Life in Medieval Cluny

Founded as part of the Benedictine reform in the early 10th century, the French abbey of Cluny would grow to become an enormous force for reform in the Church at large, ultimately giving the Church the men who would be the backbone of her struggle against lay investiture. In this essay, we shall look at what life was like in Cluny Abbey at the height of its influence (11th-12th century). This article presupposes that the reader is already familiar with the basics of the Benedictine Rule, which the Cluniacs followed; hence, we do not go into particulars about monastic life in general, the obligations of the Rule, the Divine Office, etc. We look rather at those items that are either particular to Cluny or those things which were popularized by Cluny, as Cluny at its apogee had daughter houses spread throughout Europe, numbering 825 houses by the 1400s. (1)

Foundation of Cluny

Cluny was founded in 910 by William of Aquitaine, also called William the Pious. William’s establishment was unique in that it proposed a centralized model of government that was hitherto foreign to Benedictine houses. He also granted the abbey a high degree of independence, placing it under the papacy rather than under his own patronage. This in practice meant Cluny was autonomous, since the papacy exercised little direct control over any French monasteries in the 10th century. This independence allowed the monastic reforms popularized by St. Benedict of Aniane a century earlier to flourish free from lay control.

Cluny’s Model: The Abbey of Saint-Gall

Cluny’s physical construction it was patterned on the earlier monastery of Saint-Gall, located in modern Switzerland. Saint-Gall was designed during the Carolingian renaissance under the influence of the reformer St. Benedict of Aniane (d. 821). Saint-Gall, whose magnificent plans survive on five pieces of sewn parchment, was supposed to embody a theory of what a Benedictine monastery was meant to be: closely attuned to the harmony of the spheres with its foundations aligned to the axes of the universe, and perfectly balanced in a mathematical sense. The church was the heart of the complex, a meeting point between heaven and earth, where monks would gather to perform their main duty – to sing the praises of God in union with the saints and angels.

Saint-Gall’s organization was meant to reflect the hierarchy of the heavenly court, even as the imperial government of Charlemagne and his successors was supposed to mirror the government of God the Father. The sanctuary church, as the domus Dei, was of course centrally located. To the right, at God’s right hand, was the residence of the abbot, who dwelt alone. His proximity on the right hand of the church signified the government of God mediated through the loving direction of the father abbot. The monks and other brethren were housed to the left of the church. Furthest from the church, near the gate that led out to the world, were the invalids and young novices still undergoing their monastic training. The abbey cemetery was also located out here—of course placed to the east of the church, facing the rising sun to hearken to the resurrection. The quarters that had to do with worldly or material functions (hospice, stables, hostelry, etc.) were located on the west, the side of the setting sun; those areas which served a spiritual function (scriptorium, school, etc.) were located on the east.

The Plan of Cluny

Saint-Gall became the model monastery for those built throughout the former Carolingian realms in the 9th-10th centuries, and while Cluny is the most famous abbey to be modeled on Saint-Gall, it was certainly not the only one. Cluny followed the same basic orientation as Saint-Gall, but being built almost a century later, had some points of variation, the greatest being that at Cluny the abbot did not live alone but has his quarters with his brothers. Another major difference between Cluny and Saint-Gall is that, except for the stables, all the workshops and places of menial labor have been moved outside the walls in Cluny.

This reflects an important development in the observance of the Benedictine Rule: At Cluny, the Rule’s obligation of manual labor for the monks was taken in a merely symbolic sense. By the 10th century most Benedictine monks spent so much time reciting the Divine Office that there was little time for the manual labor prescribed by the Rule; Cluny, like other Benedictine monasteries, maintained an ideal of self-sufficiency but did so by reliance on satellite farms called doyennés. These doyennés were managed by the conversi, lay brothersThese farms were scattered about the countryside and handled the agricultural affairs of the monastery, providing the abbey with food the same way the peasants of a lord kept his manor house supplied. This development occurred within the large division of the Benedictines into choir monks and lay brothers, which can itself be seen as the ‘feudalization’ of the monastic ideal. One can certainly debate whether this development was for better or worse, but such an a discussion is beyond the scope of this essay.

At Cluny, as in other Benedictine monasteries, a town sprung up outside the walls of the abbey. This town was inhabited by merchants and craftsmen who supplied the necessary exteriora (clothing, tools, commodities) the monastery needed. Thus, while in theory the monastery was self-sufficient, in fact it was dependent for everything upon small farms scattered throughout its holdings and a growing body of merchants who dwelt outside its gates. The abbey justified this situation by arguing that even if the abbey itself was not self-sufficient, the abbey and all its surrounding lands and holdings certainly was. Another example of development of interpretation in the application of the Benedictine Rule.

