The great Benedictine monastery of was founded around 910 by Duke William of Aquitaine with St. Berno as its first abbot. William wanted this monastery to be free or exempt from any noble, royal or ecclesiastical control except that of the Pope. He wanted this monastery to pray for him and his family, but he was also making penance for a murder he committed; in the Middle Ages, nobles would sometimes make penance by founding a monastery and continuing as its benefactor. Also, royals and nobles would found monasteries to have the monks or nuns to pray for them and their families. Some of these monasteries became the burial places of their benefactors.
Many people mistakenly think that Benedictines are in an order like the Franciscans, Jesuits, or Dominicans. But Benedictines do not form an order; each Abbey or monastery is independent, and the Abbot owes his obedience directly to the Pope. In the 19th century, Roman authorities wanted the Benedictines to be like the Franciscans, Jesuits and others and attempted to organize them into an order. The office of Abbot Primate was created for this purpose, but he actually has little power. Rome also wanted the Benedictines to organize into subdivisions called congregations or federations. The Benedictines did so, but each Abbot is fully in charge of his monastery and answerable only to the Pope. Officials of congregations or federations have some influence, but not the ultimate power.
Cluny would have made the officials in Rome in the 19th century very happy since Cluny oversaw hundreds of monasteries, some of which were women’s communities. The Abbot of Cluny was powerful in Church and political circles. The second in command was called the Grand Prior, sort of a business manager for the Cluniac order, and third was the claustral prior, who ran things at the monastery of Cluny.
This was not the only thing considered contrary to the Rule of St. Benedict. The Cluniacs emphasized liturgy too much; indeed, they had continuous liturgy going on in their church. Because of this, the monks needed help to take care of raising food, the buildings, and other necessities. They used servants or had lay brothers who did all the manual work. The Abbey church of Cluny was the biggest of its time, even larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. The Cluniacs embellished the church and other churches and buildings in its order from gifts and riches they attained over time. These riches in property, power and wealth eventually corrupted the Cluniacs. The Abbot of Cluny eventually became an appointee of the King of France, known as a commendam abbot, who did not live as a monk but used the wealth of the monastery for his own use. The French Revolution ended the great Abbey of Cluny.
Edwin Mullins tells this less than flattering history, but he also relates the great things the Cluniacs did. The early abbots of Cluny were holy men and are saints of the Church: St. Berno, St. Odo, St. Odilo, St. Mayeul or Mailos, St.Hugh and Blessed Peter the Venerable. Cluny reached its apex during the reign of St. Hugh, from 1049 to 1109. The other saintly abbots were longterm abbots too. Blessed Peter was known as “the Venerable” during his life time. Blessed Peter also had to contend with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who led the reform movement of the Benedictines called the Cistercians. St. Bernard criticized Cluny of being too rich and not living according to the Rule of St. Benedict. Cluny did provide some popes like Urban II, and St. Gregory VII had Cluniac connections. Cluny also was involved in the arts, not just at its home monastery but also at its subject monasteries.
After Cluny was shut down, three entrepreneurs bought the place and began tearing it down and selling the stone and other objects. By the time they were stopped, it was too late, and much of the Abbey had been destroyed. Similar architectural works survived, though, in nearby churches of the region. Mullins points these out and includes some illustrations of them. Mullins also points out that the Cluniacs as well as other monasteries were the places that travelers and pilgrims stayed. Cluny had monasteries along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the shrine of St. James the Great in Spain where his remains supposedly are. This was a great pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages, and many traveled from distance places in Europe to it. Many of these pilgrims were royalty or nobles and became benefactors of the Cluniacs.
Edwin Mullins, an Oxford-educated writer, journalist, and filmmaker, is the author of The Pilgrimage to Santiago (2001), The Devil’s Work (1996), Alfred Wallis (1989), The Master Painter (1989), The Golden Bird (1988), and other books, has done a superb job writing and researching this book. Cluny had a glorious history and made its mark on monasticism for good or bad. Mullins’ book is highly recommended to those interested in medieval history, monastic history, or monasticism.