Cluny Abbey and the Cluniac Order in the Middle Ages

Cluny Abbey and the Cluniac Order in the Middle Ages

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TheCluny abbey was founded in 910 thanks to a donation from Guillaume d'Aquitaine and entrusted to Bernon, Abbot of Baume, to create a monastery for twelve monks living under the rule of Saint Benedict. LCluny abbey and the order of Cluny were to quickly become one of the most important religious institutions of the Western Middle Ages, and their influence extended far beyond the realms of the Church and monarchism. The monastic reform that followed the founding of the abbey spread to Rome, counting significantly in what we have called the Gregorian reforms, leading to an emancipation of the Church from lay powers.

The foundation of the Abbey of Cluny

It was on September 11, 910 (we also speak of 909) that Guillaume, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Mâcon, donated to Father Bernon monastic establishments in Berry and Jura, and a Villa near Mâcon, where he asks him to found a monastery under the patronage of the apostles Paul and Peter.

William III of Aquitaine belongs to a rich and powerful Carolingian family, he is vassal of the count of Paris, Odon (or Eudes), who in 888 took the title of "king of the Franks". On his death in 898, the Duke of Aquitaine took on even more importance, relying on a considerable, although fragmented, territory. He decided to found this place for different reasons: it was first of all a pious act, then a means of creating a link between the monastic community, its territory and its family; the duke is paid for his generosity by the prayers of the monks, who honor his memory long after his death.

The charter which founds the Benedictine abbey of Cluny specifies that it owns the conceded goods in full ownership, the monastery escaping any form of control by the laity. This is the case with Guillaume himself, who waives all rights to the establishment. The community is placed under the protection of Rome, to which it pays a royalty. It freely elects its abbots and must follow the rule of Saint Benedict, in the version of 817 enacted by Benedict of Aniana and Louis the Pious.

The first abbot of Cluny, the only one appointed by Guillaume, is Bernon, abbot of Baume, born around 860 in Burgundy in a family of count rank, and who already directs other monasteries before Cluny. The abbey was therefore very close, from its foundation, to aristocratic circles (and the networks that go with it), even if it was independent of the laity. The abbots of Cluny can be considered as lords.

Expansion of the religious building

On his death in 927, Father Bernon appointed Odon (who led Cluny until 942) as his successor, despite the fact that the abbot is supposed to be elected by the community (he will not be elected until after the abbatial d'Odilon, who died in 1049). It was with Odon that the rise of Cluny really began, even if one cannot yet speak of a Cluniac order. A privilege of Pope John XI, in 931, grants Cluny a right of reform which allows the abbot to take charge of a monastery at the request of a lay abbot, and to welcome any monk whose monastery refuses to reform . The Pope confirms the abbey's exemptions, but it can also count on the support of the aristocracy, and this until the King of France.

Cluny is strengthening itself above all locally and continuously increasing its land holdings, and with its wealth. Likewise, the abbey received a number of donations, and saw its notoriety increase. Other monasteries then joined in Cluny, under the authority of the abbot: this was the beginning of the Cluniac network. Within this network spread the rule of Saint Benedict and the Cluniac reform, the influence of which gradually extended far beyond the Mâconnais. The abbots are no less temporal lords, managing an important territory and heritage, exercising the right of ban on their lands.

If the successor of Odon, Aymard (942-954), is less known even if he helps to extend the possessions of the abbey, it is different for Maïeul (954-994) and Odilon (994-1049 ). It was indeed under their abbatial that Cluny experienced its first major expansion. With Maïeul and Odilon, Cluny II becomes the monastery of the aristocracy, namely that the nobility is registered as one of the conditions of access to holiness. In addition, Cluny is asserting itself as an economic, but also political, power of the West. The abbey was consecrated in 981 and acquired relics from its patrons Paul and Peter and in the following years increased its autonomy thanks to new privileges granted by Gregory V and John XIX. The latter grants these rights to "all Cluniacs, wherever they are", and thus confirms the birth of the Cluniac network, theEcclesia cluniacensis, centered on Burgundy and composed of abbeys and priories. Under these two abbots, Cluny therefore asserts itself as a power well beyond Burgundy, since its network penetrates Auvergne, Provence and Italy, straight to Rome.

The heyday of the Cluny order

This time elected, Hugues de Semur succeeded Odilon in 1049. Cluny III then reached its peak, despite more and more criticism (including those of Adalbéron de Laon, under Odilon). The abbots are sovereign lords who defend their freedom by spiritual means, such as the concepts of the Peace of God and the Truce of God, until the creation of the holy Cluniac ban under Pope Urbain II, himself a monk of Cluny.

The Abbey of Hugues de Semur sees the Cluniac network spread to all of Europe, then to the Holy Land following the Crusade launched by Urban II. In the Capetian kingdom, the Cluniacs settled in the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, and they helped William the Conqueror in the monastic reform following his conquest of England; in exchange, the English sovereigns become financial supporters of Cluny. In contrast, the Cluniacs hardly succeeded in expanding their network in the Empire, in which the Emperor exercised influence and control over the clergy that the independence of the monks of Cluny could not tolerate. Spain in the midst of the Reconquista is more receptive, and Cluny participates in the reform of the Church in the Iberian Peninsula, to the detriment of Mozarabic Christianity.

However, we must not forget that Cluny is also at the heart of the great so-called “Gregorian” reform and the struggles between the Pope and the Emperor, which culminated with the Querelle des Investitures in 1076. Hugues de Semur was thus active, there understood diplomatically, to serve as a link between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV, and the Cluniacs joined the curia at Saint Peter in Rome, the cardinalate and the papacy with Urban II. The relationship between Cluny and Rome was then at its highest level, and it was not uncommon for the Pope to intervene to settle disputes between Cluny and "rebel" monasteries in his network.

A slow weakening

Cluny's growing power is obviously causing tensions, including within theEcclesia cluniacensis. Under Father Pons de Melgueil (1109-1122), the network experienced a real schism, perhaps caused by rivalries within the castle families of the Cluniac network. For reasons still unclear and which divide historians, Father Pons left Cluny to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, then tried to recover the abbatial on his return; he is then condemned by the Pope.

This schism is in fact the result of both tensions within the Cluniac network, but also the emergence of "competitors", critical of Cluny, such as the Cistercians. This did not prevent Cluny from rising again, thanks to the abbatial of Peter the Venerable (1122-1156), who tried to rationalize the economy of the monastery and make it less dependent on donations. He also acts at the doctrinal level, attacking Jews and Islam, and describes Cluny as a universal Church, binding the laity and the different orders of the Church. This led him in 1132 to convene a general chapter, the first step towards the creation of a real order of Cluny, which was really ratified much later, with the statutes of Hugh V (1199-1207).

By this time, Cluny had already lost its influence and we can consider Peter the Venerable as the last great Cluniac abbot. The order suffered mainly from competition from the Cistercian order, and fell back on the kingdom of France, even falling under the tutelage of the king at the end of the thirteenth century. And from the 14th century, it was the Pope who appointed the abbots of Cluny. Under the double tutelage of the king and the pope, the Cluny order is a long way from its past independence ...

The only vestige of the abbey of Cluny, only the large church remains today. Many remains have been collected in the Jean de Bourbon palace museum.


- D. Riche - The Order of Cluny at the end of the Middle Ages: the old Cluniac country, 12th-15th centuries - Presses de l'Université de Saint-Étienne (C.E.R.C.O.R. Works and research), 2000.

- M. Pacaut, L'Ordre de Cluny (909-1789), Paris, 1994 (2nd ed.).

Information and visits

- Cluny tourist office

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