The Cluniac and Cistercian Reforms to Benedictine Monasticism

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William and Mary

The High Middle Ages are remembered, for a number of reasons, as an influential time in the history of culture, religion, and intellectualism. Among these reasons, the development of Benedictine Monasticism, its subsequent fall, and reforms made to it stand significant.

Image of the ruins of St. Mary's Priory, or Binham Priory, in Norfolk, England
The ruins of St Mary’s Priory, or Binham Priory, are located in the village of Binham in Norfolk, England, and are some of the most complete Benedictine Monastic ruins in existence. (Image: Christopher Keeley/Shutterstock)

Benedictine Monasticism began to find its place in the Roman Empire after the legality of Christianity and rose to widespread prominence in the year 1000 when most monasteries in Europe would fall under its purview. Thereafter, Benedictine Monasticism was regarded as an extremely sought after way of life, which allowed devout Christians to test their faith and challenge their devotion to its limits.

However, the prevalence and reputation of Benedictine Monasticism were not there to stay. Monastic life was plagued with several problems.

A huge contributor to this problem was the fact that the Rules of Saint Benedict were extremely rigorous, and there was a natural tendency for conditions to grow lax over time.

To exacerbate the situation, there was the problem of Monastic wealth. While Monk themselves were forbidden from owning any property, Monasteries were permitted to, and did indeed, own huge sums of property and wealth. Monasteries became affluent when retirees, the families of oblates, and people wishing to favor prayers from monks, all made huge donations. The founders of Monasteries, who mostly came from noble backgrounds, also left them with huge properties of land and wealth. Being surrounded by so much opulence created temptation and gradual relaxation of rules governing ownership by Monks.

Oblates, who most often were non – voluntary monks, added fuel to the fire as well. Often considered to be devoid of a strong sense of vocation, they were regarded as corrupting influences to other monks as well.

Given these challenges, a number of reforms rose in attempts to revive monastic life, and bring back the Rules of Saint Benedict in its purest form. Two important reforms were the Cluniac and Cistercian Reforms. While both the reforms had different approaches, they hoped to achieve the same goal: strict observance of the rules of Saint Benedict. Interestingly, their lives also ran the same course: Initial success which indeed saw their goals being met, followed by eventual obsolescence. In fact, by the time the reforms ran their course, they were, in no manner, distinguishable, from other forms of Benedictine Monasticism.

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The Cluniac Reform

The first of these reforms came in the form of Cluniac Monasticism, a name derived from its pivotal monastery, which was in Cluny, in the Burgundy region of France. Founded in 909 by local nobles, the monastery was given an important privilege by the pope in the 10th century. Monks from all over Europe were permitted to live in the monastery at Cluny if they felt that conditions at their own monastery didn’t live up to the mark. Monks were also allowed to elect their own abbots here.

Image of Vezelay Abbey, a Cluniac Monastery in Vezelay, France.
Vézelay Abbey is a Benedictine and Cluniac monastery in Vezelay, department of Yonne, France. (Image: Borisb17/Shutterstock)

As a result of these measures, the monastery soon became a place of congregation for zealous monks from all over the world. From here, the movement began to spread.

The monastery at Cluny began to acquire other monastic houses. Often, monasteries were simply gifted to them by nobles and kings who wished to see reforms in their local monasteries. Over time, they spread far and wide, acquiring colonies, and even set up new monasteries.

The Cluniac movement was able to spread because, at least in the beginning, there were a number of factors that differentiated them from other Benedictine monks. They began to organize their monasteries hierarchically, with the motherhouse at Cluny, with daughter houses below it, and further daughter houses below them. This was a drastic change from prior forms of monasticism when all monasteries were loosely organized and independent from each other.

The fact that houses were allowed to supervise houses below them permitted the appointment of a good abbot and meant that the Cluniacs were relatively effective in reforming the monasteries under them.

Although the Cluniacs were well known for attempting to stick to the rules of Saint Benedict, their contemporaries found them to be falling short in a few ways. For instance, the Cluniacs, famous for their arduous and ornate liturgical services, were so devoted to their performance of the liturgy, that they did far more prayers than they were supposed to, which was seen to be in contravention to the rules of Saint Benedict. Further, this devotion also meant that they neglected other aspects of monastic life, especially manual labor.

