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The 5 Foundation Cistercian Abbeys

in Burgundy, France


French Cistercian Abbey Pages


Introduction to the Paradoxplace Cistercian History and Photo Pages



Link to the early years of the Cistercian Order

Link to Saint Bernard and the Cistercians' Big Leap Forward

Books on Cistercian Abbeys

Chronology Entry





On this page are links to:




Pontigny * (the only surviving "original" abbey church)



La Ferté


Also in Burgundy is the Abbey of Fontenay **, along with Noirlac ** the best preserved and most original of the French Cistercian Abbeys. 



** must visits

* highly recommended




If it's Cistercian Abbey photos you want, this is THE coffee table book

Buy from Amazon USA

 Buy from Amazon UK


Link to other books on the Cistercians and their Beautiful Abbeys





The Abbey of  Citeaux (Active)

Near Nuits Saint Georges (Burgundy)


The first and therefore senior Cistercian Abbey was Citeaux - where it all started in 1098, and which was sold in 1791 to a wrecker in the furious aftermath of the French Revolution.  Unlike some other French Cistercian Abbeys such as Noirlac and Fontenay, it is impossible to imagine what things looked like any time in the past, and the Trappist monks who have reoccupied the place predictably seem to want to make the only interesting buildings (those shown above), extremely difficult to see - closed two days of the week and only limited guided tours at other times.  Unsurprisingly it is not difficult to access the monastery shop, but it was difficult to be in (even for Dom P, veteran of many monastery shops) because of an unpleasant and pervasive bad (Trappist - the shop at La Trappe is the same) drains' smell.


Citeaux was sacked by the soldiers of an Imperial and Catholic army in 1636, at which time most of the archives relating to the history of the Cistercian order were tragically destroyed.


The right of the right building above is the half of the library which is the only surviving old (but not original) monastery building.  The building on the left of the photo, also inaccessible, is the definitory (1683).  The what?  Well, by the middle of the 1200s the  Cistercians had an inner governance group of 25 people - the Abbot of Citeaux itself (who was regarded by the outside world as the General Superior of the Order - a situation which caused considerable friction with the four First Fathers), the four First Fathers (the Proto-Abbots of La Ferté, Pontigny, Clairvaux and Morimond), who each nominated 4 abbots from their daughter abbeys.   The role of the Definitors was to pose the questions and problems, and propose answers and solutions to these, for the consideration of the General Chapter of the Order, though very quickly they themselves became the de facto governing body (link to more governance insights).  The building was put up by Abbot Dom Jean Petit in 1683 to house the meetings of the Definitors. 


Web Site and List of some Daughter Houses of Citeaux


Under Citeaux in precedence came four foundation abbeys headed by proto abbots. 








The Abbey of  Pontigny (church)

North West Burgundy (Chablis Country)




Web Site and List of some Daughter Houses of Pontigny


Above - the Abbey of  Pontigny (founded in 1114), second cab off the ranks and now the only one of the 5 originals in use as a church. 


Thomas Becket (1120-1170) Lord Chancellor of England then Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of England, spent the years 1164-66 here in exile from Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine's England.  Whilst in Pontigny he popped over to Vézelay on Whit-Sunday (Pentecoste) 12 June 1166 to deliver a sermon  announcing the excommunication of the main followers of of his English King, and threatening the King himself with the same medicine.  Becket was later famously murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 (and then transformed into Saint Thomas a couple of years' later).


Lincolnshire man Cardinal Stephen Langton (1150 - 1228 (78)) (who had earlier sorted the bible into the books and chapters we presently know whilst teaching theology at Paris University, followed by a stint as Cardinal Priest of San Crisogono in Trastevere, Rome) was holed up here for six years from 1207 whilst waiting for the English King (by now Henry's son John) to let him in to the country as Pope Innocent III's nominated Archbishop of Canterbury.  Langton  took refuge here from 1207 to 1213 while John  arm-wrestled the powerful Pope over whether Langton should be allowed to take up his appointment or not.  John lost, and in the process financially ruined many  Cistercian and other Abbeys in Britain.  John may have had a premonition, because Langton became a major force in the negotiations between King and Barons that led to a most unwilling King having to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215.   It was also Langton who established the Saint Thomas Shrine in what is now the Trinity Chapel at the east end of  Canterbury Cathedral.


