Taking the Reins: The Nobility’s Patronage of Monastic Life

The development of monastic life from 900 to 1100 is one of the most vital aspects of the reform movement within the Church, and one of the most notable aspects of the construction and maintaining of monasteries was the role that the lay nobility played in developing this massive network of monastic communities. Through examples that include primary sources such as Odo of Cluny’s hagiography Saint Gerald of Aurillac and Duke William of Aquitaine’s “Foundation Charter of the Monastery of Cluny” a clear case can be made for nobles largely donating financial assets such as lands and resources to the Church and monasteries for reasons that include genuine piety and a desire to save one’s soul. Other motives are outlined in secondary sources such as Maureen C. Miller’s “Donors, Their Gifts, and Religious Innovation in Medieval Verona” and Ruther Kramer’s “Teaching Emperors: Transcending the Boundaries of Carolingian Monastic Communities” which show that some nobles—especially those who would be considered nouveau riche in present-day terms—donated money not as an act of piety but instead as a way to show off newfound wealth, while Kramer’s work explores the role of Louis the Pious in developing monastic communities to spread knowledge across a network of monasteries across the Carolingian Empire and providing leadership for them during times of need. The motives for the nobility were varied, but their impact in donating to these monasteries was clear in helping to build up a strong network of monastic communities that became the backbone of religious knowledge in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Among the many sources depicting the nobility and its donations to monasteries and founding monasteries comes in the form of Odo of Cluny’s hagiographic text Saint Gerald of Aurillac, wherein the abbot explores the life of Gerald and how his acts in life would earn him sainthood. In addition to discussing the idea that a noble acts in the same way as a monk—to the point of even having a secret tonsure—Odo in writing this hagiography also discusses Gerald of Aurillac’s attempts to establish a monastery and his continued attempts to find areas to set up an abbey. The Cluniac abbey states that “After he had freed himself to serve God, he went to Rome to consecrate his possessions to the Lord, and assigned the notable property of Aurillac to the blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, by formal will, with as many additional properties as would suffice the monks he had decided to gather there for their whole income. For he very much desired to establish a monastic foundation in that place, where monks might lead the common life with an abbot of their order.”[1] Gerald of Aurillac spent his entire life attempting to found a monastery, and of the primary sources explored and examples that depicted nobles and kings donating finances and other resources to monasteries, Gerald surpasses them in almost every possible way. Although as a hagiography this source likely exaggerates some aspects of his life, it is possible that the intention of Odo of Cluny’s writings was to first encourage monks to behave and be as pious as lay nobles such as Gerald of Aurillac, while also sending a message to other nobles to act as pious as Gerald and to give to the Church and establish monasteries.

Perhaps no primary source best depicts the reasons for the nobility supporting monastic life than William of Aquitaine’s “Foundation Charter of the Monastery of Cluny” from 910. In this document, the Duke of Aquitaine outlines first the lands and other properties he is giving to the establishment of a new monastic community at Cluny, and second the reasons for such a donation, as well as other aspects of monastic life such as how such a monastery is to operate. The motivations for William of Aquitaine’s donation of this and is made immediately clear, where he states “…let it be known that out of love of God and our savior Jesus Christ, I hand over from my own rule to the holy apostles, Peter, namely, and Paul, the possessions over which I hold sway…I, William and my wife Ingelberga, give all these things to the aforesaid apostles first for love of God, then for the soul of my lord, King Odo, the souls of my father and mother, for me and my wife, for the safety of our souls and bodies…so let this gift be made for all these of orthodox faith, past, present, and future.”[2] The motivations of the Duke of Aquitaine were extremely clear and in his own words. He was donating these lands and vowing to protect them for reasons relating to his own pious nature as well as for the protection of his spirit as well as those of his wife, parents, and liege lord. This foundation charter which the Cluny Abbey’s foundation was based on provides insight into the motives of the nobility in supporting and encouraging monastic life. Through the example of Duke William of Aquitaine’s charity for the advancement of his faith as well as the life and practices of Gerald of Aurillac—whose story includes the Duke—it is made clear that the nobility played a significant role in establishing monasteries and supporting monastic life, and their motives clearly belonging to a genuine desire to promote their faith and to support monasteries such as Cluny.

