The Cluniac order is Benedictine, in that its religious live according to the Rule of St. Benedict. To avoid confusion, however, the term "Benedictine" is used below only to describe those religious and houses that are not part of any order, including that of Cluny. Such a clear delineation between Cluniacs on the one hand and unaffiliated Benedictines on the other does not exist in reality. Indeed, Cluniacs are more akin to the black monks and nuns than are the religious of any other order, and they are often referred to by the same appellations.
Cluniac communities in England are not as numerous as their Benedictine counterparts, nor do they tend to be quite as populous. They range from Lewes Priory, home to perhaps sixty monks, to small monasteries holding ten or more religious, to cells staffed by only two or three brethren . All English Cluniac houses larger than cells are known as priories, symbolizing their subordinance to Cluny . Though the order has a reputation for wealth and splendor, the smaller member communities tend to be no better off than their Benedictine equivalents. Even the larger Cluniac priories in England, while certainly affluent, are not as prosperous as are the greatest houses of the black monks .
The monks of the newly-founded house followed a more rigid interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict than did many of their contemporaries. Western Europe had been subject to barbarian incursions for many years, and religious communities were forced to endure such trials alongside the laity. In many of the monasteries that survived these ordeals, discipline had suffered greviously. The papacy realized that Cluny's strict observance of the Rule, combined with its direct link with Rome and freedom from secular and episcopal interference, made it an ideal instrument of monastic revival. Within a few years of its founding, Cluny was tasked with reforming various religious houses, first in Rome itself, then in France, then elsewhere. Thanks in part to a succession of capable abbots, the house's efforts were immensely successful. Though at times Cluny's monks met with opposition from stubborn houses that did not wish to be reformed, Cluniac revitalization was actively sought by many religious communities as the reformist fervor swept through the regular clergy .
By the close of the tenth century, many older houses had been reformed to varying degrees along Cluniac lines, and the monastery had overseen the founding of a number of daughter priories as well. Cluny's position with regard to exemption from episcopal and secular control was confirmed and strengthened by successive authorities. The house's possessions had grown in step with its popularity and responsibilities, as eager benefactors showered it with gifts of land, privileges, and goods. All this transformed Cluny from an austere and humble house to a wealthy community, one possessing both temporal and spiritual power in abundance .
The eleventh century saw the introduction of female religious into the order, and the spread of Cluny's influence into the British Isles. In 1056, the first Cluniac nunnery was founded at Marcigny. Other female convents joined thereafter, though Cluniac nuns have always been greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts . By the later half of the century, the Normans were great admirers of the order, and following the Conquest they repeatedly petitioned the abbot of Cluny to provide monks for the foundation of a priory in their new territory. In 1077, the abbot finally consented, and sent a party to establish a monastery at Lewes. The foundation was the first of many in Britain .
In the first decades of the twelfth century, the order suffered under poor government. It was subsequently revitalized under the abbot Peter the Venerable, who brought wayward houses into line and returned to stricter discipline. Cluny reached new heights of power and influence during Peter's abbacy, as its brethren became bishops, legates, and cardinals throughout France and the Holy Roman Empire . But by the time Peter died in 1156, the order's popularity with clergy and laity alike had been surpassed. To the zealous Church reformers of the twelfth century, Cluny was too opulent, and the suspicion of decadence hung over its religious. The newer and more austere orders such as the Cistercians took up the standard of the ecclesiastical reform movement, and the Cluniacs, once considered reformers, were now seen as part of the old guard. Ironically, Cluny's brilliant success as a reformist order contributed to its inevitable decline, as it became encumbered by a deluge of gifts from enthusiastic benefactors .
Unsurprisingly, a number of Cluniac priories are located within England. In the eight decades following the foundation of Lewes, numerous houses were established in the country. Currently there are approximately forty English communities. Of these, Lewes, Bermondsey, Thetford, Castle Acre, Wenlock, and Pontefract are the largest and most important. Only two, Arthington and Northampton, are nunneries. All of them are subject to Cluny .
