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Chronology Entry













The Cistercians were founded in 1098, a year before the bloody conquest of Jerusalem by the First Crusade.  By the time Abbot Stephen Harding died in 1134 aged 74,  there were already 70 Cistercian abbeys in existence.  "In 700 years of monasticism in Europe, nothing like this had ever been seen before" says Stephen Tobin in his book.   


But they had not seen anything yet - the movement was just limbering up for the big leap, driven by the dynamic and very public orator Saint Bernard (1090 - 1153), founder and Abbot of Clairvaux.   By the end of the eleven hundreds there were over 500 Cistercian abbeys, mostly with huge agricultural land holdings and a dominant position in wool production (Britain), ironworks (Central France), agricultural land management and drainage and water engineering.  Such skills had made Cistercian abbeys and granges some of the most beautiful and productive sites and business enterprises in Europe.


The power of the great medieval abbeys and priories was being broken and replaced by the power of a multinational organization, and it is not surprising that there was much resistance from the former - turkeys have never knowingly voted for Christmas.




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

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Link to other books on the Cistercians and their Beautiful Abbeys


Saint Bernard of Clairvaux    1090 - 1153 (63)


"If you desire to know what is inside, leave behind the bodies that you brought from the world: only souls are allowed" (Saint Bernard - sermon to novices before entering the Abbey of Clairvaux)


Portrait of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the Cathedral Treasury, Troyes. 


By far the best known of the Cistercian founders was Saint Bernard.  In fact he so overshadowed the others in terms of public profile that most accounts incorrectly put the rise of the Cistercian Order solely down to him.


He arrived at the gates of Clairvaux with a group of 30 relatives and friends in the spring of 1113, "rearing to go".  Two years later  he was chosen by one of the Burgundian Counts (prompted one suspects by Abbot Harding, who must have found living alongside this uncomfortable and overzealous group a bit trying) to found a monastery on (you guessed) a marshy bog with no apparent  agricultural value.  The result was a drained bog and the Abbey of Clairvaux (which Napoleon later converted into a secure prison which it still is part of). 


Bernard remained the Abbot of Clairvaux for the rest of his life, but he probably spent more than half of those 38 years on the road as a charismatic orator and church trouble shooter / fixer extraordinaire. 


His steel trap mind and "take no prisoners" style were single-mindedly aimed at obliterating all intellectual and ecclesiastical impediments (including Peter Abelard and The Abbey of  Cluny along the way, though this proved a bit too much to bite off) to make way for the triumphant advance of the Cistercian charter of charity as simply the only way. 


Gran San Bernardo Pass - Looking towards Italy from the hospice.

Piccolo San Barnardo Pass - Looking back to France from the hospice.


In 1130 the church, in an absentminded moment, managed to elect two popes simultaneously, and Bernard, championing the cause of one of them, Innocent II (?? - 1130 - 1143 (??), tomb in Santa Maria in Trastevere), spent the next eight years stomping the length and breadth of Europe until, in 1138, Innocent II was finally installed in Rome as the only Pope (but only after the death of his rival).   Innocent II had earlier shown his gratitude by releasing the Cistercians from the franchising dues they had been paying to Cluny - a decision which went down like a lead balloon with the formerly all powerful Burgundian abbey.


Bernard  made three or more trips over the Alps via the Gran San Bernardo (above) or Piccolo San Bernardo Passes.  Many of the Italian Cistercian monasteries such as Chiaravalle della Colomba (1135) (Chiaravalle is Clairvaux in Italian) were  spin-offs from these journeys.  On one visit he ended up in Palermo in Sicily laying down the law to Roger II, and on the way the Abbey that was to become Fossanova turned itself over to be demolished and rebuilt in the Cistercian image.  


Confusingly, the Alpine passes are actually named after another earlier San Bernardo, Saint Bernard of Menthon (923 - 1008 (81)).  It was he who resecured control of the passes from the Arabs (yes - Arabs at 8,000 ft) and set up (in the 960s) an Augustinian hospice at each pass to care for travellers.  It the 1600s the famous Saint Bernard dogs were to emerge from these hospices. 








In 1145 a monk from Clairvaux was elected as Pope Eugenius III, just after news had filtered through that Moslem leader Nur al-Din (Malik al-Adil Nur al-Din Mahmud) had captured Edessa and was advancing on Jerusalem.  Bernard took to the road again, this time exhorting everyone to support a new crusade.   The campaign climaxed with a famous speech to a huge gathering at Vézelay in 1146, after which the Second Crusade took off enthusiastically, only to return dishevelled and defeated in 1149.


Bernard copped the blame for this debacle, though in truth it was down to the disunity and incompetence of the royal military leaders, magnified by the fact that for the first time they were facing a coherently organized and competently led opposition. 







