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The Order of Cistercians (OCist; ) is a Roman Catholic religious order of enclosed monks. They are sometimes also called the White Monks, in reference to the colour of the habit, over which a black scapular or apron is sometimes worn. The emphasis of Cistercian life is on manual labour and self-sufficiency, and many abbeys have traditionally supported themselves through activities such as agriculture and brewing ales.

The first Cistercian abbey was founded by Robert of Molesme in 1098, at Cîteaux Abbeymarker near Dijon, France. Two others, Saint Alberic of Citeaux and Saint Stephen Harding, are considered co-founders of the order, and Bernard of Clairvaux is associated with the fast spread of the order during the 12th century. In the first century of its existence, the order had spread throughout France and into England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Eastern Europe.

The keynote of Cistercian life was a return to literal observance of the Rule of St Benedict. Rejecting the developments the Benedictines had undergone, the monks tried to reproduce life exactly as it had been in Saint Benedict's time; indeed in various points they went beyond it in austerity. The most striking feature in the reform was the return to manual labour, especially field-work, a special characteristic of Cistercian life. Cistercian architecture is considered one of the most beautiful styles of medieval architecture. Additionally, in relation to fields such as agriculture, hydraulic engineering and metallurgy, the Cistercians became the main force of technological diffusion in medieval Europe.

The Cistercians were badly affected in England by the Protestant Reformation, the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII, the French Revolution in continental Europe, and the revolutions of the 18th century, but some survived and the order recovered in the 19th century. In 1891 certain abbeys formed a new Order called Trappists (Ordo Cisterciensium Strictioris Observantiae - OCSO), which today exists as an order distinct from the Common Observance.



In 1098, a Benedictine abbot, Robert of Molesme, left his monastery in Burgundy with around twenty supporters, who felt that the Cluniac communities had abandoned the rigours and simplicity of St Benedict's Rule. The abbey church at Clunymarker, the largest in Europe, had become wealthy from rents, tithes, feudal rights and pilgrims who passed through Cluniac houses on the Way of St. Jamesmarker. The massive endowments, powers and responsibilities of the Cluniac abbots had drawn them into the affairs of the secular world, and their monks had abandoned manual labour to serfs to serve as administrative officials or "choir monks". On March 21, 1098, Robert's small group acquired a plot of marshland just south of Dijonmarker called Cîteauxmarker (Latin: "Cistercium"), given to them expressly for the purpose of founding their Novum Monasterium.

Robert's followers included the Benedictine monks Alberic, a former hermit from the nearby forest of Colan, and Stephen Harding, a member of an Anglo-Saxon noble family which had been ruined as a result of the Norman conquest of England. During the first year, the monks set about constructing lodging areas and farming the lands of Cîteaux, making use of a nearby chapel for Mass. In Robert's absence from Molesme, however, the abbey had gone into decline, and Pope Urban II, a former Cluniac monk, ordered him to return.

The remaining monks of Cîteaux elected Prior Alberic as their abbot, under whose leadership the abbey would find its grounding. Robert had been the idealist of the order, and Alberic was their builder. Upon assuming the role of abbot, Alberic moved the site of the fledgling community near a brook a short distance away from the original site. Alberic discontinued the use of Benedictine black garments in the abbey and clothed the monks in white cowls (undyed wool). He returned the community to the original Benedictine ideal of work and prayer, dedicated to the ideal of charity and self sustenance. Alberic also forged an alliance with the Dukes of Burgundy, working out a deal with Duke Odo the donation of a vineyard (Meursaultmarker) as well as stones with which they built their church. The church was sanctified and dedicated to the Virgin Mary on November 16, 1106 by the Bishop of Chalon sur Saône.

On January 26, 1108 Alberic died and was soon succeeded by Stephen Harding, the man responsible for carrying the order into its crucial phase.

Constitution and rule

The order was fortunate that Stephen was an abbot of extraordinary gifts, and he framed the original version of the Cistercian "constitution" or rule: the Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity). Although this was revised on several occasions to meet contemporary needs, from the outset it emphasised a simple life of work, love, prayer and self-denial. Although the Cistercians originally regarded themselves as the "perfect", reformed Benedictines, they distinguished themselves from the monks of Benedictine houses by wearing white habits instead of black. Cistercian abbeys also refused to admit children, allowing adults to choose their religious vocation for themselves – a practice later emulated by many of the older Benedictine houses.

Stephen also acquired farms for the abbey to ensure its survival and ethic, the first of which was Clos Vougeotmarker. In terms of receiving grants of land, the order would accept only undeveloped land (or in some cases, they accepted developed land and relocated the serfs elsewhere). They developed this land by their own labour, or by that of illiterate peasant lay brothers known as conversi. Stephen handed over the west wing of Cîteaux to a large group of lay brethren to cultivate the farms. These lay brothers were bound by vows of chastity and obedience to their abbot, but were otherwise permitted to follow a less demanding form of Cistercian life. Their incorporation into the order represents a compassionate outreach to the illiterate peasantry, as well as a source of labour on "unmanorialized" Cistercian lands.


The lines of the Cistercian polity were adumbrated by Alberic, but it received its final form in the Carta Caritatis. This document arranged the relations between the various houses of the Cistercian order, and exercised a great influence also upon the future course of western monachism. From one point of view, it may be regarded as a compromise between the primitive Benedictine system, in which each abbey was autonomous and isolated, and the complete centralization of Clunymarker, where the Abbot of Cluny was the only true superior in the body.

