So when did Cluny become so special, exactly?

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny, from Wikimedia Commons

Exterior view of the transept of the abbey church of St-Pierre de Cluny, from Wikimedia Commons

Some of my recent reading has led me back to thinking about Cluny. I’m not thinking so much about the place, however, or even the historical entity, but about how we approach it as historians. If you’ve ever been taught about the Church reform movement of the tenth and eleventh centuries, which since it more or less led to the Investiture Crisis which brings up the sort of issues that even modern historians love about theories of sovereignty and so forth, you probably have—I’m just going to let that sentence drop, actually. Breathe a minute while I get my style under control. OK. Ready? Right, here I go again. If you’ve studied the reform movement you’ve been told about Cluny, I guess. Similarly, if you’ve taught it, you surely mentioned Cluny, because except for Gregory VII and Henry IV’s poison-pen exchanges, Henry standing in the snow in sackcloth at Canossa while Gregory bit his fingernails, and the final denouement quote, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, wherefore I die in exile”, which is all good stuff but late, the biggest thing in the topic is Cluny.1 And although it is a bit like teaching the geography of mountains with Everest, when something more average might be more representative, we all want the students to go away enthused, and so we pick on Cluny, with its 24-hour prayer cycle, unceasing commemoration, and Europe-wide donations, grants from the King of León man, places Cluny’s never heard of donate to Cluny because it’s so famous and it has strings of daughter houses, some of which acquire their own strings and so on. It also generates some truly spoony sources, either in quantity or in content, and so it is the obvious thing to try and cover all reform-period bases with. I get this, I’ve done it myself. If they’re really interested, they can go on to look at one of the lesser houses that Cluny reformed, like for example St-Martin de Tulle, themselves.2

All the same. When Cluny starts, no-one knows this is going to happen. But when I first taught this, I was told to do so from Cluny’s foundation charter, as if it set out new principles, as if it might be read as a manifesto for the New Age. This kind of distinction is, I think, also implied by the way it’s in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, where charters are a rarity.3 This one was significant enough to get in however. And it is quite a startling document as you can see there, albeit mainly for its grandeur and curses. But anything else? Well, I wasn’t quite sure at the time, and then the other day my reading put this before me:

William of Aquitaine had no thought of monastic reform when he founded Cluny. His donation charter, usually dated 11 September 910, states clearly that the foundation was to ensure his salvation and prayers for his soul and for the souls of the members of his family…. William also granted the monks their freedom to elect [the first abbot] Berno’s successor from among their number and the monastery was commended to the protection, not of any lay ruler or member of William’s family, or to any bishop, but to the apostles Peter and Paul and their representative the Pope. Cluny was in fact to enjoy full immunity in the technical sense, though the actual word was not used in the charter. No secular prince, count, bishop or pope was to enter the possessions of Cluny, or to sell, diminish, exchange or in any other way take anything from the monastery’s property.

Much has been made of the clause making Cluny only answerable to the Pope alone and free from all secular interference. The precise legal position as a result of this position, however, is not at all clear. In practice the links established between the new monastery and Rome seem to have been very limited, and it was the elimination of future family or outside lay interference… which can be counted as the most important feature of the foundation charter. As Cowdrey has pointed out, the Cluny foundation charter contained almost nothing for which there was not already a precedent.4

Well, she’s right. It’s not that special. I mean, it’s a very splendid read but so are many ecclesiastical charters for solemn occasions. The whole ‘no secular prince’ bit sounds grand but that’s because it’s lifted wholesale out of royal immunity charters; it’s interesting that William chooses to grant like a king, and even more interesting how he leaves himself out, but the form itself is not new, it’s quite old.5 Likewise, the family exclusion could be read just as an elaborate way of saying to his heirs that they absolutely can’t have this land back or impose a family abbot. In fact Cluny is very far from being averse to forming relationships with families and family property, though the way that the place is set up does mean that these have to go through some fairly elaborate hoops where other places might just, you know, have a member join and hold their lands for the house.6 And the subjection to Rome, well, keen readers may remember that this happens in other places too (albeit later) and there it’s basically a fun way of getting your land outside of normal secular jurisdiction without cost,7 because obviously the pope isn’t going to come and stay, is he? Actually, of course, at Cluny he does, but only after Cluny has become the sort of place that trains future popes so that they want to come back and visit, you know?

Pope Urban II celebrating mass at his old home of Cluny, on the eve of the First Crusade

Pope Urban II celebrating mass at his old home of Cluny, on the eve of the First Crusade

So it struck me that it would be useful, perhaps, to put another foundation charter up from before Cluny’s and the reform movement. What with Lay Archives I ought to know where to find such things, but actually there are fewer than you might expect: grants by noblemen to houses that they say they built are one thing, and quite frequent (some of them even by people called William, indeed; Count Guilhem of Toulouse, who founded the abbey of Gellone in Languedoc, first mentions this as we have it in a substantial donation to it that he makes in San Pietro di Roma on pilgrimage, and he is later considered a saint: beat that, Cluny!) but actual foundation endowments, fewer. Nonetheless, there are some out there, and the one I could get most easily was that of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu in the Dordogne, and so can you if you like because as I’ve mentioned before its cartulary is free to download on Google Books. My translation however isn’t, so I give it below.

