penance, or at least an acknowledgment before the abbot. Those who were late must remain standing or prostrate until a sign was given to them to repair to their places. The tardy at table received also a penance. Public offences received public penances, in order that every one might have sensible evidence that the community was vigilant in observing the behavior of each individual member. Smaller offences were punished by solitary confinement, making a station at the church-door, or exclusion from the common exercises. Those which were more serious were punished by flagellation, and, if the offence had been public, the penance was administered at the door of the church while the people were assembling for Mass, and the cause of it announced to them by an official of the monastery. For the gravest faults the culprit was put in irons or imprisoned in a dark, underground dungeon. Saint Hugh’s maxim was that a monastery is not dishonored by the faults of its members, but by their impunity. Several brothers were appointed to make the rounds of the monastery at intervals, and to declare in chapter every disorder which they observed, whereupon due penance was inflicted on the delinquents. This duty devolved on the prior for the first hour of the night, and at intervals during its progress, with a special charge of watching that all the doors were properly closed and fastened.

Such a special care was observed in regard to cleanliness that the most particular housekeeper could not be more thorough or exact in a well-regulated private family than were these monks of Cluny in their domestic arrangements. This care for cleanliness showed a deep psychological insight into the close connection between this exterior virtue and interior purity, which is often endangered and damaged by a slovenly disregard of outward propriety. Articles of clothing and all the bed and table furniture were regularly changed according to an invariable rule. Careful supervision was observed towards the novices in respect to their personal neatness in such minute particulars as washing, combing their hair, etc., and conveniences for these purposes were provided in abundance for all, that they might easily make use of them when they came in from work to go to the choir or the refectory.

The clothing was very plain, in contrast to the worldly elegance and vanity in dress which prevailed in many other religious communities, but all the different articles of dress were provided in abundance, with two complete outfits for each one. The winter clothing was made to suit the season and the climate, warm and comfortable; for the men who made the regulations of Cluny were not so narrow-minded as to adhere scrupulously to purely exterior customs which were suitable to Italy but utterly unfit for the ruder climate of the North.

The sick were cared for with the most tender solicitude, six brothers were deputed to the service of the infirmary, and the best ass in the stables was set apart to haul wood for the fire. The infirmarian was always provided with spices and wholesome herbs to make the food of the sick more appetizing and wholesome. Meat was provided for them every day, and even on fasting-days. A certain part of the presents made to the monastery was assigned to the purchase of comforts and delicacies for the sick and weakly. They were dispensed from the rule of silence, and only required to refrain from abusing the privilege of talking. The abbot and grand-prior were required to make frequent visits to the sick, and the cellarer was bound to see each one, in company with the infirmarian, every day, and inquire what kind of food he wished for and in what way it should be prepared. As soon as one was released from the infirmary he came to the chapter, and, standing up, said to the prior: “I have been in the infirmary and have not kept the rules of the order according to our obligation.” The prior answered: “May God pardon you!” whereupon the convalescent brother went to the place of the penitents and recited the seven penitential psalms or seven Pater Nosters.

As for the interior legislation and administration of the order, a general chapter was held at Cluny once a year, where all the abbots, priors, and deans of the entire congregation were bound to appear under pain of deposition, those only who lived in distant countries being exempted from attendance oftener than once every two years. Every question which related to the rules was submitted to this chapter, and to the votes of all the brethren of the monastery of Cluny. Each one was obliged to make known in the chapter, without any regard to personal considerations, whatever he had noticed in any of the houses or in any individual member of the order which was worthy of censure, and was protected from any unpleasant consequences which might possibly ensue afterwards to himself from his disclosures. All priors whose administration or personal conduct was censurable were deposed by the chapter; and, finally, they made an examination of all the novices of the congregation.

As soon as the chapter was dissolved the supreme power reverted to the abbot of Cluny. He appointed all the priors and confirmed all the abbots-elect, being strictly forbidden to receive any presents or perquisites in connection with any such official act. He could make such regulations as he saw fit in all the houses; all his sentences upon individual delinquents which were in conformity with the canons were binding; and in the interval between the capitular assemblies he could depose from all offices without appeal. He was bound to share as much as possible in the common life of the other monks, to be with them in the common dormitory and at the common table, and to use the same food, the only mark of distinction being that he was served with wine of a better quality and with two loaves at dinner.

