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The Cistercian Order

Cistercian Monastery

An inside view of a Spanish Cistercian monastery, an excellent example of the Cistercian minimalist aesthetic.

Foundation and Early Years

In 1098, a Benedictine monk named Robert, fed up with the luxurious and idle life of his brothers, left his monastery at Molesme, France. Intending to create a place in the wilderness where he and like-minded monks could follow the Rule of St. Benedict in peace, Robert of Molesme founded a new abbey at Cîteaux, near Dijon. The Latin toponym for Cîteaux is Cistercium, and so the monks of Cîteaux became known as Cistercians. The Cistercians attempted to return to a strict observance of the original Rule of St. Benedict which had been heavily modified over the five hundred years it had been practiced through indulgence and local custom, living far removed from other settlements, eating an austere diet, and engaging in manual labor.

Unfortunately for Robert, he was soon ordered to return to Molesme by Pope Urban II and for the first ten or so years after the foundation of Cîteaux, the order slowly grew under the leadership of abbot Stephen Harding. Harding founded a second abbey at La Ferté, initiating a form of oversight called “filiation” where the founding or “mother” house was required to maintain the quality of observance at all the abbeys it founded, called “daughter” houses. The Order’s true growth, however, only began in 1113 when Bernard, a young noblemen of a powerful Burgundian family, arrived at Cîteaux with 35 friends and family. In 1115, a mere two years later, Bernard was sent from Cîteaux to found a monastery on a tract of land given by Hugh, Count of Champagne, at Clairvaux. Thanks in no small part to Bernard's tireless energy, membership in the order exploded, and by 1150 there were over 300 Cistercian houses in Europe.

Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Doctor Mellifluus (honey-tongued doctor) of the Church, was born in 1090 or 1091 as the third of seven children to Tescelin, Lord of Fontaines, and Aleth of Montbard, one of the most powerful noble families in Burgundy. After joining the Cistercian order and being made abbot, Bernard spent the next decade or so strengthening the order and talking care of his abbatial responsibilities. It was not until the Council of Troyes in 1128 that Bernard made his first appearance in the broader affairs of the Church, aiding in the formation of the Knights Templar through tracing the first outlines of their Rule and writing the short treatise De laude novae militiae (In Praise of the New Knighthood).

Bernard's true influence, however, began with his engagement in the papal schism of 1130-1138. His support for Pope Innocent II, as opposed to Anacletus II who was already strongly established in Rome, is commonly believed to have been the deciding factor in the contest, swaying the French crown to Innocent's side. Although the schism persisted until Anacletus' death in 1138, Innocent had the upper hand.

At the same time, Bernard engaged himself at a debate at the heart of twelfth century Christendom. The rediscovery of Aristotelian logic at the cathedral schools at Paris, Laon, and elsewhere, led to theological exploration of the divine along strictly rational lines, most famously by Peter Abelard (d.1143). This rational theology was diametrically opposed to the more mystical and spiritual theology popular in the monastic sphere, and Bernard became Abelard's chief persecutor in the 1130s, finally defeating him in a public debate at Sens in 1141. Despite this victory, Abelard was merely the foremost representative of this new manner of theological inquiry, which perpetuated itself in the schools and the budding universities of Europe.

The height of Bernard's influence and power came in 1145, when one of his monks, Bernardo da Pisa, was elected Pope Eugene III. Eugene relied heavily on Bernard for advice, and the treatise Bernard wrote for the Pope, De consideratione, is one which continues to affect the pontiff's understanding of his office. In the summer of 1145, Bernard also undertook a preaching tour of the south of France against a group historians now call Cathars, initiating Cistercian involvement in anti-heretical preaching in the Midi.

One of the first pieces of news that reached the newly elected Eugene was that of the fall of the crusader state of Edessa to the Turks. Eugene responded by issuing the crusading bull Quantum praedecessores, and delegated Bernard to preach what is now known as the Second Crusade as papal legate, a task Bernard pursued with his usual zeal. This crusade, although it counted both King Louis VII of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa as members, was a colossal and unmitigated failure, dealing a blow to the reputations of both Bernard and Eugene, one from which Bernard was still recovering when he died in 1153.

The Cistercian Order after 1200

There is no point at which the Cistercian order can really be said to have begun to decline. Indeed, it plainly continued to expand throughout the thirteenth and into the fourteenth centuries. Yet sometime around 1200 it seems to have somehow lost the initiative, so to speak, to other social forces. The prominant religious movements of the thirteenth century were both popular and outside of the constraints of the cloister. The first decades saw the appearance of first the Franciscans and then the Dominicans, stirring up and reacting to popular religious fervor. These orders also took over for the Cistercians in the anti-heretical efforts in the south of France. 

At the same time, the intellectual and theological center in western Europe was shifting from the monastic sphere to that of the newly-founded universities, specifically Paris and Oxford. This is not to say that the more mystical or spiritual elements of Catholic Christianity went quietly, for there was significant pushback both from the established monastic orders and from a sect within the Franciscans known as the Spirituals. Despite this response, the Cistercians and the monastic orders in general slowly lost their hold on the center of the Church. This process was accelerated by the dissolution of many Cistercian houses in England in 1538 and in France during the Revolution. Today, only around 200 still exist.

The Cistercian Order