Medieval Studies The Cistercians
Marsha L. Dutton, Tyler Sergent
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0250


Cistercian monasticism began when in 1098 twenty-one monks from the wealthy Burgundian monastery of Molesme undertook to create a new monastery in which they would live in voluntary poverty, “poor with the poor Christ,” and in literal adherence to the Rule of Saint Benedict. Over the next millennium, in their habits of undyed wool (whence the term White Monks), increasing numbers of inhabitants of the New Monastery—later called Cîteaux from its location in the swampy area near Dijon known as Cistercium—spread across the world, developing new pastoral and agricultural methods and creating a distinctive architecture. While the Rule of Saint Benedict provided the essential regulations for Cistercian life, Cistercian polity derived from the Order’s early documents, beginning with the Charter of Charity, which defines the relationship among all members of the Order as grounded in charity, with all “united in spirit.” That principle underlies the horizontal links among the monasteries, as all abbots and abbesses meet regularly in a General Chapter to deliberate constitutional questions. A vertical relationship among the houses also exists, however, as superiors of founding—mother—houses carry out annual visitation of all their daughter houses and abbots of daughter houses visit their mother houses each year. As the young order did not accept child oblates, Cistercian communities drew their population from adult men, a fact that probably contributed to the number of distinguished early Cistercian writers and preachers. Medieval authors, beginning with Bernard, the influential 12th-century abbot of Clairvaux, wrote numerous commentaries, sermons, and treatises explicating the spiritual life as founded in the love of God and God’s love of the human soul, so formulating a recognizable Cistercian spirituality and theology. Cistercian libraries were rich in classical, patristic, and medieval works, and a desire to return to earlier traditions of hymnody and liturgy led to the initial musical development. In the mid-12th century other monastic groups began to desire to share the Cistercian life; in 1147 the Cistercian General Chapter admitted the entire orders of Savigny and of Obazine, the latter with both men’s and women’s houses. Today the appeal of Cistercian life and spirituality has led to both a number of affiliated monasteries and a growing movement of laity in the Association of Lay Cistercians, which maintains close ties with Cistercian monasteries. In the 19th century, descendants of the 17th-century monks at the French abbey of La Trappe formed a separate Cistercian branch, the Order of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O), also called Trappists. The original branch is known as the Order of the Common Observance (O.Cist.).

Historical and Cultural Context

As Europe entered into the 1st millennium CE, a combination of anxiety and fervor led to new kinds of religious expression and life, visible in the creation of new religious orders, the most successful of which was the Order of Cîteaux, founded in 1198. Many scholars have explored the developments in 11th- and 12th-century culture that underlay that religious vitality, from the perspective of institutional change to that of personal spirituality. Lawrence 2001 treats Cistercian beginnings not as revolutionary but as in a clear line of descent from desert monasticism and early medieval eremitic life. Similarly Leclercq 1961 finds the origins of 12th-century monastic culture in patristic writings, a view supported by the importance to the Cistercians of the Rule of Saint Benedict as explicated in Fry 1981 and Vogüé 2013, while Melville 2016 calls attention to the originality of the order created by the new system of Cistercian governance. Constable 1996 examines not the origins of the new religious orders but the way they participated in the 12th-century cultural revolution, and Leclercq 1993 examines the origins and motives of the individuals who became part of the new orders. Fulton 2003 identifies Cistercian affectivity as originating in expectations that the world would end in 1000.

  • Constable, Giles. The Reformation of the Twelfth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    A classic analytic work providing thorough context for religious change in 12th-century Europe, with special emphasis on the monastic reform begun at Cîteaux, arguing for the significant contributions made by the new orders, including Cistercians. Valuable for teaching and young scholars; many footnotes, an extensive bibliography, and a detailed index.

  • Fry, Timothy, ed. RB1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1981.

    A standard text of the Rule; facing-page translation, copious footnotes. Extensive history and context for early monasticism to the 6th century, and for the Rule beyond the 6th century. Appendices by other scholars discuss the Rule’s content (liturgy, discipline, Scripture). A detailed Latin concordance, thematic and scriptural indices.

  • Fulton, Rachel. From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800–1200. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

    An insightful study of changes in medieval patterns of spirituality. 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. Contributes thoughtfully to an understanding of Cistercian affective spirituality.

  • Lawrence, C. H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2001.

    Outstanding single-volume work on monasticism during the Middle Ages. Follows a basic chronology from desert monasticism to the late medieval friars, including a chapter on The Cistercian Model and a clear chapter about monastic women. Endnotes in chapters, detailed index, no general bibliography. Glossary useful for classroom teaching.

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

    The essential study on the origins of monastic culture and the dominant influence exercised by Saints Benedict and Gregory the Great. Leclercq’s distinction between monastic theology and scholastic theology was a cornerstone for medieval studies in the late 20th century. Consistently readable. Originated as lectures for young monks.

  • Leclercq, Jean. “Conversion to the Monastic Life in the Twelfth Century: Who, Why, and How?” In Studiosorum Speculum: Studies in Honor of Louis J. Lekai, O.Cist. Edited by Francis Swietek and John R. Sommerfeldt, 201–232. Cistercian Studies 141. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1993.

    Leclercq addresses the question of what conversion meant for those joining 12th-century monasteries of Cistercian and other new orders. Provides no fixed typology of conversion, but categories such as the social strata of converts (mostly aristocratic), motives for conversion, and difficulty of entry requirements, including good health.

  • Melville, Gert. The World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of Life. Translated by James D. Mixson. Cistercian Studies 263. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2016.

    A thorough overview of European religious orders and their founders through the 15th century, ranging from regular canons through the Humiliati; photographs, maps, detailed time line, and bibliography. Two chapters explain Cistercians as the first true monastic order, with communities independent in life but linked through filiation and legislative authority.

  • Vogüé, Adalbert de. A Critical Study of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Vol. 1. Translated by Colleen Maura McGrane. New York: New City, 2013.

    First volume of a thorough multivolume study of the Rule. An English translation of Vogüé’s in-depth scholarship on the Rule, its authorship, historical and liturgical context, literary sources (including Rule of the Master), dating, manuscript tradition, and textual criticism. Each chapter has detailed endnotes; no separate bibliography or index.

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