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The Cistercian Evolution

The Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-Century Europe

By Constance Hoffman Berman

Publication Year: 2010

According to the received history, the Cistercian order was founded in Cîteaux, France, in 1098 by a group of Benedictine monks who wished for a stricter community. They sought a monastic life that called for extreme asceticism, rejection of feudal revenues, and manual labor for monks. Their third leader, Stephen Harding, issued a constitution, the Carta Caritatis, that called for the uniformity of custom in all Cistercian monasteries and the establishment of an annual general chapter meeting at Cîteaux.

The Cistercian order grew phenomenally in the mid-twelfth century, reaching beyond France to Portugal in the west, Sweden in the north, and the eastern Mediterranean, ostensibly through a process of apostolic gestation, whereby members of a motherhouse would go forth to establish a new house. The abbey at Clairvaux, founded by Bernard in 1115, was alone responsible for founding 68 of the 338 Cistercian abbeys in existence by 1153. But this well-established view of a centrally organized order whose founders envisioned the shape and form of a religious order at its prime is not borne out in the historical record.

Through an investigation of early Cistercian documents, Constance Hoffman Berman proves that no reliable reference to Stephen's Carta Caritatis appears before the mid-twelfth century, and that the document is more likely to date from 1165 than from 1119. The implications of this fact are profound. Instead of being a charter by which more than 300 Cistercian houses were set up by a central authority, the document becomes a means of bringing under centralized administrative control a large number of loosely affiliated and already existing monastic houses of monks as well as nuns who shared Cistercian customs. The likely reason for this administrative structuring was to check the influence of the overdominant house of Clairvaux, which threatened the authority of Cîteaux through Bernard's highly successful creation of new monastic communities.

For centuries the growth of the Cistercian order has been presented as a spontaneous spirituality that swept western Europe through the power of the first house at Cîteaux. Berman suggests instead that the creation of the religious order was a collaborative activity, less driven by centralized institutions; its formation was intended to solve practical problems about monastic administration. With the publication of The Cistercian Evolution, for the first time the mechanisms are revealed by which the monks of Cîteaux reshaped fact to build and administer one of the most powerful and influential religious orders of the Middle Ages.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

List of Tables and Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xxiv

When I began this book, I intended it to be a study of the institutional history of the Cistercians in southern France. My primary goal was to incorporate the evidence, fragmentary as it often is, for houses of Cistercian nuns that had been excluded from my earlier study of Cistercian agriculture.1 I soon had to consider why, despite much local evidence to the contrary, historians had denied...

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1. Twelfth-Century Narratives and Cistercian Mythology

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pp. 1-45

Although Lekai suggests that Cistercian growth was not the accomplishment solely of Bernard of Clairvaux, his description of the Order's miraculous expansion is still based on the spiritual appeal of Citeaux. Such analyses as Lekai's have downplayed the role of incorporation in spreading Cistercian religiosity. Such ...

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2. Charters, “Primitive Documents,” and Papal Confirmations

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pp. 46-92

In this chapter, I argue that the work of "Order-building" by the early Cistercians must be dated to shortly after the mid-twelfth century and thus after the first generation of leaders had passed away. Indeed, there are indications,discussed in the next chapter, that the creation of a Cistercian Order was in part a reaction to the continued dominance of Clairvaux after Bernard of...

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3. From C

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pp. 93-160

Descriptions of twelfth-century monastic growth have often attached the term"religious order" or "monastic order" to communities associated with a particular reformer of that age, even when speaking of the early twelfth century.1 But, as I showed in the previous chapter, the term or do did not begin to be used in the sense of a group of monasteries until at least the mid-twelfth century. A...

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4. Charters, Patrons, and Communities

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pp. 161-220

Many treatments of benefaction attempt to identify the sources of monastic support, pointing to the social classes who were most interested in the advent of a new monastic community and showing how beneficence to monastic communities served to legitimize the power of such patrons. Studies of medieval monasticism often compare levels of bequests to various abbeys in...

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5. Rewriting the History of Cistercians and Twelfth-Century Religious Reform

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pp. 221-236

In 1241 the Cistercian General Chapter instructed the abbots of Calers and Boulbonne to inspect the site of an existing religious community at Valle de Nutibus in the diocese of Elne for its possible admission into the Order.1There in 1242 the abbey of Valbonne was "founded" as a daughter of Fontfroide under the aegis of the king of Majorca and with the authority of the...

Appendix One: Chronological Summary

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pp. 237-241

Appendix Two: “Primitive Documents” Manuscripts: Relevant Contents

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pp. 242-245

Appendix Three: Southern-French Cistercian Abbeys by Province and Diocese

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pp. 264-250

Appendix Four: Calixtus II Documents from 1119 and 1120

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pp. 251-254

Appendix Five: Restored 1170 Letter from Alexander III to the Cistercians

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pp. 256-257

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 258-260


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pp. 262-321


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pp. 323-358


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pp. 359-382

E-ISBN-13: 9780812200799
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221022

Page Count: 408
Publication Year: 2010