Overview of Medieval Monasticism – Part Four

December 28, 2007

Reform Movements

I. Cluny

The Benedictian monastery at Cluny, Burgandy was established in 909/910 by the Duke of Aquitaine to be an abbey free of secular feudal control. For 200 years it functioned as a center of reform and social stability, and it was ruled by a succession of seven powerful and intelliegent abbots, including Breno and Peter the Venerable. The houses associated with Cluny (314 by the 12th century) practiced a more centralized form of governance in being answerably to the mother house at Cluny, a power structure not shared by the larger Benedictine order. Cluny became a great center of art and liturgy, responsible for the training of popes and other important church leaders. Eventually, the Cluniacs became enriched with their social wealth and influence. Destroyed in the 18th century, the abbey-church at Cluny was an immense structure and became famous in the high medieval period. 555 feet in length, it was the largest church until St. Peter’s at Rome was constructed. “It consisted of five naves, a narthex, or ante-church, and several towers. Commenced by St. Hugh, the sixth abbot, in 1089, it was finished and consecrated by Pope Innocent II in 1131-32, the narthex being added in 1220” (Catholic Encyclopedia).

II. Carthusians

Begun by Bruno in 1084, the Carthusian order adopted their own rule, The Statutes, in opposition to the Benedictine rule. Bruno began the first house in Chartreuse in the Alps. The Carthusian order is still considered the strictest order of the Roman Catholic Church. They refused the dormitory-style common sleeping quarters of Cluny for single-cells, opting for a very simple, spare existence, hard manual labor, poor diet and clothing. The Carthusian order stressed a simplicity or absence of insignia. In many ways, the Carthusians returned to the early desert Cenobitic organization. The order famously claims “nunquam reformata quia nunquam deformata” (“It needs no reform that has never been deformed.”)

III. Cistercians

In 1098, Robert of Mosleme left the Benedictine order to begin a reform movement at Citeaux. By papal order, Robert was shortly replaced by Alberic, who died in 1109, then by Stephen Harding who ruled until 1134. The order stressed a return to the Benedictine rule in its original strictness, and as a result, they were in tension with Peter the Venerable at Cluny. They stressed manual, agricultural work, located themselves in wilderness self-contained retreats, and refused gifts from the wealthy. Bernard of Clarivaux, one of the most famous monks of the medieval period, took the order from 30 to 280 houses. In the 13th century, Cistercian wool industry called for the creation of an order of lay brothers, relatively uneducated field workers and herdsmen, associated with the houses. The Cistercians adopted a polity half-way between the centralization of the Cluniacs and the complete independence of Benedictine houses. Cistercian abbots, elected by each house, were then subject to the yearly meeting of the chapter, the association of houses presided over by the Citeaux abbot.

IV. Augustinians

In the 11th century, a number of independent monastic houses sprung up, ordering themselves under the Rule of St. Augustine. They were consolidated between 1243 and 1256 (“The Great Union”) by Pope Innocent IV. Inspired by the ideal of “modesty and service,” the OSA (Order of Saint Augustine) has operated schools, hospitals, retirement centers, and music foundations.


V. The Franciscans & The Dominicans

Franciscans: Begun by Francis and Clare of Assisi in the early 13th century as a preaching order concerned with the poor, the order was known for its work with the sick, destitute, and disenfranchised, as well as its unquestioning obedience to the pope. Under Francis’ charismatic leadership, the order expanded rapidly, and became known for its emphasis on evangelical poverty, winsome compassion, and missions. During, but especially after Francis’ lifetime, the order became divided into stricter and laxer parties. The scholar Bonaventure led the Franciscans from 1257 to 1274, seeking to chart a moderate course, though condemning the excesses of the stricter Observationist or “Spiritual” party. The Spiritual Franciscans, along with strong mystical and apocalyptic beliefs, held to the doctrine of apostolic poverty, believing that Christ and the apostles owned nothing. This position was declared heretical in 1322. The Franciscan order in the following centuries spun off a number of separate sects and other orders.

Dominicans: The Order of Preachers (Ordo Praedicatorum) was founded by Dominiac in the 13th century as a medicant, or preaching, order. It was begun with an apologetical goal in mind—to convert Muslims, Jews, and heretics to the Catholic faith. Dominiac stressed vacility with vernacular languages, a strong academic education, especially in theology, and a life of simplicity and poverty so as to avoid hypocrisy. Two of its most famous members were the philosophers Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. The order grew quickly in its first centuries of existence and its influence expanded as its members were chosen for church offices. Eventually, the order was charged with running the Roman Inquisition.

VI Knights Templar & Other Military Orders

The Knights Templar Existing for about two centuries (1096-1314), was the most well-known of the military orders. They were constituted as a monastic order after the First Crusade as an inspiration of Bernard of Clarivaux. The order was made-up of celibate lifetime members and temporary members, often married, from the knightly class who were mostly uneducated. The order also pioneered modern banking methods, such as credit and checking, to raise funds for the crusades, as well as to assist pilgrimages to the Holy Land . They served in the Holy Land campaigns, but eventually were accused of heresy by Philip the Fair and disbanded by Pope Clement The Order of Christ, begun in 1318, succeeded the Knights Templar and absorbed many of its knights. It settled in Portugal . Over the centuries, it was reformed as both a religious order answerable to the pope and a civil order answerable to the king. The Knights Hospitaller, a 12th century order working with the sick, after the First Crusade divided itself into two parts, the newer one pledged to protecting pilgrimages to the Holy Land. They also fought with distinction in the Holy Land . Eventually, they absorbed much of the property of the Knights Templar, and its branches became military enclaves in later centuries, such as the Knights of Malta.