Communal Organization

We presume the reader is already familiar with the basic structure of the Benedictine monastery. We shall then merely observe some of the arrangements particular to Cluny and its daughter houses.

As mentioned above, the Abbot of Cluny did not live apart as did his counterparts in other Benedictine houses. He neither took his meals nor slept on his own. If he was sick he slept in the infirmary with other patients; he had his regular place on the roster of kitchen duty. That’s not to say he was not set apart in any manner; though dining with the other monks, he had a special seat reserved apart for himself where he was served more complex dishes with better wine. He was shown great deference; if he had to go somewhere at night, another younger monk led the way with a lamp. Two candles were set before him at meal time. All monks were expected to rise when he entered a room or bow when he passed by. If he were returning from a journey, the entire monastery would turn out to meet him at the gates, where he would kiss each of them as he entered. His return from a journey was celebrated by an extra meal served that day.

We know from the Benedictine Rule that the abbot was a sovereign within the monastery. He did not rule alone, however. He was assisted by a kind of monastic senate referred to as the seniores and composed of some of the elders monks. By the time of Cluny, it had been customary for age to be equated with authority within monastic houses; the young were regularly subordinated to the old. These seniores helped the abbot in his deliberations about important matters pertaining to the governance of the monastery, as well as its many daughter houses. Unlike other Benedictine foundations, Cluny exercised power directly over its daughter foundations.

The abbot was the executive head of the monastery; in matters of administration, the abbot was aided by the prior, who was a kind of prime-minister and second-in-command who took charge when the abbot was away. The actual administration of the Cluniac monastery was divided up under four “departments”, each of whom were under the authority of the prior and through him the abbot. In charge of the church and all things pertaining to the liturgical furnishing of the monks was the sacristan; the chamberlain was in charge of everything within the ‘chamber’, that is, handling money and purchasing the things the monastery needed. The chamberlain would become extremely important in Cluniac foundations. Everything that came to the monastery in the form of gifts, rents, wines, fabrics, etc. passed through his hands and was redistributed by him. He was also in charge of providing each monk with a new habit once per year and providing them with new mattresses on the eve of All Saints. He was also in charge of all the horses and windows in the monastery – except those within the church.

The third department was under the cellarer, whose job was to administer not only the provision of food within the monastery but all of the crops grown on the doyennés, the satellite farms administered by the lay brothers. He was assisted in his office by two sub-officers, the wine steward and the corn chandler, the latter of whom oversaw water and corn distribution.

The fourth department concerned the monastery’s interaction with the world and was under the oversight of two officers, the hosteller and the almoner. The almoner was responsible for distributing surplus food and clothing to the indigent; he also made weekly visits to the bedridden outside the monastery and visited the poor, some of whom were maintained permanently within the monastery. The hosteller was charged with providing for the well-being of more distinguished guests within the monastery, usually members of the nobility or clergy. He arranged their lodgings and saw that the quarters were kept in readiness. The hosteller was also responsible for setting up the dining room where worldly guests feasted, and had at his disposal a full staff including a maître d’hôtel, porter, cook, foot washers, boys to carry water, and a donkey boy whose job was to keep the fireplace stocked with wood.

One interesting note: As the hosteller was the one who had the most contact with the filth of the world, it fell to his office to clean all the latrines in the abbey in reminder of this truth.

The body of monks was divided into four groups, as stipulated by the customs of Cluny: novitiate, infirmary, cloister, cemetery. Each was assigned their own particular quarter within the monastery.

The novitiate was a time of testing and formation. When a novice was ready to join the community, the ceremony denoted adoption and resurrection. The novice would make a pledge of commitment, a written profession signed by the novice, read aloud before the community, and placed on the altar in the presence of all. He was then presented with a cowled robe, the one piece of monastic garb he hitherto lacked. Then there was the kiss of peace, first by the abbot, then by all his brothers. This denoted welcome into the community. Then followed a three day retreat in absolute solitude; this was supposed to call to mind the time of Jesus in the tomb. It was a period of death and resurrection. 

