Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Cluny and the Reform of the Church in the Middle Ages

(The Wanderer, February 2, 1984)


Contemporary Catholics ought to be more familiar with Church History in the West in the period extending from the death of Charlemagne in 814 until the Eleventh Century. Familiarity with this era would benefit them in three ways. An introduction to the nightmare faced by the Church in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries would, first of all, enable them to keep their balance in the midst of the current debacle. Secondly, such knowledge would give them a much-needed sense of pride in the accomplishments of those among their ancestors who, beginning in the 900’s, gradually nursed the wounded Body of Christ back to health. Finally, it is permissible to entertain the hope that the example offered by a miraculous turnabout in the Church’s fortunes may inspire them to a reconstruction of the shattered foundations of Christendom at the present time.

Although many works have been written on the horrors of the Church’s position after Charlemagne’s death, and on the major reform that eventually reduced them to manageable proportions, Christopher Dawson’s The Making of Europe ought to be reserved a place of honor. Some historians lose themselves in a description of the endless variety of petty actions and banal thinking that accompany every human endeavor, the most wicked as well as the most sublime. They cannot see the forest for the trees. Dawson never allows the accumulation of “data” to clutter his vision of the true tragedy and glory that unfolds before him. It is that vision, above all, which guides this article.


One cannot begin to understand the deformation of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries without some grasp of the events of the final stages of Roman Imperial History in the 300’s and 400’s A.D. The Empire, by that time, was an officially Catholic entity, though it did not quite grasp exactly what this signified. It was especially confused with regard to the question of the relationship of the Church hierarchy to the State. Christian bishops, due to their influence upon the believing population, had assumed an importance and responsibility often exceeding that of the representatives of the Emperor. This frequently irritated those cultivated pagans and nominal Christians who, at best, had accepted the rise of the Church as a fait accompli. Such men had sought only to utilize Catholicism and its prestige for the propping up of that top-heavy, bureaucratic, uninspiring monster of a State that the Empire had become.

The various German tribes that ransacked Roman territories in the late Fourth and Fifth Centuries were, with rare exceptions, awed by the grandeur of the Empire. Nevertheless, their presence in large numbers was not welcome. Though impressed by the Roman State, the German tribes had no conception of its meaning. They thought of authority in terms of a personal relationship between a warrior and a chieftain. Loyalty, for them, was to flesh and blood, and not to an abstract institution. There was always the potential for a multiplicity of warrior-chieftain relationships to spring up within the structure of the same tribe, thus dividing its population and its lands. The idea that a unified domain and people had to be maintained, generation to generation, was alien to the German mentality. Moreover, German tribes were either pagan or Arian Christians, and this made their appearance on the scene a danger to the religious stability of the Roman world.

Organized imperial opposition to the German advance disappeared with the gradual dissolution of the seats of Roman power. Local state officials, who were left without direction or material support by the Fifth Century, often literally faded into the countryside. The only authorities remaining to defend the Roman population, Christian or not, and to maintain Latinity, baptized or pagan, tended to be the bishops. These prelates, many of whom came from the old senatorial aristocracy, found themselves expected to maintain essential services, defend their cities, and, ultimately, to act as intermediaries with the barbarian conquerors. In some places, such as Rome, which were never fully conquered, the bishop became the sole, permanent authority. In others, he was simply the recognized spokesman of the Latin peoples. A period of co-existence with the “enemy” began, protected by the German willingness to let the local population follow its own “chieftains”, as well as by the curiosity and inferiority complex of the invading tribesmen. The two cultures vied for influence and control over one another, consciously and unconsciously, during this time.

Catholic bishops led the political struggle to resist barbarism, paganism, and heresy. Meanwhile, the internal spirit of resistance was being nurtured in the monasteries through the Rule of St. Benedict. Christian spirituality and Latin civilization, supernatural and terrestrial order, were cultivated here with the same vigor that later made these refuges centers of agricultural development. Christians could not help but sense in the monasteries the deepest expressions of their religion; many Germans could not help but wonder and demonstrate respect before this strange phenomenon.

One German barbarian kingdom, that of the Franks, was simultaneously respectful and ambitious. It recognized that its power might be immensely increased if it could find some means of overcoming the split between the two co-existing peoples. Hence, it became Catholic. When ruled, after 768, by that warrior genius, Charles the Great, it was able to conquer half of Europe. The Franks then solidified their position among both Germans and Latins by re-establishing the Crown of Imperial Rome. This gave the Christian Empire the chance to live again.

What more logical step was there to take than that of calling upon the services of those who most understood the meaning of “Rome”, of “Empire”, and “Christianity”—the bishops and the monks? What more sensible policy than that of employing bishops as political advisors, monks as teachers, and monasteries as centers of religious, civic, and social education? What could be more urgent than providing them the financial ability to carry out their new duties? This, Charlemagne did with a vengeance. He enriched the administrative and spiritual leaders of the Latin peoples and culture, uniting them more strongly to his cause than even his own warriors were. Charlemagne created the impression of a Europe on the move.

