Joanna Moorhead on the delights of Burgundy in France
IF you feel uncomfortable about churchmen getting involved in politics, you would be well advised to give the small French town of Cluny a wide berth. Nestling among the green hills of wine growers' Burgundy, its shuttered facades and quiet streets will greet you innocently enough. But beware, for Cluny represents one of the greatest examples of meddling ministers the world has ever seen.
The ministers, in the case of Cluny, were actually monks: Benedictines who came to the area in the year 910 AD at the invitation of the Duke of Aquitaine. Over the next 300 years the monastery they founded was to become one of the most powerful, prestigious forces in the world, a place of immense riches and enormous international weight.
Cluny's influence, nurtured over the centuries by seven great abbots, was exerted partly through the foundation of more than 1,500 daughter houses across France, England, Germany, Switzerland and Poland. "Wherever the wind blows," went a saying of the time, "the abbot of Cluny owns land."
At the height of his power, the abbot was held in higher esteem than the pope, and kings crossed Europe to seek his favour. But such power inevitably corrupted the monks, who became so hated in the region for their ostentation and wealth that for a time a lookout was employed to watch from the tower lest disgruntled, starving locals should decide to march on the abbey to demand a share of the cuisine delicieuse on which the men of God were known to gorge themselves.
Eventually it was a local man, St Bernard cf Clairvaux, who took them to task. Pope Urban II had earlier told one of the abbots, St Hugh, that he was "the light of the world": would lights only shine, St Bernard retorted now, if they were contained in a candelabra of gold or silver? He denounced Cluniac practices loudly and remorselessly, condemning in particular those monks who "cannot go four leagues from their house without trailing a retinue of 60 horses and sometimes even more in their wake. . ."
Despairing of the moral degradation of Cluny, Bernard (whose followers this year celebrate the 900th anniversary of his birth) set off to found his own order, the Cistercians, an altogether more spartan, poverty-conscious set: at Cluny, meanwhile, the rot had set in.
Today, despite the best efforts of a Macon merchant to tear it to pieces to make way for a riding stables, enough of Cluny Abbey remains to daunt and fascinate the visitor. In summer charming, Englishspeaking guides will point out the huge area once occupied by the abbey church of St Peter and St Paul, which was put up between 1088 and 1130 and remained, until the building of St Peter's in Rome five centuries later, the largest church ever seen in the western world.
The guides will show you, too, round the chapel built by Abbot Jean de Bourbon in the 13th century in the south arm of the transept, beside which he included, for himself, a small room with a large fireplace, where he could sit for mass in rather higher temperatures that those which the lesser monks outside were forced to endure during cold winter months. The window through which Abbot Jean could see the altar was carved out of the wall in such a way that he could watch all that went on without having to move his head, an architectural ruse which had the added advantage that it was possible for him to take occasional naps during the less interesting bits without being noticed. For those with any interest at all in monastic history, a visit to Cluny will never disappoint: for the very keen, the place has no equal, and there is the added attraction of a museum contained in the former abbey palace which has on show parts of the monks' library and an array of candlesticks, lecterns and other ecclesiastical artefacts. In good weather it is so worth climbing the 120 steps to the top of the monks' Cheese Tower, from where it is possible to get a magnificent view of the town and the countryside around.
The monks of Cluny were instrumental in setting up the first pilgrimages to the supposed resting-place of St James, Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, a trail which blazed the way for a cult which, at its height, was to European Christians as Mecca is to Moslems. The huge treks it inspired led to the building of great churches along the pilgrimage route, and one of the finest of these lies some 90 kilometres away from Cluny at the hill-town of Vezelay.
The road to Vazelay is steep and narrow — unless you feel like a rather arduous walk, ignore signs to the car parks at the foot of the hill, as there are plenty of places to leave your car around the back of the church at the top. You will not fail to be impressed by your first view of the basilica, which is named after St Mary Magdalene as a result of housing her relics for more than a century.
Such was the importance of the church in the 12th century that St Bernard chose the site as a rallying-point from which to launch the second crusade; here too, St Francis of Assisi decided to found the first French Minorite Brothers monastery.
The church, Romanesque in origin and still containing arches from the period, features a delightful array of carvings on the capitals in its nave, set off by the surprising amount of light which radiates from the beige-coloured stones with which the building was constructed. The carvings, lively and down to earth, take bible stories and early christian history as their themes: one shows the unlikely scene of St Eugenia, disguised as a friar, opening her robe to convince a doubting monk that she is, in fact, a woman.
From Vezelay you can make a different kind of pilgrimage along the D34 and D977 to Nevers, a walled town beside the Loire with a nightmarish road system. Nevers is proud of its Romanesque church, founded as one of the many daughter priories of Cluny, and of its eighteenth century arch built to commemorate the French victory at Fontenoy.
But our destination was in an unremarkable suburb of the town, a large, white-washed convent with a tall iron gate. It was to this place that St Bernadette Soubirous came in 1866 from her native Lourdes, to spend her remaining years as a Sister of Charity and Christian Instruction. She died here in 1879, and her body — exhumed 30 years after her death and found to be still preserved — lies today on full view in a glass coffin in a side chapel in the convent church.