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April 29: The Age of Chivalry

Hugh of Cluny (d. 1109):
Age of Chivalry

This is the feast-day of the Abbot of Cluny known to the Catholic Church as St. Hugh the Great. He was born into a noble French family in 1024 and died on the 28 of April 1109, when the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny was 200 years old. Hugh is recognized as the force, or at least the brain, behind the reformist zeal exercised like a blunt instrument by his friend and contemporary Pope Gregory VII — know in the Catholic Church as St. Gregory the Great.

That there was something in Roman Catholic Europe in need of reform in the early Middle Ages — also called the Dark Ages by less politically correct historians — is beyond dispute even by the Catholic Encyclopedia. Fiscal corruption was rampant: the selling of ecclesiastical offices and the accompanying income (called investiture), the selling of relics and sacred objects (called simony), the selling of indulgences (those get-out-of-sin-free blessings: an imaginary cure for an imaginary illness), and general patronage and nepotism.

The real outrage is what the Catholic Encyclopedia delicately refers to as "ecclesiastical incontinence": in other words, the failure of large numbers of clerics to restrain their appetites for natural, and often unnatural, sex. And, yes, the period in which Abbot Hugh and Pope Gregory lived was the beginning point of the so-called Age of Chivalry!

As Thomas Bulfinch describes it, "Chivalry ... framed an ideal of the heroic character, combining invincible strength and valor, justice, modesty, loyalty to superiors, courtesy to equals, compassion to weakness, and devotedness to the Church." In fact, the next 300 years of Christendom were characterized in the noble and knightly classes (and both sexes) as steeped in corruption, theft, violence, and every imaginable (and some unimaginable) sexual deviations, including rape, incest, pederasty, prostitution and general sexual license. This behavior was so generalized that, time and again, the contemporary chroniclers of not only France, but Spain, England and Germany complain of it.

The only behavior that was not tolerated was infidelity to the Church: the troubadours were bawdy song-singers; no contemporary writer mentions a knight-errant; the attempted reforms, such as the creation of the Knights Templars, were quickly sunk in corruption. The general corruption in the secular world was of little concern to Hugh and Gregory: the Church was in a cesspool of its own making and their feeble efforts to drain it were of no lasting consequence.

After the conquest in 1066 (from the spoils of which William the Conqueror made presents to Hugh at Cluny), it is said that Hugh mediated in the power dispute between Emperor Henry IV and Gregory VII. This was a classic power struggle between kings and clerics and although the Church claimed victory, and that Gregory "deposed" Henry for his disobedience, and that Henry kneeled in penitence at Canossa, he outlived the pope by 23 years and behaved as if none of this took place. Hugh lived one more year and witnessed the triumph of temporal over spiritual power — in an age when god-belief was supposed to be strongest! Hugh died on 28 April 1109 and made a saint, with today as his feast-day, 11 years later.

Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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