2010 was a momentous year in French monastic history because it marked the 1100th anniversary of the founding of the abbey of Cluny by Duke William I of Aquitaine in 910. On the eve of this anniversary, a careful listener could hear the gears of scholarly industry grind into motion in preparation for a year of commemorative events that hailed Cluny's incomparable contribution to medieval European culture. There followed in slow procession the obligatory large format, heavily illustrated publications that commemorated the commemorations. For this occasion of patrimonial pride, the French spared no expense. First came the massive Cluny 910-2010: Onze siècles de rayonnement edited by Neil Stratford and others, which accompanied a major exhibition at Cluny. Published in the summer of 2010, this catalogue is a gorgeous confection of learned micro-studies of many different aspects of Cluniac monasticism adorned with beautiful reproductions of manuscript pages and pieces of sculpture. Arriving slightly later on the scene and reflecting two colloquia held at Romainmôtier and Cluny in 2010 is the volume under review. In many ways, Cluny: Les moines et la société au premier âge féodal serves the same purpose as Stratford's volume: it is a handsomely produced omnium gatherum of state-of-the-question articles on the history of Cluny that will find its place in tourist-oriented bookstores in Burgundy and elsewhere in France.  But in an effort to distinguish their enterprise from Stratford's, the editors have narrowed the focus of their commemoration to Cluny in "the first feudal age" (880-1050) with a nod toward the interaction of monks with the secular society. The result is a narrowly specialized commemoration of the earliest history of Cluniac monasticism that will appeal specifically--and probably exclusively--to historians of the central Middle Ages.
This book is a sprawling production, comprising thirty-six short articles in French organized into three broad thematic sections, each with several specific subsections. After two brief "ouvertures" (discussed below), the first part of the book treats topics related to the practical, conceptual, and artistic influence of Cluniac monasticism on the institutional church from the late Carolingian period to the age of the Gregorian reform. Several articles discuss the relationships and rivalries that existed between communities of monks and canons, as well as bishops, particularly in urban settings. A section on reform monasticism between "cult" and "culture" features articles on the creation of documents of practice, the Cluniac liturgy, and a long study of early musical notation in monastic manuscripts. Visual representation is the topic of the next section, with treatments of book illuminations and wall paintings, among other media. The second part of the book examines the relationships between monks and laymen. It begins with a welcome essay by Régine Le Jan on the political role of women as monastic founders in the late Carolingian period ("La fondation de Cluny, le genre et le premier âge féodal"), a topic too often overlooked in Cluniac scholarship. Other articles in this section treat more traditional subjects like land- holding, political and spiritual alliances, and the relationship of Cluny with the kings of Burgundy. Many of the polychrome maps that accompany these studies are stunning, as are the photographs of the remains of several early eleventh-century castra relevant to some of the papers (see, for example, p. 363, ill. 13). The third and final part of the book considers Cluny in the context of monumental building in the tenth and eleventh centuries. In these sections, well rendered architectural plans and photographs of existing buildings wrestle with the text on nearly every page in articles about modes of construction, elite dwellings, recent news on archaeological excavations of Cluniac buildings, and the role of monumental architecture in the process of monastic reform.
For the most part, these articles are useful, though at times very technical, introductions to their respective topics. The repeated use of qualifying subtitles like "quelques propositions," "quelques réflexions," "problématique de la recherche," and "nouvelles perspectives de recherche," gives the reader a sense of the tenor of the entire collection: many of the articles are exploratory and suggestive; none of them is comprehensive. Moreover, for all of its length, this collection does not have the width that one would expect from a collection of nearly forty articles on Cluny in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Literary activity, especially the production of hagiography and monastic poetry, which were both well represented during the abbacy of Odo (927-942), receives very little attention here. This is unfortunate, as Odo's Life of Gerald of Aurillac spoke directly to the sins of the very same aristocratic circles that the abbot had abandoned for the cloister.
This collection (along with its companion volume cited in n. 1 below) is an important addition to the libraries of Cluniac historians. The breadth of general topics covered therein (history, art history, architecture, manuscript studies) will make it an attractive purchase for research universities, in no small part because the price is very reasonable for so large a book. The editors' use of the term "premier âge féodal" deserves a final comment. The phrase immediately brings to mind the first volume of Marc Bloch's La société féodale, which first appeared in 1939 and has been the subject of much debate in French, German and English scholarship.  As the two introductory essays in the volume make clear, however, Bloch was not particularly interested in monasticism, but he did a great deal to popularize the period between 900 and 1050 as a distinctive era in European society characterized by social relationships and hierarchies of power in which abbeys played an important role. By adopting Bloch's terminology, the editors are not attempting to forward his arguments about feudalism or to stake a claim in the recent debates about its legacy. Rather, they are tapping into the popular French association of the "premier âge féodal" as the period in which Cluny ascended from obscurity to great influence in western Europe.
1. As a pendant to this volume, the University of Rennes has simultaneously published Cluny après Cluny: Constructions, reconstructions et commémorations, 1790-2010, edited by Didier Méhu.
2. For an introduction to the problem of the definition of "feudalism" with a heavy emphasis on English-language scholarship, see Richard Abels, "The Historiography of a Construct: 'Feudalism' and the Medieval Historian," History Compass 7 (2009): 1008-1031.