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Chapter III: Clunaic Benedictines

The most celebrated Benedictine Abbey after that of Monte Casino was the Abbey of Clugny, near Macon, in Burgundy. In this noble monastery, founded A.D. 940 by the Pious Duc Daquitane, Bernon, the abbot, and his successor, Odo, perfected the rule of St. Benedict, which had fallen into considerable decay. The discipline of this house became famed throughout Europe, so celebrated indeed that the fame of the Benedictines became eclipsed by that of the Clunaics. In the twelfth century nearly 2000 monasteries scattered throughout France, Germany, Spain, England, and even the East owned allegiance to the house of Clugny from which they originally sprung, and which continued still to exercise authority over them. It was the greatest of all abbatial churches, equal to Cologne in the splendour of its medieval architecture, vaster than St. Peter's in space and majesty. “Of its vast nave, of its four transepts, of its innumerable chapels, of its seven towers, there remain only three scanty fragments to indicate what had once been the glory of medieval France.” [6] It was described by one who knew it well, and who was a competent judge, as the most beautiful monastery in Christendom. [7] One Pope after another conferred special privileges on the house of Clugny and its numerous dependencies. It possessed a large territory over which it ruled supreme. Its abbots were directly subject to the Pope, and no bishop could intrude within the precincts of the monasteries of the order, or exercise any jurisdiction over them and the dependencies. Many of these dependencies were in England, and at one time the Abbot of Clugny received £2000 from the English houses of his order. Among these houses was the monastery of Wenlock in Shropshire, from which the monks of Paisley came. It was an offshoot of the Priory of La Charité in France, and was founded by Roger, Earl of Shrewsbury. But though the monks of Paisley came immediately from Wenlock, it was to the great Abbey of Clugny that they looked as their head. Thither their abbot had at regular intervals to go to make obeisance. The privileges conferred on Clugny by the different Popes were carefully treasured in their archives, and founded upon again and again in their various contentions with ecclesiastical and civil powers. From documents relating to Clugny in the Paisley Chartulary, the history of that great house might be written and not the smallest change in the discipline and government of its Scotch offshoot could be effected without the special authority of its French parent.

The rule by which the Clunaic monks were everywhere governed differed only from that of St. Benedict in certain ritual observances. A French writer on the religious orders considers worthy of special remark the manner in which they prepared the bread for the sacrifice of the altar. Read in the light of our time their practice may be called superstition; viewed in the light of theirs, it betokens deep reverence and earnest piety. “They first chose the wheat grain by grain and washed it with great care, putting it in a bag used only for it. A servant known to be a good man carried it to the mill. He washed the stones, covered them with curtains above and below, and, dressed in an alb, he hid his face in a veil, letting only his eyes be seen. The same care was taken with the flour. It was not passed into the sieve until it was well washed, and the guardian of the church, if he were a priest or deacon, finished the rest, being helped by two other monks who were of the same order, and by a novice chosen expressly for it; these four, at the end of matins, washed their hands and faces. The three first put on their albs. The first washed the flour with pure clean water, and the two others baked the paste on the iron. Such was the respect and reverence which the monks of Clugny had for the holy Eucharist.”

Their discipline was of the strictest kind. Silence was so strictly guarded amongst them that they would sooner have suffered death than have broken it before the hours of prime. Amusing stories are told of the inconveniences they suffered rather than break this rule. One allowed his horse to be stolen, and two suffered themselves to be carried off by the Norsemen when they might have been saved by crying out. During the hours of silence they used signs instead of words. After complines the monks were never given permission to eat. From the 12th September they had only one meal in the day, except on the feast of the twelve lessons and the octave of Christmas and Epiphany when they had two. The bread and wine remaining in the refectory they distributed to poor pilgrims. Mabillon states that they were required at the end of the meals to consume their crumbs. There was a disposition at first to evade this regulation, but when a dying monk exclaimed in horror that he saw the devil holding up in accusation against him a bag of crumbs which he had been unwilling to swallow, the brethren were terrified into obedience. At best their food was not of a very recherché character, and a satirical poet, once himself a monk, thus speaks of their daily fare: “When you wish to sleep they wake you; when you wish to eat they make you fast. The night is passed in praying in the church, the day in working, and there is no repose but in the refectory: and what is to be found there? Rotten eggs, beans with their pods on, and liquor fit for oxen. For the wine is so poor that one might drink of it for a month without intoxication.”
[9] They were however charitable with what they had. Eighteen poor men were fed every day, and the charity during Lent was so profuse that in one year from the beginning of Lent there were at Clugny seven thousand poor to whom a great quantity of salt meat and similar alms were distributed. They loved to teach young children, and the youth whom they brought up were trained with the same care and received the same education bestowed on the children of princes, in the palaces of their fathers. [10]

[6] Dean Stanley in “Good Words.”
[7] De Thou.
[8] Mabillon, Dictionaire des Orders Religieuses, Tome II. p. 300.
[9] Fosbrook, p. 107.
[10] ibid.