Mullins: Cluny

November 12, 2010

In Search of God’s Lost Empire
Edwin Mullins (Novalis, 2006)
245 p.

Nine hundred years ago the monastery of Cluny stood at the center of European culture, a powerhouse in the arts, in politics, and in religion. Today almost nothing remains — even the massive church has been torn down, its stones irretrievably dispersed. In this little book Edwin Mullins gives us a popular history of the monastery from its founding in the tenth century, through its rise to power in the high medieval period, and down to its decline and eventual destruction.

To relate the history of Cluny is, in many respects, to rehearse the history of medieval Europe itself, for the monastery was involved in most of the major events of the times. When the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV went to Canossa and stood, barefoot, in the snow, submitting to the authority of Pope Gregory VII, the abbot of Cluny was there. When the pilgrimage to Santiago became a rallying point for the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula, Cluny built churches and hostels along the route to aid and protect the pilgrims, and financed military operations against the caliphate. When Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders, a Cluniac monastery was established in the city within months. It was at Cluny that the first flying buttresses were built, launching the Gothic movement that revolutionized European architecture. Through the centuries, its abbots were advisors to popes, kings, and emperors.

Cluny's Coat of Arms

The abbey was founded in 910 by William I, Duke of Aquitaine, and he placed it under the direct authority of the Pope, an innovation that was to contribute directly to its prestige and power in later years. The golden age for Cluny, it is fair to say, was the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, a period almost entirely dominated by three exceptional abbots: St. Odilo (994-1049), St. Hugh the Great (1049-1109), and Peter the Venerable (1122-1156). It was during Peter’s abbacy, when Cluny had grown to be enormously wealthy on the strength of contributions from many powerful figures, that St. Bernard of Clairvaux launched his famous critique of the whole ethos of Cluniac monasticism, arguing instead for the ascetic rigour and simplicity of the nascent Cistercian Order. Cluny persisted, of course, in spite of this challenge, but the zenith of its influence had passed, and Bernard’s criticism made it clear that the moral authority, at least, of Cluny had been eclipsed by the newcomers.

Cluny’s sphere of influence was reduced by slow degrees as Europe entered the pre-modern and early modern periods. By the sixteenth century it had come under control by the French monarchy, and the post of abbot had become a prestige political appointment without much connection to monastic life. Even so, it was not until 1790 and the French Revolution that Cluny was dissolved, by order of the French National Assembly, and a number of its monks guillotined.

The buildings, including the magnificent abbey church, remained for a short time, but were then purchased by a group of three men – each of whom, I am inclined to say, would have been better hung, drawn, and quartered. They turned the abbey into a quarry, systematically dismantling it and selling it, stone by stone, until, by 1820, almost nothing was left. And so it remains today. It is a tragic end, for even if the decline and fall of Cluny was, in some sense, bound to happen, the mere existence of its ruins would serve as a reminder to later times. As it is, it has been almost entirely erased; it is not only gone, but also forgotten.

Perhaps the most enduring contribution made by Cluny to western Christianity is the establishment of the feast of All Souls, which was first instituted in 1030 by Abbot Odilo for local observance at Cluny, and later expanded by papal decree to the entire Catholic Church.

In closing, I would like to make a few remarks about Mullins’ particular account of Cluny’s history. My basic judgment is that it is a sound history, informative, with the principal points well described, and Mullins’ admiration for Cluny is evident. Behind this foreground, however, is the background, and here I have serious reservations about what Mullins has written. He is writing a book about the medieval period, and he hardly passes up a chance to look down his nose at it. We learn about the medieval “morbid obsession with death”, and its “unrelenting misogyny”. Religious art, prior to Cluny, is described as “a crude instrument of Church doctrine and grotesquerie”. The Second Crusade he characterizes as a “punitive reconquest and a further onslaught on Islam”. (The fall of Edessa, which provoked the Second Crusade, is, however, not described as a “punitive reconquest”, and I wonder why?) His basic position seems to be well summarized by this excerpt:

It remains one of the overwhelming contradictions of the Middle Ages that an ethos which was so dogmatic and doom-laden, so misogynist, so moralistic and disapproving of all the sensual pleasures of day-to-day life, should yet have succeeded in creating so much that is the very opposite of those attitudes.

He is referring specifically to the beauty and brilliance of Cluny’s achievement. The picture he seems to have in mind is that Cluny, the jewel of medieval culture, sat like a glowing emerald on the peak of a great, smelly, steaming pile of — well, I will simply say that this view of things seems to me unlikely to be correct. The contrast between Cluny and the culture of which it was a part cannot have been quite so sharp and stark, the contradiction not quite so overwhelming. And I do not think that it is his opinion of Cluny that needs revision.


When I said that Cluny is both gone and forgotten, I may have spoken hastily. Le Monde recently reported on a project to create a virtual model of Cluny as it once was.  Several photographs are included in the report, and they are spectacular. I would love to know more about this project.  (Hat-tip: Ionarts)

4 Responses to “Mullins: Cluny”

  1. Christina A. Says:

    “It was at Cluny that the first flying buttresses were built, launching the Gothic movement that revolutionized European architecture.”

    I’m not so sure that I agree with this statement. It is more widely held (in my opinion anyway) that Abbot Suger of St. Denis just outside of Paris dreamt up the first steps into medieval gothic architecture with the pointed arch around the 1140s.

    You might enjoy reading this document as well:

    Cluny truly was a heavenly Jerusalem on earth and it’s too bad that it wasn’t preserved for future generations. We can talk about Bernard of Clairveaux (one of my favourite topics) another time!

  2. cburrell Says:

    That’s a terrific link, Christina. Thank you.

    I thought that about St.Denis as well, but it seems that the story is not quite so simple. You are right that St.Denis is considered the first “full-blown” Gothic cathedral, but construction there began after the completion of Cluny’s cathedral in 1130. Since Cluny had flying buttresses, it is reasonable to suppose (and perhaps this could be made more certain by a competent historian) that Abbot Suger borrowed that particular idea from them. Of course, there is much more to the Gothic than just flying buttresses. St.Denis set the standard for what followed even more than Cluny did.

  3. KathyB Says:

    Well, I was going to say the bit about St. Denis but Christina beat me to it. But I have something even cooler to contribute: I have actually been to Cluny.

    Only one of the transept towers of the largest church remains, and even that is pretty impressive. It quite dominates the valley in which the town is situated. Some ruins of the remainder of the church as well as other monastery buildings also still stand. Until the construction of the current St. Peter’s in Rome, Cluny was the biggest church in Christendom, and you really get a sense of the scale when you are there.

    I ended up there quite by accident, on a trip to Taize. When I found out Cluny was only about a 20 minute bus ride away, I knew I couldn’t miss it. Strangely enough, not a lot of Taize pilgrims were interested in seeing Cluny (none of my friends were, so I went by myself).

  4. cburrell Says:

    That is a great story. Your story about the Taize pilgrims confirms what I thought: the fact that the thing was torn down (or nearly so) has made us forget about it. People still flock to Chartres.

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