Dom Lucien-Jean Bord, osb,
Abbey of Ligugé (France)

Dom Lucien-Jean traces the main points of the formation of monastic groups in the monastic history of the West. He shows how the notion of an Order in monastic life arose and underlines the influences which led to it, such as the reforms of St Benedict of Aniane, of Cluny and of Cîteaux, and several others up to the modern era.

BordPrimitive monastic Rules considered each monastery as an entity for itself, independent of other cenobitic establishments.[1] The rule of St Benedict shares this conception and, even if the word congregatio occurs several times,[2] it must be understood in its most obvious sense,[3] as a synonym of community.[4] In any case, this is not unique to the Benedictine Rule, and the overwhelming majority of the sources, both monastic and canonical, allows us to assume this early autonomy of each community, which Cosimo Fonseca describes as ‘a more or less complete and definite microcosm’.[5]

This neither rules out nor hinders the existence of close links between several monasteries or communities of Canons at a more profound level than merely good relationships. We take as an example chapter 64 of the Rule of St Benedict which, in the case of the election of an unworthy abbot, envisages the intervention of neighbouring abbots (jointly with that of the bishop) to counter this plotting of the wicked. In the context of primitive Benedictine monasticism this simple phrase can be understood as a sort of guarantee. Nevertheless, it indicates a sort of relationship which will be called upon to assume more and more importance. It is the text which will form the basis of the custom, introduced in the tenth century, of consultations between abbot of the same territory to discuss common interests and business.

In order to see how, from this informal basis, the idea of structured monastic or canonical groupings appears and then develops around a principal establishment we must refer to the great reform wrought by the Synod of Inden/Kornelimünster (816/7), the Capitulare monasticum of Aix-la-Chapelle (817) and the Regula Benedicti Abbatis Anianensis (818/9).[6]

benoit_d_anianeThe personality of Benedict of Aniane, since 814 the principal advisor of Louis the Pious, exerted its influence on the imperial decrees of the Renovatio regni Francorum which in their application to monks sought essentially the uniformity of monastic life within the Empire. This was already remarkable, but one should see nothing more in it than that. The reform initiated by the abbot of Aniane is presented as a voluntary acceptance, by a certain number of Benedictine communities, not only of the Rule of Benedict but of customs instituted by him in his abbey, without necessarily modifying the various juridical frameworks in which the monasteries stood at this time.[7] It has been questioned why the abbot of Aniane did not go further and lay the foundations of a Benedictine Congregation (in the sense which we give to this term), but limited himself to registering the monasteries which enjoyed imperial or Episcopal privilege, thus guaranteeing the observance of the ‘restored’ Benedictine Rule,[8] but leaving them complete autonomy. The question seems to us hardly relevant, for a change so radical could have fitted in only to a social and political framework which did not exist in the ninth century.

Nevertheless, we are in the presence of a new stage in the establishment of a ‘monastic mesh’ less independent in the West, all the more so because the reform of Louis the Pious envisages the existence of monastic organisms more complex than an isolated monastery functioning rather like a Carolingian villa. It is a matter of the extension of the jurisdiction of an abbey over its foundations by affiliatio, the cellae and obedientiae set up at a distance from the monastery to open out and put to good use the agricultural land, originally occupied by one or two monks.[9] These establishments, originally quite modest, were called to be enlarged and would soon receive the name praepositurae, which from the eleventh century would be replaced by prioratus. This marked a new phase in the development of the monastic landscape. It should be noted that this evolution into Priories corresponds to an intense movement of donations to abbeys of land and of churches and their rights.

Another factor in the establishment of grouping round a large monastic centre consists, especially in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in traditio, donatio or recommandatio. These three terms denote the same reality, that of pre-existing monasteries entering almost completely into the sphere of influence of a great abbey. The abbey then acquired, with regard to the monastery thus attached, rights of visitation and correction which could go as far as the removal of a superior considered incapable or unworthy, as well as oversight of the abbatial election.[10] This practice, which applies not only to monasteries but also to houses of Canons, is inescapably reminiscent of the way in which the Cluniac network was established.

