France – Cluny

For one who would understand the influences that motivated Old Burgundy, there is deception in the rambling streets of Dijon and the arched alleyways of Besancon. There, where romance will never allow the glamour of chivalry to vanish utterly, one feels the might of the long straight sword. The ghost of the swashbuckler is abroad in the medieval towns of Burgundy for the reason that the imprint of his handiwork is something that they can never totally efface. And amid such associations, where these hard-handed heroes seem so real and their accomplishments so pertinent, one is likely to lose perspective. It is natural that one should forget that these great egoists were not all-powerful, that they owed and paid an allegiance to an overlord who never owned a cuirass or swung a mace, an allegiance that they readily denied to their nominal lieges.

The real capital of Burgundy was not Dijon the magnificent, Besancon the mysterious, Lyon the glorious, or Autun the ancient. It was Cluny, quiet abbey of the southern hills, where a group of austere monks chanted the praises of God and guarded the civilization that the wars of the knights had imperiled.

There is little left of Cluny now. One who looks up at its isolated towers and shattered archways has difficulty in realizing that this is the fortress of culture which stood as Christendom’s capital in western Europe during the days of Burgundy’s exciting infancy. It was to Cluny rather than to the capitals of France or the Holy Roman Empire that the princes of the Golden Duchy paid their homage. It is significant, also, that when Cluny required their vassalage they were actual vassals. This sequestered abbey as a cradle of popes exercised a greater influence upon the affairs of the world than did the power of Charles the Bold at the point of its greatest development. Excommunication and interdict were weapons that the bravest of the warrior dukes seldom dared to test.

But Cluny has followed the path of the kings. Like them it had its rise to wealth and magnificence. Like them it incurred the enmity of the covetous. And like them it fell.

The beginnings of medieval French culture are directly traceable to the founding of a simple monastery in the valley of the Grosne. They were far-sighted men, the stern abbots. They prayed in works as well as words, produced libraries and revived forgotten arts.

Men came to their doors by the highway that led from Italy, by the watercourses from the north and south, and Cluny prospered. It fostered the cultural revivals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, gave to Europe one of the greatest cathedrals of the Middle Ages, and gathered a marvelous collection of art treasures. Missionaries went out from it to found schools and other monasteries. Hundreds of lesser abbeys came to know the culture center of the Grosne as a mother house.

Then came the sansculottes to loot it, to drive a road through the center of its great church, to blast its grandeurs stone from stone with bombs. So ended a religious movement that had been in progress for nine hundred years.

Yet Cluny is not gone. Its majestic ruins stand to-day as much of a monument to its achievements as if the monks were still chanting their offices before its desecrated altar. Crumbling, stripped of its riches, sacked, defaced, and dynamited, Cluny is a relic of medievalism more nearly unchanged than any of the other gray towns of Burgundy.

Old Pierre Guerin, an amateur guide whom fortune had brought to the Hotel de Bourgogne, knew the history of the town as well as Penjon, who wrote a history of it. But he seemed little concerned with the ancient dwelling-places.

“They are wasteful of space, monsieur,” he declared. “All of them have open courts between the front room and the kitchen. It would have been a blessing, really, if the revolutionists had bothered to tear them down instead of blasting the abbey church—the camels! Of course under ordinary conditions these old houses are good for many another year yet. The men who built them intended that they should hold together.” He paused to point a finger at a pink-tinted, two-story structure that bore the date 1743 above the iron-grated door.

“That, monsieur, is the style that I have reference to,” he said. “It is more economical of space. A large family could live in it easily. But of course it is modern work. You may notice that it is cracked a bit near the cornice. This latter-day work is slipshod.”

He led on aimlessly, his sabots clicking on the cobbles, his gray-blue smock ballooning in the warm breeze. To him this street down which history had wended its crooked way for seven hundred years was merely the Rue d’Avril, a district where the cobbles were too well worn for comfortable travel.

At the corner old Pierre regretted the lost agility of his youth when a busy housewife, suddenly opening a door like a cuckoo peeping out of a clock, threw a bucketful of soapy water into the street. The guide narrowly escaped a bath.

He and the madame exchanged comment as befitted the situation. But the advantage lay with the wielder of the bucket, inasmuch as some of the water remained for further distribution. She threw it at him, then disappeared from the scene with the slamming of a door, leaving old Pierre wet and quite at a loss for words.

“This town is cursed, monsieur,” he commented with conviction as he wrung out the tail of his smock. “The curse rests on all of us who live here—and may it rest on that she-devil the harder for the temper of her. Mon Dieu! That there should be in all the world a woman like that !”

“But the curse?” I inquired, with new interest in the baffling secrets of Cluny.

“Ah, yes, the curse! Well, you can find all about it in the records of the abbey. Duke William of Aquitaine once owned these lands. Along about the first of the tenth century he began to smell the pines and decided that he would do something for the good of his soul.

“He made a will leaving this part of his estate to the Apostles Peter and Paul—those are the words of the will —on condition that an abbey be founded here and conducted according to the rule of St. Benedict.

