Full essay title: Evaluate the contribution to the development of Western Christianity of one monastic renewal movement between about 900AD and 1300 AD.


By the 10th century the reforms in church and monastery life initiated by the Benedictines had decayed due to the collapse of the Carolingian empire.  Another reform was needed; it was achieved by the power and influence of the Cluniac Order.  ‘The objects of the reform included a return to the strict Benedictine Rule, especially as expounded by St Benedict of Aniane, cultivation of spiritual life, stress on the choir office (which tended to grow to excessive length) and the splendor and solemnity of worship generally, with a corresponding reduction in manual labour’ (Livingstone 2006, 130).

While these objects were intended for the Order itself, monastic reforms generally permeated the rest of the Church, and Cluny was no exception.  Zarnecki (1972, 38, 39) discusses the vital part monasteries played in European church and society, saying that moral values were restored by reforming the monasteries, and that European civilization owes an enormous debt to Cluny.

Knowles agrees, saying of monasticism in general, ‘The fragmentation of Europe, the disappearance of political and economic unity and control, the rift between the eastern empire and the western kingdoms were widening.  In the chaos and turmoil of the age that followed, the monasteries of western Europe, from being places of withdrawal from a world that was seething with political and social activity, gradually became centres of light and life in a simple, static, semi-barbarian world and later diffusing what remained of ancient culture and spirituality’ (Knowles 1969, 37).

Growth of Cluny

Cluny’s freedom to elect their own abbot was a primary factor in establishing their ascendancy.  This, and its being deeded to Saints Peter and Paul, under whose protection Duke William of Aquitaine had placed it, ‘enabled the abbey to achieve its unique position of independence, privilege and power’ (Lawrence 1990, 90) because it was free from interference and control of secular powers. 

Because of Cluny’s austerity, and in spite of its poverty, Odo was invited by kings and bishops to undertake the reform of other monasteries, and Pope John XI authorized the expansion of the Cluniac reform (Lawrence 1990, 89).  And, as a result of Odo’s invitation by the Roman senator Alberic to reform the secularized monasteries of Rome, Odo’s reforming work, though not long-lasting, impressed upon Rome ‘the fact that Cluny was the recognized standard-bearer of regular Benedictine life’ (Lawrence 1990, 90).  He also says, ‘Before Leo IX ascended the papal chair at the end of 1048 and made Rome the headquarters of the so-called Gregorian Reform Movement, it was to Cluny that men looked for spiritual leadership and religious inspiration’ (Lawrence 1990, 86).

Reform under Cluny

1.  Worship

Gonzales (1984, 279) says that initially the goal of the monks of Cluny was to devote themselves to the Rule of Benedict completely, but before long they wanted to reform other houses as well.  As other monasteries joined them they were brought under the direct control of the abbot of Cluny; thus Cluny became a vast feudal system.  This enabled the reforming zeal and goals to be transferred to these monasteries throughout Europe and thus to the Church and society.  Having achieved reform within their monasteries ‘they set their sights on the reformation of the entire church’ (Gonzales 1984, 279).  And the way of reform was through devotion to the Divine Office, which had been greatly enlarged by Benedict of Aniane at the expense of physical labour, the importance of which had been stressed by Benedict of Nursia.

2.  Clerical Marriage

From the earliest times of the Church celibacy and virginity had been highly prized, and many men and women had practiced it.  Celibacy was a standard requirement for monastic and conventual life.  Now ‘these reformers made clerical celibacy one of the pillars of their program’ (Gonzales 1984, 280).  To this day in the Catholic Church, clergy are required to be unmarried and continent.

3.  Simony and Investiture

This vision of monastic reform being carried over into the Church was initiated by Leo IX and furthered by Gregory VII, a Cluniac monk, and resulted in a long and bitter struggle between Papacy and Emperor.  Simony was regarded as a great evil because, apart from its being an unscriptural practice, it brought the Church under the power of secular rulers; and the ‘appointment and investiture of bishops and abbots by nobles, kings and emperors, although not strictly simony, was dangerously close to it, and must also be forbidden’ (Gonzales 1984, 280).  The reforming popes, particularly Gregory VII and Urban II, fought it relentlessly because their goal was to set the Church free from all civil interference and control and to be able, under God, to control its own direction.

At this time Cluny was at the height of its power under Abbot Hugh and, although it ‘had helped create the necessary spiritual climate in which the reform movement could flourish’ (Lawrence 1990, 93), the Order itself (as opposed to individuals from within the movement such as Hildebrand) was unable to further the reform it desired as effectively as it might have, because it had a foot in two camps.  Its effectiveness was hindered because it could not make a clear declaration of loyalty to either Pope or Emperor; for although Cluny’s heart lay with the cause of reform in its aims of freeing the Church from abuses and corruption, and from being exploited by secular rulers, its loyalties were divided between a Papacy to whom it owed its preservation and protection, and princes who bestowed grants of property and gifts.  To further complicate matters, Hugh was godfather and counsellor to Henry IV.