clunyThe tenth century, which sees the foundation of Cluny (909/10) works with a type of general ordo monasticus in which the modern notion of an Order is still unknown. For Cluny it is the time of a sort of federal network, a system which in any case continues till the end of the eleventh century with the special case of the Grande Chartreuse, which its founder, Bruno, considered unique.[11] Furthermore, at this moment in history the Grande Chartreuse constituted virtually an anachronism, since the eleventh century was an age of rationalisation and diversification, leading to a new conception of the term ordo with the appearance of diversified ordines.[12] For Cluny it is a new stage which includes the establishment of a centralised network.[13]

The twelfth century saw the establishment of proper structures, grouping together several foundations. As far as concerns monastic establishments, two models were used, which would long prevail. On the one hand the absolute centralisation of Cluny, which has rightly been described as one vast community in several houses, on the other hand the Cistercian reform, which by means of the Charta caritatis instituted a via media between absolute independence and the centralism of an Order. The Cistercian novelty consisted essentially in a half-way house between the single chain of command characteristic of an Order to the relative autonomy of different abbeys. The Abbot of Cîteaux is not a sole abbot, but, even if he presides over the general chapter, he is primus inter pares among the abbots of La Ferté, Pontigny, Clairvaux and Morimond, the mother-houses of all later foundations.[14]

At the same time canonical movements were undergoing an equivalent evolution. Although each house enjoyed absolute independence, which is attested both by the Regula of Chrodegang (before 766) and by the Institutio canonicorum Aquisgranensis (817), the end of the eleventh century and the twelfth century saw the evolution of a tendency in a variety of canonical units to establish large, complex organisations[15], which would find their definitive expression in the Congregations of Regular Canons.[16]

The appearance and very rapid expansion of the mendicant Orders in the thirteenth century was not without influence on monastic and canonical networks, often leading to profound re-thinking and, in some circles, to a desire for reform. This would be reinforced by difficulties of western society in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: the great schism, wars, plague. The end of the Middle Ages brought a recrudescence of tensions and even of internal break-up of networks or monasteries, with all the divisions and re-formations which this entails. The same divisive process would occur in the choices faced by individual monks and Canons confronted by the Protestant Reformation of the next century.

We have presented a rapid sketch of the principle movements which over six centuries led from the absolute independence of each religious house to integration into centralized and hierarchic structures. This did not occur in despite of society, nor without the pressure of events and of the evolution of western civilisation. It is now our task to investigate how geographical, political, institutional and human factors played their part in this process of maturing over the centuries.

If at the beginning each monastic or canonical foundation occurred in a limited space, that of the foundation and its first basic donations in the immediate vicinity, geographical expansion followed rapidly through the generosity of more distant donors and by the aggregation of already-existing communities. Early developments generally followed the great axes of communication (especially rivers), but before long the addition of monasteries and distant bequests superseded this pattern. Geographical expansion, an obvious factor in the acceleration of the formation of religious networks, occasioned also the evolution of complex structures, as in the case of Cistercian foundations made by Las Huelgas in Spain[17]. The excessive distance prevented the Abbot of Cîteaux from exercising his task of regulation and control. Such irregularities followed that it became necessary to create intermediate layers in the general chapter, provinces, and Abbot Visitors.

Beyond the static points represented on the map by medieval monastic foundations, movement between these varied establishments should also be taken into account. It was helped or hindered by the contours, the presence or absence of waterways, roads or tracks, factors which either allowed considerable expansion or, on the contrary, restricted it to a limited area.[18] Human geography also played a not inconsiderable role in the composition of these networks. Not only cultural, particularly linguistic, groupings, but also the attraction of university circles, especially for the orders of Canons and then for the mendicant Orders from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By contrast there were islands of deliberately shared identity like the Charterhouse of Gdansk, which retained the German language right up to its destruction at the time of the Reformation, or the Cistercian monasteries of Hungary, peopled by French-speakers who perpetuated the traditions of the founders.

As regards political influence, this expression must not be understood in the modern and contemporary sense. Still less should one see any direct influence on the religious situation. It is more a matter of the action of networks of power, at first feudal and then progressively the emergence of larger territorial entities. A territorial nobleman, especially if he happens to be of high rank, owns many possessions, not contiguous and possibly quite distant from one another. On the one hand the donations made to any particular abbey would reflect this, leading to the creation of a widespread network of properties; on the other hand the problems of governance thus engendered would have had considerable influence on the planning of abbots and chapters faced with the difficulties posed by multiplication of dependencies and distant foundations. The resultant solutions had, in their turn, an effect on civil society, for such religious networks had been tried out and set up well before secular powers arrived at the practice of institutional centralisation.

