In Search of Cluny by Edward Mullins

An empire built on love of God
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The Independent Culture

In AD910 Duke William of Aquitaine, a childless widower, and a murderer, decided that he needed both salvation and immortality. He went riding with his fellow Burgundian aristocrat, Berno, Abbot of Baume-les-Messieurs. Berno persuaded him to part with his favourite hunting lodge and a considerable tract of delectable land and thus was born the abbey of Cluny and, over the next three centuries, the Cluniac ecclesiastical empire which was, for Burgundy, for France and, eventually, most of Europe, a rival not only to the Papacy but to the Holy Roman Empire itself. As we know all empires rise, decline and fall and Cluny was no exception. But, as it was neither a colonial nor a mercantile empire, it contrived to do less harm and, as Edwin Mullins suggests, because of its enforced celibacy, its Abbots and monks, forbidden the creativity of procreation, channelled their creative instincts into some of the greatest architecture, sculpture and illuminated manuscripts the world has ever seen.

We live in an era in which, apart from crackpot and dangerous fundamentalists of all persuasions, religious authority is on the wane. Yet, in the Middle Ages, the Church not only affected the state but frequently usurped and assumed the actual powers of the state. Stalin famously sneered "How many divisions has the Pope?" But several popes in their day controlled and used, albeit mercenary, armies. Bishops and abbots were often noblemen who waxed exceeding rich and the most powerful abbots of Cluny combined noble blood and, for the time, extreme longevity, with brilliant intellectual and diplomatic gifts along with genuine religious attributes such as modesty, holiness and even sanctity.

Abbot Berno was merely the first of a long line of spectacularly gifted men. He was succeeded by Odo who expanded Cluny by taking over several lesser monasteries and abbeys in the region. He recognised only one authority, that of the Pope, and travelled to Rome in 931 to confirm with Pope John XI that this privilege would last in perpetuity. There would be no question of his, or his successors', abbacies being interfered with by bishops, archbishops or even cardinals. As this was a period of internecine warfare between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, much of Cluny's eventual power came from the diplomatic skills - even authority - of its greatest abbots, who alone had the status to mediate between those two implacable factions. In this regard the most significant abbot, for both international politics and for the advance of the Cluniac way was Hugh, even though one of his predecessors, Mayeul, had been offered - and declined - the Papacy. Hugh of Semur and his immediate predecessor Odilo reigned between them during three centuries. Odilo had 55 years and Hugh 60, and both were canonised. All Souls' Day was invented by Odilo, who also sent Cluniac armies to Spain to help drive out the Moors.

But the great expansionist was Hugh. He went further as a builder, establishing the third great Abbey of Cluny, for centuries the largest church in Christendom (overtaken only by a few feet when St Peter's was built in Rome), which was dedicated by Pope Innocent II. Hugh expanded into Spain and helped to establish the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella (about which Mullins has written the best book). He ensured that Spanish wealth flowed to Cluny and that the first Archbishop of Toledo - and thus Primate of Spain - was a Cluniac monk. His skills as a diplomat were unrivalled, not least because Pope Gregory VII was a close friend and Hugh was the godfather of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. He encouraged, without success, the promiscuous and unpopular King Philip I of France to give up his worldly goods and retire to Cluny, and practised a somewhat lofty disdain for William, Duke of Normandy, after he became King of England and begged Hugh to send Cluniac monks across the Channel.

By 1088 the new Pope, Urban II, was a Cluniac monk and Hugh's support for the First Crusade was critical in its success. Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, was a Cluny export to Britain as was the abbey at Lewes, to be followed by further Cluniac establishments such as Wenlock, Bermondsey, Castle Acre, Pontefract and Thetford.

At one stage the Cluniac empire dominated Christianity and had established itself also in Jerusalem. There were eventually about 1,500 Cluniac Abbeys and houses but their dominance was challenged by the Cistercians who, under the redoubtable Bernard of Clairvaux, attacked the Cluniacs for their wealth, love of good food and dislike of manual labour. Bernard was violently opposed to poor Peter Abelard (of Héloise notoriety) who was sheltered after his disgrace by the Cluniac Abbot Peter.

Mullins is particularly good on the glories of Cluniac architecture and the sculptures of Gislebertus, the first medieval artist to be allowed to sign his works. That the Empire was destroyed is due to its later annexation and control by the French monarchy, rapacious for its treasures, the catastrophic Wars of Religion when the Huguenots sold the great abbey church as an exploded quarry for building blocks and the depredations of the French Revolution. The gold and silver and nearly all the illuminated manuscripts were looted or destroyed, leaving only a handful to be found today at the British Library or the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. With painful irony, some of the building blocks of the stone walls of Cluny III can still be seen in the walls of the substantial bourgeois houses built on the site of the abbey's ruins.

Not many empires are built as a labour of love (in this case love of God), but Cluny was, no matter how precipitous its decline. Its contribution to European civilisation was incomparable. Mullins's book is itself a labour of love, dense with recondite information lovingly chronicled and written in a lucid, aphoristic style which is a pleasure to read. What is not a pleasure is the barely legible postage-stamp monochrome illustrations and not to provide at least three Cluniac maps - of Burgundy, France and Europe - is a major dereliction of the publisher's duty. If this book is later published in paperback and properly illustrated and mapped, it could become a bestseller on a vanished but still awe-inspiring medieval world.