On the one hand, Citeaux maintained the independent organic life of the houses: each abbey had its own abbot elected by its own monks, its own community belonging to itself and not to the order in general, and its own property and finances administered without interference from outside. On the other hand, all the abbeys were subjected to the General Chapter, the constitutional body which exercised vigilance over the order. The abbots met annually at the General Chapter in mid-September at Cîteauxmarker. The Cistercian constitution attached particular importance to attendance at this meeting, which was compulsory, and absence without leave was severely punished.

The Abbot of Cîteaux was the president of the chapter. He had a predominant influence and the power of enforcing everywhere exact conformity to Cîteaux in all details of the exterior life observance, chant, and customs. The principle was that Cîteaux should always be the model to which all the other houses had to conform. In case of any divergence of view at the chapter, the side taken by the Abbot of Cîteaux was always to prevail.

High and Late Middle Ages

Spread: 1111–52

The spread of the Cistercians from their original sites during the Middle Ages
By 1111 the ranks had grown sufficiently at Cîteaux, and Stephen sent a group of 12 monks to start a "daughter house", a new community dedicated to the same ideals of the strict observance of Saint Benedict. It was built in Chalon sur Saône in La Fertémarker on May 13, 1113.

That same year, a charismatic young Burgundinian nobleman named Bernard arrived at Cîteaux with 35 of his relatives and friends to join the monastery. A supremely eloquent, strong-willed mystic, Bernard was to become the most admired churchman of his age. In 1115, Count Hugh of Champagne gave a tract of wild, afforested land known as a refuge for robbers, forty miles east of Troyesmarker, to the order. Bernard led twelve other monks to found the Abbey of Clairvauxmarker, and began clearing the ground and building a church and dwelling. The abbey soon attracted a strong flow of zealous young men. At this point, Cîteaux had four daughter houses, being Pontignymarker, Morimondmarker, La Ferté and Clairvaux. Other French daughter houses of Cîteaux would include Preuilly, La Cour-Dieu, Bouras, Cadouin and Fontenaymarker.

With Saint Bernard's membership, the Cistercian order began a notable epoch of international expansion; and as his fame grew, the Cistercian movement grew with it. In November 1128, with the aid of William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester, Waverly Abbeymarker was founded in Surrey, Englandmarker. Five houses were founded from Waverly Abbey before 1152, and some of these had themselves produced offshoots.

The Norman invasion of Wales opened the Church in Wales to fresh and invigorating streams of continental reform, as well as the new monastic orders. The Benedictine houses were established in the Normanised fringes and in the shadow of Norman castles, and because they were seen as instruments of conquest, they failed to make any real impression on the local Welsh population. The Cistercians, in contrast, sought out solitude in the mountains and moorlands, and were highly successful. Thirteen Cistercian monasteries, all in remote sites, were founded in Wales between 1131 and 1226. The first of these was Tintern Abbeymarker, which was sited in a remote river valley, and depended largely on its agricultural and pastoral activities for survival. Other abbeys, such as at Margammarker, Strata Floridamarker, Conwymarker and Valle Crucis became among the most hallowed names in the history of religion in medieval Wales. Their austere discipline seemed to echo the ideals of the Celtic saints, and the emphasis on pastoral farming fit well into the Welsh stock-rearing economy.

Tintern Abbey, founded in 1131
In Yorkshiremarker, Rievaulx Abbeymarker was founded from Clairvaux in 1131, on a small property "in a place of horror and dreary solitude". This land was donated by Walter Espec, with the support of Thurstan, Archbishop of York. By 1143, three hundred monks had entered Rievaulx, including the famous St Ælred, who became known as the "St Bernard of England". From Rievaulx was founded Melrose Abbeymarker, the earliest Cistercian monastery in Scotlandmarker. Located in Roxburghshiremarker, it was built in 1136 by King David I of Scotland, and completed in less than ten years. Another important offshoot of Rievaulx was Revesby Abbeymarker in Lincolnshiremarker.

Fountains abbeymarker was founded in 1132 by Benedictine monks from St Mary's Abbey, Yorkmarker, who desired a return to the austere Rule of St Benedict. After many struggles and great hardships, St Bernard agreed to send a monk from Clairvaux to instruct them, and in the end they prospered exceedingly. Before 1152, Fountains had many offshoots, of which Newminster Abbeymarker (1137) and Meaux Abbeymarker (1151) are the most famous.

In the spring of 1140, Saint Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, visited Clairvaux, becoming a personal friend of St Bernard and an admirer of the Cistercian rule. He left four of his companions to be trained as Cistercians, and returned to Ireland to introduce Cistercianism there. St Bernard viewed the Irish at this time as being in the "depth of barbarism":

Mellifont Abbeymarker was founded in County Louthmarker in 1142. Thence were founded the affiliated monasteries of Bective Abbeymarker in County Meathmarker (1147), Inishlounaght in County Tipperarymarker (1147-1148), Baltinglass in County Wicklowmarker (1148), Monasteranenagh in County Limerickmarker (1148), Kilbeggan in County Westmeathmarker (1150) and Boyle in County Roscommonmarker (1161). Malachy's intensive pastoral activity was highly successful:

As in Wales, there was no significant tradition of Benedictine monasticism in Ireland on which to draw; although in the Irish case, this represented an insecure foundation for Cistercian expansion. Irish Cistercianism would eventually become isolated from the disciplinary structures of the order, leading to decline in the 13th century.

