Thursday, November 12, 2009


The ruins of Lewes Priory in Southern England

On the 11th November 2009 the Pope continued his series of talks on the history of monasticism in medieval Europe.

Zenit reports the whole of his talk. He said that the monumental reform at the Abbey of Cluny and the monasteries associated with it did more than influence the 12th century. That reform was key for the universal Church, and also for European society today.

At the beginning of the 12th century at the zenith of the Cluniac Reform movement it had almost 1,200 monasteries.

"The success of Cluny was assured first of all by the lofty spirituality cultivated there, but also by some other conditions that favored its development. As opposed to what had happened up to then, the monastery of Cluny and the communities depending on it were exempted from the jurisdiction of the local bishops and placed directly under that of the Roman Pontiff. This entailed a special bond with the See of Peter and, thanks precisely to the protection and encouragement of pontiffs, the ideals of purity and fidelity, which the Cluniac reform intended to follow, were able to spread rapidly.

"Moreover, the abbots were elected without any intervention by the civil authorities, very different to what was the case in other places. Truly worthy persons succeeded one another in the guidance of Cluny and of the numerous dependent monastic communities."

Determined charity

But the "success" of Cluny was not just spiritual. The Pontiff affirmed that the benefits it contributed to society were significant.

"At a time in which only ecclesiastical institutions provided for the indigent, charity was practiced with determination," he noted. "In all houses, the almoner had to receive passers-by and needy pilgrims, traveling priests and religious, and above all the poor who came to ask for food and roof for a day. Not less important were two other institutions, typical of Medieval civilization, which were promoted by Cluny: the so-called truce of God and the peace of God. At a time strongly marked by violence and the spirit of revenge, assured with the 'truce of God' were long periods of non-belligerence, on the occasion of important religious feasts and of some days of the week. Requested with 'the peace of God,' under the pain of a canonical censure, was respect for defenseless people and sacred places."

Thus was nourished, Benedict XVI explained, a European sense of "two essential elements for the construction of society, that is, the value of the human person and the primary good of peace."

And beyond that, the ample and well-cultivated lands of the monasteries benefited the economy.

Furthermore, "Next to manual labour, there was no lack of some typical cultural activities of Medieval monasticism, such as schools for children, the setting up of libraries and the scriptoria for the transcription of books," the Pope added.

"In this way, a thousand years ago, when the process of the formation of European identity was at its height, the Cluniac experience spread over vast regions of the European Continent, and made its important and precious contribution," he said. "It recalled the primacy of the goods of the spirit; from this it drew the tension toward the things of God; it inspired and favored initiatives and institutions for the promotion of human values; it educated in a spirit of peace."

Monasteries were European wide. The movement was not confined to the mainland of Europe. The United Kingdom shared in the benefits of the Cluniac Order. However because of the destruction at and neglect caused because of the Reformation, the signs of this expansion and visible effect of the Cluniac Order are difficult to see in Britain today.

One of the earliest monasteries or priories of the Cluniac reform movement was that of Lewes Priory in Sussex. It was the greatest house of the order in England. Its possessions extended almost all over the kingdom. The monks of Lewes held at one time or another no fewer than fifty-six churches in Sussex.

Lewes Priory at Southover was founded in the late-11th century by monks from Cluny abbey in Burgundy. They were encouraged to establish a priory by William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada.

Gundrad was the fourth Daughter of William the Conqueror. William de Warenne, a Nobleman of Normandy, who was also the first Earl of Surrey in England, and who, related to the Duke of Normandy by descent, had held a distinguished command in the battle of Hastings

Gundrad and William were buried in the Chapter House of the Church of St Pancras, within the Priory at Lewes. In 1845 their bodies were discovered when the the Lewes and Brighton Railway was being constructed and the bodies were transferred to the Church of Southover.

The priory grew to be an important and wealthy institution, until in 1538 it was dissolved along with other religious houses. Today the 13th-century great marble gate survives, as do parts of the refectory, dormitory, infirmary, chapel and cloisters.

The Priory of St Pancras was the first Cluniac house in England and had one of the largest monastic churches in the country

"William de Warenne and Gundrada his wife within ten years of the Conquest, to which they owed their possession of the rape and town of Lewes, determined to found a monastery in that town, and while the idea was still in their minds set out on a pilgrimage to Rome, but when they came into Burgundy they found that travelling was unsafe on account of the war between the pope and the emperor. They therefore turned aside to the great abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul at Cluny, and were so struck with the high standard of religious life maintained there that they determined to put their proposed foundation under Cluny, and accordingly desired the abbot to send three or four of his monks to begin the monastery. He, however, would not at first consent—fearing that at so great a distance from their mother-house they would become undisciplined. At last, after the king himself had added his entreaties to the founder's, the abbot sent Lanzo and three other monks to England in 1076. To the small community thus introduced William de Warenne gave the church of St. Pancras in, or rather outside, Lewes, which he had lately rebuilt in stone, with the land surrounding it called 'the island,' and land at Falmer and Balmer and his Norfolk manor of Walton, and other gifts sufficient to support twelve monks. Prior Lanzo, however, was recalled to Cluny and remained there so long that William had serious thoughts of transferring his Lewes foundation to Marmoutier; but at last he obtained from the abbot both the return of Lanzo and the promise that in future the abbey would elect one of their best monks to the post of prior of Lewes.

