A Reflection in Ganagobie

As well as all its other attractions, Provence is Cistercian country. To explore it with a fine academic study of abbeys which once were there, is an invitation to reflect on the roots of modern economic development and the interaction between art and material life.

The Cistercian Order grew to 500 Abbeys in a single century. Materially, this was not done, as they liked to have it believed, by establishing themselves “far from the haunts of men” and making the desert bloom (cutting down forests and draining swamps). Rather, it was much more by taking over (by purchase or legacy) already-cultivated lands and making them far more productive. Over the centuries since the fall of Rome, extensive farming, based upon the labor of slaves, had been largely replaced by forms of tenant farming, beginning with slave-tenants — what the great French historian, Marc Bloch, called a “triumph of small-scale over large-scale enterprise.”

Managerial Revolution

This fragmentation was reversed by the Cistercians. Theirs was a managerial revolution, particularly involving two remarkable innovations, the “grange” and “transhumance.” Both enabled economies of a scale not available to the earlier occupants of the lands, whether these were peasants or lords. In economic importance, the change they brought about was analogous to the innovation of limited liability in the nineteenth century, which similarly intensified management specialization and enabled systematic economic activity to be carried on in much larger units than previously.

Grange-farming replaced individually-managed smallholdings that could provide little more than subsistence, by large, specialized units. It enabled adaptation of crops to soil, crop rotation, and processing and marketing of produce, to be practiced efficiently and on a very large scale. Water-power was captured through the design and building of large numbers of watermills. Very frequently, also, the peasants on lands taken over became lay-brothers, thus providing a disciplined labor force which could be deployed economically according to needs of place and season.

Transhumance, the movement of herds of animals, sometimes in tens of thousands, to and from summer pastures, enabled the stocking rate on grazing land to be greatly increased as well as providing dung to improve soil fertility for crop-growing.

Cluniac Contrast

In contrast, the Cluniac Benedictines spent their money on beautifying their buildings with sculpture, mosaics and stained glass, all of which were forbidden to the Cistercians under their Rule. Giraldus Cambrensis once wrote:

Give the Cluniacs today a tract of land covered with marvelous buildings, endow them with ample revenues and enrich the place with vast possessions; before you can turn around it will all be ruined and reduced to poverty. On the other hand, settle the Cistercians in some barren retreat which is hidden away in an overgrown forest; a year or two later you will find splendid churches there and monastic buildings, with a great amount of property and all the wealth you can imagine.

The full magnitude of this cultural split only becomes evident when it is borne in mind that the very possibility of technology in the Western world depended upon the Rule that was common to both Cluniacs and Cistercians. If ever there was a turning point in economic history, St. Benedict’s linking of learning and labor in his Rule was surely one, since such a link was quite unknown to the ancient world: “the monk was the first intellectual to get dirt under his fingernails.” It was through the spread of the Rule that in Newman’s words, throughout Europe “the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.”

Two Faces of Reform

When the original inspiration burned out, the Cluniac reform of the Benedictine Order abandoned manual labor and concentrated on multiplying accretions to the Divine Office and beautifying the environment in which it was performed. In contrast, the Cistercians’ way of returning to the primitive Rule gave preeminence to labor, so that they became the entrepreneurs and the technologists of the medieval world.

In Provence today, the place in which to contemplate the consequences is unquestionably the Priory of Ganagobie, high above the river Durance. Here, Benedictines from Haute-Savoie are reviving an 11th-century foundation in which their own labor is mingled with an outstandingly beautiful liturgy.

From the standpoint of this evident unity, one cannot but reflect on the origin of modern divergences between business and humane values. Through his famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber taught us to see this origin in the Reformation. But in Provence, one wonders if this one root, at least, does not go much deeper, back to the monastic reforms of Cluny and Citeaux .


At the time this article was published, William Kingston wrote from the School of Business Studies, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.

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