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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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4. Monastic Reform. In the long evolution of the
monastic ideal, the theme reformata reformanda, things
reformed must be reformed again, recurred constantly.
With its hermitic and cenobitic antecedents, monasti-
cism developed in the East, but received a unique
direction in the West. The monks withdrew from soci-
ety not only because it was easier to live a more perfect
ascetic life, but because there they could in isolation
anticipate the perfect life of devotion to God which
would ultimately be consummated in heaven. In the
West Saint Benedict linked monasticism with labor and
made of it a most valuable instrument of social and
economic progress. The glorification of work, however,
had a subversive by-product, for remunerative toil
produced wealth and no rules or regulations devised
by the order could prevent the monks from enjoying
the fruits of their labors. The passion for solitude, the
desire to reform monasticism by a return to primitive
poverty, drove the Benedictines into remote regions
and dense forests, but a few generations later the her-
mitage had become a crowded monastery surrounded
by serfs and tenants. For eight hundred years the
monastic tide rose and fell, with reformation followed
by decadence and a new effort at reconstruction
(Workman, 1918).

The first of the great Benedictine reforms was inau-
gurated by Benedict of Aniane, the “second founder”
of Western monasticism. A narrow escape from
drowning while serving as a soldier in Italy under
Charlemagne led him to enter the monastery of St.
Seine in Burgundy. He found the monasteries in a
deplorable condition, lands alienated to laymen, domi-
nation by cruel superiors, and disorder everywhere. He
withdrew to an isolated gorge on the Aniane in
Aquitaine and soon established a reputation as a pious
reformer. In 817 he presided over the important
Council of Aachen which aimed at a thorough refor-
mation of the monastic discipline. His rule was overly
rigid and a reaction toward decadence soon set in. In
order to counteract this decay Duke William IX of


Aquitaine around the year 910 founded a monastery
at Cluny in Burgundy. This house followed a strict
interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict. With the
Cluniac reform movement, however, a new principle
entered the picture.

The reform of the eleventh century in the brief span
of two generations completely altered the ecclesiastical
structure and its relation to the political order.
Monasticism had often been corrupted by the intrusion
of worldly materialism and political domination, just
as the proprietary church arrangement imposed the
control of secular lords on the local churches. If the
Cluniac monks could improve the secular clergy by
impressing their ideals upon the entire church and if
the Church could in turn exercise a real power and
influence upon worldly rulers, then the Church could
uplift the world rather than the world corrupt the
Church. The great Pope Gregory VII plotted the strat-
egy for the “Hildebrandine Reform.” He conceived of
it as “the struggle for the right order of things in the
world,” a moral crusade to free the Church from
subservience to theocratic royal government and lay
ownership of ecclesiastical institutions. The Cluniac
monasteries provided the spiritual inspiration and
dynamism for the movement, but the actual institu-
tional direction came from the Gregorian reformers
who aimed at a universal reform of the Church in a
legal-institutional and Rome-centered plan of action.
The program for the establishment of truth and justice
was based upon old Church law, the lex Christi incor-
porated in the decretum of Gratian and other decretals
of canon law. The Gregorian reformation aimed at
eliminating simony, clerical concubinage and marriage,
and lay investiture, and strove in a positive way to
spiritualize the entire hierarchy from lowest cleric to
the supreme pontiff. The Cluniac and Gregorian re-
form movements met with astonishing success, and yet
they were not without serious defects which became
evident in due course. The Cluniac movement suffered
from an institutional defect, for the burden of discipline
rested too exclusively upon the abbot of Cluny. The
Gregorian reform suffered from an analogous flaw, but
with a different effect. The assertion of Petrine or papal
jurisdictional primacy paved the way for those extrav-
agant claims to plenitudo potestatis asserted in behalf
of the papacy by some popes, canon lawyers, and
theologians in the later Middle Ages. The hierocratic
conception of his office held by Innocent III, verus
who presided over the grand Fourth Lateran
Council of 1215, and the extravagant claims to
preeminence asserted by Boniface VIII in the bull
Unam Sanctam (1302), prompted fierce opposition on
the part of secular rulers and precipitated the
Avignonese captivity and the great schism (Ladner,

