1902 Encyclopedia > Cistercians


CISTERCIANS, a religious order of the rule of St Bene-dict, founded in 1098, by St Eobert abbot of Molesme. It was so named from its original convent in the forest of Citeaux (Cistercium), about 14 miles north-east of Beaune. This order became so powerful that it governed almost all Europe both in temporal and spiritual concerns, and through the exertions of St Bernard of Clairvaux had increased so rapidly in power, that within a century from its foundation it embraced 800 rich abbeys in different countries of Europe. The abbeys of La Ferte, Pontigny, Clairvaux, andMorimond were offshoots of that of Citeaux, and produced in the:r turn a great number of separate communities, all which continued underthe superintendence of the abbey of Citeaux. The abbey of Morimond alone possessed 700 benefices ;

and its supremacy was acknowledged by the military orders of Calatrava, Alcantara, and Montesa in Spain, and by those of Christ and of Avis in Portugal. But the most famous of all the communities of this order was that of Clairvaux, founded in 1115 by St Bernard (see BERNARD). Towards the end of the 12th century, however, the immense wealth of Citeaux began to operate unfavourably on its discipline, and led the way to great corruptions. Jean de la Barriere, abbot of Notre-Dame des Feuillants, near Toulouse, suc-ceeded in 1577 in effecting a reform, which gave rise to the Fueillants in France, and likewise to the Beformed Bernardines in Italy. But of all the reforms among the Cistercians, the most celebrated was that effected by the abbot of La Trappe in 1664.

Dependent on the abbey of Citeaux there were about 1800 monasteries and an equal number of nunneries. This ancient abbey was the burial-place of all the dukes of Burgundy of the original line, with the exception of the first two, who died before its foundation.

The Cistercians were involved in the general fate of the religious orders during the period of the French Eevolution of 1789, and were reduced to a few convents in Spain, Poland, Austria, and the Saxon part of Upper Lusatia.

The habit of the order is a white robe or cassock, with a black scapulary and a woollen girdle. The nuns wear a white tunic and a black scapulary and girdle.

The order began by exercising more austerity than either the Benedictines of that period (the 11th century) or the Cluniacmonks who had emerged from the Benedictine order two centuries earlier. This austerity was exhibited, not only in the rude and scanty fare of the brethren (limited during a great part of the }'ear to one meal a day) and in the great amount of silence imposed, but likewise in the dress, the sacred vestments, and the church furniture of the order. The Cluniac monks not only possessed fine churches, but were also in the habit of adorning them with pictures, jewelled crosses, and other elaborate decora-tions, while their vestments and chalices were in keeping with this splendour. Indeed one of their first men, St Hugh, a contemporary of St Bernard, strongly maintained the principle that nothing could be too rich and costly for the divine service. But St Stephen Harding, the English monk, who, though only the second abbot, was the virtual creator of Cistercian rule and discipline, im-pressed on the Cistercian mind a different principle, and trained up St Bernard in it. Their chasubles were to be only of linen, the chalice not of gold but of silver gilt, and even the white robe of the order was less voluminous in its folds than that of the Cluniac brethren. In one respect, however, the sense of beauty seems to have been allowed to operate. Although the material was to be coarse, yet the form of a vestment might be carefully looked to; and this taste for beauty of form led in due time to great advances in the architecture of their buildings. This difference between the Cistercians and the Cluniacs occasioned considerable rivalry and even bitterness of senti-ment,-—the Cistercians being in danger of something like Pharisaic pride in contrasting their own severer rule with the comparative luxury of their neighbours the Cluniacs, who apparently afforded some ground for the charge of relaxa-tion of discipline, especially in the 12th century after the death of St Hugh.