Alas! This impression of restored power proved simply to be the lull before the storm. While Charlemagne was conquering, the Vikings and Magyars were preparing a new wave of barbarian invasions; the Moslems were cutting off the seas and contributing to the drying up of old Roman towns; roads were falling into disrepair; trade ceased, and, with it, money disappeared from the European economy. That age of iron which truly deserved to be called “Dark” fell upon Europe with a fury after Charles’ death. His Empire was too big, too Roman, and too conscious of the meaning of the State to be understood by his own people. Charlemagne’s son had three children. Why keep an Empire united, the Franks thought, when each of these potential chiefs had warriors willing to follow him and him alone? Only a man influenced by the classical tradition, only a bishop or a monk or a Latin would think that the unity of the State had to be preserved, unimpaired. Hence, by 843, Charlemagne’s domain was split into three parts. The chief, or King, of each of these zones found himself fighting as much with his other two Frankish counterparts as with outsiders. Armies and wars grew in number and in frequency.

A crucial question in the divided Empire became that of determining how to obtain soldiers, horsemen, chevaliers. Germanic warriors expected to be rewarded by their chiefs in exchange for their services, yet no money was available in this age of iron. Land was the only reward possible, and land was freely given. Enough land had to be given to each warrior to provide the wherewithal for at least one horse, weapons, and suit of armor. Sometimes, so much land was awarded to one man that he could subdivide it and obtain followers of his own. He could become a kind of “mini-chief”. The land itself was tilled by peasants, fixed to the soil. That system known as feudalism, pregnant with internecine warfare, was begun: a necessary system, perhaps, considering the times, but one which, nevertheless, also disturbed the peace of Europe.

Where did the lands which were given to warriors come from? The bishops and the monasteries often provided the answer. Sometimes, heads of dioceses and abbots abandoned their religious duties, became warriors themselves, and hence directly solved the problem. Sometimes, they were cowed into accepting “protectors” who lived with them and utilized the fruits of their lands for warfare. Often, a king or powerful warrior appointed military henchmen as bishops and abbots. Occasionally, Church lands were simply stolen. All of these measures became commonplace in much of Europe in the 800’s and 900’s. The result was a thorough-going corruption of the Church. As the Council of the Diocese of Rheims argued in 909: (1)

The cities are depopulated, the monasteries ruined and burned, the land is reduced to a solitude. As the first men lived without law or constraint, abandoned to their passions, so now every man does what pleases him, despising the laws of God and man and the ordinances of the Church. The powerful oppress the weak, and the land is full of violence against the poor and the plunder of the goods of the Church. Men devour one another like the fishes of the sea. In the case of the monasteries, some have been betrayed by the heathen, others have been deprived of their property and reduced to nothing. In those that remain, there is no longer any observance of the rule. They no longer have legitimate superiors, owing to the abuse of submitting to secular domination. We see in the monasteries lay abbots with their wives and their children, their soldiers and their dogs.

God’s flock perishes through our charge. It has come about by our negligence, our ignorance, and that of our brethren, that there is in the Church an innumerable multitude of both sexes and every condition who reach old age without instruction, so that they are ignorant even of the words of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

It seems clear that the Church in the 800’s and 900’s succumbed to the spirit of the times, which was a spirit of strength and war-making ability. This is not unusual. The Church in the United States, in this century, has succumbed to the spirit of our age, which is democratic, pluralistic, and materialistic. One could easily condemn the same abuse of submitting to secular domination noted in the passage above, although the type of secular domination concerned is different. It is no longer German warriors and Frankish kings and the military spirit that twist the Church to their secular ends. Instead, it is the manipulators of scientific data and sociological studies, the interpreters of Progress and the Will of the People. The fact is that the spirit of the age is always the death of the Church, and the Church always has a tendency to succumb to it.

Moments of despair in the history of the Church have repeatedly been the very period during which the seeds of revival were being sown. This was as true of the early 900’s as it was to be true in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s, when the Protestant Reformation was about to break upon Europe. And just as unknown saints are today preparing the movements which, eventually, will restored the glory of the Body of Christ, the renewal of the 900’s was beginning in the sanctification of individual men.