The influence of secular ecclesiastical power, especially that of bishops who helped the creation of regular networks (in order eventually to make use of them), and of papal power[19] which favoured the evolution of Orders, play an equally important part in the various centralising enterprises which occur from the eleventh century onwards. The same is true of the relationship between religious and the power of princes. The relationship began very early, with Louis the Pious and Benedict of Aniane, but above all took on a new dimension at the end of the eleventh and in the twelfth centuries. Monks and Canons inevitably needed the support of the prince, but this need was reciprocal,[20] and the interests of government go in the direction of centralized structures, with which dialogue (and in some cases control) is easier. But the action of the civil power can also have a destructive effect on religious networks, as in the case of the rivalries aroused by the struggle between Priesthood and Empire from the middle of the twelfth to the middle of the thirteenth centuries.

All this contributes to the transformation of the institutional element: a network is formed on the basis of shared customs and rules. Either inspiration will come from an existing model by adaptation and extension[21] or recent customs will be codified, as in the case of Guigo for the Grande Charteuse. One point rapidly emerges from all these approaches, the need for the existence of a centre, an abbot or mother-abbey with more or less effective control of the general chapter. Of course abbots and priors of peripheral establishments depend on this centre, but they equally participate in it by their presence at the general chapter (obligatory at Cîteaux[22]) which also appoints Visitors of the various houses and provinces of the Order. We witness from the eleventh to the thirteenth century the development of a monastic or canonical procedure which will be magisterially confirmed in the twelfth canon of the fourth Lateran Council (1215). This legislated for the holding of general chapters in religious Orders which had no custom of holding them: what had been an exception, then a practice, now became a norm.

groupeHowever, abbeys, houses of Canons and the first Congregations are not immaterial entities or simple administrative machines; they are composed of men and women who join a religious project because it corresponds to their expectations, because the charism of the foundation corresponds to their requirements, because the spirituality practised is theirs. This is true not only of the first companions of a founder[23] but for the whole history of an abbey or an Order. For this reason one may assume that the creation of a network and the process which will lead to an Order should be the product of both a social and a personal evolution. Of course the human element constituted by monks as a body may also lead to the creation or integration of a network which opposes this. A classic example is Cadouin, whose founder, Géraud de Salles (died 1141), was in favour of incorporation into Cîteaux (1119), while his monks opposed this on the grounds of their specific charism which demanded a mitigated way of life based on exact observance of the Rule of St Benedict without adoption of the customs of Cîteaux.[24]

Entry to a network (and then into an Order) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries does not have the same human implications as entry into an isolated abbey in the eighth or ninth centuries. Awareness of belonging to a limited group is exchanged for that of being part of a larger ensemble, which goes on growing larger and sometimes goes beyond the political and social divisions of the time. Cultic, liturgical and intellectual practices come to be shared despite the distance which separates communities, tending to a uniformity which will become apparent in the fifteenth century.[25] Customs conform to a model common to the Order and are, in this respect, at least as important for the consolidation of a monastic or canonical network as the juridical or material arrangements. A good example of this evolution of mentalities may be seen in the structure of links between religious and their superiors or their fellows. As Christian Lauranson- Rosaz has shown for Languedoc,[26] the personal relationship of a founder to his direct inheritance or to his successor, which lasted through to the tenth century, loosens progressively after this. It does not disappear, but rests on a more juridical system of dependence, passing from a personal to a structural network. This is not specific to religious, but reflects current social changes.

The influence of such changes should not be underestimated. We take as an example the impact of the progress of urbanization and the increasing influence from the fourteenth century onwards of urban powers on an Order as ‘rural’ as the Carthusians. While a century earlier such an evolution would have been unthinkable, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw a vital change to the Carthusian network in the ever-increasing positioning of Charterhouses at the gate of towns or even within them. The same is true for houses of Canons and even for monastic Orders, which maintained urban houses both for the needs of their administration and to allow their students to attend universities.