In Maureen C. Miller’s “Donors, Their Gifts, and Religious Innovation in Medieval Verona” the author explores how people from up and coming socioeconomic groups from merchants to nobles were responsible for the development of monasteries. More importantly, Miller discusses the reasons why these nobles made such donations. While there is certainly the possibility of a political connection—as the Church often was involved in politics—and even a social connection as it might further a noble’s goals for appearing pious, it is made clear that the motives were largely similar to those of Duke William of Aquitaine in his founding of the Abbey of Cluny. In her work Miller states that “Several patterns emerge in the charitable choices made by these groups in the early Middle Ages. All donors explicitly stated that their gifts were made for the good of their own souls and those of their relatives. When they made a donation, they expected to be commemorated with prayers and largess to the poor, and donors were serious about getting what they paid for. Several stipulated that if their property was misused and their pious wishes unfulfilled, the gift should either be returned to the heirs or transferred to another religious authority.”[3] Miller rightfully points out that in most cases these donations were done with pious acts in mind, as well as a desire to save one’s own soul and those of other relatives. They would even enforce their demands through including in these donations stipulations that if they were not used in the way they were supposed to be used, the property would revert back to the family. As opposed to simply donating property, financial assistance, or founding a monastery before wiping their hands clean of the duties and responsibilities that come with establishing or supporting such organizations, the nobility felt the responsibility to see that their donations are properly put to use as intended. Miller’s research confirms that the actions of Gerald of Aurillac and Duke William of Aquitaine are the standard within the nobility of the Middle Ages, and not the exception.

There was also the appeal of donating to monasteries as well that was clear. While lesser nobles and the average person living in the Middle Ages would donate to the local churches that they attended, monastic communities often dominated in terms of receiving donations. Miller states that “Among religious institutions, the Benedictine monastery of San Nazaro, founded in the early eleventh century and strongly supported by Verona’s bishops, was increasingly favored by local donors.”[4] The nobility as well as up and coming lay people concentrated their religious donations on monastic communities such as Cluny and San Nazaro, assisting in the development of monastic life. In other instances, as the amount of ecclesiastical institutions expanded, the citizens of Verona—especially those of the nobility and the developing merchant class—began to spread the donations not just to monasteries, but to other organizations and churches. Miller states that “The mixture of institutions patronized suggests an attempt to hedge one’s bets, or amortize one’s risk, by giving a little to every type of institution.”[5] This is evidence that while donations to monastic communities or establishing them appears to largely be for religious purposes, there was also some sense that donating to institutions belonging to the Church might save one’s soul. Other potential reasons for donating outside of religious piety was for status as well as displaying their wealth—whether newfound or old—and offered multifaceted reasons for donating property and money.[6] Throughout her work, Miller adequately explores the reasons for the nobility’s donations to ecclesiastical institutions—in particular monastic communities—while building the case for showing that while nobles donated for religious purposes, other motivations existed that revolved around social status and wealth.

Support for monastic life in the Middle Ages did not just come from financial backing as can be seen from the examples of Verona and Duke William of Aquitaine, but also from the example of Louis the Pious, who ruled over the Carolingian Empire from 813 to 840, about seventy years prior to the founding of the monastery at Cluny. Rutger Kramer’s “Teaching Emperors: Transcending the Boundaries of Carolingian Monastic Communities” best explores the life of Louis the Pious and explores his role in the development of monastic communities in the Carolingian Empire. Shortly upon his ascension to power, Louis the Pious immediately began to restructure the imperial court and included monks, including Benedict, who founded a monastery in Aniane near Montpelier. Louis invited more monks to the imperial court following Benedict.[7]  Kramer writes that “It is the interaction between cloister and court in a nutshell, from a monastic perspective: the emperor [Louis the Pious] ensured the existence of the monastery as an enclave unto itself by providing it with land and immunities, while the designated abbot took care of the education of the monks living there. Moreover, the monks chosen to live in Inda were expected to pass on what they had learned once they had fully internalized Benedict’s teachings, thus spreading them across the empire.”[8] The motives of Louis the Pious were clear in that he desired to protect the monasteries and to provide them the resources needed to operate. In providing Benedict of Aniane with a monastery at Inda, Louis hoped that the knowledge passed on from Benedict to the monks would spread throughout the Carolingian Empire and Europe at large. In hoping to improve the Church within his lands and by providing such extensive resources to these monks and monasteries, Louis the Pious managed to provide adequate means for a monastery to be functional and to serve the purpose of expanding knowledge across Europe itself.