The 900’s and 1000’s witnessed a spiritual revival on what can only be described as a miraculous scale. While the sources of this revival were manifold, it is still safe to say that the most important of them stemmed from one monastery in the central part of Charlemagne’s Empire, in Burgundy. Benedictine monasticism was fortunate to find in Duke William of Auvergne a man willing to sponsor a foundation which was intended to be free from secular manipulation. His creation was the Abbey of Cluny, which was established in 910. Cluny was destined to blossom forth and develop two vocations. The first of these, by far the more basic, was that of providing a new refuge for those concerned with their personal sanctification. Hence, it wished to restore the original purpose of St. Benedict. The second, flowing naturally from this end, was to so renew the spiritual fervor of the Universal Church as to wipe out the scandal of Christian acceptance of the spirit of the times. A remarkable succession of holy abbots kept Cluny true to its intended goals. These men reflected well the Gospel command to be innocent as lambs and wise as serpents. They guided what has commonly been known as the Clunaic Reform through the use of three effective means.

The first of these was the adoption of a new method of monastic organization: the federation. Clunaic abbots understood that one cause of the collapse of monastic life had been the isolation and weakness of each separate house. If Cluny could establish “colonial” houses, united with the mother abbey, a sense of power and singleness of purpose might be developed. Moreover, federation would facilitate the rooting out of corruption, firm houses being able to provide the corrective for those falling lax. Regular conferences and visitations, assured through the constant travels of the pilgrim abbots of Cluny, made federation a palpable reality. Hundreds upon hundreds of new foundations began to display the value of the system; hundred upon hundreds of houses stretching from one end of Charlemagne’s old Empire to another.

A second means of achieving Clunaic ends was that of preaching. The peoples of western Europe, tired of constant warfare and weary of permanent exploitation, longed to see the holy men of Cluny and hear them speak. Their sermons emphasized a true “theology of liberation”, one that aroused the peasantry and bourgeoisie not to rebellion, but to demands that the spoiled nobles of the age behave as Christian rulers. True, the language seems harsh, as in the words of St. Odo, Abbot of Cluny from 927-942: (2)

How are these robbers Christians, or what do they deserve who slay their brothers for whom they are commanded to lay down their lives?

You have only to study the books of antiquity to see that the most powerful are always the worst. Worldly nobility is due not to nature but to pride and ambition. If we judged by realities, we should give honor not to the rich for the fine clothes that they wear but to the poor who are the makers of such tings—for the banquets of the powerful are cooked in the sweat of the poor.

But its effect was a salutary one. Some feudal lords were sincerely chastened in spirit. Some were merely frightened by the countenance of these holy preachers. All were terrified by the power that they could wield if they had wanted to unleash it. Whatever the means by which their submission was obtained, many of these ferocious men were tamed. Those pacific movements known as the Truce of God and the Peace of God, movements which limited the times, places, and objects of warfare, were launched. Noblemen were obliged to take oaths to uphold them. Secular influence in Church affairs was considerably lessened as a result.

A third method through which the men of Cluny pursued their ends was by placing their federation of monasteries underneath the special protection of Saints Peter and Paul. This, in effect, meant placing it under the guidance of the Papacy in Rome. The Roman Pontiff’s prestige could still arouse an almost superstitious fear among the blood-stained nobles. His distant power could also be evoked as a healthy counterweight to the machinations of some local, corrupt, warlike bishop.

Herein, however, lay the difficulty. A movement of monastic reform that wished an end to all secular control of the Church saw the successors of St. Peter as its natural leaders. The problem was that the successors of St. Peter themselves were corrupt, secularized, and in desperate need of reform. A powerful and wealthy institution, the Papacy invited abuse by various Roman families anxious to increase their influence and property holdings. Such families found it to be an easy matter to manipulate papal elections. These were confirmed in St. Peter’s Square, where the Roman mob could approve or reprove a candidate through voice “vote”.

A full range of colorful, though vile characters were confirmed through the manipulation of this mob. One finds adolescent popes, popes who were strangled, dug from the grave, and tried for vicious crimes, popes whose every action was later declared to be invalid. Buying and selling of important positions, in the interests of the chief Roman Families, abounded. Women began to exercise influence over the throne of St. Peter. So much power did Marozia—daughter, mistress, and mother of popes--have that some authors have referred to the Papacy of the Tenth Century as a “pornocracy”. Its least interest appeared to be the world of religion.

The Clunaic reformers, once they became familiar with the condition of the Papacy, were aghast a what they saw. Indeed, they and their allies were tempted to revolt. Hence, the following statement at the Council of Saint Basle de Verzy in 991 (3):

Is it to such monsters, swollen with ignominy and devoid of all knowledge human or divine, that the innumerable priests of God throughout the world who are distinguished by their knowledge and virtues should lawfully be submitted?
Clearly, reformers opposed to such rebellion recognized, a renewal of the Church also required an urgent spiritual revival of the Papacy.

This revival, ironically, was accomplished precisely with the help of political interference in the affairs of the Church. It happens that the pacification of Europe during the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries was accompanied and directly aided by a renewed centralization of political power. The foundations of the French and English nations were very slowly being laid. Of more immediate importance, however, was a second “restoration” of the Roman Empire. This effort took place in the easternmost section of Charlemagne’s domains, the area now called Germany. When accomplished, under Otto the Great in 962, the curious entity known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was born.

