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Burgundy, Center of European Monasticism (7:10)

Burgundy, France

Burgundy has been a center of monasticism since the 1100s, hosting the Cluny Abbey and the more austere Abbey of Fontenay (which gradually eclipsed Cluny). Today the Taizé community attracts pilgrims from all faiths.

Complete Video Script

The culture of Burgundy has deep historic roots. Within an hour's drive are powerful sites illustrating how the region was for centuries the spiritual heart of France.

In the Middle Ages, Burgundy was the cradle of real monastic power in Europe. This town of Cluny was once home to a great monastery which, around the year 1100, actually vied with the Vatican to be the most important power center in all of Christendom.

Much of today's old town stands on the scant ruins of that monastery. Until the present St. Peter's church was built in Rome, the church that stood here was the largest anywhere.

The Abbey of Cluny was the ruling center of Europe’s first great international chain of monasteries. It was the headquarters of 10,000 monks — the heart of a church reform movement and an evangelical revival that spread throughout Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. In an era of particularly corrupt popes, Cluny's Abbots — who followed the teaching of St. Benedict — served as a moral compass and rallying point for Europe's Christians.

The success of the Abbey has been attributed to a series of wise leaders or abbots. In fact, four of the six first abbots here actually became saints. They answered not to kings and not to bishops, but directly to the pope. They preached the principles of piety and the art of shrewd fundraising. Piety — They got people to stop looting the monasteries. Shrewd fundraising — they talked Europe's wealthy landowning elite into willing their estates to the monasteries in return for perpetual prayer for the benefit of their needy and frightened souls.

From the springboard of Cluny came a vast network of nearly a thousand monasteries that gave regions from Rome to Scotland a common thread — helping to kindle the establishment of modern Europe. While Cluny peaked in the 12th century, monasteries in general remained a powerful force until the 18th century.

Over time, Cluny's rich and powerful Abbots were tainted with the same corruption they'd originally opposed. The once-dominant Cluny order was eventually eclipsed by more austere monks, like the Cistercians of Fontenay.

The Abbey of Fontenay is beautifully preserved, giving visitors a sense for monastic life in medieval France. It was founded in 1118 by St. Bernard of Clairvaux as a back-to-basics reaction to the excesses of richer Benedictine abbeys, such as Cluny.

The Cistercians worked to recreate the simplicity and the poverty of the Church in the first centuries after Christ. Bernard created what he called "a horrible vast solitude" here in the forest, where his monks could live like the desert fathers of the Old Testament. They strove to be separate from the world, and this required the industrious self-sufficiency that these abbeys were so adept at. The movement spread, essentially colonizing Europe religiously. By the year 1200, there were over 500 Cistercian monasteries and abbeys throughout Europe.

The abbey church is pure Romanesque and built to St. Bernard's specs: Plain façade, Latin cross floor plan, no colorful stained glass, unadorned columns — nothing to distract from prayer. The lone statue is the 13th-century Virgin of Fontenay, a reminder that the church was dedicated to Mary. An ethereal light still bathes the interior.

Stairs lead from the church to an oak-beamed dormitory where the monks slept — fully dressed, on thin mats.

Monastic life was extremely simple: prayer, reading, work, seven religious services a day, one meal a day in the winter, two in the summer. Daily rations: a loaf of bread and a quarter-liter of wine.

In spite of its isolation, Fontenay flourished as a prosperous economic engine for several centuries. According to a 14th-century proverb, "Wherever the wind blows, to Fontenay the money flows."

In the 13th century, the monks at Fontenay ran what many consider Europe's first metalworking plant. The art of metal working was largely lost after Rome fell about seven centuries earlier. Iron ore was melted down in ovens with the help of big bellows. The monks made and sold iron tools for a profit.

A stream was diverted to power hydraulic or water-powered hammers that operated the forge. This technique, first used here, became the basis of industrial manufacturing of iron throughout Europe.

Like mustard seeds carried by a European wind, the monks of medieval Burgundy spread not only the gospel but helped to germinate the industrial age — which led to the thriving continent we know today.

Monks in Burgundy still draw crowds. To experience the latest in European monasticism, drop by the booming Christian community of Taizé. Taizé is an ecumenical community, welcoming Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians alike. The uplifting ambience of this place — with thousands of mostly young, European pilgrims spending days exploring their faith and enjoying a break from the fast-paced material world, is remarkable.

The Taizé community — which was founded in 1940 — welcomes visitors who'd like to spend a few days getting close to God through meditation, singing, and simple living. Meals are in keeping with the joyful simplicity of the place. At any given time, there are several thousand here from about 100 countries enjoying a week-long retreat.

When the bells ring, worshippers and white-robed brothers file into the long, plain, modern church. Taizé style worship is a cycle of Bible readings, meditative silence, and mesmerizingly beautiful chants, as worshippers "enter together into the mystery of God's presence."