The Early Abbots of Cluny

30 April 909
The monastery of Cluny (in France, northwest of Lyons) was a center for the reform and spiritual renewal of Western monasticism in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was founded in 909 under Abbot Berno, as a reformed monastery, observing the Benedictine Rule with a strictness unusual at the time. Many monasteries in Europe at that time were dominated by a nearby king or nobleman. It was intended that Cluny should be independent of all but papal jurisdiction.

Its second abbot was Odo (born 879 at Tours, monk in 909, abbot in 927, died 18 November 942--one of my sources says 944). He obtained papal and royal charters which guaranteed the monastery freedom from outside interference. Under his guidance Cluny attracted many men seeking to follow its discipline, and Abbot Odo was instrumental in introducing the Cluniac observances into many Italian monasteries as well. He insisted on silence, simplicity of diet, and strict observance of chastity for his monks, but he was not rigid of temperament: many stories survive of his generosity to the poor and to prisoners. Because he had no wordly ambitions, he was often called to mediate disputes between men in power.

The third abbot was Aylward, who held office from 942 to 965. He was blind from 954 on.

Mayeul (or Maieul or Maiolus) was born at Avignon around 906, became a clergyman, was made archdeacon of Macon, and fled to Cluny in order to avoid being made bishop of Besancon. At Cluny, he was made librarian and bursar. When Abbot Aylward became blind, he appointed Maiolus his assistant, and in 965 at the death of Aylward he became abbot. Under his guidance, Cluniac influence expanded, but by example and advice rather than by jurisdiction. Maiolus had the support and admiration of the Emperors Otto I and Otto II, and the latter wanted to make him Pope in 974, but he refused. When old, he chose Odilo as his successor, and retired to contemplation and penance. He died on 11 May 994.

Odilo, the fifth abbot, was born around 962, became a monk as a young man, was made assistant to Mayeul in 991, and became abbot in 994. He held office for 55 years, during which time thirty abbeys accepted Cluny as their mother house, and its practices were adopted by many more which did not affiliate. Thus the Cluniac reform spread through Burgundy, Provence, Auvergne, Poitou, and much of Italy and Spain. The abbot of Cluny appointed priors for the daughter houses, which were thus permanently under a central jurisdiction, making the Cluniac monasteries (or some of them) into the first monastic order in the modern sense. In Abbot Odilo's day, there was a great deal of fighting of minor wars, raids, and skirmishes between feudal lords and others. Odilo reduced the effect of this by persuading the combatants throughout most of France and some other regions to agree that churches and monastic holdings were strictly off limits in fighting, and that there was to be a truce from Fridays to Mondays, as well as throughout all of Advent and Lent, to enable all parties to worship unmolested. Odilo wrote many sermons and poems on the mystery of the Incarnation, and his references to the role of Mary as the means through whom the Incarnation took place greatly influenced Bernard of Clairvaux a century later. Odilo instituted the observance of 2 November as All Souls' Day, a day of prayer at first for the dead brothers of the Abbey and later for all who had died in the faith of Christ. In the years from 1028 to 1033, when crop failures created great hunger among the poor in the vicinity of Cluny, he melted down and sold most of the treasures of Cluny to relieve them. As an abbot, he held both himself and his monks to a strict observance of the Rule, but he said that he would rather be damned for being too merciful than for being too severe. He died in 1049 at the age of 87.

Hugh, the sixth abbot, was born in 1024, the oldest son of a Burgundian nobleman (the count of Semur), entered Cluny when about 16, and became abbot when only 25 years old. He was abbot for 60 years, during which time the number of monastic houses that recognized Cluny as their mother house grew from about 60 to about 2000. It was under his abbacy that the Cluniac reform was introduced into England (at Lewes in Sussex in 1077). He increased the control of the mother house over the daughter houses (at the cost, as some have thought, of a certain flagging in their spiritual enthusiasm). Hugh was an accomplished diplomat sent at various times by nine different popes to conduct delicate negotiotiations in Hungary, Toulouse, Spain, and all over Europe. He mediated between pope and emperor in the confrontation at Canossa, and must be reckoned as one of the most influential figures of his day. He died 29 April 1109.

The seventh abbot, Pons (or Pontius), was a secular-minded, contentious nobleman, unsuited to be an abbot. He took office in 1109, and by 1122 had created such a turmoil and so many factions that the Pope asked him to resign.

The eighth Abbot of Cluny was Peter the Venerable, born in 1092, prior of Vezelay in 1112, and elected abbot of Cluny in 1122. In 1125, when Peter was away, Pons returned with a band of armed men and seized control of the monastery. The Pope intervened and imprisoned Pons, who died in prison the following year. Peter was then involved in a dispute with Bernard of Clairvaux (see 20 August), the spokesman of the Cistercian monasteries, and disposed to view the Cluniac monasteries as in some sense a rival organization, who accused the Cluniac houses of being insufficiently strict in their monastic observances. Peter, instead of replying indignantly, considered the complaints, made some changes where he thought that changes were needed, and ignored the complaints that he considered ill-grounded. In 1140, when Bernard had succeeded in having the views of Abelard condemned (see 21 April), Peter gave Abelard shelter at Cluny, persuaded the Pope to deal mildly with Abelard, and reconciled Abelard and Bernard. He refused to have anything to do with the preaching of the Second Crusade, saying that the moslems should be met, not with armies, but with scholars prepared for rational dialogue. He sponsored the first translation of the Koran into Latin, so that Christian missionaries could understand what the moslems they were about to meet believed. He served as papal envoy to Aquitaine, England, and various states in Italy. He wrote religious tracts, poems, hymns, and many letters, of which about 200 survive. He defended the Jews against persecution and false accusations. He was abbot for thirty-four years, during which time Cluny was the most influential abbey in Europe. He died 25 December 1156, and with his death the golden age of Cluny was over. But it had lasted for well over two centuries, and had done much to advance Western civilization, both in spiritual and in secular terms.

PRAYER (traditional language):

O God, by whose grace thy servants the Holy Abbots of Cluny, Enkindled with the fire of thy love, became burning and shining lights in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language):

O God, by whose grace your servants the Holy Abbots of Cluny, Kindled with the flame of your love, became burning and shining lights in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.