The decay of Cluny evoked yet another monastic
reformation by the “white monks” or Cistercians, a
nobleman Robert of Champagne initiating the reform
effort. Once again as the Englishman Stephen Harding,
abbot of Citeaux from 1109 to 1134, set it forth, the
keynote of the Cistercian reform was a return to the
literal observance of Saint Benedict's rule. The real fall
of monasticism, however, as an independent force may
be ascribed to its papal dependence, for when it be-
came the auxiliary of Rome, it had clearly outlived
its initial religious purpose. Bernard of Clairvaux
(1091-1153) saw the dangers of ecclesiastical central-
ization and in a treatise De consideratione, addressed
to Pope Eugene III, he warned against bureaucracy
and fiscalism. He urged as an alternative a reformation
that would be ministerial and personal rather than
authoritarian and merely institutional. Because of his
stress on service and spirituality he was a kind of
transitional figure between Gregorian reform and the
mendicant movement.

About the time of the Cluniac and Cistercian reform
movements, other efforts were being made to reform
by a return to more primitive eremetical life
reminiscent of Eastern monasticism. Among these
orders may be mentioned the Camaldulians founded
by Romuald of Ravenna (d. 1027), the Vallombrosians
founded by Gualbert in the Appenines, the Carthusians
founded by Bruno of Cologne at Chartreuse in 1084.
Ivo of Chartres (d. 1117) in the eleventh and early
twelfth centuries attempted once again to bring
collegiate churches and cathedrals under monastic dis-
cipline. The Canons Regular of Saint Augustine
combined monastic and clerical callings in churches,
schools, and hospitals. But none of the efforts at refor-
mation within monasticism were of permanent dura-
tion. Nor were the mendicant orders able to establish
a lasting reformation of the Church.

The history of monasticism was the history of
constantly renewed reforms. The individual monk best
incorporated the “form” of Christ and the monastic
community best represented the body of Christ. Both
as individuals and communities the monks were to
fulfill as best they could the “law of Christ.” For the
mendicant friars this law was best expressed in the
commission to the disciples in Matthew 10 to go into
the highways and byways to serve and to save the lost.
Christ gave to Francis the great commission to reform
the Church in the well-known words: “Repair my
house, because it is, as you can see, in the process of
being completely destroyed.” Saint Francis initially
understood these words quite literally and with his own
hands rebuilt a number of churches. Soon, however,
he came to see his vocation in spiritual terms so that
his conception of reformation called for personal
penitence, poverty, humility, and a life of service to


mankind. Unlike various heretical groups or the
pauperes Christi in the late eleventh and twelfth
centuries, who emphasized absolute poverty as the
supreme good, Saint Francis stressed conversion as a
change of heart, the need to emulate Christ's life of
love and to lead the vita apostolica as a life of devotion
and service. In the Rules of 1221 and 1223 as well
as in his Testament Saint Francis insisted upon faithful
participation in the sacraments and humble obedience
to the hierarchical Church. His was to be a reformation
very personal and individual within the structure of
the Church.

As the conventual Franciscans in their turn grew
wealthy and worldly, the spiritual Franciscans became
“reformers,” urging the return to apostolic poverty and
the simple spirituality of Saint Francis. In the adherents
to Joachim of Floris' philosophy of history an
apocalyptic-utopian strain which threatened to lose all
historical concreteness developed. Joachim and his
commentator Gerard described the three ages of world
history as the Ages of the Father, the Son, and the
Holy Spirit. Gerard predicted the advent of the age
of the Holy Spirit for 1260, a new age in which the
Spirit, assisted by the Spiritual Franciscans, would rule.
Some Joachimite tendencies were even tied in with
extravagant and bizarre ideas such as Johannes von
Lichtenberger's astrological calculations. If reforma-
tion in the monastic tradition had meant moral purifi-
cation and a return to the norm of pristine purity, the
attempts to purge and reform among the spiritualists
were intended as preparation for the new and final
stage of human history. All eschatological expectation
concentrated on a breakthrough of an ideal time. Ref-
ormation signified the second decisive turning point
in human history and would inaugurate the third and
final era of world history.