With the Cluniac monks the Cistercians divide the distinction of being the most numerous and most useful monastic order of the Middle Ages,605 until the Mendicant Friars arose and distanced them both. They are Benedictines and claim the great name of St. Bernard, and for that reason are often called Bernardins in France. Two popes, Eugenius III. and Benedict XII., proceeded from the order. Europe owes it a large debt for its service among the half-barbarian peasants of Eastern France, Southern Germany, and especially in the provinces of Northeastern Germany. Its convents set an example of skilled industry in field and garden, in the training of the vine, the culture of fish, the cultivation of orchards, and in the care of cattle.606
The founder, Robert Molêsme, was born in Champagne, 1024, and after attempting in vain to introduce a more rigorous discipline in several Benedictine convents, retired to the woods of Molêsme and in 1098 settled with twenty companions on some swampy ground near Citeaux,607 twelve miles from Dijon. Here Eudes, duke of Burgundy,608 erected a building, which went at first by the name of the New Monastery, novum monasterium.
Alberic, Robert’s successor, received for the new establishment the sanction of Pascal II., and placed it under the special care of the Virgin. She is said to have appeared to him in the white dress of the order.609
Under the third abbot, Stephen Harding, an Englishman, known as St. Stephen, who filled the office twenty-five years (1110–1134),610 the period of prosperity set in. In 1113 Bernard with thirty companions entered the convent, and the foundation of four houses followed, 1113–1115,—La Ferté, Potigny, Clairvaux, and Morimond,—which continued to have a rank above all the other Cistercian houses subsequently founded.
New houses followed rapidly. In 1130 there were 30 Cistercian convents, in 1168, 288. A rule was framed forbidding the erection of new establishments, but without avail, and their number in the fourteenth century had risen to 738.611 The order, though never the recipient of such privileges as were dispensed to Cluny, was highly honored by some of the popes. Innocent III. showed them special favor, and promised them the precedence in audiences at Rome.612
The carta charitatis, the Rule of Love, the code of the Cistercians, dates from Harding’s administration and was confirmed by Calixtus II.—1119. It commanded the strict observance of the Benedictine Rule, but introduced a new method of organization for the whole body. In contrast to the relaxed habits of the Cluniacs, the mode of life was made austerely simple. The rule of silence was emphasized and flesh forbidden, except in the case of severe illness. The conventual menu was confined to two dishes. All unnecessary adornment of the churches was avoided, so that nothing should remain in the house of God which savored of pride or superfluity. The crosses were of wood till the statutes of 1157 allowed them to be of gold. Emphasis was placed upon manual labor as an essential part of monastic life. A novice at Clairvaux writes enthusiastically of the employment of the monks, whom he found with hoes in the gardens, forks and rakes in the meadows, sickles in the fields, and axes in the forest.613 In some parts they became large landowners and crowded out the owners of small plats.614 At a later period they gave themselves to copying manuscripts.615 Their schools in Paris, Montpellier (1252), Toulouse (1281), Oxford (1282), Metz, and other places were noted, but with the exception of Bernard they developed no distinguished Schoolmen or writers as did the mendicant orders.616 They were not given to the practice of preaching or other spiritual service among the people.617 The general chapter, 1191, forbade preaching in the parish churches and also the administration of baptism. The order became zealous servants of the pope and foes of heresy. The abbot Arnold was a fierce leader of the Crusades against the Albigenses.
Following the practice introduced at the convent of Hirschau, the Cistercians constituted an adjunct body of laymen, or conversi.618 They were denied the tonsure and were debarred from ever becoming monks. The Cistercian dress was at first brown and then white, whence the name Gray Monks, grisei. The brethren slept on straw in cowl and their usual day dress.
The administration of the Cistercians was an oligarchy as compared with that of the Cluniacs. The abbot of Cluny was supreme in his order, and the subordinate houses received their priors by his appointment. Among the Cistercians each convent chose its own head. At the same time the community of all the houses was insured by the observance of the Rule of 1119, and by yearly chapters, which were the ultimate arbiters of questions in dispute. The five earliest houses exercised the right of annual visitation, which was performed by their abbots over five respective groups. A General Council of twenty-five consisted of these five abbots and of four others from each of the five groups. The General Chapters were held yearly and were attended by all the abbots within a certain district. Those at remote distances attended less frequently: the abbots from Spain, every two years; from Sweden and Norway, every three years; from Scotland, Ireland, Hungary, and Greece, every four years; and from the Orient, every seven years. It became a proverb that "The gray monks were always on their feet."
The Cistercians spread over all Western Europe. The Spanish orders of Alcantara and Calatrava adopted their rule. The first Cistercian house in Italy was founded 1120 at Tiglieto, Liguria, and in Germany at Altenkamp about 1123.619 In England the order got a foothold in 1128, when William Gifford, bishop of Winchester, founded the house of Waverley in Surrey.620 Among the prominent English houses were, Netley near Southampton, founded by Henry III., Rivaulx, and Fountains,621 the greatest abbey in Northern England. In 1152 there were fifty Cistercian houses in England.622 Melrose Abbey, Scotland, also belonged to this order.
Of all the Cistercian convents, Port Royal has the most romantic history. Founded in 1204 by Mathilda de Garlande in commemoration of the safe return of her husband from the Fourth Crusade, it became in the seventeenth century a famous centre of piety and scholarship. Its association with the tenets of the Jansenists, and the attacks of Pascal upon the Jesuits, brought on its tragic downfall. The famous hospice, among the snows of St. Gotthard, is under the care of St. Bernard monks.
In the thirteenth century the power of the Cistercians yielded to the energy of the orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic. It was not a rare thing for them to pass over to the newer monastic organizations.623 In 1335 Benedict XIII. enacted regulations in the interest of a severe discipline, and in 1444 Eugenius IV. felt called upon to summon the General Chapter to institute a rigid reform. With the Reformation many of the houses were lost to the order in England and Germany. The Trappists started a new movement towards severity within the order. The French Revolution suppressed the venerable organization in 1790. The buildings at Citeaux, presided over by a succession of sixty-two abbots, are now used as a reformatory institution.