“And he finished by demanding of God that any prince of any government, including the supreme pontiff of the church itself, who should attempt to take title to the lands thus bequeathed, should be excommunicated during his life and eternally damned after his death. That, monsieur, is the curse. . . . And look at Cluny.”

Look at Cluny, indeed ! A town whose very stones spoke of vandalism, the more so in that engravings on most of them marked their previous connection with the church that the zealots of reason had blown asunder ! A town where gray age had stood by to warn the wreckers of the new regime that centuries had been adding weight to William’s curse.

He paused before a gloomy building with square windows and massive arches, ivy-covered like the rest of Cluny but singularly foreboding.

“This was the mint of the old abbey,” he said. “It is called to this day Hotel des Monnaies.”

He tilted his head and listened attentively.

“I can’t hear it,” he apologized. “But usually it is very plain. . . .”

There was no sound save the unidentified whispering of a country summer—wind among tiles, pigeons cooing in the eaves, insects droning in the outer sunlight.

“Hear what?” I asked.

“The minter,” he replied. “The man with the curse. He is always at work here. . . .” And then, with the dramatic intonation that the setting warranted, he told me the story of Duke William’s curse.

Citizen Batonard of Macon was a commoner who had made the best of none too lavish opportunity and had amassed great wealth. Of his merchandising ability little is known save that he made a success of it. But it is reported that he was the banker, and principal creditor, of most of the seigneurs in the vicinity. So when the peasants rose to show their indignation over ecclesiastical wealth by confiscating it for themselves, Citizen Batonard had enough cash on hand to make himself a factor in the bidding for the monastery town.

He bid something over two million franks and received. for his money the abbey, including its church, the greatest monument to medieval accomplishment then existing. But Batonard’s eyes were not concerned with Romanesque architecture. The church might have made a good storehouse for wine, but it seems that the monkish architects, with a criminal disregard for the practical, had made the immense vaults too high and had wasted a considerable portion of the space outside the church in the erection of flying but-tresses, things of no use in a wine-cellar.

So, despite the protests of the civil government of the town, he wrecked the majestic old structure for its materials, drove a road through the center of it, blasted the foundations in search of hidden treasures, melted down the gold and silver statues that fell into his hands, promoted a townsite corporation that had all the merits of our present-day colonization schemes, and eventually died a captain of industry who had paid forced tribute for honors befitting his worth under Napoleon.

History, so far as it mentions him at all, is content to leave him in his grave, to allow the curse of William of Aquitaine its fulfilment in the dishonoring of his memory by those who view his thorough handiwork. But the canons of legend are more exacting. So it comes about that the most interesting chapter in the story of Citizen Batonard begins with his death.

He lies at rest in an ornate coffin, while his cheerful heirs wrangle over the wealth of Cluny. The church does not want his body. His mourning relatives have no particular use for it. Eventually, thanks to the burial regulations of the early eighteenth century, arrangements are made for his interment in a lonely grave near the wall of his own garden. But the heirs are not put to the trouble of a funeral. By the time they have completed their reluctant division of the spoils the body has disposed of itself. The coffin is empty. The remains of Citizen Batonard have disappeared.

In the meantime Batonard’s thin little soul, which, like the camel forced to go through the needle’s eye, had jettisoned its cargo of worldly affairs, was finding the ways of celestial travel difficult. Before the spirit of the dead vandal there suddenly appeared a figure robed in light. Batonard recognized it at once for an angel, which should be a mark in his favor, inasmuch as he had had little association with angels before his death.

“Batonard,” called the apparition in a terrible voice, “you have violated God’s law and the sanctuary. You will go to the Cluny that you had thought was your own. You will enter once more into the body that you have deserted. And until the crack of doom you will remain on earth to remind other sacrilegious fools of your folly.

“By day in the guise of a beggar you will seek to win back, grain by grain, the gold that you took from the house of God to leave to your miserly descendants. And in the mint of the abbots you will mold it into coins until all the vast riches that you stole repose once more in the under-ground vaults of the old church. Should you succeed in begging from your heirs and their descendants a sum equal to that which you distributed among the enemies of God, then you may argue against Duke William the Pious, the case of your redemption before the throne of your creator.”

The angel disappeared, and the soul of Citizen Batonard went on to Cluny. The body he had so recently vacated was there ahead of him. And so began the task of a new Sisyphus. It has been going on ever since.

A mortal might despair of accomplishing so hopeless a work. The men who have inherited the wealth of Batonard have inherited his mental characteristics and grudgingly yield a penny at a time to the importunities of the ghostly beggar. In more than two hundred years of his servitude Batonard has learned much of the ways of charity and probably is an adept in wheedling. But as he increases his efficiency he faces a growing debt. Principal and interest compounded semiannually at 6 per cent. represent an amount vastly greater than that which he “distributed among the enemies of God.”

Day and night the invisible molds and stamping-machines of the old mint may be heard clanking in proof that he is still laying up wealth against eternity.