The priory of St. Pancras was most fortunate in having as its first head Lanzo, a man of preeminent piety, whose noble example made his monastery of Lewes famous as an abode of spiritual excellence and its monks models of devotion, courtesy, and charity. For thirty years the saintly prior ruled the convent, dying on Easter Monday, 1107, after a brief illness, completing in his death that pattern of affectionate and devout humility which he had consistently upheld in his life. His successor, Hugh, appears to have continued the tradition of the priory for devotion, charity, and liberal hospitality, and was selected in 1123 by Henry I to be first abbot of the king's new foundation at Reading, whence he was promoted to the archbishopric of Rouen in 1130, his successor at Lewes following him in the abbacy of Reading in that year. Another Prior Hugh, a man of great piety and honour, was elected to Reading in 1186, and raised to the abbacy of Cluny in 1199. He was therefore abbot at the time of the great dispute between Cluny and the earl of Warenne over the patronage of the priory."
From: 'Houses of Cluniac monks: Priory of Lewes', A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2 (1973), pp. 64-71.
URL: Date accessed: 12 November 2009.

Lanzo was clearly regarded as a saint both by the monks of Lewes and by contemporary repute. There is an eyewitness description of his death, on 1st April 1107, copied by William of Malmesbury into his History of the Kings of England:

“...when in full health, on the fifth day of the week before the passion of our Lord, having read the psalter, according to the daily custom of Lent, and being about to celebrate mass at the third hour, he had robed himself to the chasuble, and had proceeded in the service till mass was on the eve of beginning, he was suddenly seized with such an acute disorder, that himself laying aside the garments he had put on, he left them not even folded up.

Departing from the oratory, he was afflicted for two days, without intermission, that is, till the Saturday, having no rest either sitting, walking, standing, lying, or sleeping.

During the nights, however, he never spoke to his brethren, though entreating him to break silence; but to this he did not consent, beseeching them not to sully the purity of his vow; for since he had assumed the monastic habit, whenever he had gone out from complines, he had never spoken until primes of the ensuing day.

But on the Saturday, though so convulsed as to expect dissolution every moment, he commanded the brethren, now rising for matins, to come and anoint him; and when he was anxious to kiss them, after being anointed, as is the custom, through excess of love he saluted them, not lying or sitting, but, though agonized to death, standing, supported in their arms.

At dawn, being conducted to the chapter-house, when he had taken his seat, he asked all the brethren to come before him, and giving them the paternal benediction and absolution, he entreated the like from them. He then instructed them what they were to do in case he died; and so, returning whence he came, he passed the rest of the day with the succeeding Sunday, rather more tranquilly; but, behold, after this, that is, after Sunday, signs of approaching death were discovered; and having his hands washed, and his hair combed, he entered the oratory to hear mass; and receiving the body and blood of the Lord retired to his bed.

After a short time he became speechless, gave his benediction to the brethren singly as they came before him, and in like manner to the whole society. But lifting his eyes to heaven, he attempted to bless the abbat, with all committed to his charge. Being entreated by the fraternity to be mindful of them with the Lord, to whom he was going, he most kindly assented by an inclination of his head.

After he had done thus, he beckoned for the cross to be presented to him, which, adoring with his head and indeed with his whole body, and embracing with his hands, he appeared to salute with joyful lips and to kiss with fond affection, when he distressed the standers-by with signs of departing, and, being caught up in their arms, was carried yet alive into the presbytery before the altar of St Pancras.

Here, surviving yet a time, and pleasing from the rosy hue of his countenance, he departed to Christ, pure, and freed eternally from every evil, at the same hour of the day on which, for his purification, he had been stricken with disease.

And behold how wonderfully all things corresponded; the passion of the servant with the passion of the Lord; the hour of approaching sickness with the hour of approaching eternal happiness; the five days of illness which he endured for purifying the five senses of the body, through which none can avoid sin.

Moreover, from his dying ere the completion of the fifth day, I think it is signified that he had never sinned in the last sense which is called the touch. And what else can the third hour of the day, in which he fell sick, and by dying entered into eternal life, signify, than that the same grace of the Holy Spirit, by which we know his whole life was regulated, was evidently present to him, both in his sickness and his death.

Besides we cannot doubt but that he equalled our fathers Odo and Odilo, both in virtue and in its reward, as a remarkable circumstance granted to them was allowed to him also.

For as the Lord permitted them to die on the octaves of those festivals which they loved beyond all other< (as St Odo chiefly loved the feast of St Martin, and St Odilo the nativity of our Lord, and each died on the octaves of those tides), so to Lanzo, who beyond all of this age observed the rule of St Benedict, and venerated the holy mother of God and her solemnities with singular regard, it happened that, as, according to his usual custom, both on the demise of St Benedict, and on the festival of St Mary, which is called the Annunciation, he celebrated high mass in the convent; so on the eighth from the aforesaid anniversary of St Benedict, being stricken with sickness, he also on the eighth day from the annunciation departed to Christ. Wherefore, he who is unacquainted with the life of Lanzo, may learn from his death, how pleasing it was to God, and will believe with us that these things, which I have mentioned, did not happen after the common course of dying persons, as he was a man surpassed by none, in the present times, for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

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