The Cistercian challenge

In 1098 a group of monks left the Burgundian monastery of Molesme in 1098 and established what they called Novum monasterium, the New Monastery. Their goal was to follow the Rule of Saint Benedict more carefully, but they apparently had no intention of starting what would become the first independent monastic order of their era.6 By the time the founders in 1119 or 1120 began calling the New Monastery Citeaux, they had acknowledged that they had done more than found a monastery. In the intervening two decades they experienced the scandal of their first abbot being ordered back by papal decree to Molesme. A number of the original monks followed him, and the remainder had to suffice with the former prior, Alberic, as abbot.

At Alberic's death in 1109 the prior, Stephen Harding, took over. He was an Englishman trained in traditional monasticism at Sherborne in the West Country. He had abandoned this monastery and lived as a wandering scholar before coming to Molesme some time before 1098. Now in the new monasti-cism Stephen Harding found his true vocation. He became the genius of Citeaux, even if he is overshadowed in the history books by the person and writings of Bernard of Clairvaux. But if any single person can be called the founder of the Order of Citeaux, it is Stephen Harding.7

From 1112 or 1113 Citeaux began sending out groups of monks to found daughter houses, the first being La Ferte, Pontigny, Clairvaux and Morimond. It was during this time that the constitution of the new order was drawn up, the Carta caritatis or Charter of Charity, confirmed by Pope Callistus II at the end of 1119.8 In an attempt to follow the Rule of Saint Benedict to the letter, Stephen Harding established forms of monastic life never anticipated in the Rule, which left the final authority in the monastery to the abbot. Now the abbot of each monastery participated in a network of meetings and contacts which limited his power. All abbots were obliged to attend a general chapter at

6 According to the Exordium Cistercii it was a desire to follow the Rule which was the central motivation for leaving Molesme. See Chrysogonus Waddell, ed., Narrative and Legislative Texts from Early Citeaux (Citeaux: Commentarii Cistercienses, 1999), 400.

7 Brian Patrick McGuire, 'Who Founded the Order of Citeaux?', in E. Rozanne Elder, ed., The Joy of Learning and the Love of God (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 389-413.

8 Waddell, ed., Narrative and Legislative Texts, 273.

Citeaux once a year in September. They had to accept disciplinary measures the chapter might impose on them and their monasteries. Abbots thus gave up the sovereignty which the Rule of Saint Benedict gave them. In the filiation of Citeaux, they had to accept visitation by the father abbot of their monastery and also to take care of visitations of their own daughter houses. These bonds were to be based on charity, not on finances: the very first chapter of the Carta caritatis specified that a mother house had no right to make collections from its daughter houses.

Citeaux and its daughters and granddaughters developed after about 1115 a magnificent administrative system with a simple hierarchical structure. The Cistercians at the same time rediscovered the meaning of the Rule of Saint Benedict: 'Finding no evidence in the Rule or in the life of St Benedict that he, their teacher, had possessed churches or altars, offerings or burial dues, other men's tithes, ovens or mills, villages or peasants.they renounced all these privileges.'9 The Cistercians thus freed themselves from the bonds and obligations that ensnared their brethren in traditional monasteries. A Cistercian author, Idung of Prüfening, summarised his order's superiority to Cluny in Dialogus duorum monachorum from the middle of the twelfth century.10 Cluny and Citeaux became rivals in asserting the superiority of different kinds of monasticism.

As abbot at Citeaux until 1133, Stephen Harding was remembered for his fairness and piety. He would touch the door of the church on the way in to the office, thus symbolically leaving behind the cares of the monastery and opening his mind to monastic prayer. He was wise enough to recognise qualities in the young Bernard but also to criticise him for failing to remember prayers for his dead parents. We hear such stories in the great collection of Cistercian stories gathered in the last decades of the twelfth century, the Exordium magnum cisterciense. 11 Here it was claimed that the monastic vocation originated with Jesus and the apostles. In this sense the Cistercians thought of themselves as the truest Christians in following Christ. Inspired by Bernard of Clairvaux, they are perhaps the first and last monastic group in medieval Europe who sought to convert the entire world by bringing as many as possible into the monastery.

9 From the Exordiumparvum, in Pauline Matarasso, trans., The Cistercian World (London: Penguin, 1993), 6.

10 Idung of Prüfening, Cistercians and Cluniacs: The Case for Citeaux (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1977).

