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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. 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. 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.

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. The customs developed over the years by the General Chapter came to cover all aspects of monastic observance. 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 European wide congregation, which numbered over 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?


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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.

Alberic also forged an alliance with the Dukes of Burgundy , working out a deal with Duke Odo I of Burgundy concerning the donation of a vineyard Meursault as well as stones with which they built their church. On January 26, , Alberic died and was soon succeeded by Stephen Harding, the man responsible for carrying the order into its crucial phase.

The order was fortunate that Stephen was an abbot of extraordinary gifts, and he framed the original version of the Cistercian "Constitution" or regulations: [11] the Carta Caritatis Charter of Charity. Although this was revised on several occasions to meet contemporary needs, from the outset it emphasised a simple life of work, love, prayer and self-denial. Cistercian abbeys also refused to admit boy recruits, a practice later adopted by many of older Benedictine houses.

Stephen acquired land for the abbey to develop to ensure its survival and ethic, the first of which was Clos Vougeot.


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As to grants of land, the order would accept only undeveloped land, which the monks then developed by their own labour. For this they developed over time a very large component of uneducated lay brothers known as conversi. These lay brothers were bound by vows of chastity and obedience to their abbot, but were otherwise permitted to follow a form of Cistercian life that was less intellectually demanding.

The outlines of the Cistercian reform were adumbrated by Alberic, but it received its final form in the Carta caritatis Charter of Charity , which was the defining guide on how the reform was to be lived. From one point of view, it may be regarded as a compromise between the primitive Benedictine system, in which each abbey was autonomous and isolated, and the complete centralization of Cluny , where the Abbot of Cluny was the only true superior in the entire Order.

The Cistercian order maintained the independent organic life of the individual houses: each abbey having its own abbot elected by its own monks, its own community belonging to itself and not to the order in general, and its own property and finances administered without outside interference.

Yet on the other hand, all the abbeys were subjected to the General Chapter , the constitutional body which exercised vigilance over the Order. The Cistercians were officially formed in With Saint Bernard's membership, the Cistercian order began a notable epoch of international expansion; [13] and as his fame grew, the Cistercian movement grew with it.

In Margrave Leopold the Strong of Styria called upon the Cistercians to develop his recently acquired March which bordered Austria on the south. He granted monks from the Ebrach Abbey in Bavaria an area of land just north of what is today the provincial capital Graz , where they founded Rein Abbey. At the time, it was the 38th Cistercian monastery founded but, due to the dissolution down the centuries of the earlier 37 abbeys, it is today the oldest surviving Cistercian house in the world.

The Norman invasion of Wales opened the church in Wales to fresh, invigorating streams of continental reform, as well as to the new monastic orders.

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In Yorkshire , Rievaulx Abbey was founded from Clairvaux in , on a small, isolated property donated by Walter Espec , with the support of Thurstan , Archbishop of York. It was from Rievaulx that a foundation was made at Melrose , which became the earliest Cistercian monastery in Scotland. In the spring of , Saint Malachy , Archbishop of Armagh , visited Clairvaux, becoming a personal friend of St Bernard and an admirer of the Cistercian rule.

Christians in name, in fact they were pagans. Barbarous laws disappeared, Roman laws were introduced: everywhere ecclesiastical customs were received and the contrary rejected In short all things were so changed that the word of the Lord may be applied to this people: Which before was not my people, now is my people. As in Wales, there was no significant tradition of Benedictine monasticism in Ireland on which to draw. In the Irish case, this was a disadvantage and represented an insecure foundation for Cistercian expansion. Meanwhile, the Cistercian influence in the Church more than kept pace with this material expansion.

A considerable reinforcement to the Order was the merger of the Savigniac houses with the Cistercians, at the insistence of Eugene III. By , there were 54 Cistercian monasteries in England, few of which had been founded directly from the Continent. He later came popularly to be regarded as the founder of the Cistercians, who have often been called Bernardines.

One of the most important libraries of the Cistercians was in Salem, Germany. In , the first King of Portugal , D. The abbey's church was consecrated in As a consequence of the wars between the Christians and Moors on the Iberian Peninsula , the Cistercians established a military branch of the order in Castile in the Order of Calatrava. By the end of the 13th century, it had become a major autonomous power within the Castilian state, subject only to Morimond and the Pope; with abundant resources of men and wealth, lands and castles scattered along the borders of Castile, and feudal lordship over thousands of peasants and vassals.

The order also played the main role in the early Gothic art of Bohemia; one of the outstanding pieces of Cistercian architecture is the Alt-neu Shul , Prague. In , the Archbishop of Cashel joined the order and established a Cistercian house at the foot of the Rock of Cashel in By the end of the 13th century, the Cistercian houses numbered It often happened that the number of lay brothers became excessive and out of proportion to the resources of the monasteries, there being sometimes as many as , or even , in a single abbey.

For a hundred years, until the first quarter of the 13th century, the Cistercians supplanted Cluny as the most powerful order and the chief religious influence in western Europe. But then in turn their influence began to wane, [3] as the initiative passed to the mendicant orders , in Ireland, [33] Wales [26] and elsewhere. However, some of the reasons of Cistercian decline were internal. Firstly, there was the permanent difficulty of maintaining the initial fervour of a body embracing hundreds of monasteries and thousands of monks, spread all over Europe.