Two twelfth century Benedictine foundations, Reading and Faversham, deserve mention because of their exceptional status as independent Cluniac abbeys within England. Each is infused with the culture of Cluny, yet the order has no power over either of them. They elect their own abbots and govern their affairs much as do autonomous Benedictine monasteries. Both houses enjoy ongoing relationships with Cluny and its dependents, having each been governed by abbots drawn from the order's ranks. Unlike other Cluniac monasteries in England, both are under royal patronage. Each has left its mark upon the Church. Reading in particular has provided its monks to Cluniac communities, and its sons have filled offices in the ecclesiastical hierarchy of France. Bound to the order by shared traits and customs but not by dependence, the two monasteries are in the strange position of having made significant contributions to Cluny's influence within the clergy while simultaneously maintaining their own autonomy .
The Cluniac foundation process is thus heavily dependent upon the willingness and ability of the mother house to establish and nurture a daughter community. This dependency is indicative of the tight relationship that is meant to bind the Cluniac order together. It allows one house to shape the formation of another, passing on Cluniac traditions and rituals. This is intended to ensure that the various member houses share common traits particular to the Cluniac observance of the Rule, and thus to facilitate the maintenance of a sense of intercommunal identity. Unfortunately for the order, it also hampers the establishment and development of new houses, since a parent community must devote considerable effort to each foundation. In any case, the parent house's tight control of a newly established English priory may have little lasting effect upon the latter's willingness or ability to uphold Cluniac traditions. Once the daughter house attains independence, it is likely to be influenced as much by nearby Benedictine communities as by its parent monastery.
Reading and Faversham are special cases. Like the Cluniac priories, they hold their lands by frankalmoin tenure . However, since each is independent of the order's hierarchy and under royal patronage, the king's wishes play a part in abbatial elections. In their dealings with their patron, therefore, the two houses are similar to Benedictine communities founded since the Conquest.
Each Cluniac community possessing one or more daughter priories collects an annual fee from each of the latter. The amount is not fixed by the order's customs, but is generally between a half mark and two marks. Payment is made by a daughter house's representatives when they journey to the parent community on the feast day of the saint to which the latter is dedicated. The yearly tax is more of a token than a burden to daughter priories, a symbol of the Cluniac hierarchy's feudal nature. For those monasteries that have spawned numerous daughters, however, the fee is not merely emblematic, as the cumulative income derived therefrom constitutes a substantial sum . Owing to their special status, Reading and Faversham do not make such annual payments to their parent houses .
Other aspects of the hierarchy invite problems similar to those that plague feudal lords. Daughter priories often struggle with their parent communities for independence, much as would a vassal who hopes to better his or her position and status. While the parent house is supposed to govern its dependents, if the latter choose to flaunt its authority and cannot be restrained, there is not much it can do beyond making the abbot of Cluny aware of its misbehaving children. As Cluny is located within the interior of France, this in and of itself may take weeks or months for English communities. Once the abbot is informed, he must determine the best course of action. Unfortunately, he has little time to weigh the merits of each side's claims and render judgement. Since no official body of assistants exists to whom the abbot may delegate such cases, the demands placed upon the head of the order are often beyond his capability to handle effectively. Even if the abbot returns a decision, enforcing it is problematic due to the distances involved. It is thus often extremely difficult for English parent houses to reign in disobedient offspring, and as a result, individual priories often exercise considerable autonomy .
Since Reading and Faversham are members of the Cluniac order only in spirit, they are not subject to the abbot of Cluny's will. However, they have maintained favorable relations with the order's member houses, and as a result their independence is not viewed by Cluny with hostility .
This does not mean that appointments are always without conflict. Whatever the Cluniac ideal, English houses are located at considerable distance from Cluny and generally enjoy a degree of unofficial independence. Indeed, with so many duties pressing upon him, the abbot of Cluny often has little or no knowledge of what is happening in distant member communities. Moreover, patrons often exercise significant authority over English Cluniac houses. Consequently, a priory that has lost its superior may ask the abbot to appoint a new one of its own or its patron's choosing, and depending upon the circumstances, the abbot may well agree to the request. The priory's chances of making a successful petition are often greater if it is relatively unimportant, since priorate of such a community is less attractive to ambitious Cluniacs close to the abbot .