Meanwhile, the Cistercian influence in the Church more than kept pace with this material expansion. St Bernard had established the unique position as mentor of popes and kings, and in 1145, King Louis VII's brother, Henry of France, entered Clairvaux. That same year, Bernard saw one of his monks ascend the papal chair as Pope Eugene III. Eugene was an Italian of humble background, who had first been drawn to monasticism at Clairvaux by the magnetism of Bernard. At the time of his election, he was Abbot of Saints Vincenzo and Anastasiomarker outside Rome. When news of the fall of Edessa reached him in Viterbomarker, he addressed the papal bull Quantum praedecessores to Louis VII, with the result that a European monarch took up a crusade for the first time.

A great reinforcement to the order was the merger of the Savigniac houses with the Cistercians, at the instance of Eugene III. Thirteen English abbeys, of which the most famous were Furness Abbeymarker and Jervaulx Abbeymarker, thus adopted the Cistercian rule. In Dublinmarker, the two Savigniac houses of Erenagh and St Mary's became Cistercian. It was in the latter case that medieval Dublin acquired a Cistercian monastery in the very unusual suburban location of Oxmantown, with its own private harbour called The Pill.

By 1152, there were 54 Cistercian monasteries in England, some few of which, had been founded directly from the Continent. Overall, there were 333 Cistercian abbeys in Europe – so many that a halt was put to this expansion. Nearly half of these houses had been founded, directly or indirectly, from Clairvaux, so great was St Bernard's influence and prestige. He has come almost to be regarded as the founder of the Cistercians, who have often been called Bernardines. Bernard died in 1153, one month after his pupil Eugene III.

Later expansion

From its solid base, the order spread all over western Europe: into Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Croatia, Italy (where the Certosa di Paviamarker is their most famous edifice), Sicily, Poland, Hungary, Romania (Kerzmarker), Norway, Sweden, Spain and Portugal. One of the most important libraries of the Cistercians was in Salem, Germanymarker.

In 1153, the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques (Afonso, I), founded the Cistercian Alcobaça Monasterymarker. The original church was replaced by the present construction from 1178, although construction progressed slowly due to attacks by the Moors. As with many Cistercian churches, the first parts to be completed was the eastern parts necessary for the priest-monks – the high altar, the side altars and choir stalls – and the consecration of the church is recorded as taking place in 1223. Two further building phases followed for the remainder of the nave, until the final consecration in 1252.

As a consequence of the wars between the Christians and Moors on the Iberian Peninsulamarker, the Cistercians established a military branch of the order in Castile in 1157: the Order of Calatrava. Membership of the Cistercian Order had included a large number of men from knightly families, and when King Alfonso VII began looking for a military order to defend the Calatrava, which had been recovered from the Moors a decade before, the Cistercian Abbot Raymond of Fiteromarker offered his help. This apparently came at the suggestion Diego Valasquez, a monk and former knight who was "well acquainted with military matters", and proposed that the lay brothers of the abbey were to be employed as "soldiers of the Cross" to defend Calatrava. The initial successes of the new order in the Spanish Reconquista were brilliant, and the arrangement was approved by the General Chapter at Cîteaux and successive popes, giving the Knights of Calatrava their definitive rule in 1187. This was modeled upon the Cistercian rule for lay brothers, which included the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; specific rules of silence; abstinence on four days a week; the recitation of a fixed number of paternosters daily; to sleep in their armour; and to wear, as their full dress, the Cistercian white mantle with the scarlet cross fleurdelisée.

Calatrava was not subject to Cîteaux, but to its Fitero's mother-house, the Cistercian Abbey of Morimondmarker in Burgundy. By the end of the 13th century, it had become a major autonomous power within the Castilian state, subject only to Morimond and the Pope; with abundant resources of men and wealth, lands and castles scattered along the borders of Castile, and feudal lordship over thousands of peasants and vassals. On more than one occasion, the Order of Calatrava brought to the field a force of 1200 to 2000 knights – considerable in medieval terms. Over time, as the Reconquista neared completion, the canonical bond between Calatrava and Morimond relaxed more and more, and the knights of the order became virtually secularized, finally undergoing dissolution in the 18th-19th centuries.

The first Cistercian abbey in Bohemia was founded in Sedlecmarker near Kutná Horamarker in 1158. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the Cistercian order played an essential role in the politics and diplomacy of the late Přemyslid and early Luxembourg state, as reflected in the Chronicon Aulae Regiae. This chronicle was written by Otto and Peter of Zittaumarker, abbots of the Zbraslavmarker abbey (Latin: Aula Regia, "Royal Hall"), founded in 1292 by the King of Bohemia and Poland, Wenceslas II. The order also played the main role in the early Gothic art of Bohemia; one of the outstanding pieces of Cistercian architecture is the Alt-neu Shulmarker, Prague. The first Romanian abbey was founded on 1179, at Igris (Egres) Romania.

Following the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s, the English improved the standing of the Cistercian Order in Ireland with nine foundations: Dunbrody Abbeymarker, Inch Abbeymarker, Grey Abbeymarker, Comber Abbeymarker, Duiske Abbeymarker, Abington, Abbeylaramarker and Tracton. This last abbey was founded in 1225 from Whitland Abbeymarker in Wales, and at least in its earliest years, its monks were Welsh-speaking. By this time, another ten abbeys had founded by Irishmen since the invasion, bringing the total number of Cistercian houses in Ireland to 31. This was almost half the number of those in England, but it was about thrice the number in each of Scotland and Wales. Most of these monasteries enjoyed either noble, episcopal or royal patronage. In 1269, the Archbishop of Cashel joined the order and established a Cistercian house at the foot of the Rock of Cashelmarker in 1272. Similarly, the Irish-establishment of Abbeyknockmoymarker in County Galwaymarker was founded by King of Connacht, Cathal Crobhdearg Ua Conchobair, who died a Cistercian monk and was buried there in 1224.

