Cluny – October 2 2013

Cluny today from end to end
Cluny today, from end to end

Cluny breaks your heart – at least it breaks mine. Traveling around France you become accustomed to seeing the destruction visited on Cathedrals, Churches, Abbeys and religious artifacts during the French Revolution (1789-1799), but in my view nothing compares with the loss of this once magnificent architectural and spiritual marvel of Medieval Europe, the greatest Abbey in western Christendom and Motherhouse of the Benedictine order. Little remains today of the glory that was Cluny, although you can still see the foundations extending from the remaining towers and running for nearly quarter of a mile parallel to the market square and streets of present day Cluny (now in part the site of the lovely little hotel de la Bourgogne.)

Cluny nave (all that remains of it)
Cluny nave (all that remains of it)

What is left of the Abbey however is still worth visiting and you can get a sense of what it must have been like in its hey day (12th-14th century) by watching an excellent 3D video that reconstructs the various stages of the Abbey’s development. Nice to know that it was thanks to an American, Kenneth John Conant, whose lifetime of dedication to restoring the Abbey in the 1920s has given us what we have today – and the work continues. I could go on about Cluny, but if you are interested in the story of this amazing place I encourage you check out the various websites devoted to different aspects of the Abbey’s history.

Cluny AbbeyFor my purposes, and the novel, I just wanted to check out a few details, especially what the Abbey was like in 1146, when Rohan literally stumbled across the charismatic Piers de Charny in the bathhouse of monastery’s guest quarters! Well, was there a bathhouse in 1146? We do know that there were extensive guest quarters at Cluny, as there were in most monasteries of the day, hospitality being an important part of the Benedictine charism. Everyone, however, seems very skeptical about the hygiene of 12th century people, and OK we probably wouldn’t feature any of these folk in a deodorant ad today. But people did wash – and brush their teeth: in fact, if you didn’t get your teeth knocked out in some brawl or battle, chances were that those remaining would be far more cavity-free than most people’s are today – no refined sugar. Plus most meat was pretty tough so there was a real incentive to hold on to your choppers. As for bathhouses and what they were like in the 12th century, that’s a bit unclear, though by the 14th century there is plenty of evidence that such places existed for both men and women – though one has to admit it wasn’t until the 20th century that we got even close to Roman standards in these matters, as in much else.

Model of Cluny III (12th C.)
Model of 12th Century Cluny

The guest accommodations at Cluny were divided into those for visiting dignitaries and those for the “riff raff” or common folk, ordinary pilgrims and travelers. But as Cluny was a destination for the rich and powerful, it seems fair to assume that a place of such wealth would not stint on any comfort they could provide the distinguished dusty and weary traveler. We know there was a place designated as the monks “lavabo” (presumably washing facilities as well as latrines) and so I feel confident there was a similar, and certainly finer, facility for distinguished guests (and even for less distinguished ones who happened to stumble upon them as did our hero!). I am equally confident that none of us would wish to perform our ablutions in such a place, but let’s not go there yet – the 12th century takes a bit of getting used to!

Raising our sights somewhere above the plumbing level, we discover in Cluny (as at its great Cistercian counter part, Fontenay, some 200 kilometers further north) a remarkable testament to the genius of medieval monastic architecture as it flowed from Romanesque into Gothic over a period of three centuries. In “a world lit only by fire,”* these places offered uniquely a sanctuary of light, peace, and hope for a better life, while holding fast to the tenuous thread of literacy that ran from ancient times into the world of early medieval Europe.

* William Manchester

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