Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire by Edwin Mullins

Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire by Edwin Mullins is the fourth book I’ve read for the Dewey Decimal Challenge though I’m still in the 200’s. The 200’s are all about religion with a tight focus on actual religious texts, so it was a little hard for me to find something this time around. Cluny: in Search of God’s Lost Empire promised to tell the story of one of the largest empires in Medieval Europe, now largely forgotten. Sounded interesting to me.

I knew of the Cluny only as the location of a wonderful collection of Medieval art in Paris. (If you ever get a chance to visit, you really should.) The Paris Cluny was built very late in the story. The Cluny Abbey lies farther south and was once the largest church in the world as well as the seat of the most powerful abbot in Europe, some would argue he was more powerful than the Pope.
The Cluny monastery began as part of a reform movement within the church during the 10th century. Their order had the very good fortune to receive a grant of land that specifically placed them outside the existing feudal system. Their order would owe fealty to no lord but God. They received similar status from the Vatican, so they were free to grow their order without interference from anyone. This was not easy to do at first, since the existing Bishops were very jealous of the Cluny’s special status and worked openly against them. But the monks of the Cluny were true to their faith and true to the monastic ideals set down by Saint Benedict which inspired many lords to grant them land and to support them through donations. The lords themselves often ended their lives by joining the Cluny as monks.

During the 11th century the Cluny was led by only two abbots who remained in power for over 50 years each. One of these was Hugh who became a major power broker in the struggle between the church and the kings of Europe over the question of lay investiture. Unless you have been a seventh grade student in California during the last ten years, you may not know about this struggle. (Even if you were, you’ve probably forgotten all about it.) But the question of who would appoint bishops was the major controversy in the struggle over who would rule Medieval Europe, the church or the state. The debate led to the excommunication of the Holy Roman Emperor, to the forced removal of the Pope, the sacking of Rome, and to a schism within the church that left Europe with two rival Popes, one in Italy and one in France. Because the Cluny was seen as free of corruption, as true to its religious calling, Abbot Hugh was able to negotiate a truce between the Pope and the renegade Emperor, which eventually gave the church the sole ability to appoint bishops and led to the separation of church and state. It also led many more people to give the Cluny land and other forms of support which made the Cluny the largest land holder in Europe.

But things change. The Franciscan orders, which promoted the idea that monks should be engaged with the world through charitable works instead of living cloistered lives, came along and reduced the popularity and influence of the Cluny. The order eventually became known not for its religious faith but for the lavish lifestyles of its members. It was during this period that the structures in Paris were built as home for the abbot who soon moved there permanently. Eventually the French revolution came along, disbanded the order completely, and used the great abbey church as a stone quarry for new construction. Only a small portion of it, seen in the photograph pictured here, remains.
Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire provides a good overview of the Cluny’s history. As a general survey of history, it’s a good book. However, it does not go into great depth like many other histories I’ve read. We get to know the major players, like Abbot Hugh, but there is a dearth of minor ones, the smaller roles that can help bring a history to life. I was expecting more information than I got. This, of course, may be the result of what has been lost over time or any number of things beyond the author’s control, but at just over 200 pages one feels that there must be more to say.


This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  I’m re-running it here as part of Non-fiction November.  C.J. and I will be visiting New York next week, to celebrate Thanksgivingwith family and to see the parade. While there we will visit The Cloisters museum of Medieval art, the next best thing to visiting the Cluny in Paris.  We visit The Cloisters every time we go to New York.  It’s C.J.’s favorite museum.

4 thoughts on “Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire by Edwin Mullins

  1. I enjoyed your review. I used to know someone with the last name of Cluny, and never thought much about where it might have come from, but I suspect there’s a clue here.

    I don’t know if this will be of interest to you, but I just laughed and laughed when I saw it. You might already have seen it, but it’s one bunch of clever librarians. It’s All About That Book.

    1. That was a fun video. Thanks. Librarians are really a fund bunch of people. Have you ever seen the videos of the book cart drill team competition at the national library conference. Look them up, they are a kick.

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