Monastic Wales.

Who were the Cluniacs?

Christopher Pearce

Cluniac monasticism originated in the year 910 with the foundation of the abbey of Cluny in Burgundy. The lives of the monks there were governed by a set of rules or customs based on the Rule of St Benedict but modified by the incorporation of additional statutes. These permitted a closer prescription of the daily routine of monastic observance as well as increasing the quantity and elaboration of its liturgical content. Cluniac monks did not participate in conventional manual labour that had previously formed a component of monastic life, as dictated by the Rule of St Benedict. Indeed, they even thought it inappropriate that monks should dirty their hands in this way. Peter the Venerable (d. 1156), who was abbot of Cluny, remarked that it was unbecoming for monks, 'the fine linen of the sanctuary', to be begrimed in dirt and bent over labouring. In Cluniac houses other elements of their monastic observance - such as the copying of manuscripts - were considered to fulfil the work requirement of the Benedictine Rule.

Successive abbots of Cluny were invited to introduce this reformed observance to other existing monasteries. Initially no constitutional relationship existed between the abbot of Cluny and monasteries reformed in this way, but subsequently the majority of these reformed foundations became incorporated within a Cluniac congregation. This ultimately numbered some two thousand foundations distributed throughout France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, England, Wales and Scotland; and Cluny was augmented as a result of the establishment of new foundations.

Thirty-three new Cluniac priories of varying size were founded in England and Wales, beginning with the foundation of Lewes Priory, Sussex, in 1077. This constituted the largest number of Cluniac foundations in any country outside France. In principle all Cluniac monks benefited from papal protection, as well as immunity from secular and ecclesiastical interference, privileges that had initially been granted to the abbey of Cluny but were subsequently extended to all Cluniac monks wherever they might be. Each foundation was made dependent on another Cluniac foundation which was responsible for providing the monastic community and appointing its priors, as well as overseeing the general administration of the house. In acknowledgment of this relationship the dependent foundation usually paid an annual sum of money [apport] to the foundation on which it had been made dependent. This form of delegated administration was tested by visitations carried out by official delegates of the abbot of Cluny. The prior of each foundation was expected to attend a General Chapter at the abbey of Cluny every three years. In the thirteenth century this obligation only applied to priors of foundations directly dependent on the Cluny and the priors of other foundations attended their own Chapters at the foundation on which they had been made dependent. These Chapters facilitated the transmission of modifications to Cluniac monastic observance and offered a chance to correct any breaches of monastic observance which had been reported by the abbot of Cluny's official delegates.
The nature and purpose of the organisational relationship amongst Cluniac foundations remains poorly understood. My current PhD thesis is investigating this in relation to the Cluniac foundations in England and Wales and argues that Cluniac monastic organisation functioned as an extended monastic community. It was headed by the abbot of Cluny whose task was to transmit this reformed monastic observance and ensure it was upheld. Two Cluniac priories were established in Wales, Malpas Priory in Gwent - about one and a half miles north of Newport - and St Clears Priory in Carmarthenshire, about seven miles south-west of Carmarthen.
Read more about the Cluniacs in Wales.

Monastic sites related to this article

Malpas, Newport(Priory)
St Clears, Carmarthenshire(Priory)