In addition to providing financial resources and political influence for monasteries and monks, Louis the Pious also served in a position of leadership as emperor and patron. During his reign, he would after the near-implosion of his realm as the issue of the inheritance of the Carolingian Empire came to a head from 829 to 833. Among the areas affected was the monastery at Fulda, and it was at this time that Louis the Pious became an arbitrator for the monks as depicted in Candidus’ Vita Aegil, where Kramer states  “He [Louis the Pious] delivered this speech to a group of monks who had come to ask him to arbitrate in their conflict. Louis obliged, but not before admonishing the monks that they ought not to have let it come this far.”[9] According to Candidus’ depiction of the event, Louis was a noble who had so much respect from monastic communities due to his support of them that he was seen as a natural leader and arbitrator of their conflicts. Although Kramer notes that this specific story never happened, he does state that it signifies the role imperial authority in monastic affairs, and that Louis the Pious represented to the monks at Fulda and other communities “…a source of wisdom, a place from which the monks of Fulda might receive guidance that would strengthen their monastic ideology—both the “internal cloister” of each individual monk residing there, and their community as a whole.”[10] It is clear through these examples that in Louis the Pious financing and donating property to monastic communities that he had been elevated to the role of arbitrator, a reasonable noble who could provide advice and leadership in difficult times the monasteries faced during the later years of his reign. His motives, too, appeared to have been for reasons of spreading religious thought, such as his construction of the monastery at Inda which he saw as a sort of pre-Cluniac attempt to spread knowledge across the Carolingian Empire through a series of monasteries, using Inda as a nexus for the exchange of information and religious thought. The impact of a noble—even a king—serving as a patron to a monastic community is clear, and it provides an excellent glimpse into how such a relationship is mutually beneficial.

The actions of Saint Gerald of Aurillac, Duke William of Aquitaine, the nobility of Verona, King Louis the Pious, and the countless other nobles during the Middle Ages from 900 to 1100 provides an example of the role of this sociopolitical group in building up the vital network of monasteries across Europe during this time period. The reasons for these donations varied, from being acts of legitimate piety to establishing new institutions of knowledge and even the less noble reasons such as showing off newfound wealth or exercising some type of political power. The impact of these donations led to the nobility taking up a position as patrons of the Church and monastic communities, and in some cases even founding and leading these institutions—especially in the cases of King Louis the Pious, Saint Gerald of Aurillac, and Duke William of Aquitaine, who all founded or attempted to found monasteries and provide for the establishment and maintenance of monastic communities. It is for these reasons that the nobility had a massive role in taking the reins in establishing monasteries and ensuring the spread of religious knowledge across Europe and creating the vital networks that included the monasteries of Cluny, Fulda, Inda, and the countless others that provided for monks during this vital time period surrounding the Gregorian Reform from 900 to 1100 during the Middle Ages.

[1] Odo of Cluny, Saint Gerald of Aurillac, 328-329.

[2] William of Aquitaine, “Foundation Charter of the Monastery of Cluny,” 40-41.

[3] Maureen Miller, “Donors, Their Gifts, and Religious Innovation in Medieval Verona,” Speculum 1, vol. 66 (Jan. 1991), 31.

[4] Miller, 39.

[5] Miller, 36.

[6] Miller, 33.

[7] Rutger Kramer, “Teaching Emperors: Transcending the Boundaries of Carolingian Monastic Communities,” Meanings of Community Across Medieval Eurasia: Contemporary Approaches (Brill: 2016), 315.

[8] Kramer, 316.

[9] Kramer, 320.

[10] Kramer, 322.

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