Abbaye de Cluny, fully independent from the secular power

The Abbaye de Cluny was unique because it was fully independent from royal or feudal authority.

Abbaye de Cluny - 18th century buildings
18th century buildings

Guillaume Ier, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Auvergne and Count of Mâcon commissioned its foundation in 910.

Bernon, the abbot of the Abbaye de Baume-les-Messieurs and 12 of his monks chose the site of Cluny to build it.

Guillaume I enforced the strict Benedictine rule.

However, he renounced all his rights over the abbey, which he placed under the direct authority of the pope.

Freed from secular power, the Abbaye de Cluny became the chore of a monastic reform movement that spread and was recognized throughout Europe.

Nothing remains of the first abbey (Cluny I) that was consecrated in 927.

It indeed became too small and was rebuilt in 963 (Cluny II).

However, this second abbey became victim of its own success and soon became also  too small.

Abbot Huges de Semur not only rebuilt it (Cluny III), but considerably enlarged it.

The work began in the late 11th century and the impressive Gothic abbey church was not completed until 1220.

For the next 3 centuries, it remained the largest church in the Christian world!

One of the most influential religious and intellectual centres in Europe

The abbey remained a major spiritual and intellectual centre from the 10th to the 12th century.

Its independence from any secular authority indeed allowed it to develop without constraint and expand its influence.

It controlled over 10,000 monks and became the seat of the largest medieval monastic order in Western Europe!

Abbaye de Cluny - 18th century buildings
18th century buildings

The innovative personality of the abbots, as well as their longevity, contributed to the abbey’s expansion.

Cluny benefited also from an ideal geographical situation, at the boundaries of the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire.

It was thus a link between southern and northern Europe.

The depository of many venerated relics, it became an important place of pilgrimage.

This obviously generated much wealth; numerous gifts from worshipers, but also an annual rent from the pope during the 11th century.

Add to this the generous income generated by its 300 priories and numerous estates!

Finally, Abbot Odon founded the library, which became one of the richest in the Christendom.

Odon indeed acquired many manuscripts produced in other prominent abbeys, but also developed the scriptorium.

In two centuries, the scriptorium of the Abbaye de Cluny therefore produced 570 manuscripts treating of various subjects such as philosophy, law, history and medicine.

Cluny was a major center of studies.

The ghosts of the Abbaye de Cluny

This era of prosperity began to fade in the late 12th century.

The first financial difficulties indeed appeared with the construction of the third abbey (Cluny III).

This ambitious project, poor assets management and the Pope’s burdensome authority, but also the conflicts of the Middle-Ages, the Wars of Religion of the 16th century and finally the relaxation of the Benedictine discipline contributed to a slow decline.

As a result, the Abbaye de Cluny had lost much of its authority when the French Revolution broke out in 1789.

It became national property, was looted and then served as a stone quarry until 1813.

The lapidary vestiges were recovered during the Bourbon Restoration.

They were exhibited in the Jean de Bourbon Chapel until the construction of a museum in 1886.

All that is left of the influential and affluent Abbaye de Cluny are some 17th and 18th centuries buildings.

This include a cloister and various vestiges of the 3rd abbey’s imposing church.

However, all these represent a mere 10% of the original abbey.

Cluny has since 1901 been home to an engineering college – Arts et Métiers ParisTech, and is a listed Historical Monument.

N.B. The abbot of Cluny built the Hôtel de Cluny in the Latin Quarter when sojourning in Paris.

Department of Saône-et-Loire – Bourgogne
Coordinates: Lat 46.434135 – Long 4.659274

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