Pontigny is just to the West of the famous Chablis vineyards in North Burgundy - this photo was taken in June 2004 after a one hour + wait for the sun .... one just hopes that the new roof quickly weathers to a more sober colour.



A Burgundian Country Lunch at Le Moulin de Pontigny



Across the road from the abbey church is what remains of the extensive water system which the Cistercian monks would have built.  It was said that Cistercian water engineers were without peer in extracting water power from even minor drops in water levels.  Now all that remains is a goose pool, and on its edge the restaurant "Le Moulin de Pontigny" which claims one of the water mills (moulins) as a distant ancestor.  A good place to rest up for a Burgundian country lunch washed down by a drop of local wine.


The Abbey of  Clairvaux (in a prison)



The Abbey of Clairvaux - founded in 1115.  The best known of the four foundation abbeys because of its linkage with Saint Bernard, and the mother of the largest number of daughter abbeys because of his promoter skills.  It  was saved from the wreckers by Napoleon who made it into a prison, which it still is part of.  There is limited access for visitors once a week.


By 1250 there were 651 Cistercian abbeys, and just over half (339) were daughter houses of Clairvaux (a tribute to the promotional genius of Bernard a hundred years previously).  The dots on this map show the locations of Clairvaux and its daughter Abbeys. 


Web Site and List of some Daughter Houses of Clairvaux


The Abbey of Fossanova  (in Latium and now  home to Franciscan Friars Minor) was said to be close in appearance to Clairvaux.





The Abbey of  Morimond (a little ruin)


In contrast to Citeaux,  Morimond (1115),  though there is nothing now but a ruined arch (above), is in a beautiful  atmospheric tree framed meadow in a shallow valley.  No smelly shop or monks saying keep out of here - it's open to all visitors as an historic site.  Well worth the 45 minute round trip from the motorway we thought, plus lovely country and a couple of interesting old villages on the way - the photos show the village cross at one of these -  Fresnoy en Bassigny.


Web Site and List of some Daughter Houses of Morimond






The Abbey of  La Ferté


The foundation Abbey of la Ferté in south Burgundy has metamorphosed into a large chateaux hotel advertized as "the first girl of Citeaux".

This template shows the standard layout of Cistercian Abbeys - the green/blue areas are those reserved for the lay brothers, who were not allowed to mix with the choir monks, even to the extent of having a solid screen (=wall) separating the nave of the abbey from the choir (a feature removed in later more egalitarian  restorations, but still evident in the screens which divide the choir and apse areas (hence "choir monks") from pollutants from the outside world in monastic English cathedrals).


The numbers include the night stairs (4) to the church transept from the monk's dormitory (18).  When establishing new monasteries priority was given to building the transept / chapter house / dormitory structures first so the monks had a place to worship and a roof over their heads plus washing and toilet stuff (19 and 36, hanging out over the river if possible).  Then there are the Chapter House (16 - often intact in Cistercian ruins), the Cloisters (15), day stairs (17), scriptorium (22), novices day room (23), kitchen (28), lay brothers' cloister, refectory (31), store room (33) and lay brothers' dormitory (35).  There would also have been a hand washing lavatorium on the way to the refectory, and a warming room where monks were allowed to warm up in cold winters (24).  Sometimes the monastery buildings were on the north side of the abbey if the drainage / river situation dictated it, and at Rievaulx the abbey faces south (called ecclesiastical east!) with the monastery buildings on the west side to accommodate the sloping hill site.

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