The abbey of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, from Wikimedia Commons

The abbey of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, from Wikimedia Commons

The authority of the ancients sanctions and a unity of the laws decrees, that whatever one wishes to do with his properties, in every respect, according to the will of God, he shall have free choice in the matter. On the which account I therefore in the name of God Rodulf, high-priest of the Church of Bourges, for the love of omnipotent God and for the remedy of my soul and those of my parents, do cede and wish to be ceded in perpetuity to the monastery, a new endeavour indeed, which is called, previously Vellino but now by us Beaulieu, which I, Christ being propitious, am ordering constructed on the estate in my ownership in honour of Peter Prince of the Apostles, for the stipends and uses of the monks there serving God, some bits of my property, which are in the region of Quercy, in the vicariate of Causse, that is my villa, which they call Sarrazac, as one with the church which is in honour of Saint Genesius, with cultivated and uncultivated lands, vines, woods, houses, buildings and all things pertaining to it, and the slaves of either sex pertaining to that same place; and in another location, in the region of Turenne in the villa whose name be At the Medlar, our manor, which I bought with a given price from Pierre, with all the things pertaining to it; and in another place, in the same region, a vine beneath the castle of Turenne, which I bought from Ragambald. All these aforenamed things and the collected things pertaining to the same places, to the aforesaid place, for the stipends indeed of the monks and for the building of that same place, I wish to be conceded in perpetual right. Indeed, what let not occur and I hardly believe will be brought about, if I myself, this wish having changed, or any of my heirs or kinsmen, or any opposing person whatever, who should wish to make a quarrel, slander or any opposition against this cession, first of all by the authority of my ministry I do bind them with the chain of anathema; next let them incur the anger of omnipotent God and his saints; on top of which, let he who brought the quarrel answer for it under duress with thirty pounds of gold, sixty pounds of silver, along with a similar sum for the fisc, and let whatever evil he sought not be accomplished, but this present cession remain firm and stable with the appended stipulation.
+ Bishop Rodulf subscribed. Signum of Gotbald. Signum of Grimoald. Signum of Deacon Evrald. Signum of David. Signum of Hugh. Signum of Agiulf. Signum of Enedol. Signum of Grimoard. Signum of Odolric. Signum of Ebrard. Signum of Edac. Given in the month of March, in the fourth year of Charles, the most glorious king.

That year is 844, should you be wondering.7 Some brief background: Bishop Rodulf is from the comital family of Turenne, so he knows that castle well; his father is count, his brother will be count, and neither of them are especially huge donors to Beaulieu, not least because they prefer to give either to their own foundations (his sister gives here but also founds her own nunnery) or to their kinsman the bishop’s cathedral. So this family foundation is not an unusual thing that William is doing at Cluny, but the way he keeps his own family and indeed himself out is genuinely unusual, even if a lot of the rest of what separates that charter from this is pure style and showing-off of Scriptural knowledge. (That, for what it’s worth, would be much easier to parallel.) There are also hints that William was moving in a different political climate: he makes the quasi-royal immunity and remembers King Odo’s soul, but doesn’t mention the current king over his region, Charles the Simple, at all except in the dating clause. Rodulf doesn’t do so either, but he doesn’t give the immunity or anything like that because, when the monastery is nearing completion (in 859! despite various donations it takes them a long time to build the place, it first certainly being finished in 864 and the monks apparently living at Rodulf’s cathedral in the meantime) he goes himself to King Charles the Bald and gets a genuine royal immunity which has a lot of the details in it that William had to, or chose to, provide himself.8

So in sum I do not go quite as far as Professor McKitterick or indeed Cowdrey before her in minimising the special quality of this charter. From what parallels are easy to find William of Aquitaine was doing something actually unusual in the terms by which he established Cluny, which was basically to swear off having any influence over it once it was up and running. On the other hand, the place’s actual purpose is to save his soul and preserve his memory, just like Beaulieu for Rodulf. Rodulf may also have been trying to dump a load of his property into a monastic safety-deposit which would then be made immune from fiscal levies; William can’t have been doing that, because he didn’t need to, he was the fisc. So he was I think, whether it were new or no, doing something unusual and surprising; but I still think that what Cluny was to become does not really derive from what makes William’s establishment of it unusual.


1. Uta-Renate Blumenthal, The Investiture Controversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century (Philadelphia 1988); Barbara H. Rosenwein, Rhinoceros Bound: Cluny in the tenth century, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 1982).

2. Actually as far as I know no-one’s really studied Tulle as a reform centre. There’s apparently a slew of basic local narrative work epitomised by Joseph Nouaillac, “Histoire de Tulle: Les origines de Tulle et de son monastère” in Lemouzi. Revue franco-limousine Vol. 155 (Limoges 2000), pp. 6-18 and Paul Maureille, “La fondation de l’abbaye (Saint-Martin) de Tulle”, ibid. Vol. 65 (1985), pp. 224-227, but outside that, what I’m sure is an honourable and respected local periodical, not so much and its charters are not only published but online, so one could do something: they are Jean-Baptiste Champeval (ed.), Cartulaire des abbayes de Tulle et de Roc-Amadour (Brive 1903), online at Gallica.