It would seem that a soul endowed with the financial genius that distinguished Batonard of Macon would see the feasibility of selling most of his newly manufactured gold pieces to coin collectors at a premium. Perhaps he has done so. At any rate, searchers who have delved into the underground nooks of Cluny have discovered no trace of Batonard’s treasure. We should hesitate to mention here that he might yet thwart the curse and sleep for many a century in his grave between now and the call of Gabriel should he abandon his mint and install a Russian printing-press.

Legend explains much of the beginning of the great church as well as its end. Some time about the middle of the eleventh century an unnamed monk of Cluny lay dying in his cell. A death-watch in a near-by chapel was praying that God might grant repose to his soul. In a plot beyond the chapel walls two cowled figures were digging a new grave.

The monk, who still was mentally alert although cold to his knees, closed his eyes in a lethargy that his companions mistook for the end. But he was not dead—only dreaming.

In a vision there appeared to him three men in strange garments who identified themselves as “Simon called Peter, Paul the Roman, and Stephen the martyr.” And they informed the monk that he would be called back from the grave to inform Abbot Hugh that he had been chosen to build a great cathedral. The monk awoke when the winding-sheet was already about his feet. He ran to Hugh to tell of the vision.

Pope Pascal II consecrated the altar of the new church in 1095. The finished basilica was consecrated in 1131.

The church was 555 feet in length, five feet shorter than St. Peter’s of Rome, the largest cathedral in Christendom. It was a marvel of construction as well as of architecture. Pillars seven and one half feet in diameter supported the great central vault. And here may be noted a prophetic departure from the usual Burgundian treatment of the Romanesque style : the high arches of the vault were pointed. Percy Allen points out that this construction probably was necessitated by the height of the vault and should not be taken to indicate a deliberate departure from the Romanesque. Buttressing, when it came to be better understood a century later, was added to strengthen the walls of the nave.

The sense of spaciousness, which was the outstanding characteristic of the basilica, was increased by a novelty of plan that remains without parallel in France to-day. The church had two transepts and a double row of aisles on both sides of the nave. The perspective from any point of view must have been magnificent.

“The walk of the angels,” Hildebrand de Mans, under the spell of its impressive distances, called the church. And he spoke of the bold sculpturing of the arches, the splendid unity of design, and the simple elegance of its massive construction rather than of the jeweled ornamentation that came later to make it the treasure-house of western Europe.

All of that is gone. The Hotel de Bourgogne fronts on the street that Citizen Batonard hacked through the nave. A school of the arts occupies what remains of the south limb of the transept. The towers of the Horloge and the Eau Benite stand like maimed sentinels close by.

There remain about this site of somber ruin fragments of the old abbey wall—here as formidable as it was in the days when skilled masons matched its stones, here overrun by the dwellings of the town. A bakery, dating from the thirteenth century, is to be found in the grounds of the school of arts at the edge of the river, and near to it rises the Tower of the Mill, one of the two interior towers of the abbey that have survived the misfortunes of the community.

Part of the ancient gate of the abbey still stands, as grim and forbidding in its ruin as it was when it kept guard over the basilica. In many ways it is the most interesting of Cluny’s relics. It is like the cabin door of a ship cast up by the sea to tell the story of a wreck. It vitalizes the legends of the era upon which it opened. Allen points out its historical significance in reviewing the pageant of kings and pontiffs who passed beneath its arches; William the Conqueror, St. Louis, Philip the Fair, Charles VI, the royal dukes of Burgundy, St. Hugh, Abelard, Anselm, Pierre Damien, Pope Gelase II, Pope Innocent IV, Pope Boniface VIII, and the famous Hildebrand—Pope Gregory VII. The gate still frowns upon the path they trod like the gray-bearded guardian of a vanished treasure who still keeps watch over empty chests.

It was not only in its visitors that Cluny beheld great men. Urban II, Pascal II, and Urban IV passed from the abbey to sit in the chair of St. Peter at Rome. St. Hugh, who brought the Catholic Church to a position of influence beyond the hopes of the notable churchmen of ten centuries, was one of the early abbots.

In matters of more purely intellectual concern, Cluny was no less important a figure. For a time the abbey was the greatest book factory in the world. Before Gutenberg had succeeded in perfecting the little wooden blocks that were to play such an important part in the influencing of human thought, hundreds of copyists spent their days under the arches of Cluny preserving the classics on hand-lettered parchment. With the introduction of the printing-press this industry continued to be one of the monastery’s most important concerns. The entire history of medievalism was written in the records of Cluny.

Perhaps it is a printing-press instead of a coin-mold that the ghost of old Batonard operates in the abandoned mint. More prosaic perhaps than the coining of beggar’s gold, it would be a more practical work should he occupy himself with the restoration of all the archives that the revolutionists scattered.

Surely no ghost could forsake his tomb for a more edifying task. . . . Had the wealth of the abbey church escaped the grasp of Batonard, it might have fallen into the hands of some later vandal. As for the basilica, it must certainly have crumbled as do all the edifices that men pile up rock on rock. . . . But thought, that most intangible of all the commodities that come within human ken, need never die while there are types to click one against the other and a white page to preserve their message.