Next in rank and authority came the grand-prior, appointed by the abbot with the counsel of the elders of the monastery and the assent of the chapter. Under the abbot’s supreme direction he presided over all the spiritual and temporal offices of the monastery, with a special oversight of those brothers who were charged with out-door employments on the cloistral domains. Every year, after the vintage, he made an inspection of all the farm-lands, examined the stores laid up in the barns and cellars, and directed the division of the fruits of the harvest for the use of those who resided in the outlying farm-houses, and for the general use within the monastery.

The interior order of the house was under the oversight of the prior of the community, who had several assistants, and in case of absence a deputy. The rule prescribed that no account should be taken of birth or other personal considerations of human respect in the choice of prelates and officers, but only of moral virtue, experience, and prudence. No abbot or prior, not even the abbot-general of the congregation, was allowed to travel without some of the brethren in his company, as witnesses of his conduct and associates in fulfilling the devotions prescribed by the rule.

We can form some estimate of the extent of the monastic buildings of Cluny from the circumstance related in history, that in the year 1245 Pope Innocent IV., with twelve cardinals and his entire suite; also two patriarchs, three archbishops, eleven bishops, with their respective suites; farther, the king of France, with his mother, wife, brother, and sister, and the whole of their retinue; the emperor of Constantinople, the crown-princes of Aragon and Castile, several dukes and counts, and a crowd of knights, ecclesiastics, and monks, were accommodated within the precincts of the monastery without encroaching on any part of it which was ordinarily occupied by the community or incommoding any of the brethren.

The fine arts were made to contribute to that which is their highest end—the service of religion—in the Cluniac Order more than in any other contemporary institute. They were all employed in harmony and unity with each other to enhance the splendor of the divine service. The candles and lamps by which the church was lighted were placed in costly hoops beset with precious stones. Instead of candelabra, trees artistically wrought in bronze stood near the altar, having the lighted candles prescribed for the solemn ceremonies blazing among their branches. Paintings covered the walls; the windows were richly ornamental and filled with colored glass. Costly tapestry and hangings, beautifully-carved stalls, a decorated pavement, chimes of bells of unusual size, reliquaries of gold whose beauty of workmanship even surpassed their costliness, chalices, ciboriums, and monstrances of gold, sparkling with jewels, vestments heavy and stiff with cloth of gold, and all else that was magnificent in sacred art and decoration, made the church of Cluny a theme of praise and admiration throughout all France. It was probably at the date of its erection the largest in the world, and rested upon sixty-eight columns, each eight and one half feet in diameter. Thirty-two of these pillars supported the vast dome, and the whole edifice, which was built in the peculiar form of an archiepiscopal cross, was regarded as one of the most splendid monuments of the Roman style of architecture in France. Sculpture, carving, and painting rivalled each other in the decoration of this magnificent church, and there still remained at the beginning of the present century a representation of the Eternal Father on a gold ground in the vaulting of the apse, ten feet in height, which retained all its original brilliancy of color. The choir-stalls, which were of a comparatively late period, were two hundred and twenty-five in number at the time of the suppression—showing how numerous the community had become—and the towers were filled with a great many bells, the largest of which were melted down to cast cannon during the religious wars. At present but little remains of this grand structure in a state of ruin. During the French Revolution the whole was sold for building material for the sum of twenty thousand dollars, and thus rude force destroyed this grand work of the spirit of Christianity.

