The 1100 years of Cluny

Europe: yesterday a network of abbeys, today sites

The abbey of Cluny was founded 1100 years ago. The Duke of Aquitaine, William I, donated, in his last will, some of his estates including a villa “to the apostle Saints Peter and Paul”, so that a Benedictine monastery could be built there, also stipulating the name of the man he elected to lead the first community of twelve monks: the Abbot of Baume, Berno.Probably William of Aquitaine had no idea of what he had initiated: one of the indications in his will was that the monks should dedicate themselves especially to prayer. The duke had thereby established the new approach of the order, that of prayer, which had hitherto been relegated to second place, subordinated to secular occupations. For in fact there was no shortage of problems. The feudal lords who later had themselves buried within Benedictine monasteries, after having made abundant donations to them on their deathbeds, were the very same who had attacked and despoiled the monasteries’ lands. But feudalism was not only dangerous for monasteries because it was eager to plunder them of their wealth. The problem was that this way of conceiving the relations of power had penetrated into the very heart of the Church, with bishops elected and nominated feudatories by the emperor, priors and abbots imposed by the law of the stronger, priests who lived at their ease more uxorio with their own offspring to look after. This state of affairs was not accepted by everyone. Many men of faith thought that the Church should be freed from feudal attachments; they were especially the bearers of a very modern conviction, namely that the discipline of the spirit could and should govern the body, and render it healthier and freer. And in fact they had the example for this at the very root of their order: Benedict of Norcia had chosen the mountains of Subiaco when he could have made a career for himself in the corrupt political life of Rome of his time. He would have become a soon forgotten politico. He preferred instead, despite the doubts of many, a life of asceticism and isolation, and so became one of the fathers of history. Cluny was an attempt to return to those origins.Cluny became the second Montecassino, because the men who joined its congregations were those who saw the mission of the Church decoupled from deals with political power. It would be inconceivable to think of Hildebrand of Soana, later Pope Gregory VII, and his strenuous opposition to imperial influence in religious affairs, without the influence of Cluny. By the twelfth century the number of Cluniac monasteries had grown to 314. If added to the 1,400 abbeys that existed at the end of this century, we can deduce that, on the threshold of the thirteenth century, there must have been some 10,000 monks who belonged to the congregation. These monks returned to a life of prayer: prayer, the life of the spirit, the celebration of the liturgy, became their main form of work. Their founder Benedict, after all, had survived in caves in the rock by the banks of the Aniene, dedicating himself to a life of prayer.In years of recurrent epidemics, famines and assaults, no other option remained than having recourse to the intercession of those who had chosen to live solely in contact with God. It was to them that desperate people turned. It was in their processions with “their” reliquaries that the people participated en masse. If prayer became the essential task for Cluniac monks, it was easy for the Cistercians to claim for themselves the founder’s real legacy of “ora et labora”. It was necessary, they taught, to work, as well as to pray. Manual work had been left by the Cluniacs to servants and hired hands, but not because they had no wish to engage in it. Once donations permitted the cultivation of the fields to be delegated to others, in years when the spirit seemed to have abandoned men of the Church, prayer returned to the very centre of monastic life. Praying meant bringing the Kingdom of God to earth; it meant giving a small taste, through the liturgy, of the splendour of Heaven. According to the great historian Pirenne, Cluny marked a phase “comparable to that of the Jesuits in the sixteenth century”. The Church and the other monasteries demanded of Cluny men for the renewal of Christianity, and Cluny responded with rigour, propounding anew the asceticism that seemed to have declined in the monasticism in the West. But the history of Cluny has not ended: the Federation of Cluniac sites was founded at Cluny itself in 1994. It is aimed at disseminating knowledge of the itineraries linked to the congregation, with an accord between Italy, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and England: there are 12 sites (historical presences, even if only ruins) in Italy, all of them in Lombardy. The network of Cluniac sites is an attempt to remind contemporaries, and especially those unfamiliar with history, that for many centuries European monasticism was in effect dominated by Cluny. The imagination of many writers was powerfully influenced by Cluny: from the period of the Gothic novel to the “Name of the Rose” they have helped to identify the Middle Ages with Cluny and with the galaxy of abbeys that revolved around it.

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