Therefore, any failures to live up to the proposed ideal was more detrimental among Cistercians than among Benedictines, who were intended to live a life of self-denial but not of particular austerity. Relaxations were gradually introduced into Cistercian life with regard to diet and to simplicity of life, and also in regard to the sources of income, rents and tolls being admitted and benefices incorporated, as was done among the Benedictines. The farming operations tended to produce a commercial spirit; wealth and splendour invaded many of the monasteries, and the choir monks abandoned manual labour.

The later history of the Cistercians is largely one of attempted revivals and reforms.

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For a long time, the General Chapter continued to battle bravely against the invasion of relaxations and abuses. In Ireland, the information on the Cistercian Order after the Anglo-Norman invasion gives a rather gloomy impression. In , the General Chapter sent the Abbot of Stanley in Wiltshire , Stephen of Lexington , on a well-documented visitation to reform the Irish houses. They were intended to put an end to abuses, restore the full observance of the Cistercian way of life, safeguard monastic properties, initiate a regime of benign paternalism to train a new generation of religious, isolate trouble-makers and institute an effective visitation system.


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The arrangement lasted almost half a century, and in , the filiation of Mellifont was reconstituted. In Germany the Cistercians were instrumental in the spread of Christianity east of the Elbe. They developed grants of territories of , acres where they would drain land, build monasteries and plan villages. Many towns near Berlin owe their origins to this order, including Heiligengarbe, Chorin, which was the first Brick Monastery in the area.

By the 15th century, however, of all the orders in Ireland, the Cistercians had most comprehensively fallen on evil days. In the 15th century, various popes endeavoured to promote reforms. All these efforts at a reform of the great body of the order proved unavailing; but local reforms, producing various semi-independent offshoots and congregations, were successfully carried out in many parts in the course of the 15th and 16th centuries. Laskill , an outstation of Rievaulx Abbey and the only medieval blast furnace so far identified in Great Britain, was one of the most efficient blast furnaces of its time.

In this they were disappointed, for he threw himself wholly on the side of reform. In the 16th century had arisen the reformed Congregation of the Feuillants , which spread widely in France and Italy, in the latter country under the name of Improved Bernardines. The French congregation of Sept-Fontaines also deserves mention. The Protestant Reformation , the ecclesiastical policy of Joseph II , the French Revolution , and the revolutions of the 18th century almost wholly destroyed the Cistercians.

But some survived, and since the beginning of the last half of the 19th century there has been a considerable recovery. In , the Trappists left the Cistercians and founded a new order, named the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Cistercian architecture has made an important contribution to European civilisation. Architecturally speaking, the Cistercian monasteries and churches, owing to their pure style, may be counted among the most beautiful relics of the Middle Ages.

In the midth century, one of the leading churchmen of his day, the Benedictine Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis , united elements of Norman architecture with elements of Burgundinian architecture rib vaults and pointed arches respectively , creating the new style of Gothic architecture. This new Cistercian architecture embodied the ideals of the order, and was in theory at least utilitarian and without superfluous ornament. The building projects of the Church in the High Middle Ages showed an ambition for the colossal, with vast amounts of stone being quarried, and the same was true of the Cistercian projects.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Cistercian barns consisted of a stone exterior, divided into nave and aisles either by wooden posts or by stone piers. The Cistercians acquired a reputation in the difficult task of administering the building sites for abbeys and cathedrals. The Cistercians "made it a point of honour to recruit the best stonecutters", and as early as , St Bernard was hiring workers to help the monks erect new buildings at Clairvaux.

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The abbeys of France and England are fine examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The architecture of Fontenay has been described as "an excellent illustration of the ideal of self-sufficiency" practised by the earliest Cistercian communities.

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The fortified Maulbronn Abbey in Germany is considered "the most complete and best-preserved medieval monastic complex north of the Alps ". However, as Bernard of Clairvaux, who had a personal violent hostility to imagery, increased in influence in the order, painting and decoration gradually diminished in Cistercian manuscripts, and they were finally banned altogether in the order, probably from the revised rules approved in Any wall paintings that may have existed were presumably destroyed.

Crucifixes were allowed, and later some painting and decoration crept back in. But these are small things; I will pass on to matters greater in themselves, yet seeming smaller because they are more usual. I say naught of the vast height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, the costly polishings, the curious carvings and paintings which attract the worshipper's gaze and hinder his attention But in the cloister, under the eyes of the Brethern who read there, what profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in the marvellous and deformed comeliness, that comely deformity?

To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half-men, those striped tigers, those fighting knights, those hunters winding their horns?

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Many bodies are there seen under one head, or again, many heads to a single body. Here is a four-footed beast with a serpent's tail; there, a fish with a beast's head. Here again the forepart of a horse trails half a goat behind it, or a horned beast bears the hinder quarters of a horse. In short, so many and so marvellous are the varieties of divers shapes on every hand, that we are more tempted to read in the marble than in our books, and to spend the whole day in wondering at these things rather than in meditating the law of God.