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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 315-316
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The Cistercian Evolution:
The Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-Century Europe
The Cistercian Evolution: The Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-Century Europe. By Constance Hoffman Berman. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press. 2000. Pp. xxiv, 382. $59.95.)
In this important and provocative book, Constance Hoffman Berman rejects the traditional narrative explaining the foundation and spread of the Cistercian Order. This narrative suggested that the Cistercians' early administrative innovations, most notably the Charter of Charity and the Chapter General, facilitated the rapid spread of male Cistercian monasteries and bound these new communities into a unified order. Berman argues that these innovations were instead established by Cistercians in the third quarter of the twelfth century to bring loosely affiliated communities of both men and women under centralized control.
Berman's argument has two intertwined strands. First, through a careful reading of charters, cartularies, and architectural monuments, Berman shows that the Cistercians spread throughout southern France by "refounding" already existing communities of monks and nuns, many of which had started as part of the monastic experimentation of the early twelfth century. These communities had already established their own relations with patrons and their own networks of affiliation before they adopted Cistercian customs. As some of these communities flourished, Berman shows how they absorbed smaller priories, especially priories of women, turning the buildings into granges and expelling the nuns. This picture of diverse foundations of men and women gradually adopting Cistercian practices and then expanding at the expense of one another is an important contribution to our understanding of reformed monasticism in the twelfth century.
The second strand of Berman's argument redates the early Cistercian administrative documents and histories. Berman carefully examines the manuscripts containing the "primitive Cistercian documents" and concludes that the Chapter General, the Charter of Charity, and the early histories (the exordium parvum and the exordium cistercii) only developed during the 1160's and 1170's, and that the papal privileges confirming the Charter of Charity in 1119 and exempting the Cistercians from tithes in 1132 were later forgeries. The composition of these documents was part of the process of order-building through which Cistercian abbots, concerned about the pre-eminent position of Clairvaux, created an administrative structure to unify the large number of communities already following Cistercian liturgical practices.
Berman's redating of Cistercian history may eventually prove correct, but her argument is not yet convincing. She bases her analysis on charters and the "primitive documents" but does not consider if other texts mention the administrative structures she claims had not yet been established. In a letter from 1143/4, Bernard of Clairvaux insists that he will not leave Clairvaux "nisi ad conventum abbatum apud Cistercium semel in anno." In a series of letters from [End Page 315] the mid-1130's, Peter the Venerable complains of a papal privilege that clearly exempted from tithes more Cistercian monasteries than just Clairvaux and its affiliates. And despite Berman's claim (p. 101) that Orderic Vitalis does not describe "any grouping of Cistercians larger than the community of monks at Cîteaux," Orderic mentions sixty-five abbeys, with clearly defined practices, all of which were "subject to the abbot (archimandrita) of Cîteaux." None of these examples proves the existence of the Charter of Charity and an explicitly named Chapter General in the 1130's and '40's, but they do suggest that writers from this period noted a regular yearly meeting of abbots and identified as Cistercian a group of monasteries following an established set of customs.
Even if Berman has overstated her case, her book changes our understanding of the early Cistercians. It will shape our research for some time to come. Berman's questioning of Cistercian documents, her new picture of Cistercian growth, her warnings about reading thirteenth-century administrative structures and ideas back on to the twelfth, and especially, her insistence that we consider houses of both men and women...