The cultivation of science was fostered in the Cluniac Order with much greater care and zeal than in some of the other monastic bodies. Its founders were more solicitous for the promotion of intellectual labor than for material industry. The Abbot Peter wrote: “In virtue of a special privilege, the abbots of Cluny from ancient times promoted literary occupations with zeal and energy. It is not the desire of winning a high reputation which stimulates them to write books, but the feeling that it would be shameful to neglect the imitation of their predecessors, the holy Fathers of the church, and thus to prove themselves degenerate sons.” Under such superiors the brethren were not deterred by any ill-grounded scruple from applying themselves to the study of the heathen classics, and in fact considered this study as a valuable auxiliary to the investigation of the Sacred Scriptures. The works of the great ecclesiastical writers were fully appreciated and diligently perused, and the valuable manuscripts collected in the library of Cluny were not considered as a mere assortment of curiosities for the sake of show, but as useful implements for the cultivation of science, and in a generous spirit of liberality were freely lent to other monasteries for the sake of making copies or recensions. The books used for the church service were written out in a beautiful, ornamental text, richly adorned with initial letters executed in the most elaborate style of art; and those who were engaged in this kind of work, if it would not admit of interruption, were excused from choir for the time being. The ability and industry of the Cluniac monks in collecting manuscripts and preserving precious monuments of ancient history have been recognized even in later times, and abundant documents of that zeal for the promotion of science which was not damped by the earnestness with which religious discipline was enforced have come down to our own day.

The confraternity of Cluny, which had speedily risen to a high consideration throughout France, attained to a higher and more solidly-established reputation during the period extending through nearly forty years of the administration of Peter the Venerable. The renovation of the Benedictine Order in its original spirit which had been effected by the Cluniac reform became renowned in other countries as well as in France, and awoke the desire of attempting to accomplish the same happy results elsewhere by the use of similar methods. Every founder of a new monastery in France desired to introduce the rule and submit to the supremacy of Cluny. Kings, princes, and bishops urged upon the already existing monastic communities, especially when they had fallen into disorder, incorporation with the Cluniac congregation. During the rule of Peter the Venerable it was increased by the addition of three hundred and fourteen monasteries, collegiate foundations, and churches, and at its most flourishing period it embraced within its limits more than two thousand distinct houses. At the time of the Crusades it extended itself even beyond the sea. Cluniac houses were founded in the valley of Josaphat and on Mt. Tabor, and in the time of Abbot Peter a monastery in a suburb of Constantinople was united to the mother-house, over which he presided.

Men of all conditions who desired to do penance for their sins, to seek a refuge from the dangers of the world, or to find spiritual direction and come under a holy influence for their own sanctification, sought to make reparation and deserve the grace of God by rich gifts to Cluny, to consecrate themselves to God in some house of the order by the religious vows, or to secure for themselves by becoming affiliated to it a share in the sacrifices and prayers perpetually offered within its sacred enclosures. It is related that Count Guy of Macon, who had been a bitter persecutor of the order, one day presented himself at the gates of Cluny in company with his son, several grandsons, thirty knights, and the wives of each one of the noble group respectively, all of whom demanded permission to take the vows of religion. Under the sixth abbot, Hugh I, three thousand monks were present at one general chapter. The crowd of applicants for admission became so great that Hugh VI was once compelled to issue an edict forbidding the reception of any new candidates during a term of three years. Under Peter the Venerable the number of monks resident at Cluny increased from two hundred to four hundred and sixty, some of whom, however, led a solitary life as hermits in the neighboring forests.

The popes were lavish in their grants of privileges to Cluny and the monasteries connected with it. Alexander II decreed that no bishop or prelate should have the right of excommunication in respect to the Cluniac congregation. Urban II allowed the use of episcopal insignia to the abbot, and Calixtus II conceded to him the special privileges of a cardinal. The brethren of the order were even permitted to have the celebration of Mass continued for their own benefit during an interdict.

There is nothing which shows more clearly the high esteem in which Cluny was held than the decree of Pope Innocent IV in the third session of the Council of Lyons: that accredited copies of all the official documents relating to the diplomatic intercourse of emperors, kings, and other princes with the Roman Church should be deposited in its archives. This important and precious collection was still in existence at the outbreak of the Revolution.

The history of Cluny has a very great importance in connection with the general history of the mediæval period, but especially with the great ecclesiastical reformation of Gregory VII, which was prepared by the interior working of the order within the church. For many prudential reasons the fact that the great ecclesiastical movement of the eleventh century had its source in the monastery of Cluny was kept out of sight as much as possible; but it is proved by abundant evidence, and Gregory VII himself, who was its prior when Saint Leo IX. persuaded him to return with him to Rome in 1049, speaks of the peculiar and intimate relations between Cluny and the Holy See.

– text taken from the August 1877 edition of Catholic World magazine, author unknown