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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

Cistercians in a changing world: early successes


Settle the Cistercians in some barren retreat which is hidden away in an overgrown forest: a year or two later you will find splendid churches there and fine monastic buildings, with a great amount of property and all the wealth you can imagine.

[Gerald of Wales, The Journey through Wales, p. 104]
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During the first half of the twelfth century the Cistercian Order blossomed in Britain while its monks and nuns enjoyed a high reputation for sanctity. Their monasteries attracted a number of recruits and donors, many being local people drawn by what they had seen and heard at first hand. The Cistercians also had a significant impact on the landscape, and were actively involved in land clearance and reclamation, draining marshlands, clearing woodlands and converting stagnant pools into running water. They developed a highly efficient land-based economy which had at its core the grange-system of farming. Through granges (agricultural centres that were worked by the lay-brothers) the White Monks exploited their lands directly, cultivating and harvesting crops and rearing livestock. Even the most vehement of the Cistercians’ critics acknowledged their effective transformation of these desolate sites.

Lead Taps from Kirkstall Abbey
Lead taps from Kirkstall Abbey
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The White Monks were particularly associated with sheep-farming and made a significant contribution to wool production and the wool trade. They were also at the forefront of technological innovations in Britain, being amongst the first to use fulling mills, tanning mills and the water-driven hammer forge; they may also have contributed to the increased use of horse-power at this time. The Cistercians in Britain developed the use of taps for the new walled lavatorium, and twelfth-century taps survive at Kirkstall Abbey.