The modern era, which opens with a profound crisis in the Church, one of whose expressions was the Reformation, could not be expected to spare religious networks. They disappeared totally in some countries, such as northern Germany, Scandinavia and England. Elsewhere their effectiveness was attenuated by leakage or by lack of recruits. It was necessary to wait for the effects of the Council of Trent – and they were not immediate effects – to see a renewal of religious and especially of monastic life in the seventeenth century (e.g. the Congregation of St Vanne and St Hydulphe, the Congregation of Saint-Maur). But this revival was not longlived, since the eighteenth century produced another diminution, the result of scepticism and the action of certain political powers (such as Josephism) which reached their high point with the violent suppressions and persecutions sparked by the French Revolution. The nineteenth century would see the re-establishment of the ancient Orders and, above all, the explosion of new women’s religious congregations which answered to the needs of society in the spheres of education and care.

We can mention only rapidly the four centuries from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, for a detailed study is not our purpose[27]. But we cannot end without pointing out that on every occasion when monastic or canonical Congregations were in difficulty and on the verge of disappearing, their restoration followed the model of networks. We use the word ‘model’ for, especially after the French Revolution and Empire, most of the religious networks had disappeared. Their re-constitution in the nineteenth century was more a new construction on the basis of an old idea than an identical copy of what existed before the break at the end of the eighteenth century. This was especially the case because the romanticism of the time envisaged a Utopia of an idealized Middle Ages.

We should stress two points. Firstly, the importance of monastic and canonical networks at the end of the Middle Ages meant that they played an important part in the Protestant Reformation and later in the Catholic Counter-Reformation, making significant contributions to the birth of the former and still more to the success of the latter. Secondly – and this is certainly the more important - through the territorial interchange which they effected, by the contacts they effected between diverse regions of Europe, by their traditional role as guardians of knowledge they provided an essential impetus for the circulation of ideas in medieval intellectual life, establishing, well before the term was invented, an international treasury of science.

[1] Cf. V. Desprez, Règles monastiques d’Occident, IV-VI siècle, d’Augustin à Ferréol. (Vie monastique, 69), Bégrolles-en-Mauge, 1980. A. De Voguë, Les Règles des saints Pères (Sources Chrétiennes, 297-298), 2 vol., Paris, 1982.

[2] RB 3.1; 4.7; 31.1, 3; 35.4-5; 46.3; 53.13; 58.14, 22-23; 61.8; 62.6; 64.1, 14 and chapter 63.

[3] The verb congrego originally means to assemble a flock of sheep, and the word congregatio means an assembly of people. It is the term chosen by the Vulgate to translate Exodus 16.2.

[4] The Regula canonicorum of Chrodegang of Metz (who died in 766) uses the word for the community of Canons of Metz. Also the De vita contemplativa of Pseudo-Prosper (Julian Pomerus, before 500) uses it of clerics who come to live together.

[5] C.D. Fonseca, ‘Typologie des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux des origines au 12e siècle’ in Naissance et fonctionnement des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux (CERCOR, Travaux et recherches, 1), Saint-Etienne, 1991, p. 11-20.

[6] On Benedict of Aniane and the reform of 816-819, see J Semmler ‘Réforme bénédictine et privilège impérial. Les monastères autour de saint Benoit d’Aniane’ in Naissance et fonctionnement des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux, op. cit., p. 20-32 ; P. Skubiszewski, ‘Benedetto di Aniane, santo’ in Enciclopedia dell’Arte Medievale, III, Rome, 1992, p. 359-361.

[7] The Bishops of Orleans and Lyons, the Abbot of St Martin of Tours, and the emperor himself did not envisage relaxing the juridical links of Saint-Mesmin, Micy, Ile-Barbe, Cormery or Massay to allow them a more extensive collaboration with Aniane.

[8] Cf. J. Semmler, ‘Iussit...princeps renovare...praecepta’ in Consuetudines monasticae. Eine Festgabe für Kassius Hallinger aus Anlass seines 70. Geburtstages, (Studia Anselmiana, 85), Rome, 1982, p. 111-114.

[9] The Capitulare monasticum of Aix-la-Chapelle, promulgated in 817, required a minimum of six monks.

[10] When the election was left to the chapter of the aggregated abbey, the elected superior had to be confirmed by the abbot of the leading abbey and must swear obedience to him.