By the end of the 13th century, the Cistercian houses numbered 500. At the order's height in the 15th century, it would have nearly 750 houses.

It often happened that the number of lay brothers became excessive and out of proportion to the resources of the monasteries, there being sometimes as many as 200, or even 300, in a single abbey. On the other hand, at any rate in some countries, the system of lay brothers in course of time worked itself out; thus in England by the close of the 14th century it had shrunk to relatively small proportions, and in the 15th century the régime of the English Cistercian houses tended to approximate more and more to that of the Black Monks.

Decline and attempted reforms

For a hundred years, till the first quarter of the 13th century, the Cistercians supplanted Cluny as the most powerful order and the chief religious influence in western Europe. But then in turn their influence began to wane, as the initiative passed to the mendicant orders, in Ireland, Wales and elsewhere.

However, some of the reasons of Cistercian decline were internal. Firstly, there was the permanent difficulty of maintaining the initial fervour of a body embracing hundreds of monasteries and thousands of monks, spread all over Europe. As the very raison d'être of the Cistercian Order consisted in its being a reform – a return to primitive monachism with its field-work and severe simplicity – any failures to live up to the ideal proposed was more detrimental among Cistercians than among mere Benedictines, who were intended to live a life of self-denial but not of great austerity.

Relaxations were gradually introduced in regard to diet and to simplicity of life, and also in regard to the sources of income, rents and tolls being admitted and benefices incorporated, as was done among the Benedictines; the farming operations tended to produce a commercial spirit; wealth and splendour invaded many of the monasteries, and the choir monks abandoned field-work. The later history of the Cistercians is largely one of attempted revivals and reforms. The general chapter for long battled bravely against the invasion of relaxations and abuses.

In Ireland, the information on the Cistercian Order after the Anglo-Norman invasion gives a rather gloomy impression. Absenteeism among Irish abbots at the General Chapter became a persistent and much criticised problem in the 13th century, and escalated into the conspiratio Mellifontis, a "rebellion" by the abbeys of the Mellifont filiation. Visitors were appointed to reform Mellifont in its head and members on account of the multa enormia that had arisen there, but in 1217 the abbot refused their admission and barred the abbey gate with a crowd of lay brothers. There was also trouble at Jerpoint, and alarmingly, the abbots of Baltinglass, Killenny, Kilbeggan and Bective supported the actions of the "revolt".

In 1228, the General Chapter sent the Abbot of Stanley in Wiltshiremarker, Stephen of Lexington, on a well-documented visitation to reform the Irish houses. A graduate of both Oxfordmarker and Parismarker, and a future Abbot of Clairvaux (to be appointed in 1243), Stephen was one of the outstanding figures in 13th century Cistercian history. He found his life threatened, his representatives attacked and his party harassed, while the three key houses of Mellifont, Suir and Maigue had been fortified by their monks to hold out against him. However, with the help of his assistants, the core of obedient Irish monks and the aid of both English and Irish secular powers, he was able to envisage the reconstruction of the Cistercian province in Ireland. Stephen dissolved the Mellifont filiation altogether, and subjected 15 monasteries to houses outside Ireland. In breadth and depth, his instructions constituted a radical reform programme:

The arrangement lasted almost half a century, and in 1274, the filiation of Mellifont was reconstituted. By this time, however, "the Cistercian order as a whole had experienced a gradual decline and its central organisation was noticeably weakened."

In 1335, the French cardinal Jacques Fournier, a former Cistercian monk and the son of a miller, was elected and consecrated Pope Benedict XII. The maxim attributed to him, "the pope must be like Melchizedech who had no father, no mother, nor even a family tree," is revealing of his character. Benedict was shy of personal power and was devoted exclusively to restoring the authority of the Church. As a Cistercian, he had a notable theological background and, unlike his predecessor John XXII, he was a stranger to nepotism and scrupulous with his appointments. He promulgated a series of regulations to restore the primitive spirit of the Cistercian Order.

By the 15th century, however, of all the orders in Ireland, the Cistercians had most comprehensively fallen on evil days. The General Chapter lost virtually all its power to enforce its will in Ireland, and the strength of the order which derived from this uniformity declined. In 1496, there were efforts to establish a strong national congregation to assume this role in Ireland, but monks of the English and Irish "nations" found themselves unable to cooperate for the good of the order. The General Chapter appointed special reformatores, but their efforts proved fruitless. One such reformer, Abbot John Troy of Mellifont, despaired of finding any solution to the ruin of the order. According to his detailed report to the General Chapter, the monks of only two communities, Dublin and Mellifont, kept the rule or even wore the habit. He identified the causes of this decline as the ceaseless wars and hatred between the two nations; a lack of leadership; and the control of many of the monasteries by secular dynasties who appointed their own relatives to positions.

In the 15th century, various popes endeavoured to promote reforms. All these efforts at a reform of the great body of the order proved unavailing; but local reforms, producing various semi-independent offshoots and congregations, were successfully carried out in many parts in the course of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Protestant Reformation

The English Reformation was disastrous for the Cistercians in England, as Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the confiscation of church land throughout the country. Laskillmarker, an outstation of Rievaulx Abbeymarker and the only medieval blast furnace so far identified in Great Britain, was the one of the most efficient blast furnaces of its time. Slag from contemporary furnaces contained a substantial concentration of iron, whereas the slag of Laskill was low in iron content, and is believed to have produced cast iron with efficiency similar to a modern blast furnace. The monks may have been on the verge of building dedicated furnaces for the production of cast iron, but the furnace did not survive Henry's Dissolution in the late 1530s, and the type of blast furnace pioneered there did not spread outside Rievaulx. Some historians believe that the suppression of the English monasteries may have stamped out an industrial revolution.

