1088 is the date often given by historians for the start of construction of the great abbey church of Cluny which was to be the largest in Christendom. It was built to the same plan as the pilgrimage churches at Tours and Toulouse: four aisles and an ambulatory of five radiating chapels plus a further two chapels on each transept arm. Although later Gothic cathedrals rose higher, it was not until the sixteenth century with the building of St Peter’s in Rome, that a church compared with Cluny in terms of actual space on the ground.
So vast was it inside that that all the monks of the Cluniac order which numbered over a thousand establishments could be fitted inside. The intention to do so has actually been given as an explanation for the building, but such an occasion would have been impractical to arrange and never took place.
Yet it remains a curious fact that such a vast edifice was constructed at vast expense in the middle of the Burgundian countryside where there was no pilgrimage traffic.
At Cluny there were no important saint’s relics as there were at the other great churches of the period which were comparable such as Santiago de Compostela or Saint Sernin at Toulouse.
Nevertheless it remains true that the third abbey church of Cluny matched the great pilgrimage churches of the Compostelan roads.
The Liber Sancti Iacobi – the Book of Saint James, which was compiled in around the middle of the twelfth century ends with the declaration that it was mainly written at Cluny. The real intention behind the writing of this manuscript has never been satisfactorily resolved but the inclusion of Cluny’s name in the colophon is at the very least indicative of some degree of patronage.
The bulk of the funding for the church building was in the form of an annual donation from the kings of León and Castile, most notably Alfonso VI who was also instrumental in construction the cathedral at Santiago.
A longstanding debate among historians concerning Cluny’s actual function with regard to pilgrimage, has ideas ranging from it being almost completely a Cluniac invention to a peripheral role only for the Burgundian abbey yet it would seem that the fortunes of Cluny and the Compostelan pilgrimage were strongly intertwined.
Evidence suggests that Cluny sought to extend it influence over three of the five major pilgrimage roads and to extend the Puy route north to Cluny, so making the Burgundian abbey the starting point for the route which passed through Conques. According to the Pilgrim’s Guide it is the “Burgundians and the Teutons who proceed to Santiago by the route of Le Puy”. Pilgrims from as far away as southern Germany, Austria and Hungary would have gathered at Cluny.
In 1062 Cluny acquired the abbey of Saint Martial at Limoges, the most prestigious shrine on the Vézelay route. In 1031 the patron Saint Martial whose relics were venerated there had been elevated to apostolic status by Papal decree. This was recognition that Martial provided a direct link with the original Apostles by virtue of having being directed by Saint Peter himself to travel from Rome to convert the pagans of the Limousin region.
Already several of the great shrines and stations were Cluniac establishments: Saint Gilles on the Toulouse route, Moissac on the Puy route and the shrine of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay.
In Spain, Cluny’s interest and influence was felt because of Ferdinand and Alfonso’s donations of important pilgrimage stations at Najera, Burgos, Sahagun and Carrion de los Condes.
The acquisition of Saint Martial was made with difficulty and ultimately required the use of force. The possession of Saint Martial together with Vézelay meant that the Via Lemivocensis was effectively dominated by Cluny. Of the other three routes in France, the Tours road was already under French royal control as the two major shrines, Saint Denis and Saint Martin de Tours were in Capetian lands. But Cluny already had footholds on the Puy and Toulouse roads at Moissac and Saint Gilles respectively. In order to consolidate its position to one of eminence, Cluny made a determined effort to acquire the major shrines on these routes at Saint Sernin of Toulouse and Sainte Foy of Conques.
Both of these attempts failed and the extension of the Puy road up to Cluny never fully materialized.
Sources and Biblio: OK Werkmeister Cluny III and the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela – Gesta
J Williams Cluny and Spain – Gesta