Who were the Cistercians?
Professor Janet Burton
Who were the Cistercians?
In 1098 a small group of monks, apparently unhappy with the nature of monastic observance at their monastery of Molesme in the region of France known as Burgundy, left the house and settled near Dijon. The community they established was at first simply known as the ‘New Monastery’ and in time as Cîteaux. It is from Cîteaux that the Cistercians take their name. So much we know. But the precise nature of the problems at Molesme, the aims of the first monks of the ‘New Monastery’, and indeed the history of the community in the years that followed, are more difficult to unravel. It is not that we lack sources. On the contrary, we have a number of historical narratives from Cistercian writers, notably the Exordium Parvum (‘The Little Beginning’) and the Exordium Cistercii (‘The Beginning of Citeaux’), which tell the story in some detail. For the historian, however, the problem is that the Cistercians wrote and updated their texts - constitutional, liturgical and historical - from time to time, so we cannot be sure if what we read is a portrayal of the events of 1098 and the years after the departure from Molesme, or a representation of how the monks understood their origins from a later perspective.
Nevertheless it is clear that the Cistercian Order came to be seen as a distinctive movement. Writing shortly before 1124 an English Benedictine monk, William of Malmesbury, thought that the Cistercians were so holy that they offered ‘the surest road to Heaven’, as he drew attention to the austerity of their lifestyle and their churches. A decade or so later another Benedictine monk, Orderic Vitalis, who was born in England but spent his life from the age of ten in a Norman monastery, spoke of the Cistercians as a new breed of monks: ‘Monasteries are founded everywhere in mountain valleys and plains, observing new rites and wearing different habits; the swarm of cowled monks spreads all over the world. They especially favour white in their habit . . . ’. It was from their custom of wearing undyed habits that the Cistercians became known as the White Monks’ - Walter Daniel, writing in 1167, called them ‘white monks by name and white also in vesture’.
So how were the Cistercians different?
First, they developed the idea of a monastic order. The basis of the Cistercian way of life was traditional, in that they, like other monks, followed the Rule of St Benedict and indeed the reason given for the decision in 1098 to leave Molesme was the failure of that community to observe the Rule properly. But Benedictine houses by the eleventh century were by their nature independent institutions. Some, it is true, had coalesced into congregations. These, the most famous among them being Cluny, added liturgical customs on to the basic framework of the Rule. The Cistercians went further, and over a period of time came to devise structures which bound individual houses together in a way that had not been tried before. The congregation of Cîteaux spread rapidly: monasteries sent out colonies, or daughter houses, to establish new foundations, and some existing monasteries adopted Cistercian customs. In order to preserve the unity of observance it was decided that each year the abbot of each Cistercian house should travel to Cîteaux to attend the Annual General Chapter. The Chapter became the legislative body of the Order, taking decisions and enacting decrees that regulated the Cistercian way of life. It was also a disciplinary body, placing penalties on those who fell short of the rigorous standards of observance that it required. Moreover every year the abbot of each mother house - those houses which had sent out colonies - visited each of its daughter houses. This annual visitation was a further check on the observance in all the monasteries of the Order. These mechanisms were laid down in the written ‘constitution’ of the Cistercians, the Carta Caritatis or ‘Charter of Love’.
How did the Cistercians live?
The Cistercian documents claim that the Cistercian way of life was based on a firm commitment to the Rule of St Benedict. The Rule laid down a daily timetable devoted to three occupations: the performance of the liturgy (the Opus Dei), manual labour, and reading. By the eleventh century there had been a tendency for the liturgy to be expanded to the detriment of manual labour, which was squeezed out of the daily routine. The Cistercians cut back the length of the daily services, allowing work once more to be a part of a monk’s life. In other ways they went far beyond what was actually stated in the Rule in an attempt to create, or recreate, a simple lifestyle, one that they thought would bring them back to the practices of the earliest monks. From the time of Abbot Stephen Harding (elected 1109, resigned 1133/4) they adopted simplicity and austerity in their buildings, a characteristic noted by William of Malmesbury and defended by Bernard of Clairvaux as appropriate to the Cistercians’ desire for poverty. The austerity of their physical environment was matched by the simplicity of their lifestyle in terms of what they ate and drank and how they dressed. Bernard’s Apologia (c. 1125) makes it clear that in all these ways the Cistercians contrasted with the traditional Benedictine and especially Cluniac monks. The customs developed over the years by the General Chapter came to cover all aspects of monastic observance. The Cistercians cultivated the image of themselves as ‘desert monks’, and their regulations stated that their abbeys should be located ‘far from the dwellings of men’, or, in the words of Orderic Vitalis, ‘in lonely wooded places’. They developed a particular view of the desirable economic basis of their abbeys. This rejected what were, by the eleventh century, traditional forms of revenue for monastic houses, that is, manors, churches and tithes, and laid down an economic framework based on the direct exploitation of land consolidated into granges (farms) and administered by conversi, or lay brothers. Although the conversi, men who took vows but who were workers rather than monks, were not unique to the Cistercian Order, the White Monks were the first group to utilize them effectively to manage their vast estates and, in many areas, to develop on a large scale the keeping of sheep and production of wool for which the medieval Cistercians were famous.
Uniformity or Diversity?
The Cistercian ‘agenda’ would therefore seem to have been one of unity and uniformity. The European wide congregation, which numbered over 350 by the mid twelfth century, placed a premium on a single lifestyle being followed in each of its houses, and developed a mechanism, or machinery, to enforce its ideas. But did they achieve this, or were Cistercian houses in reality diverse in their practices? It is quite likely that the idea of the General Chapter and annual visitation developed early in the history of the Order, when it was still a fairly local congregation, since by the mid twelfth century the strain was clearly being felt. After this we find that the Chapter allowed abbots of monasteries in certain distant counties dispensation from personal attendance at the Chapter each year, and abbots were also allowed to appoint proxies to conduct visitations of distant daughter houses. The Cistercians, dependent as they were on founders and patrons to donate lands for the foundation of new daughter houses, could not always choose ‘desert’ sites - indeed some areas of Europe were already densely settled. They did not always shun contact with the outside world; indeed they actively engaged in political and ecclesiastical issues and interacted with the patrons, often identifying them with their aspirations and ambitions. Their desired forms of economic activity were not always achievable, and it is likely that the regulations of the General Chapter are to be seen as aspirational rather than mandatory.
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