After the Protestant Reformation

In the 17th century another great effort at a general reform was made, promoted by the pope and the king of France; the general chapter elected Richelieu (commendatory) abbot of Cîteaux, thinking he would protect them from the threatened reform. In this they were disappointed, for he threw himself wholly on the side of reform. So great, however, was the resistance, and so serious the disturbances that ensued, that the attempt to reform Cîteaux itself and the general body of the houses had again to be abandoned, and only local projects of reform could be carried out.

In the 16th century had arisen the reformed congregation of the Feuillants, which spread widely in France and Italy, in the latter country under the name of Improved Bernardines. The French congregation of Sept-Fontaines (1654) also deserves mention. In 1663 de Rancé reformed La Trappe (see Trappists).

The Reformation, the ecclesiastical policy of Joseph II, the French Revolution, and the revolutions of the 18th century, almost wholly destroyed the Cistercians; but some survived, and since the beginning of the last half of the 19th century there has been a considerable recovery. Mahatma Gandhi visited a Trappist abbey near Durbanmarker in 1895, andwrote an extensive description of the order:

Cistercian monk-scholar working at a desk, in 1925
At the beginning of 20th century they were divided into three bodies:

  • The Common Observance, with about 30 monasteries and 800 choir monks, the large majority being in Austria-Hungary; they represent the main body of the order and follow a mitigated rule of life; they do not carry on field-work, but have large secondary schools, and are in manner of life little different from fairly observant Benedictine Black Monks; of late, however, signs are not wanting of a tendency towards a return to older ideals;
  • The Middle Observance, embracing some dozen monasteries and about 150 choir monks;
  • The Strict Observance, or Trappists, with nearly 60 monasteries, about 1600 choir monks and 2000 lay brothers.

There has also always been a large number of Cistercian nuns; the first nunnery was founded in the diocese of Langres, 1125; at the period of their widest extension there are said to have been 900 nunneries, and the communities were very large. The nuns were devoted to contemplation and also did field-work. In Spain and France certain Cistercian abbesses had extraordinary privileges. Numerous reforms took place among the nuns. The best known of all Cistercian convents was probably Port-Royalmarker, reformed by Marie Angélique Arnauld, and associated with the story of the Jansenist controversy.



Cistercian architecture has made an important contribution to European civilisation. Architecturally speaking, the Cistercian monasteries and churches, owing to their pure style, may be counted among the most beautiful relics of the Middle Ages. Cistercian foundations were primarily constructed in Romanesque and Gothic architecture during the Middle Ages; although later abbeys were also constructed in Renaissance and Baroque.

Theological principles

Cistercian architecture was applied based on rational principles.
In the mid-12th century, one of the leading churchmen of his day, the Benedictine Abbot Suger of Saint-Denismarker, united elements of Norman architecture with elements of Burgundinian architecture (rib vaults and pointed arches respectively), creating the new style of Gothic architecture. This new "architecture of light" was intended to raise the observer "from the material to the immaterial" - it was, according to the 20th century French historian Georges Duby, a "monument of applied theology". Although St Bernard saw much of church decoration as a distraction from piety, and the builders of the Cistercian monasteries had to adopt a style that observed the numerous rules inspired by his austere aesthetics, the order itself was receptive to the technical improvements of Gothic principles of construction and played an important role in its spread across Europe.

This new Cistercian architecture embodied the ideals of the order, and was in theory at least utilitarian and without superfluous ornament. The same "rational, integrated scheme" was used across Europe to meet the largely homogeneous needs of the order. Various buildings, including the chapter-house to the east and the dormitories above, were grouped around a cloister, and were sometimes linked to the transept of the church itself by a night stair. Usually Cistercian churches were cruciform, with a short presbytery to meet the liturgical needs of the brethren, small chapels in the transepts for private prayer, and an aisled nave that was divided roughly in the middle by a screen to separate the monks from the lay brothers.

Engineering and construction

The building projects of the Church in the High Middle Ages showed an ambition for the colossal, with vast amounts of stone being quarried, and the same was true of the Cistercian projects. Foigny Abbey was long, and Vaucelles Abbey was long. Monastic buildings came to be constructed entirely of stone, right down to the most humble of buildings. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Cistercian barns consisted of a stone exterior, divided into nave and aisles either by wooden posts or by stone piers.

The Cistercians acquired a reputation in the difficult task of administering the building sites for abbeys and cathedrals. St Bernard's own brother, Achard, is known to have supervised the construction of many abbeys, such as Himmerod Abbeymarker in the Rhineland. Others were Raoul at Saint-Jouin-de-Marnesmarker, who later became abbot there; Geoffrey d'Aignay, sent to Fountains Abbey in 1133; and Robert, sent to Mellifont Abbey in 1142. On one occasion the Abbot of La Trinité at Vendômemarker loaned a monk named John to the Bishop of Le Mans, Hildebert de Lavardin, for the building of a cathedral; after the project was completed, John refused to return to his monastery.

