In the twelfth century the leadership in creative, vigorous monastic life passed to the Cistercians. As we have suggested more than once, each great revival of the monastic life tended to be followed by decline. A leader of naming devotion and high idealism would attract youth, and austerity would characterize the first years of the new house or houses. Then would come popularity and wealth, either through the labour of the monks themselves or by gifts from devout admirers, zeal would wane, and the quality of life would sink to mediocrity and uninspired routine or worse. In the twelfth century this began to happen to Cluny. The number of its affiliated monasteries continued to mount, although more slowly than earlier, but it was no longer in the van. Other and younger movements took its place as pioneers. Chief of these were the Cistercians.
The Cistercians began with Robert, a Benedictine monk who by his zeal for reform and strict observance of the monastic ideal attracted a number of hermits. After being an abbot of a new community at Molesme in Burgundy in huts made of boughs (be gun c.1075), eventually, as that foundation fell away from its first fervour, he removed (1098) to a new centre at Citeaux, not far from Dijon, in the eastern part of what is now France. Citeaux became the mother house of what were soon to be the Cistercians (from the Latin name, Cistercium, for Citeaux). The basic features of the Cistercian movement were given it by Robert, and especially by the second and third abbots of Citeaux, Alberic and Stephen Harding, the latter an Englishman.
In general the Cistercians held to the Benedictine rule. However, they had five distinct characteristics which set them off from other monks. First, and least important, was their garb. Instead of the black habit of the Benedictines, they wore greyish white, and are often referred to as the "white monks."
Second was an attempt, quite usual in new monastic movements, to observe the rule of strict poverty. This the Cistercians sought to accomplish by reducing to a minimum the physical accompaniments of their common worship. In contrast with the great churches and elaborate and costly liturgical vestments and ornaments of the Cluniacs, they had crucifixes of painted wood, chalices of silver rather than gold, and unadorned vestments of linen or fustian rather than of silk. They refused to derive the income for their houses from tithes, offerings, altar and burial dues, or from estates worked by serfs. Their clothing and food were to be of the simplest.
In the third place, in contrast with many of the foundations of the black monks which were near the cities, the Cistercians established their houses far from other habitations. Their lands were to be cleared and tilled by their own labour and not that of serfs. Some of this was done by the choir monks. Most of it was by the more numerous con-versi, or lay brothers. The conversi were illiterate, they memorized only the creed and a few of the prayers, their prayers at the canonical hours were brief, and they were allowed more sleep and food than the choir monks. They followed the rule of silence except such exchange of words as was necessary for their work. The use of lay brothers made servants unnecessary.
A fourth feature was the reduction of the time spent in the liturgical services, for it will be remembered that these had been lengthened by Cluny and had become the chief occupation of the monks. Instead, room was made for more private prayer. There was to be no school for oblate children, namely, those of tender years who had been dedicated by their elders to the monastic life. No novices were to be accepted who were less than sixteen years of age. Thus all the monks were supposed to come by their own choice and from a sense of divine vocation.
The fifth distinct characteristic of the Cistercians was the provision for welding all the houses together into an integrated order, the first of its kind and the precursor of many others. The Cluniac houses were under the theoretical supervision of the abbot of the mother house, but they early became too numerous for effective oversight by one man. In the Cistercian system each monastery retained a large degree of autonomy, but identical service books were provided for all, each abbey was visited annually by the abbot of Citeaux or the abbot of one of the four other oldest foundations, and every year all the abbots of all the houses assembled at Citeaux in a general chapter to maintain fellowship and to take such legislative and disciplinary measures as might be necessary. Citeaux itself was visited and inspected regularly by representatives of its four eldest daughter houses.
The Cistercians quickly achieved wide popularity. Ardent youths were attracted by their devotion. In country after country their houses arose in desolate places. Forests were cleared, swamps were drained, and the necessary monastic buildings were erected.
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