chapter  14
Monastic life in the twelfth century
Pages 22

In 1095, Pope Urban II, a former grand prior at the Abbey of Cluny, returned to that monastery to consecrate the main altar of the new church being built there, the largest church in Christendom. The contemporary abbot of Cluny, Hugh the Great (1049-1109), was second only to the pope in prestige and had considerably greater economic resources. He presided over an empire of approximately 1,000 monasteries, containing perhaps 20,000 monks. The monastery of Cluny itself had more than 300 monks, many of whom were the sons of important aristocratic and even royal families. In the impressive church at Cluny, long and elaborate liturgical services in magnificent surroundings were performed at regular intervals, both night and day. In 1095, Cluny was at the height of its influence, the very model of how a fervent Benedictine monastic life should be carried out. Aristocrats sent gifts, offered their sons as oblates, and sought the monastic habit in serious illness or old age so they could die as Cluniac monks. But the Cluniac interpretation of the monastic ideal was already under criticism by individuals and small groups, whose influence was minor in 1095 but grew in the twelfth century as the ideal of the apostolic life of poverty and preaching gained adherents. Some critics sought to redefine the Benedictine ideal; others sought to replace it entirely. Even as Pope Urban and Abbot Hugh were presiding over the ceremonies at Cluny, about a hundred miles away at Molesme, Abbot Robert was attempting to persuade his monks to adopt a more austere, simpler version of the Benedictine rule. About 750 miles away in southern Italy, one of Urban II’s teachers, Bruno of Cologne (c.1030-1101), had abandoned the Benedictine rule altogether and was living the harsh life of a hermit, praying in simple, isolated surroundings and earning his bread by the work of his hands. The ideal of the apostolic life of poverty, preaching and personal religious experience was beginning to challenge the solid Cluniac structure and the religious ideal that it represented.