Cistercians (Latin Cistercenses), otherwise Gimey or White Monks (from the colour of the habit, over which is worn a black scapular or apron) are a Catholic order of monks.
In 1098 Saint Robert, born of a noble family in Champagne, France, at first a Benedictine monk and then abbot of certain hermits, settled at Molesme near Chatillon. Being dissatisfied with the manner of life and observance there, he migrated with twenty of the monks to a swampy place ("a place of horrors") called Citeaux in the diocese of Châlons, not far from Dijon (Burgundy).
With Count Odo of Burgundy as their patron here,they built a monastery simply called Novum Monasterium (New Monastery), and they began to live a life of strict observance according to the letter of Saint Benedict's rule (see Latin text ). In the following year Robert was compelled by papal authority to return to Molesme, and St Alberic succeeded him as abbot of Citeaux Abbey and held the office till his death in 1109, when the Englishman St Stephen Harding became abbot, until 1134.
For some years the new institute seemed little likely to prosper; few novices came, and in the first years of Stephen's abbacy it seemed doomed to failure. In 1112, however, Bernard of Clairvaux and thirty others offered themselves to the monastery, and a rapid and wonderful development at once set in. The next three years witnessed the foundation of the four great daughter-houses of Citeaux: La Ferté, Pontigny, Clairvaux and Morimond. At Stephen's death there were over 30 Cistercian houses; at Bernard's (1154) over 280; and by the end of the century over 500; and the Cistercian influence in the Roman Catholic Church more than kept pace with this material expansion, so that St Bernard saw one of his monks ascend the papal chair as Pope Eugenius III.
The keynote of Cistercian life was a return to a literal observance of St Benedict's rule: how literal may be seen from the controversy between St Bernard and Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny (see Maitland, Dark Ages, § xxii.). The Cistercians rejected alike all mitigations and all developments, and tried to reproduce the life exactly as it had been in St 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, and especially to field-work, which became a special characteristic of Cistercian life.
In order to make time for this work they cut away the accretions to the divine office which had been steadily growing during three centuries, and in Cluny and the other Black Monk monasteries had come to exceed greatly in length the regular canonical office: one only of these accretions did they retain, the daily recitation of the Office of the Dead (Edm. Bishop, Origin of the Primer, (Early English Text Society, original series, 109.), p. xxx).
It was as agriculturists and horse and cattle breeders that, after the first blush of their success and before a century had passed, the Cistercians exercised their chief influence on the progress of civilization in the later Middle Ages: they were the great farmers of those days, and many of the improvements in the various farming operations were introduced and propagated by them, and it is from this point of view that the importance of their extension in northern Europe is to be estimated.
The Cistercians at the beginning renounced all sources of income arising from benefices, tithes, tolls and rents, and depended for their income wholly on the land. This developed an organized system for selling their farm produce, cattle and horses, and notably contributed to the commercial progress of the countries of western Europe. Thus by the middle of the 13th century the export of wool by the English Cistercians had become a feature in the commerce of the country. 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 lay brothers were recruited from the peasantry and were simple uneducated men, whose function 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.
A lay brother was 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 civilization. But 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.
The Cistercian polity calls for special mention. Its lines were adumbrated by Alberic, but it received its final form at a meeting of the abbots in the time of Stephen Harding, when was drawn up the Carta Caritatis (see Latin text: ) (Migne, Patrol. Lat. clxvi. 1377), a document which 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, whereby each abbey was autonomous and isolated, and the complete centralization of Cluny, whereby the abbot of Cluny was the only true superior in the body. Citeaux, on the one hand, 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; its own property and finances administered by itself, without interference from outside.
On the other hand, all the abbeys were subjected to the general chapter, which met yearly at Citeaux, and consisted of the abbots only: the abbot of Citeaux was the president of the chapter and of the order, and the visitor of each and every house, with a predominant influence and the power of enforcing everywhere exact conformity to Citeaux in all details of the exterior life observance, chant, customs. The principle was that Citeaux 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 Citeaux was always to prevail (see F. A. Gasquet, Sketch of Monastic Constitutional History, pp. xxxv-xxxviii, prefixed to English trans. Of Montalemberts Monks of the West, ed. 1895).
By the end of the 12th century the Cistercian houses numbered 500; in the 13th a hundred more were added; and in the 15th, when the order attained its greatest extension, there were close on 750 houses: the larger figures sometimes given are now recognized as apocryphal.
Nearly half of the houses had been founded, directly or indirectly, from Clairvaux, so great was St Bernard's influence and prestige: indeed he has come almost to be regarded as the founder of the Cistercians, who have often been called Bernardines. The order was spread all over western Europe, chiefiy in France, but also in Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Italy and Sicily, Spain and Portugal, where some of the houses, as Alcobaca, were of almost incredible magnificence.
In England the first foundation was Furness (1127), and many of the most beautiful monastic buildings of the country, beautiful in themselves and beautiful in their sites, were Cistercian, as Tintern Abbey, Rievaulx, Byland and Fountains. A hundred were established in England in the next hundred years, and then only one more up to the Dissolution (for list, see table and map in F. A. Gasquets English Monastic Life, or Catholic Dictionary, art. Cistercians ).
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, chiefly, no doubt, because of the rise of the mendicant orders, who ministered more directly to the needs and ideas of the new age. But some of the reasons of Cistercian decline were internal.
In the first place, there was the permanent difficulty of maintaining in its first fervour a body embracing hundreds of monasteries and thousands of monks, spread all over Europe; and as the Cistercian very raison d'être 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 worked more disastrously 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 1335 Pope Benedict XII, himself a Cistercian, promulgated a series of regulations to restore the primitive spirit of the order, and 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. In the 17th 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 Citeaux, 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 Citeâux itself and the general body of the houses had again to be abandoned, and only local projects of reform could be carried out.
In 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.
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 years, however, signs are not wanting of a tendency towards a return to older ideas;
- 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.
Accounts of the beginnings of the Cistercians and of the primitive life and spirit will be found in the lives of St. Bernard, the best 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.