900 years ago, in 1115, Saint Bernard and his companions left to found in Champagne, in the Val d'Absinthe, the abbey of Clairvaux. In the 12th century, Cluniac, Cistercian, Carthusian or Camaldolese monasteries and priories populated the countryside of Europe by the thousands. A total phenomenon, religious but also economic, social, political and cultural, monasticism shaped the medieval West. The latest issue of History magazine collections looks back at the reasons for this success.
A medieval utopia
This religious practice was born in the Egyptian desert, when hermits wanted to live alone an intense experience of God. In the West, a retreat "in the desert" will remain the privilege of a few exceptional personalities. Men and women wishing to devote themselves to prayer were gathered in communities, under the direction of an abbot. Under Charlemagne and his successors the foundation of the monasteries was a royal prerogative. Quickly, these places which gathered the Christian elite became economic powers and relays of power for the great lords. This is the case of Cluny, founded in Burgundy around 910 by the Duke of Aquitaine, and whose order went regroup hundreds of monasteries, from England to Italy. Its abbots had a considerable influence, playing the role of arbiter between the pope or the emperor or having the Koran translated for the first time to better combat it.
Faced with the opulence of these monastic cities, more radical reformers sought isolation. Cîteaux, founded in 1098 in a marshy area near Dijon, became the symbol of this greater austerity. But, once again, the new order did not remain out of the world for long: the Cistercians carried high the ideal of Saint Bernard, a soldier of God who set out to attack society.
This golden age of monasticism was the culmination of the Gregorian reform which saw the Church take control of society at the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. However, the monks were seen as the only true Christians. A world apart, self-sufficient and regulated in all its aspects, the monastery was a center of prayer and a foreshadowing of the hereafter, necessary for the salvation of all. It is this utopia that explains the success of the institution. It was shaken in the thirteenth century with the appearance of the mendicant orders. Monasticism did not disappear, however, but it slowly declined. The last blow was dealt to him in France by the Revolution. Today, the great abbeys of the Middle Ages belong to the heritage. What these imposing remains reveal to us is another idea of the organization of human society.
The Golden Age of Abbeys: A Religious Revolution in the Middle Ages, History Collections, April 2015. On newsstands and by subscription.