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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

The Cistercian Order: Introduction


MS 170 f. 75v: The initial 'Q' from the Moralia in Job depicts a Cistercian monk reaping corn.
The initial ‘Q’ from the Moralia in Job depicts a Cistercian monk reaping corn.
© Bibliotheque Municipale, Dijon
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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 General Chapter 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 are a model for all monks, a mirror for the diligent, a spur for the indolent.
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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.

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