Monday, 12 May 2014


It's another medieval Monday, and I feel like discussing the Cistercians today. Cistercian monks were a part of the new wave of monasticism that swept Western Europe from the start of the 12th century. Their premise was essentially that existing forms of monasticism following the rule of St Benedict weren't really being austere or holy enough. They, and a lot of noble backers, felt that other monasteries had relaxed their standards somewhat when it came to things like the accumulation of wealth.

So, starting with Robert of Molseme and the Abbey of Citeaux, they set out to follow the rule of St Benedict a lot more closely. And it worked, in two separate ways. First, in the way they originally seem to have wanted. They adopted a simpler, more austere sort of life. They wore white, undyed robes to symbolise that. Their monasteries worked as a network, with each house checking the next to keep them in line.

It also worked in a way that they probably didn't anticipate, because they became suddenly, massively popular. Partly, that was because medieval nobles wanted newer, holier monastic orders in which to invest. The prevailing feeling was that doing so was better for the soul than giving money to moderately holy orders to which other nobles had already given plenty of money. Archbishop Thurstan of York in particular seemed to love them, allowing them to found Rievaux and Fountains, while Meaux was founded at around the same time, in 1137.

Partly, it was because Bernard of Clairvaux, their second leader, was unfathomably charismatic. Or incredibly annoying and inclined towards writing letters at people until they gave up and did what he wanted. I'm not entirely sure which, although it does explain a lot about the Second Crusade, which he talked quite a lot of France into.

Oh, and it may also have had something to do with extending papal authority, since the Cistercians quickly acquired exemptions from all sorts of controls, whether by royal authority or archiepiscopal.

Whatever the reason, they found themselves with new monastery after new monastery. Whole sections of monastic houses defected. They acquired lay brothers to do a lot of the labour. Nobles gave them land, and money, and... well, you can see where this is going. They got rich. Particularly through the wool trade. They slowly became everything they'd been trying to avoid. They even started speculating on the wool market, accepting up front payments for next year's crop.

Which is how they came down a few notches. Parasites hit their sheep, with the result that they ended up owing quite a lot of money, and several of them had to get the medieval equivalent of the administrators in to run things for a bit. The order survived, but they were never quite the same again.

Which, of course, paved the way for all sorts of other orders to grow up...


mshatch said...


Tessa Conte said...

How is it that one can be annoyingly charismatic but not really charismatically annoying? : )