They also came under sharp criticism for their large lavish churches, which they felt were essential for their elaborate liturgical services.

As the Cluniacs rose to prominence, they met their greatest danger: success. As they amassed a reputation, people donated land and wealth to the Cluniacs in a bid to get them to pray for the former. The more wealth the Cluniacs accumulated, the less rigorous their observance became. As a result, by the time of about 1100, the Cluniac reform had run its course. The Cluniac monasteries were now very wealthy themselves, but the reputation of the Cluniacs was nowhere near as high as it had been earlier.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Cistercian Reform

Similar to the Cluniac Reform, the Cistercian reform grew out of a need to improve on the existing practices of monkhood. Not astonishingly, however, the Cistercians also witnessed a similar rise and fall as the Cluniacs did.

The Cistercian movement grew at a monastery in Citeaux, also located in Central France, which was founded in 1098.

Heiligenkreuz Abbey, the oldest continually occupied Cistercian Abbey in the world, located in Heiligenkreuz, Austria.
Heiligenkreuz Abbey, located in the village of Heiligenkreuz, Austria, is the oldest continually occupied Cistercian abbey in the world.
(Image: Volkova Natalia/Shutterstock)

The leader of the movement was Bernard of Clairvaux, an influential figure of the 12th century.

Coming from noble origins, Bernard of Clairvaux, an eloquent Latin stylist, joined the Cistercians around 1112, and brought along a number of volunteers.

He was known to fast so strictly that it wrecked his digestive system, and he couldn’t keep down anything that he ate. His willingness to inflict damage on his own system for his faith was vastly admired by his contemporaries. Under his leadership, the Cistercian movement expanded exponentially in the decades that followed.

While the Cistercians attacked the Cluniacs mercilessly for their failures, they also learned from the latter’s successful experiences. For instance, the Cistercians adopted the hierarchical structure that had worked out so well for the Cluniacs.

At the same time, they also learned from the Cluniacs’ failures and adapted accordingly. They went for simple, whitewashed churches, instead of the ornate ones the Cluniacs adopted. They also made sure to pay ample attention to manual labor along with their liturgical services. Further, they refused to accept oblates, as they didn’t reflect a true desire for the monastic life. They also refused to accept serfs, and lastly, they refused certain forms of income, so as to not become too wealthy.

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Despite their attempts to follow the rules of Saint Benedict closely, the Cistercians ended up attracting huge donations and eventually ended up becoming extremely wealthy. Their rules against accepting oblates and certain forms of income, and living austerely, were slowly relaxed, and by 1200, they, too, were lost in the sea of indistinguishable Benedictine monks.

While monks were ideally supposed to devote themselves to a life of extreme austerity and follow the rules of Saint Benedict, the temptation of wealth, and the rigorousness of the rules, always seemed to prove too much. As a result of almost all manners of Benedictine monks slipping the same way, Monks came to be widely regarded as the dominant spiritual elite of Europe, and monasticism failed to live up to its ideals.

Commonly Asked Questions about Reforms to Benedictine Monasticism

Q: What was the primary motive of the Cluniac Reform Movement?

The Cluniac movement sought to bring back the Rules of Saint Benedict and subsequently reform the Catholic Church.

Q: Why did the reign of Benedictine Monasticism come to an end?

Benedictine Monasticism was plagued with a plethora of issues. The Rules of Saint Benedictine were too hard to follow, and monastic wealth, as well as the presence of non – voluntary monks, served as corrupting influences.

Q: What were the primary reasons for which the Cluniacs were criticized by their contemporaries?

The Cluniacs were criticized for being so devoted to the prayer services that they ended up praying more than was specified by the Rules of Saint Benedict. Further, their devotion to prayer also caused them to ignore other elements of monastic life. Lastly, they build large and lavish churches for their liturgical services, which were felt to be extremely profligate by their contemporaries.

Q: Was Bernard of Clairvaux the founder of the Cistercian Reform?

No, Bernard of Clairvaux was not the founder of the Cisterican Reform. However, was an extremely popular leader who took the movement to new heights.

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