11 Bruno Griesser, ed., Exordium magnum cisterciense sive narratio de initio cisterciensis ordinis (Rome: Editiones cistercienses, 1961), 82-4.

Wherever Bernard went he left behind Cistercian monasteries. The story is told about him that mothers hid their sons when Bernard was in the neigh-bourhood.12 Once the youths heard him preach, they would insist on joining an order that seems to have appealed strongly to members of the lower aristocracy. Such a tale says nothing about the daughters of such families, but in reality many women were joining houses that chose to live according to the Cistercian institutes. No official recognition was given to this allegiance before the end of the twelfth century, and then already in 1220 the general chapter forbade the incorporation of new women's houses into the order.

The care of the spiritual and physical needs of enclosed women, cura mulierum, was considered in many cases to be a burden. But there were by now a number of women's houses visited by Cistercian men who came to form close bonds with abbesses or individual nuns. The history of female Cistercian monasticism has been hidden from view for centuries, but in the last decades has begun to get the attention it deserves.13

The standard narrative of Cistercian origins has also been challenged in our time, most recently by Constance Hoffman Berman.14 Her work shows how the monks developed as an order, and thus provides a welcome corrective to the view that the Cistercians were already an order practically from the time the first monks left Molesme. Berman also points out that the standard view of neat filiations with mother houses founding daughters is misleading, for many houses were already in existence before they decided to join the Cistercian Order. The spectacular case of the congregation of Savigny entering in 1147 is well known, but Berman shows how many monasteries, especially in the Midi, had long been in existence before they came to choose the Cistercian way.

Berman claims that there was no order at all before the 1150s, and it is here that I have to dissent. Such a thesis would require that the early constitutions of the Cistercian Order, especially the Carta caritatis, are forgeries from a later period. I see no hard evidence for such a claim. Instead I find Bernard of Clairvaux himself writing letters which assume the existence of a Cistercian Order, with authority vested in the general chapter and the abbot of Citeaux.

12 S. Bernardi Vita Prima I.3.15, PL 185, col. 235: 'Jamque eo publice et privatim praedicante, mattes filios abscondebant...'

13 See, for example, 'The Life of Ida the Compassionate of Nivelles, Nun of La Ramée', in Martinus Cawley, trans., Send Me God (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003).

14 Constance Hoffman Berman, The Cistercian Evolution: The Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-Century Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

Bernard's witness points to the existence of the Cistercian Order from the 1120s onwards.15

The Cistercians were one of the great historical enterprises of Western monasticism. They attempted to live out Benedictine monasticism in its contemplative wholeness. In doing so they built buildings whose architecture reflected the simplicity and stability of the Order's identity. Even a century after their foundation, they were still sufficiently admired for their structure to be the model for other orders. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 required that Benedictine abbots meet regularly, on the Cistercian model, in a general chapter. Earlier attempts at such regular meetings of Benedictine houses can be seen in Denmark, under Archbishop Anders Sunesen. Even though traditional monasteries generally resisted such attempts at organisation, a process began which led to the formation of the Benedictine Order. The Cistercians can thus be seen as the makers of the Benedictines as an order.

The Cistercians not only provoked their Benedictine brethren into new forms of monastic government; they also made it unthinkable to join monasteries before adulthood. For centuries parents had been offering their sons and daughters as oblates. Now the Cistercians insisted that only an adult could make the decision to join a monastery. The usually accepted age was eighteen, even if occasional miracle stories showed Mary making exceptions possible. But the general rule for the Cistercians became the fixed norm everywhere.

Recruits to the Cistercian houses could count on the service of lay brothers. Other monastic groups had already welcomed these workers in the eleventh century. They became the first groups of peasants in the West for whom the means of salvation was made easily available. The lay brothers often settled on granges far from the monastery and looked after flocks of sheep or brought in the harvest. Cistercian lay brothers were outstanding in making good use of marginal land and making it profitable. The monks liked to think that they cleared virginal land and made the desert bloom. In reality they often bought up land from peasants or cleared the peasants off land given to the monks. The Cistercians were skilled at idealising their own achievements. Apart from their propaganda, however, the monks and their lay brothers were eminently successful in transforming the countryside in their image and likeness.

15 Brian Patrick McGuire, 'Bernard's Concept of a Cistercian Order: Vocabulary and Context', Citeaux: Commentarii Cistercienses 54 (2003), 225-49.

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