Pious Emperors, like Henry II (1002-1024), believed that a purified Church was a natural complement to a strengthened Empire. A purified Church was dependent upon better bishops and popes. Clunaic-influenced and Clunaic-like clergy were called upon to assist in cleansing the Body of Christ. Emperors like Henry, recognizing the depth of the problem, paid little or no attention to canonical rules in achieving their ends. Thus, they even usurped the right to name the successors of St. Peter. The Emperor Henry III (1034-1056) placed three men on the papal throne—Clement II, Damascus II, and St. Louis IX—with the almost unanimous approval of the reformers. St. Peter Damien called such actions manifestations of Divine Providence, and compared the Emperor’s work to that of Christ driving the money-changers from the Temple. Reformers swelled the ranks of the German-Roman Emperors’ clerical entourage during visits to Italy. They, therefore, entered the service of his papal appointments, and cam to play a fruitful role at the center of Roman politics.

St. Leo IX (1049-1054) was, perhaps, the man most responsible for the revival of papal prestige and activity. It was due to his vigor, more than to that of any of his immediate predecessors, that the papacy really took charge of the reform movement. He was a pilgrim pope, traveling through much of western Europe, holding reform councils wherever he went, and encouraging the local population to express its discontent with secularized priests and bishops. He internationalized the Curia, enforced clerical celibacy, and sought a complete end to the buying and selling of Church appointments. So much did the Papacy become aware of itself again that it once more firmly demanded from the Patriarch of Constantinople the obedience due to the Supreme Head of the Church. In short, St. Leo IX gave the Papacy the sense of being responsible for a permanent movement of spiritual renewal.

A final step in the work of the Clunaic Reform took place during the reign of the Emperor Henry IV (1054-1106), who came to the throne as a child. Holy Roman Emperors were elected by a small number of important feudal lords, who sometimes became frightened by the potential power that these Caesars could wield. Such men, in one sense, were delighted to have a weak child on the imperial throne. The reformers in Rome were not. Holy Roman Emperors had been guiding the Papacy. Such guidance might now mean direction of the Church by German feudal lords. This is not what the Clunaic Reform intended. It had begun with an effort to curb the arrogance of just such nobles. The Holy Roman Emperors had been useful, temporarily, par accidens, in bringing the Papacy back to its senses. They might now become a new and more vicious means of secularization. The illegal interference of the Emperors had been a blessing for the Church in the extraordinary situation in which she had found herself, since that interference had been utilized to break an evil cycle of corruption. But it would be a mistake to institutionalize an extraordinary means of restoring a “child” to health, once it become a vigorous “adult”.

The Roman Curia dealt with the problem in 1059. It abolished the usurped imperial right to choose the pope. The Curia did not restore the influence of the Roman mob, which had misused its powers so much. Instead, it created the College of Cardinals, which was dominated by reformers, and granted it the privilege of naming the successors to St. Peter. The election of the arch-reformer Hildebrand as Pope St. Gregory VII in 1073, and the publication of his Dictatus papae several years later, demonstrated just how complete the papal declaration of independence announced by the creation of the College of Cardinals really was. The Dictatus papae, which clearly stated papal prerogatives in the life of Christendom, did not apologize for escaping from imperial control. It went in the opposite direction. St. Gregory VII claimed a papal right to dismiss political officials, from the Emperor on down, who did not fulfill their proper role as Christian rulers. One may question whether or not Pope Gregory VII’s efforts to break secular control over bishops were realistic, given the fact that prelates now had a long history of political involvement. Could an Emperor or King claim no right to have some say in the appointment of those who would be his chief advisors? One cannot deny, however, that his actions illustrated the Church’s “coming of age”, the rebirth of its sense of dignity and purpose.

The movement of reform of the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, a movement symbolized by the work of the Abbey of Cluny, was one of the most important in the history of the Church. It is also one of the most instructive. It demonstrates just how much Christian reform is built upon the drive towards personal sanctification. It indicates how deeply those who focus upon their personal sanctification meditate and act upon the problems of the world around them. It reveals how every movement of true Christian reform seeks to free the Church from the spirit of the times, and leads the Papacy to understand that it must direct the revival that began from below. And, finally, it shows that a reform concerned with sanctification, a reform that it firm, fearless, and unimpressed by the stupidities of the world, can end in the creation of a superior culture. For the Church that was cleansed through the medium of the Clunaic Reform went forward to preside, for two hundred years and more, over one of the most brilliant flowerings of the human spirit since the beginning of time.

(1) Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York: Doubleday, 1991 edition), pp. 120-121.

(2) Ibid., p. 123.

(3) Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe (New York: Meridian Books, 1970), pp.

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