In the matter of government, the Cistercian order (as constituted by St Stephen Harding at a general chapter held in 1119) differed both from the Benedictine and from the Cluniac constitutions. According to the rule of St Benedict each monastery was to bean independent monarchy under its own abbot; although in extraordinary cases neighbouring monasteries of the order might interfere in the election of an abbot. This independence had not been found to work well, and the Cluniac rule made each daughter monastery to be subject to Cluny, and to receive its prior from his appointment. Such subordination tended to greater regularity of discipline, and greatly increased the power of the order, especially when abbeys were assailed by laymen or unduly harassed by bishops. The abbot of Cluny became a veritable prince with 314 monasteries sub-ject to him, and with the right of coining money, which was accepted as readily as that of the king of France. But its concentration of power in a single hand involved the risk attendant upon all such despotisms ; and the Abbot Pontius, who had succeeded St Hugh about 1109 seems to have endangered the entire system by an extravagance which loaded Cluny with debt, and by his ambition in claiming the title of Abbot of Abbots, and in endeavouring to sway the oldest Benedictine house itself, the famous abbey of Monte Casino. St Stephen Harding framed a constitution for the Cistercians which aimed at combining the excellencies without the defects of the two systems. Although in his rule the abbot of Citeaux was to be recog-nized as the Pater Universalis Ordinis, yet a system of reciprocal visitation was to be carried on, and the four earliest houses which derived their origin from Citeaux— La Ferté, Pontigny, Clairvaux, and Morimond—-governed the abbeys which had respectively sprung from them. The four abbots of these eldest daughters of Citeaux might even in an extreme case, with the consent of a general chapter, depose the head of the order, the abbot of Citeaux. This constitution, known as the Chart of Charity, exercised much influence upon other orders, and in some degree upon that of Cluny. But it gave rise to a claim which (though not intended by its author, and denounced by its greatest alumnus, St Bernard) was successfully urged in after years by the Cistercian, as well as by other orders, viz., an exemption from episcopal superintendence.

With respect to intellectual culture and influence, the Cistercian order cannot claim a place in the front rank among the monastic bodies. Devoted to worship, to penance, to contemplation, and to culture of the soil, the order did not, like some others, admit the relaxation of scholastic disputations. No doubt it received learned men into its fold. It is also true that St Stephen Harding, with some of his brethren, undertook a revision of the Bible, that copies of many valuable works were made by the brethren (though, with less ornamentation than the illuminated MSS. of some other orders), and that St Bernard was solicitous to furnish all the monasteries founded by himself with good libraries. Nevertheless, as an order, the Cistercians have not achieved such triumphs of learning as the Benedictines, the Dominicans, or the Jesuits.

But no order springing out from the Benedictine proved so popular as the Cistercian. During the 11th century its houses were multiplied in every direction. It touched both ends of the social scale. St Bernard and the thirty novices who joined with him were all of noble birth ; many similar accessions were made from time to time, and in the 12th century we read of fifteen young German princes entering the order. But a place was also found for the poor and uneducated. Such as could not be choir brethren, might be lay brethren and till the fields; and the contrast 1 etween a labourer of this sort, partaking of the dignity of a great and powerful community, and the neighbouring husbandman, the serf of some feudal lord, was in the eyes of many all in favour of the monk. It may have tended towards that emancipation of the labourers so largely effected by the monastic orders and celebrated in a well-known sonnet by Wordsworth.

The order seems to have especially thriven in England. From Waverley in Surrey, the earliest Cistercian settle ment in the country, they spread over Britain, especially by the rivers of Yorkshire, and extended into Scotland.

The overthrow of the Cistercian houses at the time of the Reformation is a part of general monastic history. While some of the dissolutions were unjust, and the execution of abbots mere judicial murders, the luxury of the great Yorkshire houses seems quite undeniable, and perhaps their overthrow may, on the whole, be thought to favour the dictum of Mr Carlyle,—that nothing is crushed from without, until it is ripe to perish from within.

For authorities see the articles already referred to. See also Manriquez, Annales Cistercienses, 4 vols, folio, Lyons, 1642, and the various biographies of St Bernard by Alban Butler, Neander, De Ratisbon, Morrison, and others; and The Cistercian Saints of England, especially St Stephen Harding, edited by John Henry Newman, London, 1844. Dean Milman cautions his readers against the love of legend displayed in these biographies, but praises "their research and exquisite charm of style," Lat. Christianity, bk. viii. chap. 4. See also Cheruel, Dictionnaire Historique, Paris, 1855 ; and for the artistic elements, so far as regards paintings, Mrs Jamieson's Legends of the Monastic Orders, London, 1850 ; also Cosmo Innes's Scotland in the Middle Ages, Edinburgh, 1860 ; Records of the Monastery of Kinloss, by John Stuart, LL. D., Edinburgh, 1872 ; and an article " Cistercian Abbeys in Yorkshire" in Eraser's Magazine for September 1876. (J. G. C.)

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