The Cistercians "made it a point of honour to recruit the best stonecutters", and as early as 1133, St Bernard was hiring workers to help the monks erect new buildings at Clairvaux. It is from the 12th century Byland Abbeymarker in Yorkshire that the oldest recorded example of architectural tracing is found. Tracings were architectural drawings incised and painted in stone, to a depth of 2-3 mm, showing architectural detail to scale. The first tracing in Byland illustrates a west rose window, while the second depicts the central part of that same window. Later, an illustration from the latter half of the 16th century would show monks working alongside other craftsmen in the construction of Schönau Abbeymarker.


The Cistercian abbeys of Fontenaymarker in France, Fountainsmarker in England, Alcobaçamarker in Portugal, Pobletmarker in Spain and Maulbronnmarker in Germany are today recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The abbeys of France and England are fine examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The architecture of Fontenay has been described as "an excellent illustration of the ideal of self-sufficiency" practised by the earliest Cistercian communities. The abbeys of 12th century England were stark and undecorated – a dramatic contrast with the elaborate churches of the wealthier Benedictine houses – yet to quote Warren Hollister, "even now the simple beauty of Cistercian ruins such as Fountains and Rievaulx, set in the wilderness of Yorkshire, is deeply moving".

In the purity of architectural style, the beauty of materials and the care with which the Alcobaça Monastery was built, Portugal possesses one of the most outstanding and best preserved examples of Early Gothic. Poblet Monastery, one of the largest in Spain, is considered similarly impressive for its austerity, majesty, and the fortified royal residence within.

The fortified Maulbronn Abbey in Germany is considered "the most complete and best-preserved medieval monastic complex north of the Alps". The Transitional Gothic style of its church had a major influence in the spread of Gothic architecture over much of northern and central Europe, and the abbey's elaborate network of drains, irrigation canals and reservoirs has since been recognised as having "exceptional" cultural interest.

In Poland, the former Cistercian monastery of Pelplin Cathedralmarker is an important example of Brick Gothic. Wąchock abbeymarker is one of the most valuable examples of Polish Romanesque architecture. The largest Cistercian complex, the Abbatia Lubensismarker (Lubiążmarker, Poland), is a masterpiece of baroque architecture and the second largest Christian architectural complex in the world.


The mother house of the order, Cîteaux, had developed the most advanced style of painting in France, at least in illuminated manuscripts, during the first decades of the 12th century, playing an important part in the development of the image of the Tree of Jesse. However, as Bernard of Clairvaux, who had a personal violent hostility to imagery, increased in influence in the order, painting and decoration gradually diminished in Cistercian manuscripts, and they were finally banned altogether in the order, probably from the revised rules approved in 1154. Any wall paintings that may have existed were presumably destroyed. Crucifixes were allowed, and later some painting and decoration crept back in. Bernard's outburst in a letter against the fantastical decorative motifs in Romanesque art is famous:

…But these are small things; I will pass on to matters greater in themselves, yet seeming smaller because they are more usual.
I say naught of the vast height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superflous breadth, the costly polishings, the curious carvings and paintings which attract the worshipper's gaze and hinder his attention....
But in the cloister, under the eyes of the Brethern who read there, what profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in the marvellous and deformed comeliness, that comely deformity?
To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half-men, those striped tigers, those fighting knights, those hunters winding their horns?
Many bodies are there seen under one head, or again, many heads to a single body.
Here is a four-footed beast with a serpent's tail; there, a fish with a beast's head.
Here again the forepart of a horse trails half a goat behind it, or a horned beast bears the hinder quarters of a horse.
In short, so many and so marvellous are the varieties of divers shapes on every hand, that we are more tempted to read in the marble than in our books, and to spend the whole day in wondering at these things rather than in meditating the law of God.
For God's sake, if men are not ashamed of these follies, why at least do they not shrink from the expense?

Some Cistercian abbeys did in fact contain later medieval wall paintings, such as Tintern Abbeymarker (known from archaeology) and Abbeyknockmoymarker (traces of which still survive in the presbytery), both in Ireland. The latter murals depict Saint Sebastian, the Crucifixion, the Trinity and the three living and three dead. The abbey contains a fine example of a sculptured royal head on a capital in the nave, with carefully defined eyes, an elaborate crown and long curly hair. The east end of Corcomroe Abbeymarker in County Clare is similarly distinguished by high-quality carvings, several of which "demonstrate precociously naturalistic renderings of plants". By the Baroque period, decoration could be very elaborate, as at Alcobaçamarker in Portugalmarker, which has carved and gilded retables and walls of azulejo tiles.

Furthermore, many Cistercian abbey churches housed the tombs of royal or noble patrons, and these were often as elaborately carved and painted as in other churches. Notable dynastic burial places were Alcobaça for the Kings of Portugal, Cîteauxmarker for the Dukes of Burgundy, and Pobletmarker for the Kings of Aragon. Corcomroe in Ireland contains one of only two surviving examples of Gaelic royal effigies from 13th and 14th century Ireland: the sarcophagal tomb of Conchobar na Siudaine Ua Briain (d. 1268).

Commercial enterprise and technological diffusion

Cistercians at work
According to one modern Cistercian, "enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit" have always been a part of the order's identity, and the Cistercians "were catalysts for development of a market economy" in 12th century Europe. It was as agriculturists and horse and cattle breeders that the Cistercians exercised their chief influence on the progress of civilisation in the Middle Ages. As the great farmers of those days, many of the improvements in the various farming operations were introduced and propagated by them, and this is where the importance of their extension in northern Europe is to be estimated. They developed an organised system for selling their farm produce, cattle and horses, and notably contributed to the commercial progress of the countries of western Europe. To the wool and cloth trade, which was especially fostered by the Cistercians, England was largely indebted for the beginnings of her commercial prosperity.