The infirmary was the place where sick members of the community were sent to wait out the period of their illness. The medievals did not understand anything about germs, but they were sufficiently observant to figure out that disease could be spread through the air and by physical contact. Hence those in the infirmary were in a sort of isolation. Contrary to popular assumptions, the medievals understood the importance of washing. At Cluncy, the infirmary had a room set aside for washing feet, dishes, and other sorts of washings. These washings were necessary to keep patients and utensils clean, but they also had a symbolic purpose: the infirmary was a place of purgation, where sick monks were expected to offer their sufferings as penance for their sins. The washings were likewise supposed to symbolize cleansing from sin. The infirmary also had a separate kitchen, as the ill ate apart from the rest of the community. 

The sick were not prohibited from eating meat, although this frequently became a source of contention among the monks; monks who ate meat, even if only due to sickness, were prohibited from receiving Holy Communion. After Extreme Unction was administered, however, meat was no longer served. The sick received Holy Communion daily. If a monk was in the throes of death, he was taken to the meeting hall to make a final reaffirmation of his vows before the community. Then he was returned to the infirmary where an unremitting vigil was kept by his bedside. Crosses and candles were placed about his bed and a constant rotation of monks kept him company, singing various litanies and reciting the Creed. When the brother finally died, his body was washed and taken to the church where psalms were sung. Then he was taken out and laid to rest in the cemetery. An extra meal was served on the anniversary of the brother’s death.

The cloister was the residence area which in Cluny was supposed to embody the ideal private life – a mirror of heaven, insofar as that was possible in this valley of tears. The monks lived in cells along the inner court, the cloister proper, with its customary covered walkway that was a kind of inversion of the open markets of the cities. Near the cloister was the aula, the meeting room. This was reserved for discussions and juridical proceedings. Anything spoken in here was considered to be private and secret. Every morning after Prime, the healthy members of the community gathered here to read a chapter of the Benedictine Rule and hear a list of the abbey’s dead. Then issues of discipline were dealt with; monks guilty of some infraction either confessed their guilt or else were denounced by their brothers. The guilty were flogged, sent to take their meals apart for the day (or however long was proscribed), and had to stand by the church door during the Divine Office, heads covered and bowed.

Meals were of course taken in common, according to the Rule. Every monk had an assigned seat where he would find a loaf of bread and a knife. Bowls of food were brought from the kitchen and wine from the cellar. They were served in what was called “just” measures, meaning a modest apportionment that was meant to be shared by two monks. Meals were taken in utter silence while a single brother read out loud.

The monks slept in a dormitory on the second floor where each monk had his own bed. Nobody was allowed to be alone in the dormitory; the beds were arranged similar to a military barracks. Bed sharing was absolutely prohibited. Candles were kept burning throughout the night. 

Cluny as it appeared at the height of its influence

Reception of Strangers

The life of Cluny was intensely private, but ultimately every private affair or infraction became the knowledge of the community. Similarly, those visitors who entered Cluny were expected to share the life of its permanent residents. While high ranking guests were received with much pomp and ceremony, as soon as they crossed the threshold into the monastery they were expected to adopt the penitents’ manner of living. This included even princes and kings. Husbands and wives who visited the monastery were forbidden from sleeping with each other while inside the cloister. Visitors had access to certain areas of Cluny but were always barred from the more private rooms.

Importance of Cluny

Let us conclude by citing the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia on the importance of this wonderful abbey:

“During the first 250 years of its existence Cluny was governed by a series of remarkable abbots, men who have left their mark upon the history of Western Europe and who were prominently concerned with all the great political questions of their day. Among these were Sts. Odo, Mayeul, Odilo, and Hugh, and Peter the Venerable. Under the last named, the ninth abbot, who ruled from 1122 to 1156, Cluny reached the zenith of its influence and prosperity, at which time it was second only to Rome as the chief centre of the Christian world. It became a home of learning and a training school for popes, four of whom, Gregory VII (Hildebrand), Urban II, Paschal II and Urban V, were called from its cloisters to rule the Universal Church” (2)

By the 12th century, the reform that began at Cluny had faltered and was picked up by the Cistercians, who advocated for a more severe interpretation of St. Benedict’s Rule. Still, Cluny had played its part. It was the fertile soul from which sprang the Gregorian Reform; even the Cistercian reform, which was a reaction against what it perceived as Cluniac laxity, developed out of Cluniac usages. All the great movements of medieval Catholicism flowed through Cluny, one way or another.

(1) Much of this essay was taken from the work of medievalist Georges Duby in his essay “The Aristocratic Households of Feudal France” found in A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World (Harvard University Press: 1988).

(2) “Congregation of Cluny”