Earlier I posted about Cluny, the head of an important monastic order in Burgundy, founded at the beginning of the tenth century. Today I want to discuss another important Burgundian monastic order, the Cistercians, founded two centuries later. The Cistercians take their name from their first monastery, Cîteaux. (I doubt that Cluny and Cîteaux both began with the letter C in order to confuse you. Remember, the Carthusians also start with the letter C. Try to keep them straight--they did.)
Cîteaux was founded in 1098, at a time when the economy had improved enough that poverty, rather than wealth, was considered holy. Its founder was not a great duke but rather a monk. Robert, the monk, had spent decades trying to find what he considered an austere enough monastery, moving from house to house.
Robert had eventually founded his own monastery, Molesme, in 1075, where he became abbot. But even here he felt that many of the monks were not following a strict enough life, that they were too comfortable, not facing God’s commands starkly enough. So in 1098 he and a handful of monks of Molesme who agreed with him headed off to an old hermitage, called Cîteaux (it was in a swampy area, the name is related to the word ‘cistern’).
The rest of the monks were distraught. It was like waking up and discovering that Mom and Dad had run away from home because you had been so bad. They sent a tear-drenched letter to the pope, who ordered Robert to return to Molesme, where his monks promised to be good.
But the monks at Cîteaux continued, electing a new abbot from among their number. The house was from the beginning extremely austere, its church lacking any decoration, its way of life harsh, the monks originally doing their own agricultural work, rather than having peasant tenants, as did Cluny. They did however soon adopt the practice of conversi, people from peasant backgrounds who wanted to be monks but lacked the educational background to become full choir monks. The Cistercians seem to have gotten the idea for conversi from the Carthusians.
Neighboring aristocrats soon learned of these holy monks. In 1113 Cîteaux’s success was assured when a whole band of knights arrived, fired with enthusiasm and ready to give up everything for Christ.
Quickly Cîteaux began founding daughter houses, because there were now too many monks to all fit. One of the most influential of these new houses was Clairvaux, headed by Bernard, who had been the leader of the converting knights. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) became the best known member of the Cistercians, counseling kings and popes, accusing Peter Abelard of heresy, pointing out to Louis VII that he was too closely related to his wife, helping found the Templars, of which his uncle was first Grand Master, and preaching the Second Crusade.
He also criticized the Cluniacs for being too lenient, rather than (metaphorically) cracking the whip over monastic behavior, and for building such beautifully decorated churches, where he said the carvings would distract one from prayer. He mocked them for protesting that they ate eggs rather than meat, saying, Yes, but boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, poached eggs, fried eggs, baked eggs ... He said that all novices ought to undergo strict noviciate training, even the elderly, though at Cluny elderly converts could skip becoming novices. Bernard even chided the Cluniacs for wearing black habits, because black wool was more expensive—the Cistercians wore habits of undyed white wool. Toward the end of Bernard’s life, however, he and the abbot of Cluny became friends.
Cîteaux quickly became the head of an “order,” a group of monasteries that all followed the monastic rule in the same way. The Cistercians were tightly organized and uniform, with the abbots of all daughter houses meeting together every year to maintain this uniformity. All members of the monasteries were adult converts; the Cistercians took no child oblates ("offerings"). The order soon had daughter houses all over Europe; the Cistercians in Yorkshire had huge sheep flocks roaming the moors.
The Cistercians also became major pawn brokers. Nobles who needed money, especially for Crusade, but didn't want to sell their land outright, would lease it to the monks for a lump sum substantially less than the property's actual value. If they could repay within six years, they got it back. No interest was charged, though the monks usually got the "usufruct" (that is, the produce and income from the land during those years), described as a gift for the layman's soul. In practice, since few people returned rich from Crusade, these pawned properties generally became the monks'.
© C. Dale Brittain 2018
For more on monasticism and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.