The Benedictines in Burgundy and their extraordinary legacy
By Geneviève Lacroix
The historical connection between worship and wine
The Benedictine order emerged in the 6th century and left an indelible imprint on the development of Christianity and monasticism in the West. The order’s disciples spread rapidly across all Europe and their abbeys played a pivotal role in the evolution of medieval society. Their social contribution to Burgundy was particularly strong and their spiritual, and indeed, oenological legacy, is still manifest today!
Between prosperity and despoliation
Established in the tenth century, Cluny Abbey was the one of the driving forces behind the monastic movement in Europe. Its reform of the Benedictine Order, and its cultural influence were such that by the following century the abbey was at the head of a network of over 1400 monasteries and priories of some 10,000 Benedictines that stretched far beyond its borders.
As time passed, too many adherents, too much wealth, and too many connections brought about a sort of ecclesiastical gentrification that blunted the order’s religious fervour. In 1098, Robert de Molesme decided on a return to simplicity and formed his own community at Cîteaux. His reforms and strict adherence to the Benedictine tenets attracted new followers and the Cistercian order was born. This religious upsurge, although often called into question, had a deep impact on the monastic movement. It was Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who was to lend weight to the new order. In its turn, the Cîteaux abbey became the head of the order and many new Cistercian communities were established.
The earth, the vine, the monks and wine
Wealthy landowners donated parcels of land for their names to be entered into the church books in exchange for prayers of intercession to God to save their souls. However, the quality of the land is not mentioned in the registers. The religious community received acreage of quite poor, infertile soil that was not conducive to growing grain or other staple food crops. However, unproductive as it seemed, the land was in fact, ideal for vines. Getting the best out of its deep rocky outcrops or cuestas took time and required a great deal of patience.
Since the monks were not cultivating the land for any immediate heirs, and had the time to study the results of their experiments, they were able, over generations, to develop the skills and knowledge needed to make the most of their terroirs. What is more, these monastic wine estates were never divided; they simply expanded either from continual donations or from purchase. Individually, the monks were poor; collectively they were wealthy. An excellent example of this can be found in the history of the Clos de Vougeot.
The proverbial Benedictine patience: Ora et labora (Pray and work)
The Benedictine Order gave the same importance to manual labour as it did to prayer and sleep. There was nothing demeaning in digging the earth – quite the contrary. In the minds of that time, to transform a poor soil from its ‘savage’ state and turn it into ‘cultured’ richness to produce food and wine was to honour the man who civilizes, enlightens, and fights against barbarism.
The monks were to radically alter the landscape by constructing low dry stone walls to enclose their flourishing vines. This strict demarcation of plots, which conforms to land titles, also dictated the contours of the land depending on the geological outcrops, which contributed largely to the character of the wine. The Benedictines’ work enabled them to conserve heat from the sun, and protect their vines from the wind; the walls formed a protection against marauders and predators. Planted in regular rows, the vines structured the landscape as well as making it productive.
The popular image of red-faced, roly-poly clerics is at odds with the monks who tamed this inhospitable soil. It was hard, slow work and far less gratifying than cultivating crops in the plains. But since the result raised their labours to the level of the divine, the ends justified the means.
The Rule of Saint Benedict – Chapter 40
“We each have our own gift from God, one this and another that. So it is with some circumspection that we lay down rules on how much others should eat and drink. However, bearing in mind those with weaker constitutions, we believe that a daily ration per person of a hemina (half a pint) of wine is sufficient. But those to whom God has given the gift of abstinence will be particularly well rewarded. The superior will decide if the ration should be increased if warranted by special circumstances, work or summer heat. All the same, he will be especially vigilant to guard against excess and drunkenness. It’s true that we read that wine is not consonant with a monk’s calling, but since monks of today cannot be persuaded otherwise, at least we must agree to drink with moderation and never to excess: because wine can disgrace even the wisest of men. If local conditions are so impoverished that a measure of wine is limited or not available at all, then those who have to endure them must thank God for this blessing and not grumble. Indeed, we give a stern warning to refrain from complaining.” And ever since then, there have been endless discussions on the merits of a hemina – or half-pint of wine …
“Meum est propositum in taberna mori”
This line is taken from the Carmina Burana, a collection of student songs that were discovered in the 19th century in the Benediktbeuern Abbey in Bavaria (extract). It is a compilation of over three hundred secular and often licentious airs that date between the 11th and 13th centuries, which comprise evocations of the peaks and troughs of fortune and life, morality satires, and love and drinking songs. The line, Meum est propositum in taberna mori (My intention is to die in a tavern), is a play on the meaning of the words ‘tavern’ and ‘tabernacle’ which have the same linguistic origins, and is a parody on the religious vows taken when entering the monastic life.
An empty stomach has no ears – and faith even less!
The idea of keeping aside part of one’s harvest to reap another in the distant future requires a very real leap in faith. Abstaining from eating all the grain in order to dig some of the seed back into the ground, and entrusting it to the earth while waiting patiently for it to germinate and return a yield higher than its cost, requires organization and long-term management based, of course, on the cycles of nature.
