The Cistercian Order: Introduction
The origins of the Cistercian Order lie in Burgundy.
In 1098 Abbot Robert and a group of his monks from Molesme, who
were dissatisfied with contemporary monasticism, sought solitude
and seclusion in woods south of Dijon. They wished to follow a harsher
and more disciplined way of life, according to a literal interpretation
of the Rule of
St Benedict. The Cistercians were often referred to as the White
Monks for they wore habits of undyed wool that appeared grey or
white, and not the customary Benedictine black habit. They were
renowned for the severity and simplicity of their clothing,
diet, architecture and liturgy (prayer and worship). The Cistercians
were also noted for their emphasis on manual
work, which they made
once more an central part of the monastic day as St
Bernard had prescribed.
The White Monks built their abbeys in remote,
uncultivated areas, far from human habitation. Each abbey was a
self-sufficient unit. The monks rejected income from churches, tithes
and manorial rents, and sought to live by the labour of their own
hands, as recommended in the Rule
of St Benedict. They worked their lands directly through a series
of granges that were managed and farmed by lay
brothers, or conversi . All Cistercian churches were dedicated
to the Virgin
Mary, and were free from decoration, ostentation and luxury.
Visually, they were quite distinct from the richly adorned Benedictine
churches, with their sculptures, lavish furnishings and jewels.
The Cistercians did not see themselves as starting
a new system of monastic life but rather as restoring the pure form
of the Benedictine life. Their system of organisation was, however,
quite original. Cistercian Houses were joined in a familial relationship,
linked through unity and charity. Each abbey was visited yearly
by its mother-house to ensure that standards were maintained. A
of abbots met annually at Cîteaux to discuss discipline and
legislation. Cistercian administration was highly efficient and
had a considerable influence on laster monastic orders.
The Cistercians had their critics, as well as
their admirers, but their rigorous lifestyle attracted more than
it deterred. Within fifty years of their foundation the white monks
had taken Europe by storm, and by the mid-seventeenth century there
were more than 1500 Cistercian houses in Europe, stretching from
Scandinavia to Sicily.