Farming operations on so extensive a scale could not be carried out by the monks alone, whose choir and religious duties took up a considerable portion of their time; and so from the beginning the system of lay brothers was introduced on a large scale. The duties of the lay brothers, recruited from the peasantry, consisted in carrying out the various fieldworks and plying all sorts of useful trades. They formed a body of men who lived alongside of the choir monks, but separate from them, not taking part in the canonical office, but having their own fixed round of prayer and religious exercises. They were never ordained, and never held any office of superiority. It was by this system of lay brothers that the Cistercians were able to play their distinctive part in the progress of European civilisation.

Until the Industrial Revolution, most of the technological advances in Europe were made in the monasteries. According to the medievalist Jean Gimpel, their high level of industrial technology facilitated the diffusion of new techniques: "Every monastery had a model factory, often as large as the church and only several feet away, and waterpower drove the machinery of the various industries located on its floor." Waterpower was used for crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth and tanning – a "level of technological achievement [that] could have been observed in practically all" of the Cistercian monasteries.

The Cistercians helped facilitate the spread of waterwheel technology.
The Cistercian order was innovative in developing techniques of hydraulic engineering for monasteries established in remote valleys. In Spain, one of the earliest surviving Cistercian houses, the Real Monasterio de Nuestra Senora de Rueda in Aragonmarker, is a good example of such early hydraulic engineering, using a large waterwheel for power and an elaborate water circulation system for central heating.

The Cistercians are known to have been skilled metallurgists, and knowledge of their technological advances was transmitted by the order. Iron ore deposits were often donated to the monks along with forges to extract the iron, and within time surpluses were being offered for sale. The Cistercians became the leading iron producers in Champagne, from the mid-13th century to the 17th century, also using the phosphate-rich slag from their furnaces as an agricultural fertiliser. As the historian Alain Erlande-Brandenburg writes:


By far the most influential of the early Cistercians was Bernard of Clairvaux. According to the historian Piers Paul Read, his vocation to the order, by deciding "to choose the narrowest gate and steepest path to the Kingdom of Heaven at Citeaux demonstrates the purity of his vocation". His piety and asceticism "qualified him to act as the conscience of Christendom, constantly chastising the rich and powerful and championing the pure and weak." He rebuked the moderate and conciliatory Abbot Peter the Venerable for the pleasant life of the Benedictine monks of Cluny. Besides his piety, Bernard was an outstanding intellectual, which he demonstrated in his sermons on Grace, Free will and the Song of Songs. He perceived the attraction of evil not simply as lying in the obvious lure of wealth and worldly power, but in the "subtler and ultimately more pernicious attraction of false ideas". He was quick to recognise heretical ideas, and in the 1141 and 1145 respectively, he accused the celebrated scholastic theologian Peter Abelard and the popular preacher Henry of Lausanne of heresy. He was also charged with the task of promulgating Pope Eugene's bull, Quantum praedecessores, and his eloquence in preaching the Second Crusade had the desired effect: when he finished his sermon, so many men were ready to take the Cross that Bernard had to cut his habit into strips of cloth.

Although Bernard's De laude novae militiae was in favour of the Knights Templar, a Cistercian was also one of the few scholars of the Middle Ages to question the existence of the military orders during the Crusades. The English Cistercian Abbot Isaac of l'Etoile, near Poitiersmarker, preached against the "new monstrosity" of the nova militia in the mid-12th century, and denounced the use of force to convert members of Islam. He also rejected the notion that crusaders could be regarded as martyrs if they died while despoiling non-Christians.

One of the most well-known Cistercian theologians of recent memory was Thomas Merton, a prominent author in the mystic tradition and a noted poet and social and literary critic. He entered the Abbey of Gethsemanimarker in 1941 where his writings and letters to world leaders became some of the most widely read spiritual and social works of the 20th century. Merton's most widely read work remains his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, followed by New Seeds of Contemplation and No Man is an Island.

Cistercians today


Cistercian monasteries have continued to spread, with many founded outside Europe in the 20th century. In particular, the number of Trappist monasteries throughout the world has more than doubled over the past 60 years: from 82 in 1940 to 127 in 1970, and 169 at the beginning of the 21st century. In 1940, there were six Trappist monasteries in Asia and the Pacific, only one Trappist monastery in Africa, and none in Latin America. Now there are 13 in Central and South America, 17 in Africa, and 23 in Asia and the Pacific. In general, these communities are growing faster than those in other parts of the world.

Over the same period, the total number of monks and nuns in the Order decreased by about 15%. There are approximately 2500 Trappist monks and 1800 Trappist nuns in the world today. There are on average 25 members per community - less than half those in former times. As of 2005, there are 101 monasteries of monks and 70 of nuns. Of these, there are twelve monasteries of monks and five of nuns in the United States.

The abbots and abbesses of each branch meet every three years at the Mixed General Meeting, chaired by the Abbot General, to make decisions concerning the welfare of the Order. Between these meetings the Abbot General and his Council, who reside in Rome, are in charge of the Order's affairs. The present Abbot General is Dom Bernardo Olivera of Azul, Argentinamarker.