With the exception of the above, the lives of Cluniac superiors and disciplinary officials tend to be similar to their Benedictine counterparts. The larger a community, the more time the superior spends attending to the entertainment of guests, the visiting of patrons and benefactors, and the management of estates. The larger and wealthier houses are equal in status to Benedictine abbeys, and the heads of such monasteries live and work much as do abbots .
Originally, all of the order's monks were supposed to spend a few years at the abbey, in order that they be immersed in Cluniac customs. Such a requirement is meant to ensure that a strong sense of Cluniac culture be instilled in aspirants. In the past, it was a sensible practice. Nowadays, the vast size of the order has rendered this condition impractical. Fulfilling it would require that Cluny be capable of accomodating hundreds of novices at a time. Thus, the practice has been unofficially abandoned. Remnants of it still remain, however. Novices are to be received by a Cluniac priory only with the abbot of Cluny's consent, though such permission may be conveyed by a message. Furthermore, religious should make their profession in front of the abbot. This is to be done either at Cluny itself or while the abbot is touring member houses, though in the latter case the religious must visit Cluny and be professed again at some point in the future .
Observance even of these vestiges of the original custom has diminished over the last century, especially in priories located a great distance from Cluny. In English houses, novices are frequently inducted and then take their vows without the abbot's knowledge or sanction, and some religious who are to travel to Cluny to complete their profession wait years or even decades to do so. While a number of communities may operate in this manner due to their increasingly independent mindsets, practicality dictates that the abbot cannot know about every novitiate or personally witness every profession in such a large and geographically dispersed order. Still, the decay of these customs has contributed to the gradual erosion of the Cluniacs' sense of shared identity .
The gradual convergence of the Cluniacs and the Benedictines is the result of a sort of cross-pollination of traditions and ideas, as well as the English Cluniac houses' relative autonomy with respect to the order. Cluny's influence upon the English Church, discussed previously, has altered the monastic culture of many Benedictine communities, encouraging the latter to extend and adorn their liturgical ceremonies at the expense of physical work. At the same time, the exchange of religious between Benedictine and Cluniac houses has led to the erosion of some Cluniac customs within the latter communities as conventional Benedictine practices are adopted. This has been further exacerbated, and perhaps made inevitable, by the distance between Cluny and its English daughters, and by the order's cumbersome methods of government. With little contact between the English priories and the seat of the order, the former have naturally absorbed elements of Benedictine culture, with the result that their Cluniac characteristics have been diluted.
Whatever their numbers, the books possessed by the Cluniacs are often diverse in their subject matter, since the order places few restrictions upon the keeping or copying of different sorts of works in member houses. Books may be bibles, hagiographies, or historical chronicles, or may address more intellectual or secular subjects such as theology, canon law, and literature . Furthermore, the volumes may themselves be works of art, inscribed using expensive inks, adorned with rich illustrations, and bound with gem-studded covers inlaid with precious metals . While the labor of copyists is perhaps not accorded the respect in Cluniac houses that it is in Benedictine communities, it is still encouraged. For example, scribes may, with the permission of their prior or prioress, be excused from services in order to pursue their work .
2. David Knowles, The Monastic Order in England, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 406.
3. Knowles, Monastic Order, 151-153.
4. Bernard Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 30; and Joan Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny 910-1157 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 6-7.
5. Hamilton, Religion, 30; and Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny, 10.
6. Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny, 17-18.
7. Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny, 17-18, 23, 34; and Knowles, Monastic Order, 145-146, 158.
8. Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny, 29-30.
9. Knowles, Monastic Order, 151-152.
10. Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny, 37-42; and Knowles, Monastic Order, 286.
