Abbot Majolus of Cluny, Ambassador to the Dead

SESSION IV: Abbots between Ideals and Institutions, 10th–12th Centuries

Abbot Majolus of Cluny, Ambassador to the Dead

Scott G. Bruce (University of Colorado, Boulder)


This paper focus on one of Cluny’s unsung monastic superstars – Abbot Majolus. Majolus was a strange abbot as he didn’t leave behind any written  achievements during his abbacy. However, Cluny’s success was due to Maiolus by his furthering Cluny’s reputation. Scholars do not usually recognise him as a contributor to Cluny’s success, but champion his successor, Odilo who established a feast day – All Souls on November 2nd. The founding of this feast day was a response to Majolus’s success for Cluny. A tale ciruclated about this unknown abbot entitled: The Tale of Saint Majolus and the Two Dukes – this story was virtually unknown but circulated among communities, black monks, and Cistercians. Why did this story only appear in the twelfth century? The efficacy of Cluny’s prayers came under assault during this time due to a heretical sect, the Petrobusians. Before 1138, the abbot drafted a treatise to combat this heretical sect. In the face of their criticism, the tale of Majolus benefited the monks and demonstrated their power. Majolus appeared as an envoy between the living and the dead in this tale.

On November 2nd, the monks gave alms to the poor. It was only in the eleventh century that Cluniac monks began spreading the word about the intercessory power of their order. Stories began to spring up about Cluny and its saintly abbot Odilo. Much of the rise in Cluny’s prayer has been attributed to Odilo but tenth century manuscripts show that it was really Majolus’s doing. It is difficult to construct proof because of the lack of sources. However, an increase in activity in Cluny during his abbacy can demonstrate this. The abbey expanded and in the Autumn of 1095, Pope Urban consecrated Cluny III’s basilica. There was an increase in the monk’s numbers and Majolus wrote often to Pope Sylvester. We know very little about what shaped Majolus’s mind or what patristic works he was familiar with while in power. A story circulated that Majolus was waylaid by Muslim brigands. He composed a ransom note but even that yielded very little because it was only three sentences long! Under Majolus’s abbacy, there was a late tenth century spike in donors, this suggests Majolus was the impetus behind this flurry of activity. There were 1096 charters under his abbacy, and slightly fewer under Odolo. Unfortunately, his efforts were eclipsed by his successors because of the paucity of written sources.

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