Monastic life

At the time of monastic profession, five or six years after entering the monastery, candidates promise "conversion" – fidelity to monastic life, which includes an atmosphere of silence. Cistercian monks and nuns, in particular Trappists, have a reputation of being silent, which has led to the public idea that they take a Vow of silence. This has actually never been the case, although silence is an implicit part of an outlook shared by Cistercian and Benedictine monasteries. In a Cistercian monastery, there are three reasons for speaking:
functional communication at work or in community dialogues, spiritual exchange with one’s superiors or with a particular member of the community on different aspects of one’s personal life, and spontaneous conversation on special occasions.
These forms of communication are integrated into the discipline of maintaining a general atmosphere of silence, which is an important help to continual prayer.

Many Cistercian monasteries produce goods such as cheese, bread and other foodstuffs. Many monasteries in Belgium and the Netherlands, such as Orval Abbeymarker, Westvleteren Abbeymarker and Westmalle Abbeymarker, brew beer both for the monks and for sale to the general public. Trappist beers contain residual sugars and living yeast, and, unlike conventional beers, will improve with age. These have become quite famous and are considered by many beer critics to be among the finest in the world.

In the United States, many Cistercian monasteries support themselves through agriculture, forestry and rental of farmland. The Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, in Sparta, Wisconsinmarker, supports itself with a group called "Laser Monks", which provides laser toner and ink jet cartridges, as well as items such as gourmet coffees and all-natural dog treats. The monks of New Melleray Abbeymarker, rural Peosta, Iowamarker produce caskets for both themselves and sale to the public. Additionally, the Cistercian monks of Our Lady of Dallas monastery run Cistercian Preparatory Schoolmarker, a Catholic school for boys in Irving, Texas.

See also


  1. Read, p 94
  2. Read, p 93
  3. Tobin, pp 29, 33, 36.
  4. Read, p 94-95
  5. Tobin, pp 37–38.
  6. Hollister, p 209
  7. Hollister, p 209–10
  8. Hollister, p 210
  9. Latin text
  10. Migne, Patrol. Lat. clxvi. 1377
  11. Watt, p 52
  12. See F. A. Gasquet, Sketch of Monastic Constitutional History, pp. xxxv-xxxviii, prefixed to English trans. Of Montalemberts Monks of the West, ed. 1895
  13. Tobin, pp 46
  14. Read, p 93, 95
  15. Read, p. 95
  16. Roderick, p 162-163
  17. Roderick, p 163
  18. Roderick, p 164
  19. Dykes, p76-78
  20. CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Abbey of Melrose
  21. Watt, p. 20
  22. Watt, p 21
  23. Lalor, p 200
  24. Read, p 118
  25. Read, p 117-118
  26. Read, p. 117
  27. Clarke, p 42-43
  28. Logan, p 139
  29. Read, p 126
  30. Toman, p 98
  32. Watt, p 49-50
  33. Watt, p 50
  34. Watt, p 115
  35. Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (Trappists): Frequently Asked Questions
  36. Lalor, p 200
  37. Richter, p 154
  38. Watt, p 53
  39. Watt, p 55
  40. Watt, p 56
  41. Watt, p 56-57
  42. Richter, p 155
  43. Rendina, p 375
  44. Rendina, p 376
  45. Watt, p 187
  46. Watt, p 187-188
  47. Watt, p 188
  48. Woods, p 37
  49. David Derbyshire, 'Henry "Stamped Out Industrial Revolution"', The Daily Telegraph (June 21, 2002); cited by Woods, p 37.
  50. R. W. Vernon, G. McDonnell and A. Schmidt, 'An integrated geophysical and analytical appraisal of early iron-working: three case studies' Historical Metallurgy 31(2) (1998), 72-5 79
  51. An agreement (immediately after that) concerning the 'smythes' with the Earl of Rutland in 1541 refers to blooms. H. R. Schubert, History of the British iron and steel industry from c. 450 BC to AD 1775 (Routledge, London 1957), 395-7.
  52. Toman, p 8-9
  53. Toman, p 9
  54. Toman, p 14
  55. Toman, p 10
  56. Lalor, p 1
  57. Lalor, p 1, 38
  58. Erlande-Brandenburg, p 32-34
  59. Erlande-Brandenburg, p 28
  60. Erlande-Brandenburg, p 50
  61. Erlande-Brandenburg, p 101
  62. Erlande-Brandenburg, p 78
  63. Toman, p 289
  64. Dodwell, 211-214
  65. Bernard's letter
  66. Lalor, p 1, 716, 1050
  67. Doran, p 53
  68. Lalor, p 236
  69. Doran, p 48
  70. Gimpel, p 67. Cited by Woods.
  71. Woods, p 33
  72. Woods, p 34-35
  73. Gimpel, p 68; cited by Woods, p 35
  74. Read, p 96
  75. Read, p 118
  76. Read, p 119
  77. Read, p 180
  78. Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (Trappists): Frequently Asked Questions
  79. Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity: Brief History
  80. Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (Trappists): Frequently Asked Questions
  81. Michael Jackson's Beer Hunter - Chastity, poverty and a pint


  • Dodwell, C.R.; The Pictorial arts of the West, 800–1200, 1993, Yale UP, ISBN 0300064934
  • Gimpel, Jean, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (New York, Penguin, 1976)
  • Logan, F. Donald, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages.
  • Tobin, Stephen. The Cistercians: Monks and Monasteries in Europe. The Herbert Press, LTD 1995. ISBN 1-871569-80-X.
  • Watt, John, The Church in Medieval Ireland. University College Dublin Press; Second Revised Edition (May 1998). ISBN 190062110X. ISBN 978-1900621106.
  • Woods, Thomas, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (2005), ISBN 0-89526-038-7.

External links

Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists)

Order of Cistercians Common Observance


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