A model of the Third Abbey Church of Cluny, the
largest Christian Church ever constructed; except for
one tower and part of a transept it was destroyed
after the French Revolution.
Before we look at the Gregorian Reform, I want to take a look at the Abbey of Cluny which many historians credit with launching the Gregorian Reform. Actually, while I am not so sure that I see the connection, at least a direct connection, between Cluny and the Gregorian Reform, I must admit that Cluny is too important to overlook in any event as it certainly set the “gold standard” for monastic life which in turn would inspire many of the Reformers of the eleventh century in their goal of purifying the Church from the decay it had fallen into.
Duke William of Aquitaine founded the Abbey on his Burgundy estates in 910, inviting a monk named Berno to serve as abbot and—and this is remarkable for the period—giving the abbey independence from any civil or ecclesiastical oversight, making it answerable only to the pope. This was not particularly auspicious as Sergius III, “possibly the only pope known to have ordered the murder of another pope and the only pope to have fathered an illegitimate son who later became pope (John XI)…” was pope at the time of Cluny’s foundation. Sergius’ mistress—and mother of John XI—was Marozia whom you may remember from our entries on the “pornacracy.” (See the entries for January 15, June 6, 9, 18.) John XI himself when he came to the throne became a great benefactor of the Abbey during his papacy—though otherwise he was a pretty worthless pope. He was bullied by his older brother, Alberic II, Duke of Spoleto, who used his younger brother’s papacy as an opportunity to control not only the Papal States but the Church itself to his own interests. Nevertheless, bad people often do good things and John’s granting of so many privileges to Cluny was indeed a very good thing.
In any event, Berno had a history of reforming and founding abbeys and was a very capable administrator as well as a man of personal holiness. He had a definite philosophy of monastic life, shaped by the ninth-century monastic regimen of Benedict of Aniane. Berno saw the essence of the monastic life in the perfection of liturgical prayer and that the monastery, as a “heaven on earth” was to engage as far as possible in the laus perennis—the unceasing praise. The ideal would be a continuous, never-ceasing, round of ceremonial worship that continued twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—the monks working (that is to say, praying) in shifts. Such an ideal would be all but impossible, of course, to realize but Cluny was to come close with its long and splendid ceremonials.
In his dependency on Benedict of Aniane for the monastic vision, Berno made Cluny a bridge spanning the Carolingian Reformation—of which Benedict of Aniane was a key player—the Ottonian (to which Cluny style monasticism would contribute Gerbert of Aurillac aka the reforming Pope Sylvester II)and leading to the Gregorian Reform which it was to inspire. (Just to be clear, Gerbert’s home monastery was not part of the Cluniac federation, but like many Benedictine houses of the time modeled its observance on the Cluniac practices.)
I must admit I have always had a weak spot for Cluny and its monks. Regretfully I have yet to visit the site, perhaps someday. But to return to our story—William’s endowment of his new Abbey was so generous that the monks were substantially freed of the need for any manual labor to support themselves and thus were free to give themselves almost entirely to the project of continuous worship. The more they chanted psalms and processed around their church and burned incense and turned donations into chalices and chandeliers, the more donations poured into their coffers and vocations into the abbey. And the more monks and money, the more elaborate and all-consuming became the liturgy. Benefactors would bequeath to the Abbey manors and farms, mills and tolls, weirs and orchards and vineyards. Everything came with a price. “Here is a manor, but we want a weekly mass said for the deceased of our family.” “Here is an orchard, but you must have a procession each year on the anniversary of grandmama’s death.” “Here is a toll on the Rhone bridge, but you must sing a Litany in honor of Saint Anne four times a year.” Wealth piled up, ceremonies piled up. Vocations piled up. Cluny founded daughter houses, but unlike other Benedictine Abbeys never granted the daughter houses independence. By keeping them subject to the Abbey of Cluny, the Abbot of Cluny had a right to come into each foundation and insure that they were not slacking on the monastic observance. It was this innovation that created the modern concept of a religious order.
The Cluniac Order—for they were an Order and not merely a federation of independent monasteries—became famous throughout Europe for its high standards of monastic life and worship. Cluny had a succession of phenomenal Abbots in leadership of the movement: Odo, Maiolus, Odilo, Hugh I, Hugh II, Peter the Venerable among them. In a Church that was in great decay, Cluny set a standard for monastic life that was a beacon for reform. Not all monasteries adopted the Cluniac program, but it did trigger a movement of monastic reforms that in turn would trigger a generation of monk reformers who brought the same enthusiasm for integrity and reform to the larger church.