In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Aelred of Rievaulx

  • Introduction
  • Historical and Monastic Context
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Journals

Medieval Studies Aelred of Rievaulx
Marsha L. Dutton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0179


The most prominent of the Cistercian abbots of 12th-century England, Aelred of Rievaulx (b. 1110–d. 1167), also spelled Ailred or Æthelred, was a popular preacher and a prolific writer, leading the monks of his monastery and overseeing five daughter houses while offering guidance to the great men of his time and traveling and preaching in England and France. He is one of the most studied 12th-century Cistercians, remembered through his own works and from his influence on later writers. One of three sons and perhaps at least one daughter born to the wife of a priest of Saint Andrew’s Church in Hexham (Northumbria) and descended from generations of Anglo-Saxon priests, Aelred might well have followed the family tradition and become a married parish priest. But by the time he was born in 1110, the Church, increasingly shaped by the forces of Gregorian Reform, required sons of priests to take vows of celibacy as monks or canons before being admitted to holy orders. After some years of education, perhaps at Hexham or at Durham, where his great-grandfather and grandfather had been members of the cathedral chapter, Aelred spent ten years at the court of King David I of Scotland, serving David as dapifer or steward, presumably discerning whether he was called to a life at court or in religion. In 1134, apparently with David’s blessing, he left the court to become a monk at the new Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx, founded in Yorkshire in 1132 by monks from the French abbey of Clairvaux. The skills Aelred had gained from his service at court had prepared him well for responsibilities not usually assigned to young monks. In 1141 when William FitzHerbert, a relative of King Stephen, ascended to the see of York, Aelred represented the abbot of Rievaulx in a group of prelates traveling to Rome to appeal the appointment, bearing with them a letter from Bernard of Clairvaux. After they returned to England, Aelred became master of novices at Rievaulx; soon afterward, in 1142, he was named the founding abbot of Rievaulx’s second daughter house, St. Laurence of Revesby, named for the saint to whom the church on the site was dedicated. In 1147, the monks of Rievaulx elected Aelred their abbot. Over the next twenty years, a deep bond apparently developed between him and his community. Aelred frequently portrayed himself in his works as a teacher and a loving father, and Walter Daniel, author of the Vita Ailredi, confirmed that self-portrait. When Aelred died on 12 January 1167 (now his feast day), his community buried him in the Rievaulx chapter house next to William, their first abbot.

Historical and Monastic Context

Many competing forces shaped 12th-century England; the dynamism of its intellectual atmosphere has rightly caused the period to be known as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance. Monasticism was ubiquitous and powerful, and the Cistercian Order, which came to England as one of the new monastic orders that emerged in France at the end of the 11th century, spread rapidly there. Waddell 1999 contains the early documents of the Order, edited and translated, and Lekai 1989 provides a thorough study of Cistercian history and the spread of the Cistercian Order. The active social role played by Cistercians on the continent and in England appears in Newman 1996, and Leclercq 1961 provides a classic study of monastic thought and culture. The range of monastic life in medieval England is the subject of Burton 1994. Two studies illuminate the early life of Rievaulx, with Burton 2007 persuasively proposing a relationship between Norman efforts to control the North of England and the founding of Rievaulx, and Jamroziak 2005 presenting a close study of the abbey’s history during the 12th century. The dramatic new developments in Christian spirituality around the time of the first millennium, freshly explored in Fulton 2002, reached powerful expression in Aelred’s spiritual works.

  • Burton, Janet E. Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain, 1000–1300. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139170109

    A reliable overview of monasticism in Britain from before the Norman Conquest through the end of the 12th century. Does not focus specifically on Aelred or the Cistercians, but material on both appears throughout the text. Intended for undergraduates.

  • Burton, Pierre-André. “The Beginnings of Cistercian Expansion in England: The Socio-historical Context of the Foundation of Rievaulx (1132).” Cistercian Studies Quarterly 42.2 (2007): 151–182.

    An English translation of the first part of “Aux origines de l’expansion anglaise de Cîteaux: La fondation de Rievaulx et la conversion d’Aelred: 1128–1134 (I–II),” Collectanea cisterciensia 61.3 (1999): 186–214, 248–290. Innovative in linking the Cistercians’ coming to England to the Normanizing efforts of Henry I. Particularly effective in its close reading of Bernard’s Letter 92, to Henry.

  • Fulton, Rachel. From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800–1200. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

    The fullest and most insightful study of changes in medieval patterns of spirituality in Aelred’s period. Compellingly looks to the unfulfilled popular expectation that the world would end in 1000 to explain the subsequent growth in compassion for the suffering Jesus, with Anselm as a pivotal influence.

  • Jamroziak, Emilia. Rievaulx Abbey and Its Social Context, 1132–1300: Memory, Locality, and Networks. Medieval Church Studies 8. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2005.

    The only study of the Rievaulx cartulary and its records, examining its structure and content and on that basis analyzing interactions between the monastery and the world outside, with particular attention to its benefactors. Valuable for its situating of Aelred’s abbacy.

  • Leclercq, Jean. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. Translated by Catharine Misrahi. New York: Fordham University Press, 1961.

    This fundamental and readable study considers the origins of monastic culture and the dominant influence of Saint Benedict and Saint Gregory the Great. Leclercq’s distinction between monastic theology and scholastic theology was a cornerstone for medieval studies in the late 20th century. Originally a series of lectures for young monks.

  • Lekai, Louis J. The Cistercians: Ideals and Reality. 2d ed. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1989.

    The essential book on the origins and development of Cistercian monasticism from the 11th through the 20th centuries, with lengthy bibliographical notes and an extensive index. Includes early Cistercian documents, statistical tables, twelve historical maps, and numerous photographs of Cistercian monasteries.

  • Newman, Martha. The Boundaries of Charity: Cistercian Culture and Ecclesiastical Reform, 1098–1180. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

    Studies Cistercian monasticism as a social and historical phenomenon, examining the roles played in Europe by the first Cistercians. Shows their political activities as emerging from fundamental monastic concerns and directed toward creating a new culture and preserving it within a changing society (see also Political Writing).

  • Waddell, Chrysogonus, ed. Narrative and Legislative Texts from Early Cîteaux. Brecht, Belgium: Cîteaux-Commentarii Cistercienses, 1999.

    The earliest texts of the Cistercian Order, which governed life at Rievaulx during Aelred’s abbacy, including Exordium Cistercii, Summa Cartae Caritatis, and Capitula, in Latin and English. An extended introduction about the texts’ origins, significance, and dating, thorough notes, and an extensive bibliography. Invaluable for knowledge about Cistercian history and life.

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