3. Auguste Bernard & Alexandre Bruel (edd.), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de Cluny (Paris 1876-1903), Vol. I, doc. no. 112, transl. Ernest F. Henderson in his Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, (London 1910, many reprints), pp. 329-333.

4. Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians (London 1983), p. 281.

5. On immunities see now Barbara Rosenwein, Negotiating space: power, restraint, and privileges of immunity in early medieval Europe (Manchester 1999).

6. Barbara Rosenwein, To Be the Neighbor of St. Peter: The Social Meaning of Cluny’s Property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989).

7. Maximin Deloche (ed.), Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu (en Limousin) (Paris 1859), online here, doc. no. XXXIV.

8. Ibid., doc. no. V, because as with many medieval cartularies, the arrangement here is not by date, but by importance; so the royal and papal privileges come first, then the founder’s documents, then the rest is organised or not according to purpose. On such matters you can see Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985).

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6 responses to “So when did Cluny become so special, exactly?

  1. Interesting. I think you come close to nailing the answer to your question near the end. McKitterick is right in that the form and formulae are nothing particularly new, BUT (and here I argue carefully because you know how I feel about taking on those grandes dames of Caroingian stuff) — BUT! Dammit, it is sort of different, in that IIRC, Charlemagne and his heirs were very good at converting proprietary foundations (churches and abbeys) that others had established into royal foundations. See, e.g., Lorsch, etc., and the relevant discussion in State and Society, Hummer’s book on Alsace, and I think also (duh) in S. Wood, The Proprietary Church in the MA (I think that’s the title).

    So that’s the first thing that stands out — unfortunately, I have no idea of how many proprietary foundations were allowed/established once the Carolingians start their conversions to royal foundations. They can’t have prohibited such things, but they could and did seem to have meddled in the bigger foundations.

    Second thing, and this comes out of the first — it’s 909-910, right? So we are now at the point where whatever the case under the first three generations of Carolingians in Western Francia, all bets are off. We know that local magnates are already eating away at royal authority.

    Third … it’s Aquitaine. I can’t recall if there is a Carolingian King of Aquitaine after Pippin (son of L the P), is there? But it’s one place where, if a magnate were going to infringe on royal authority with relative impunity, it might be possible.

    I have no idea where I was going with this …

    Oh — so anyway, whether or not it was William’s intention to allow for reform above any other considerations, the combined circumstances definitely made it possible for reform to happen in ways that might not have happened before. Or at least on that level. Having said that, William is very clear that the monks should follow the Benedictine Rule, IIRC, and I’m not sure it’s wrong to see this as imitative of Louis the Pious’s attempts at reform, for example.

    Um … yeah. (have been marking for three days straight and am not responsible if this sounds like complete nonsense)

  2. OH!!! and short answer that might make more sense — Without Cluny, there might not have been a Citeaux, nor Clairvaux. And there are lots of docs.

  3. It’s Burgundy rather than Aquitaine—I know, three days’ marking—but the circumstances that make it possible for reform to happen, I think you’re quite right about that, also deprive the new foundation of its primary source of protection. The interesting thing to me is how Cluny established itself so dominantly with so little immediate support. Another point that McKitterick makes is that it’s only under Abbots Maieul and Odo, especially the latter, that it really gets big and important; but in an area where as you say, “all bets are off”, that makes its survival a peculiar thing.

    I also agree with you that William is very Aniane-like in his insistence on the Rule and free elections, but given how much of that is coming straight out of royal precepts, is it something he genuinely aspires to or is it merely part of the imitatio regis?

  4. I knew that. Really. I was thinking of William, though, and not paying attention to where Cluny is. But maybe that adds something else to the immunity section — it’s not as easy to keep an eye on?

  5. Oh — for the second part of the question, why not both? This is one of the things that I think McKitterick is absolutely right about in The Frankish Kingdoms — that yes, the Arnulfing extension of their influence eastwards is savvy politics, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t also truly pious. So basically, William could have been doing all of those things at once.

    In terms of protection, do we know offhand how much Cluny would have needed?

  6. I don’t doubt his piety for a moment, because this particular sort of foundation rather than the usual deal implies that he thought that there was a need to do this correctly, and that in turn implies sincere belief, doesn’t it? But the borrowing of royal language to do this doesn’t trace back to the same routes (unless he ‘sincerely believes’ himself to be the king’s replacement as Borrell II in Barcelona and his ilk occasionally state).

    As for protection, at this time Burgundy is under Richard the Justiciar, but I can’t immediately find any sign of links between him and William. Out of jurisdictional area, in any case, the only protection is surely going to come from the family. The question is what would the place need protection against? Ambitious local nobles would be the usual answer; I need to have a look at my notes on Rhinoceros Bound to be sure but there were some of those, I think…

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