Left:  Saint Bernard presents the Abbey Church of Clairvaux

Photo from the excellent MSM coffee table book above



Bernard spent the final years of his life writing De Consideratione - a feedback to his former pupil Eugenius III on the lessons of the failed crusade.  De Consideratione and parts of the Saint's other great written work, the sermons on Solomon's Song of Songs, are included in the Penguin Classic "The Cistercian World - Monastic Writings of the twelfth century" (above).   As a matter of interest, in 1028 Bernard also had a strong influence in the writing of the Rule (including the odd injunction not to wash) for the Knights Templar,  who had been formed in 1118.






The map is from this book


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The Decline


From their inception in 1098, the Cistercian Order membership numbers followed the classic product life cycle "sigmoid curve".  Slowly accelerating growth in the early years, explosive growth in the latter 1100s and early 1200s, then slowing growth and topping out after the Black Death, after which it was a long decline at different rates in each of the new Nation States of Europe.


The first factor to get in the way of the advance of the Cistercian and other traditional monastery based movements was the emergence of the town based Mendicant orders of Friars - followers of San Francesco (1182 - 1226 (44)) (Franciscans) and San Domenico (1170 - 1221 (51)) (Dominicans).  By the early 13 hundreds they had become the orders of choice for many of those who had a friarly calling. 


In 1348 - 1350 the Black Death knocked over more than 50% of Europe's population, leading to the depopulation of the countryside generally, and the Cistercian lay brothers particularly, as labour moved into a seller's market.  The decades just before and after this were marked in France, Northern Spain and Northern Italy by the indiscriminate loot and burn activities of the English King Edward III and his son the Black Prince, then later by large elements of their armies who set off on their own to do the same thing and keep the proceeds.


The 1300s also saw climatic disasters and the emergence of sheep disease - factors which seriously impacted the cash flows of the big English Cistercian Abbeys, who had been persuaded by medieval merchant bankers to borrow money against future revenue streams (which were in fact early futures contracts).  When wool clips did not materialize as anticipated, many of the monasteries ended up in disastrous debt - not the first or last instance of "what were we thinking" investment banking advice. 


The Cistercians were also the victims of their own successful growth.  It became impossible to run the far flung networks of monasteries as had been envisaged, and they often succumbed to the very corruption they had been set up to fight.  This situation was not helped by debilitating power struggles between the foundation abbeys, and the emergence of nation states who automatically viewed such a transnational organization as a threat.


The beautiful abbeys and monastic buildings of the Cistercians and the other old monastic orders, built with such loving care, started to run down.  In most countries the decline was accelerated by the appointments of commendatory abbots who came from outside the monastic orders (usually as a political pay-off) and were given the right to cream off much of a monastery's income stream for their own use.   Sometimes monasteries were eventually just deserted - like San Galgano in Tuscany - after the valuables and land assets had been sold bit by bit, the lead stripped from the roofs and the bells sold to be melted down.   Mostly government forces  intervened to speed the process.  Henry VIII expropriated all the lands, buildings and treasures of the English and Welsh monasteries and abbeys in the 1530s,  and many of the monastic buildings that survived got violently wrecked in the aftermath of the English Civil War just over 100 years later, and also became quarries for building materials. 


A further hundred years on,  the French Revolution led to the permanent suppression of all French monasteries in 1790 and they were taken over by the government (monasteries make good locations for army, cavalry and police barracks and stores and even prisons), or sold to aspiring country house owners, industrialists or pragmatic wreckers.  For example Clairvaux is now part of a high security prison, some of the Cluny grounds are an equestrian (ex-cavalry) centre and Fontenay was for some time a paper mill.


The French thing spilled over into Italy when Napoleon's lads descended on northern Italy on the way to Venice at the end of the 1700s and did another loot, pillage and burn job, especially on the monastery buildings and their often precious contents.  Interestingly the abbey churches were often spared - maybe even Bonaparte's thugs were frightened at the possibility of consignment to hell?  In addition, many Italian monasteries were suppressed by the church in the course of the 16, 17 and 18 hundreds, and their possessions sold or taken over by the mainstream church.   As in France the military helped themselves - even today in Florence, for example, significant parts of the Convent of Santa Maria Novella and the Monastery of Ognissanti are reserved for use by the Carabiniere, which is actually an arm of the Italian Army rather than a civilian police force.


In Spain the reform of seigneurial jurisdiction over rural properties in the 1830s and 40s backfired into a grant of absolute ownership to much of the landowning nobility, but the Depriving Laws of Mendizábal in 1836 stripped all but the most cunning abbeys of their lands and thus economic viability.


Despite all of this, the Cistercians have left a rich heritage of buildings and medieval history for today's world to enjoy.   Some still working monasteries (such as the Abbeys of Casamari, Fossanova and Chiaravalle della Colomba in Italy and several in Spain), some abbeys and monasteries restored as museums and performance spaces (such as Noirlac and Fontenay) and some looked after as dramatic ruins (such as San Galgano, Fountains, Rievaulx and Tintern).



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