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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

QuizWomen and the Cistercian life

An overview

Nuns tolling a bell
© British Library
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Nuns tolling a bell

The Cistercians were devoted to the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of the Order, but mortal women were kept well away from the monks. Thus, whereas the Virgin was welcome to appear in any of the monasteries at will - and even to stroll through the monks’ dormitories working miracles – other women were initially excluded from the Cistercian precinct. This at first extended to all women, irrespective of their standing and regardless of their relationship with the Order or a particular abbey. The General Chapter of the Order was later forced to make concessions and to allow access to women on certain occasions. Whilst the Cistercians were more exclusive than the Benedictines, their attitude towards women was not incongruous with the age. This was a time when women were on the one hand associated with the Virgin Mary, yet, on the other with the Temptress, Eve - and as monks were reminded, no man since Adam had been able to resist the wiles of a woman.

The Cistercians were also reluctant to welcome female religious within their family. However, the General Chapter was later compelled to reconsider its stance and for a short period in the thirteenth century incorporated existing communities or acknowledged newly-founded nunneries as belonging to the Cistercian Order. Before and after this, however, a vast number of female communities that were not formally recognised by the Order either claimed to be Cistercian or were described as such by others. Accordingly, it was and is rather unclear what, precisely, it meant for a female community to be Cistercian.

In this section you can read more about:

- The Cistercian nunneries - the problems that we now have in determining which communities were Cistercian; the organisation, administration and daily lives of the nuns.

- The Cistercians’ attitude to women as visitors, the importance of women as patrons and benefactors, and their burial within the abbeys.

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