The Cluniac Reform: How Great Catholics Respond to Crisis

There’s no denying that we find ourselves in a wasteland in Church, State, and family today. But let us not, on that account, engage in handwringing and whining. Brother Francis used to call some Catholic writers who majored in this, “professional wailers,” after those Arabs he knew who got paid to set the mood at funeral rites by mourning bombastically. According to Brother, the motto of the Catholic professional wailer is “have you heard the latest?” While it is important to take stock of the wasteland every once in a while — at least to keep ourselves from being wasted — it is much more necessary to “look up,” to remind ourselves of our supernatural goal and to cultivate a clear vision of the way there. Saint Paul tells us that “our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). With so much around us to disedify, we ought to edify ourselves and others. Besides the customary Catholic practices of piety (Mass, sacraments, prayer, spiritual reading, the practice of the virtues, etc.), one way to edify ourselves is to read of the noble episodes in Catholic history. This includes, but is not limited to, reading the lives of the saints.

An example of a noble episode of Church history that will edify us is the Cluniac Reform. It was largely responsible for that epoch that Brother Francis called “The Age of True Reformation: 1000-1095.” It gave us numerous saints, including some truly great popes.

So what was it?

Let us back up a little. If we call an era of Church history an era of “true reformation,” that implies that there was something needing reform. And indeed, that was the Church during the era known by the variously unflattering terms, “Iron Age of the Papacy,” “The Nadir of the Papacy” (Will Durant), and the “Pornacracy” (19th Century German Protestant historians). During that time, the papacy was the plaything of powerful Roman families who vied with one another for power. Pope John XII (955-964), who, in one account, died at the hands of a jealous husband while in the arms of that man’s wife, somehow personifies the age. Reform was clearly necessary.

In 910, William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine, donated his hunting preserve in the forests of Burgundy, to be used for a monastic foundation. The donation was made free and clear, with William expecting nothing from the monks but their prayers. (Other feudal lords would have expected to appoint its abbot — perhaps a favorite nephew — as a return for the favor.)

Here are Duke William’s words from the founding document of the monastery: “With this gift I establish that a monastery of regulars be built at Cluny in honour of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, where monks who live according to the Rule of St Benedict shall gather… so that a venerable sanctuary of prayer with vows and supplications may be visited there, and the heavenly life be sought after and yearned for with every desire and with deep ardour, and that assiduous prayers, invocations and supplications be addressed to the Lord.”

William secured a peculiar privilege for the abbey: its exemption from the local Bishop. The abbey’s first lord abbot, Saint Berno, was subject directly to His Holiness, Pope Sergius III. This privilege of being subject directly to the Roman Pontiff was perpetual. Later, when daughter houses came into existence under Saint Berno’s successor, Saint Odo, each house, while having its own local superior (called a prior), was accountable to the Abbot of Cluny. These two new developments were safeguards against the horrible abuses of the day, especially lay investiture (whereby bishops and abbots were appointed by kings or local feudal lords) and simony (the purchase of sacraments or ecclesiastical offices).

Cluny was known for its strict adherence to the Rule of Saint Benedict in a day when monastic discipline had become lax. Marian devotion and holy silence were known to flourish there. While they did not engage as much in the manual labor that Benedictine monasteries had earlier performed — a criticism that St. Bernard and the Cistercian reformers had of Cluny in later years — the monks spent very long hours in choir singing the divine praises, which they raised to a high art. Because of their dedication to the perennial praise of the sacred liturgy, their other work was largely carried out to sustain and enhance this function. For that reason, liturgical arts, architecture, crafts, and suchlike came to be highly refined at Cluny. Due to successive large donations by royal and noble personages throughout Europe (the largest coming from Ferdinand I of León between 1053 and 1065), they could afford to pay laborers to do much of the necessary work on their lands, including farming, while they dedicated their lives entirely to prayer and the allied sacred arts and sciences that made Cluny the religious powerhouse that it was.

The architecture was masterful. The abbey church at Cluny was, for five centuries, the largest church of Christendom. It was the rebuilt Saint Peter’s Basilica on Vatican Hill that took that title away from the monks’ church in the sixteenth century.

The monks were also scholars, and had one of the most well-endowed and important libraries in all Europe. In a spirit of monastic generosity, they shared the spiritual goods of their knowledge, and taught the young at their monasteries, which were, after houses of intense worship, houses of study.

Nor were they niggardly with the material generosity lavished on them. Each Cluniac house had an almoner who would give alms to the poor who begged at the monastery. In addition, generous Benedictine hospitality was shown to layman, cleric, and traveling religious alike.