Rather than support outright his natural ally the pope, Hugh tried to walk a middle line between the two opponents by attempting to bring about reconciliation.  Lawrence says ‘The fact that he managed to retain the trust and affection of both the contestants throughout the struggle is a tribute to his detachment and diplomatic skill’ (Lawrence 1990, 94).  Ultimately, in 1088, Odo, a former grand prior of Cluny, was elected pope as Urban II, and Cluny was firmly committed to supporting the pope.

However the struggle was more than just reform of the Church.  The Catholic Encyclopedia observes that ‘the prohibition of investiture was in truth only the occasion of this conflict; the real issue, at least at the height of the contest, was whether the imperial or the papal power was to be supreme in Christendom….Gregory VII sought in all earnestness to realise the Kingdom of God on earth under the guidance of the papacy (Catholic Encyclopedia – internet).

4. Peace of God/Truce of God Movement

Schaff (undated, 159, 2nd section) calls this ‘one of the most benevolent movements of the middle ages’. Although it began just before the monastery of Cluny was established, Cluny, under the abbot Odilo, played a significant part in its spread and enforcement.  Walker says:

‘Its aim was to limit the constant petty wars between nobles by prescribing a closed season in memory of Christ’s passion, from Wednesday evening till Monday morning, during which acts of violence should be visited with severe ecclesiastical punishments. Its purpose was excellent; its success but partial’ (Walker 1922, 220).

It began as the “Peace of God” to protect the innocent victims of these conflicts (priests and monks, serfs, women) and developed into the “Truce of God”, a more limited version, at the Council of Clermont in 1095.  In its favour it did protect those for whom it was designed, produced humane laws for war (the chivalric code), justices of the peace, and other benefits.  But conversely it produced the Crusades, in which it was lawful to kill any infidel in war without penalty, and enabled bishops to raise armies.

5.  Care of the Poor

An important part of monastic life was caring for the poor and weak, consequently gardens and orchards were grown with the poor in mind, and parts of the monasteries were devoted to this ministry.  Daniel-Rops says that ‘Cluny kept an annual reserve of five hundred sides of salt pork for the use of the poor’ (Daniel-Rops 1957, 254).  While this ministry was by no means exclusive to Cluny, it demonstrates their desire to imitate Christ in practical demonstration of faith and obedience.  As Cluniac monasteries and the accompanying reform spread all over Europe, caring for the poor was carried with it, and was a natural part of it.

6.  Indirect Reform

Cluny produced the reforming popes Gregory VII and Urban II, both of whom delivered the Church from the control of secular princes and nobles; their legacy remains with the Church today.


Although Cluny began with the aim of saving the souls of its own monks through intense prayer and worship, and to pray for the souls of others, its reforms quickly overflowed into Church and society as its influence and power increased with its size.  While we as Protestants would perhaps disagree with some of its reforms, such as unmarried clergy, and constant prayer and recitation of scripture, it did benefit Western Christianity greatly, and focused people’s minds on heaven. 

Western Christianity in the Middle Ages was a society modeled on Augustine’s “City of God”, so what reformed the Church reformed society also.  Cluny brought a renewed love of God, a pastoral and practical care for the weak, and a desire to deliver the Church from the hands of men.  It developed art as it copied its literature, and architecture in its enormous and beautiful Romanesque-style buildings, both of which were designed to glorify God.  And it gave stability to a Church and society ravaged by wars and pillage.

But in the end Cluny’s success was its own undoing, and the wealth and power which it unintentionally attracted to itself took its monks further away from a life of prayer, and into the world from which it had withdrawn – and new monastic reform grew in reaction to Cluny’s worldliness.


Daniel-Rops, H. 1957, Cathedral and Crusade, J.M. Dent and Sons, London, U.K.

Gonzales, J.L. 1984, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, HarperSanFrancisco.

Knowles, D. 1969, Christian Monasticism, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, U.K.

Lawrence, C.H. 1990, Medieval Monasticism, Longman, Harlow, Essex.

Author’s name not linked to article, 2006, ‘Cluny, Cluniacs’ in Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church,, ed. E.A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 129.

Loffler, K. 1910, (launched into cyberspace 1997, cited 17 Feb 2007), ‘Conflict of Investitures’, Catholic Encyclopedia, www, ed. Kevin Knight, Transcribed Douglas J. Potter, vol. 8, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08084c.htm

Schaff, P. undated, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2, AP&A, address not given.

Walker, W. 1922, A History of the Christian Church, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York.