[11] It is only in the twelfth century that, thanks to the action of Guigo, the codification of previous usages began and a special monastic network came into being.

[12] Cf. K. Elm, ‘Réseaux monastiques, pouvoirs et société’, in Naissance et fonctionnement des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux, op. cit., p. 37-40.

[13] Cf. M. Pacaut, ‘Structures monastiques, société et église en Occident aux XI et XII siècles’, Cahiers d’Histoire, 1975, p. 11-23.

[14] On the history of the first years of the Cistercians, cf. J-B. Mahn, L’Ordre cistercien et son gouvernement des origines au milieu du XIII siècle (1098-1265), (Bibliothèque des Ecoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, 161), Paris, 1945). B.K. Lackner, The Eleventh Century Background of Cîteaux, Washington, 1972. M Pacaut, Les moines blancs. Histoire de l’ordre de Cîteaux, Paris, 1993.

[15] An important aspect of the way the network of Canons was put in place is the influence of the Cistercian Charta caritatis, whose spread, thanks to Bernard of Clairvaux, was truly extraordinary. The case of Premontré speaks volumes since, because of the relationship between Bernard and Norbert, the Statuta antiquissima are in fact a résumé of the Charta caritatis.

[16] Cf. La vita commune del clero nei secoli XI e XII. Atti della settimana di studio, Mendola, settembre 1959, 2 vol., Milan, 1962. J. Becquet, Vie canoniale en France aux X-XII siècles, London, 1985.

[17] Cf. J. M. Lizoain Garrido, Documentacion del monastero de Las Huelgas Reales de Burgos, (Fuentes medievales castellano-leonesas, 30-31) 2 vol., Burgos, 1985.

[18] This was the case in their early days for the Grande Chartreuse and for Chalais, locked in by the massive mountains of the Alps.

[19] In this connection the action of Benedict XII in the early fourteenth century should be mentioned (cf. P. Racinet, ‘Le réforme de Benoit XII et la situation des monastères bénédictins au nord de la Loire dans la première moitié du XIV siècle’ in Naissance et fonctionnement des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux, op. cit., p. 551-592).

[20] In this matter the Crusades are revealing: one need only look at the relationships between Baudouin I and the Latin monks (cf. A Grabois, ‘Le monachisme latin dans le royaume de Jérusalem: impact politique et encadrement réligieux’ in Naissance et fonctionnement des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux, op.cit., p. 425-435).

[21] This is the case of the reform of Gerard de Brogne, which refers explicitly to the customs of Saint-Denis (cf. D. Misonne, ‘Gérard de Brogne et son réseau monastique’ in Naissance et fonctionnement des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux, op. cit., p. 117-123).

[22] There is a sanction for any unjustified absence : only sickness or excessive distance can dispense from attendance, and even so a sick abbot had to send a suitable messenger not to represent him but to present his excuses.

[23] This term ‘founder’ must be understood loosely and applied only to the establishment of origin. Gérald Chaix and Pierre Vial write in this connection, ‘Till the tenth and eleventh centuries a founder is hardly concerned with founding an Order, and rightly so, for the notion does not yet exist. Such is the case of a Gérard de Brogne, a William of Dijon, or even apparently of Bruno. Hence the phenomenon which one might call a double founder, Guigo for Bruno, Hugues de Fosses for Norbert, Ponce de Layrac for the Antonines. There has even been mention of pseudofounders.’ (G. Chaix and P. Vial, ‘Naissance et fonctionnement des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux. Conclusions’ in Naissance et fonctionnement des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux, op. cit., p. 807-820).

[24] Cf. G. Delluc, B. Delluc and J. Secret, Cadouin, une aventure cistercienne en Périgord, Le Bugue, 1990.

[25] Among the Antonines, for example, from 1478 onwards the canonical hours were to be celebrated in the same way as at Saint-Antoine.

[26] Cf. C. Lauranson-Rosaz, ‘Réseaux aristocratiques et pouvoir monastique dans le Midi aquitain du IX au XI siècle’, in Naissance et fonctionnement des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux, op. cit., p. 353-372.

[27] On this subject see G. Michaux, ‘Les nouveaux réseaux monastiques à l’époque moderne’ in Naissance et fonctionnement des réseaux monastiques et canoniaux, op. cit., p. 603-623.