By Edwin Mullins
Blue Bridge Books
At crucial times in the history of Christendom, monasteries have served as vital centres of renewal, reorganization, and even protection from invaders. In the year 910A.D., amidst the chaos which followed the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire in the ninth century, Duke William of Aquitaine founded the Abbey of Cluny and appointed Berno its first abbot. Critical to this monastery’s success (political, liturgical, artistic) was its independence from local bishops and its responsibility solely to the bishop of Rome, a privilege repeatedly reaffirmed by several popes through the ensuing centuries.
Edwin Mullins chronicles in captivating prose the rise and fall of this most important centre of Christian life and culture. Having written previously on art and architecture, the author predictably (and understandably) leaves other issues aside such as music (for the most part) and instead, in addition to the fascinating political stories, focuses on his areas of expertise.
The greatest glory of Cluny was without a doubt the third abbey church, dubbed Cluny III, which was for centuries the largest church in Christendom, until the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter was deliberately built a few feet longer. This magnificent mountain of steeples and stones made history by making use of the very first flying buttresses after its roof collapsed in the early 12th century. The church’s barrel vaulted ceilings gave a great resonance to the chanting at the unusually elaborate liturgies conducted there, and by all accounts it housed some of the finest art of that time, work that seems even to have been ahead of its time.
Cluny’s independence, while it aroused jealousy amongst the nearby bishops, gave her and most especially her abbots a great amount of political influence. Along with the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, the abbot assisted in making and negotiating some of the most important decisions of the day, often finding himself in the role of mediator between pope and emperor, who were frequently at loggerheads with each other. This clout also made it easier to find significant patrons for the monastery, among whom were King Alfonso VI of Spain and King Henry II of England.
Along with this power came a vast network of monasteries which were subject to Cluny’s authority and her reforming ideals. From small beginnings, Cluny eventually found herself in charge of nearly 1500 monasteries, many of which, having been established after Spain was freed from the Moors, offered shelter and safety along the yet dangerous road to Compostella, the legendary burial place of St. James the Greater and one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages. These monasteries, and many other local churches besides, benefited from the artistic richness of Cluny. Some of the earliest churches of the Cluny dynasty are believed to have been built by the nomadic Lombard masons from Italy, and many others were built later by masons who were trained at Cluny, the monks having quite possibly been taught in the beginning by the Lombards themselves.
Cluny’s unique situation required strong leadership, a need for which Providence provided over the course of several centuries. Stability was the operative word: St. Odilo and St. Hugh the Great ruled for an astonishing combined 115 years. These are the men who built and sustained this monastery during its glory days and who were among her greatest abbots, along with Peter the Venerable, who defended the ornate practices of Cluny against the acerbic attacks conducted by his friend St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the early 12th century.
Alas, by this time Cluny had already had her best days. St. Bernard’s Cistercian Order was on the rise and soon eclipsed Cluny’s influence on the papacy. This was the beginning of a long, slow decline and one of the saddest stories in the history of Christendom, which Mullins accounts in painful detail. The rise of urban centres of culture and learning, as well as the growing sense that Christianity was no longer threatened certainly contributed to the abbey’s downfall. Add to these the declining discipline amongst the monks and newfound instability in the leadership as, after Peter the Venerable, there were nine abbots in the span of fifty years. Later on Cluny was attacked and damaged by Protestants in the 16th century, and over time she became dependent upon the French monarchy, which surely aggravated the animus against her amidst the anti-Catholic climate of the French Revolution, at which time the end of Cluny seems to have become imminent. Thereafter all but a few portions of the abbey church were carted away in pieces, the stone having been sold for use in other local buildings by shameless opportunists.
“The destruction of Cluny was the end of Europe.” Thus once remarked one of this reviewer’s colleagues, and he’s quite possibly right, for Europe has arguably been on the decline ever since those bloody days of the 16th and 18th centuries. Mullins’ book does a fascinating job of exposing what Cluny provided to a strong Europe–and perhaps what is now needed in our current climate in which there is much chaos (ecclesiastical and otherwise) and in which Christianity is on the defensive.
Unfortunately, it seems questionable whether the author would agree with this assessment, as one of the few drawbacks of this book is a seeming anti-Catholic outlook which shows through in a few passages. Mullins seems eager to point out instances of supposed ecclesiastical tyranny and misogyny while at the same time using “scare quotes” in discussing the liberation (or, as he writes, “liberation”) of Spain from the Muslims as if this were somehow an unfortunate turn of events.
There is another problem with this book, which in this reviewer’s mind is a bit more pressing–the complete absence of footnotes. It seems likely that this was done to facilitate reading by a wider audience, which is laudable. However, the absence of thorough citation makes this book nearly useless in serious research, even though an impressive bibliography is included.
In spite of these few misgivings, however, Edwin Mullins is to be congratulated for this fine book, and the reviewer warmly recommends it as a firm starting point in getting to know more about Cluny, the monastery whose ruins quietly beg us today to effect a new era of renewal in the Church. Sts. Odilo and Hugh, pray for us.