Like the finest medieval tapestry, this narrative history masterfully weaves together the sweeping events surrounding what has become known as the “Babylonian captivity” of the popes into the broader story of 14th-century Europeâ€”one of the most turbulent times in the continent’s history.Â It was a time of fear, ferocity, and religious agony, whichÂ saw the suppression of the Knights Templar and the Cathars, the first onslaught of the plague, and the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. The century also produced some of the greatest writers and artists in the western tradition, including Giotto, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer. Central to this period was the movement of the papal seat from Rome to Avignon in the south of France, whereÂ seven successive popes held power from 1309 to 1377. The drama, intrigue, and tumult associated with the papacy in exile forms the perfect lens through which to clearly see a Europe making the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
During the Middle Ages, the abbey at Cluny, in southern France, towered over every other church in Christendom, both physically and spiritually. An architectural marvel, the abbey also served as the headquarters for a steadily growing monastic movement directed by the Rule of Benedict of Nursia. By the end of the 12th century, however, the abbey’s fortunes had begun to decline, thanks to external challenges to the authority of the church and internal conflicts about Cluny’s mismanagement of financial resources. By turns prosaic and lively, this loving paean to Cluny by Mullins, a former art correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, traces the abbey’s history from its inception in 910 to its ultimate destruction in the late 18th century. In particular, Mullins provides an intimate portrait of Hugh the Great, whose administrative and political skills as well as his theological sensibilities fostered the dramatic rise of Cluny. At his death, close to 1,500 Cluniac monasteries and 10,000 monks could be found scattered throughout England, France, Spain and Germany. During Hugh’s tenure, Cluny provided money and spiritual support for the First Crusade. By the time Peter the Venerable succeeded Hugh, the abbey had begun its decline because of divisiveness among the monks and financial losses. Mullins’s affection and admiration for Cluny provide a glimpse into a mostly forgotten medieval abbey.