11. Franz Neiske, "Catalogus abbatum Cluniacensium," The Charters of the Monastery of Cluny, eds. Maria Hillebrandt et al., 1997, 28 Oct. 2001 <http://www.uni-muenster.de/Fruehmittelalter/Projekte/Cluny/abbates_cluny.htm>; and Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny, 43-44.
12. Knowles, Monastic Order, 174, 280-281, 284-285, 296-298.
13. Knowles and Hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses, 96-98, 270; Knowles, Monastic Order, 153.
14. Knowles, Monastic Order, 281-282, 284-285; and J. C. Almond, "Reading Abbey," The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Kevin Knight, 1999, 28 Oct. 2001 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12673a.htm>.
15. Brian Golding, "Monasticism and the Benedictine Order," Medieval England: An Encyclopedia, ed. Paul E. Szarmach, et al.(New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998), 522.
16. Knowles, Monastic Order, 154-155.
17. Knowles, Monastic Order, 148, 156-157, 406; and G. Cyprian Alston, "Congregation of Cluny," Catholic Encyclopedia.
18. Knowles, Monastic Order, 406, 609. As I have found no mention of this issue concerning Faversham, my statement with regard to this monastery is conjecture based upon the fact that post-Conquest Benedictine houses hold land by frankalmoin tenure, not by knight service.
19. Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny, 47.
20. Janet Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain 1000-1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 179-180. Note that Burton does not specifically state that Cluniacs accepted corrodians, but rather that the latter were common in "many abbeys and priories." My definitive statement here is therefore conjectural.
21. Knowles, Monastic Order, 406.
22. For example, Lenton Priory in Nottinghamshire is endowed with the town of Lenton, and has the right to hold an annual fair and take the profits arising therefrom; see William Page, ed. The Victoria History of the County of Nottingham, volume 2 (Folkestone, Kent: University of London Institute of Historical Research, 1970), 91-92.
23. Knowles, Monastic Order, 148, 157.
24. Almond, "Reading Abbey;" and Knowles, Monastic Order, 284.
25. Knowles, Monastic Order, 158.
26. Hamilton, Religion, 30.
27. Knowles, Monastic Order, 147-148.
28. Knowles, Monastic Order, 32.
29. Knowles, Monastic Order, 147-148, 155, 157, 213; and Lowrie J. Daly, Benedictine Monasticism: Its Formation and Development Through the 12th Century (New York: Sheed and Ward, Inc., 1965), 155-156.
30. Knowles, Monastic Order, 155-158, 213.
31. Knowles, Monastic Order, 281-282, 284.
32. Alston, "Congregation of Cluny."
33. Knowles, Monastic Order, 156-157.
34. Knowles, Monastic Order, 407-410.
35. Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny, 49.
36. Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders, 178.
37. Evans, Monastic Life at Cluny, 47; and Knowles, Monastic Order, 212, 419, 421-423.
38. Hamilton, Religion, 29.
39. Alston, "Congregation of Cluny;" and Knowles, Monastic Order, 147.
40. Knowles, Monastic Order, 147.
41. Hamilton, Religion, 30; and Daly, Benedictine Monasticism, 156-158.
42. Knowles, Monastic Order, 174.
43. Daly, Benedictine Monasticism, 157-158; and Knowles, Monastic Order, 158, 174.
44. Knowles, Monastic Order, 174, 539, 542-543; and Hamilton, Religion, 29.
45. Knowles, Monastic Order, 149, 519-520; Alston, "Congregation of Cluny;" and Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders, 201.
46. Knowles, Monastic Order, 525-526.
47. Knowles, Monastic Order, 522.
48. James Westfall Thompson, The Medieval Library (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 605.
49. Knowles, Monastic Order, 467; and Daly, Benedictine Monasticism, 156-157.
50. Knowles, Monastic Order, 150.
51. G. Cyprian Alston, "Benedictine Order," Catholic Encyclopedia; and Elkins, Holy Women, 3-4.
52. Daly, Benedictine Monasticism, 156-157; and Ernest A. Savage, Old English Libraries: The Making, Collection, and Use of Books During the Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1911), 82.
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