Once agricultural techniques and those of food preservation had been developed and implemented in regions with temperate climates, easy access, and rich soils, the abundance of food lead to material well-being and allowed for a little spiritual time out.
Abbeys to visit
Cluny Abbey – ancient, noble, uplifting
Cluny is a small town in Burgundy, but in the Middle Ages it was home to the most important Benedictine Abbey in all Christendom – an abbey that was born from the strict reforms initiated by a group of Benedictines who wished to return and adhere to Saint Benedict’s original tenets, which led to the establishment of a network of Benedictine priories that spread across western Europe, where their doctrines and values were adopted by many countries. Cluny was the largest church in the world until the reconstruction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, in the 16th century. Today, the Maior Ecclesia is a ruin, but the site is a national monument and European heritage site.
Cîteaux Abbey – contemplative and simple
The Cîteaux monastery, owes its name to the reeds and bulrushes – known then as cistels – found in the marshy, impoverished soil upon which it was erected. It was founded in March, 1098 by Robert de Molesmes, who wanted to return to the strict rules as dictated by Saint Benedict. The Cistercians had a considerable impact on the region. Their estates included the Château du Clos de Vougeot and its vineyards, the Château de Gilly (formerly the abbot’s residence, now sumptuously restored and converted into a historic hotel), numerous barns, the villages of Saint-Nicolas and Saint-Bernard, lakes, and an ingenious canalisation system that provided the abbey with water. To this day, the monastery houses monks who continue to produce cheeses as well as following the spiritual tradition of their house, whose history was undermined more than once by politics of the day. Visitors to the monastery will be shown its ancient buildings, the 17th century library and its 19th century church.
The Priory of Notre- Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire
The priory was built in the 11th century and is known as the eldest of the ‘daughters of Cluny’. During the Middle Ages, it was responsible for over 400 priories and dependencies. Situated on one of the pilgrimage routes of St James of Compostela, at the time of its construction, it was the second largest church in Europe and is a masterpiece of Burgundian Romanesque architecture.
Cistercian wine estates
Château Clos de Vougeot
The château was built in the 13th century by the monks from the Cîteaux Abbey and its enclosed vineyard is typical of medieval land apportioning for the production of wine. The original estate buildings were continually improved up to the 16th century, when a magnificent farm mansion was built. The wine presses in its cellars are well worth a visit.
The château is the headquarters for the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Taste-Vin. Founded in 1934, the society has a membership of 12,000 ‘knights’ dedicated to promoting Burgundian produce, its prestigious grand crus, and its incomparable cuisine. The confrérie also resuscitated the ‘Saint-Vincent Tournante’, a traditional, medieval village wine festival, in honour of St Vincent, the patron saint of winemakers.
Saint-Vivant de Vergy
Life and wine are often linked as for this grand cru grown in the climes of the Vosne-Romanée in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or region. Its lands were tilled by the monks of the 9th century Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Vivant de Vergy, a Cluny Abbey depdendency. Originally from Vendée, the monks remained faithful to the relics of St Vivant (Viventius, an evangelist from the Holy Land). For some years now, the ruins of the château de Vergy and the abbey site below it have been undergoing extensive restoration.
Clos de Tart in Morey-Saint-Denis
These historic wine cellars have been at the heart of the Cistercian abbey estates since 1141. They are renowned for their grand cru ‘Clos des Bonnes Mares’ (mères). The nearby Morey-saint-Denis Church and chapel of the the old Cistercian domaine, are also well worth a visit.
Meursault – Château de Cîteaux
The Cîteaux Monks’ first vines were in Meursault. The château is a 19th century reconstruction, but the 12th century vaulted cellars are still intact and are used to mature this very fine white Burgundy wine.
Manoir de la Perrière at Fixin
Classified as a heritage monument, this manor house and its vines date back to the 12th century, and also served as a convalescent home for the Cîteaux monks. It’s wine press dates back to the 14th century.
To read or re-read
- “Cistercian Abbeys, History and Architecture“, by jean-François Leroux-Dhuys
This must-have book contains examples of the finest Cistercian architecture to be found in Europe. Leroux-Dhuys details the life of St Bernard of Clairvaux, his monastic order and its development, as well as the cultural activities of each of the monasteries. His research is backed up by tables and beautiful illustrations of original texts and manuscripts.
- “The Cistercians in the Middle Ages“, by Janet Burton and Julie Kerr
The Cistercians, or ‘White Monks’ as they were known, was an order formed by a group of devout monks who broke away from the established Benedictine abbeys in order to adhere more strictly to Saint Benedict’s rules. By the middle of the 12th century they had become one of the largest and most influential orders in Western monasticism. The purpose of the book is to show that, far from shutting themselves away in their cells, the Cistercians played an important part, both spiritual and secular, in medieval society. An absorbing history of the Cistercian order and an excellent introduction to social and monastic life in the Middle Ages.