Cluny Abbey

Cluny Abbey is a Benedictine monastery in Cluny, Saône-et-Loire, France. It was built in the Romanesque style, with three churches built in succession from the 10th to the early 12th centuries. Cluny was founded by William I, Duke of Aquitaine in 910. He nominated Berno as the first Abbot of Cluny, subject only to Pope Sergius III. The Abbey was notable for its stricter adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict and the place where the Benedictine Order was formed, whereby Cluny became acknowledged as the leader of western monasticism. The establishment of the Benedictine order was a keystone to the stability of European society that was achieved in the 11th century. In 1790 during the French Revolution, the abbey was sacked and mostly destroyed. Only a small part of the original remains. Dating around 1334, the abbots of Cluny had a townhouse in Paris known as the Hôtel de Cluny, what is now a public museum since 1833. Apart from the name, it no longer possesses anything originally connected with Cluny. Cluny was founded by William I, Duke of Aquitaine in 910. He nominated Berno as the first Abbot of Cluny, subject only to Pope Sergius III. The Abbey was notable for its stricter adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict and the place where the Benedictine Order was formed, whereby Cluny became acknowledged as the leader of western monasticism. The establishment of the Benedictine order was a keystone to the stability of European society that was achieved in the 11th century. In 1790 during the French Revolution, the abbey was sacked and mostly destroyed. Only a small part of the original remains. Dating around 1334, the abbots of Cluny had a townhouse in Paris known as the Hôtel de Cluny, what is now a public museum since 1833. Apart from the name, it no longer possesses anything originally connected with Cluny.

The monastery of Cluny differed in three ways from other Benedictine houses and confederations:

  • organizational structure;
  • prohibition on holding land by feudal service; and
  • execution of the liturgy as its main form of work.

While most Benedictine monasteries remained autonomous and associated with each other only informally, Cluny created a large, federated order in which the administrators of subsidiary houses served as deputies of the abbot of Cluny and answered to him. The Cluniac houses, being directly under the supervision of the abbot of Cluny, the autocrat of the Order, were styled priories, not abbeys. The priors, or chiefs of priories, met at Cluny once a year to deal with administrative issues and to make reports. Many other Benedictine houses, even those of earlier formation, came to regard Cluny as their guide. When in 1016 Pope Benedict VIII decreed that the privileges of Cluny be extended to subordinate houses, there was further incentive for Benedictine communities to insinuate themselves in the Cluniac order.Partly due to the order’s opulence, the Cluniac nunneries were not seen as being particularly cost-effective. The order did not have interest in founding many new houses for women

The customs of Cluny represented a shift from the earlier ideal of a Benedictine monastery as an agriculturally self-sufficient unit. This was similar to the contemporary villa of the more Romanized parts of Europe and the manor of the more feudal parts, in which each member did physical labor as well as offering prayer. In 817 St Benedict of Aniane, the “second Benedict”, developed monastic constitutions at the urging of Louis the Piousto govern all the Carolingian monasteries. He acknowledged that the Black Monks no longer supported themselves by physical labor. Cluny’s agreement to offer perpetual prayer (laus perennis (literally “perpetual praise”) meant that it had increased a specialization in roles. As perhaps the wealthiest monastic house of the Western world, Cluny hired managers and workers to do the labor of monks in other orders. The monks devoted themselves to almost constant prayer, thus elevating their position into a profession. Despite the monastic ideal of a frugal life, the abbey in Cluny commissioned candelabras of solid silver and gold goblets encrusted with precious gems for use on the altars. Instead of being limited to the traditional fare of broth and porridge, the monks ate very well, enjoying roasted chickens (a luxury in France then) and wines from their vineyards and cheeses made by their employees. The monks wore the finest linen habits and silk vestments at Mass. Artifacts exemplifying the wealth of Cluny Abbey are today on display at the Musée de Cluny in Paris.

The Cluny library was one of the richest and most important in France and Europe. It was a storehouse of numerous very valuable manuscripts. During the religious conflicts of 1562, the Huguenots sacked the abbey, destroying or dispersing many of the manuscripts. Of those that were left, some were burned in 1790 by a rioting mob related to the excesses of the French Revolution. Others still were stored away in the Cluny town hall. The French Government worked to relocate such treasures, including those that ended up in private hands. They are now held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris. TheBritish Museum holds some sixty or so charters originating from Cluny. Starting from the 12th century, Cluny had serious financial problems, caused mainly by the construction of the third abbey. Charity given to the poor increased the expenditure. The influence of the abbey weakened gradually as other religious orders rose (Cistercians in the 12th, thenMendicants in the 13th century). Bad management of the grounds and unwillingness of the subsidiary companies to pay the annual taxable quota helped to lessen Cluny’s revenue. Cluny raised loans and ended up being involved in debt to its creditors, who were merchants of Cluny or Jews of Mâcon.The conflicts with the priories multiplied and the authority of the pope became heavier. To the 14th century, the pope frequently named the abbots. The crises of the end of the Middle Ages and the wars of religion in the 16th century weakened the abbey a little more. The monks lived in luxury and there were not more than about 60 monks in the middle of the 15th century. With the Concordat of Bologna in 1516 overseen by Antoine Duprat, the king gained the power to appoint the abbot of Cluny. The years following the French Revolution were fatal to all the monastic buildings and its church. In 1793, its archives were burned and the church was delivered to plundering. The abbey estate was sold in 1798 for 2,140,000 francs. Until 1813, the abbey was used as a stone quarry to build houses in the town. Today, there remain only the buildings built under the Old Mode as well as a small portion of Cluny III. Only the southern transept and its bell-tower still exist. The remaining structure represents less than 10% of the floor area of Cluny III, which was the largest church of Christendom, until the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, five centuries later. The abbey has sheltered since 1901 a forming center of the École nationale supérieure d’arts et métiers (ENSAM) of the engineers of the Art-and-Trades (Gadzarts, in student’s slang). In 1928, the site was excavated and recognized by the American archaeologist Kenneth J. Conant with the backing of the Medieval Academy of America.

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