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  • The Great Beginning of Cîteaux (A Narrative of the Beginning of the Cistercian Order): The Exordium Magnum of Conrad of Eberbach, ed. by E. Rozanne Elder
  • Justin Haar
The Great Beginning of Cîteaux (A Narrative of the Beginning of the Cistercian Order): The Exordium Magnum of Conrad of Eberbach, ed. E. Rozanne Elder, forward Brian Patrick McGuire, trans. Benedicta Ward and Paul Savage, Cistercian Fathers Series 72 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press 2012) 580 pp.

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Written near the turn of the thirteenth century, the Exordium Magnum of Conrad, abbot of Eberbach (r. 1221), narrates the origins of the Cistercian Order in a massive assemblage which is equal parts stories demonstrating the especial holiness of the Cistercians, warnings against those who would critique the Order from without or fall from its precepts from within, and exhortations for his readers to learn and follow. Conrad’s work is a key text for scholars of the Cistercians and has been studied for what it might say about the political, social, and religious development of the Order, but it has been unavailable in an English version. The Great Beginning of Cîteaux ends this lacuna, as translators Benedicta Ward and Paul Savage have now brought Bruno Greißer’s magisterial 1961 critical edition of Conrad’s Exordium Magnum into English for the first time. Written in a period of changing religious sensibilities in notoriously difficult Latin, Conrad’s Exordium Magnum combines exempla (brief didactic miracle stories), history, and documents important to the Cistercian tradition. The multiple natures of the text—documentary, historical, and didactic—coupled with Conrad’s overlapping purposes—defense of the Order from its detractors, spiritual formation and reform, and recordkeeping— have led to its being rather neglected outside the field of Cistercian studies. Few scholars have noted its value as a historical source rather than a purely devotional one, something which the contributors hope to change. This volume, with its elegant translation, helpful apparatuses, and affordable price will almost certainly change this for the better.

The Great Beginning of Cîteaux is substantial. Conrad of Eberbach’s text itself, comprised of six books of between ten and thirty-five chapters, is over 500 pages in length, bookended by contributions from Ward, Savage, and McGuire. The volume opens with a brief but illuminating forward by Brian Patrick McGuire which situates Conrad’s text in a tradition of pious Cistercian narrative storytelling, which he argues the brothers enjoyed both for its power to edify and for its usefulness in establishing common history and identity across the Order. McGuire’s forward is followed by a preface by Benedicta Ward contextualizing Conrad’s source in its compositional context amid shifting ecclesiastical currents at the end of the twelfth century. This preface also sets out the goals of the translation (namely to strike a balance between adherence to Conrad’s polemical, highly-rhetorical Latin and approachable, comprehensible English), the vocabulary choices of the translators, and their editorial practice. This is followed by a longer introduction by Paul Savage which tackles the text’s composition, authorship, context, and transmission.

The supporting apparatus of The Great Beginning of Cîteaux is noteworthy in its thoroughness. Conrad included descriptive chapter titles in his Exordium Magnum, which are diligently reproduced here in a ten-page table of contents that makes the volume quite useful for teaching purposes or as a reference for Cistercian thought on specific issues. Indices of scriptural, classical, patristic, and medieval references both indicate Conrad’s wide reading and, when supplemented by the thorough topical index, makes the text, despite its great length, simple to navigate. Extensive primary and secondary bibliographies on Conrad, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercians, and other contemporaneous authors makes The Great Beginning of Cîteaux a useful reference volume for students of the period and its religious thinkers. Also worth noting is the brief [End Page 274] glossary of terms, which adds to the volume’s value as a teaching book and frankly ought to be required reading for any course on medieval Christianity.

It is also in the supports that I find my only noteworthy quibble with the volume. The editors, in their effort to make The...


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