Cluny made an enormous impression on the royalty and nobility of the day, who vied with each other in showing munificence to the abbey and its daughter houses. Seeing themselves as the benefactors of religion and the sponsors of a movement of fervent reformation ennobled many of the ruling class. In this way, the aureole of Cluny’s sanctity extended beyond its cloister at a time when the Christianization of Europe was being completed.

Cluny’s suffragan monasteries, numbering as many as 1,200, were all over Europe by the late 1200s, when Cluniac piety permeated society on a grand scale. Priors of these monasteries assisted civil and ecclesiastical rulers in their various nations (including France, Italy, Spain, Germany, England, Scotland, Poland, and Hungary), where many of them were appointed as bishops. In England, they inspired Saint Dunstan in his effort at rebuilding monasticism where it had been so recently ravaged by the Viking invasions (the Norsemen had, among their vices, the nasty habit of looting monasteries). The first Bishop of Cracow, Blessed Aaron, was a monk of Cluny and a student of Saint Odilo, the fifth abbot of Cluny.

When feudalism was giving rise to chivalry (and far too many wars), the Cluniac reform positively influenced the way war was prosecuted. In 1027, Saint Odilo devised the “Truce of God,” whereby feudal lords pledged themselves to refrain from armed conflict on Friday to Sunday. The “Peace of God,” which sought to protect sacred places and non-combatants from harm, was also a development of Cluny. These measures helped to calm the furor of war.

This same Abbot Odilo, who would sell monastery property to feed the poor in time of famine, instituted the observance of All Soul’s Day on November 2 in all the monasteries of Cluny. From those houses it spread to other Benedictine foundations and finally to the Universal Calendar of the Latin Church.


Coat of Arms of Cluny Abbey, by Orror. Image created for the Blazon Project of the French Wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Another pious and brilliant monk of Cluny, the son of a Tuscan craftsman, was one Hildebrand. He spent time as a preacher at the court of Germany’s Henry III. Later, Pope Gregory VI brought him to Rome as his advisor. Returning to Cluny, he influenced the papacy in another important way. Henry III took the liberty, customary in this age of corruption, of electing as pope his own cousin, Bruno, Bishop of Toul. Lay investiture was alive and well. Providentially, Bruno stopped off at Cluny on his way to Rome for his coronation. Hildebrand reproached him for illicitly accepting the papacy from the hands of a layman. Bruno humbly accepted the rebuke, took off the papal insignia, and took Hildebrand with him to Rome, where he was licitly elected Supreme Pontiff and named the intrepid Cluniac who stung his conscience as his advisor. As Leo IX — Saint Leo IX (1049-1054) — Bruno worked to reform many of the abuses of the day with Hildebrand at his side. Leo’s six successors had the blessing of the Cluniac’s sage counsel, too. Finally, at the death of Alexander II, Hildebrand was elected to the Supreme Pontificate, taking the name Gregory VII (1073-1085).

Readers are invited to consult Sister Catherine’s wonderful volume, Our Glorious Popes, to read the story of Pope Saint Gregory VII, after whom the Gregorian Reform is named. He engaged in an epic battle with that proud and trouble-making Hohenstaufen, Emperor Henry IV. Saint Gregory died in exile, but his eyes dimmed just before the dawn, for though his battle with Henry drove him to the grave, the cause of the freedom and exaltation of the Church against meddlesome civil leaders had been won.

The Gregorian reform of the papacy was one of the direct results of the Cluniac reform of monasticism. Besides putting great men on the Chair of Peter (Saint Gregory VII, Blessed Urban II, Paschal II, and Blessed Urban V), the monks were advisors to popes, too — as we saw in the case of Hildebrand. Saint Hugh of Cluny was advisor to some nine successive popes. Known as “Hugh the Great,” he was one of the most influential figures of medieval society. Cluny’s grand third abbatial church, mentioned earlier, was built while Saint Hugh the Great was abbot.

In 1086, Gregory VII’s second successor was raised to the Supreme Pontificate, taking the name Urban II. He, too, had been a monk of Cluny, and, as cardinal-bishop of Ostia, was an avid supporter of the Gregorian Reform. He had also been Prior of Cluny under Abbot Hugh the Great. Blessed Urban II is best known to history as the Pope who preached the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095.

We see that the men of the Cluniac Reform were far from mere handwringers or professional wailers. They saw to it that Christendom’s problems were addressed by starting where all authentic reform begins: the glory of God and their own sanctification. For this reason, their mighty accomplishments are beyond impressive; they are the stuff of hagiography.