The novel lifestyle of medieval Cistercians - more labour, less liturgy

"The Cistercian documents claim that the Cistercian way of life was based on a firm commitment to the Rule of St Benedict. The Rule laid down a daily timetable devoted to three occupations: the performance of the liturgy (the Opus Dei), manual labour, and reading. A novelty.

By the eleventh century there had been a tendency for the liturgy to be expanded to the detriment of manual labour, which was squeezed out of the daily routine. The Cistercians cut back the length of the daily services, allowing work once more to be a part of a monk’s life. 

In other ways they went far beyond what was actually stated in the Rule in an attempt to create, or recreate, a simple lifestyle, one that they thought would bring them back to the practices of the earliest monks. From the time of Abbot Stephen Harding (elected 1109, resigned 1133/4) they adopted simplicity and austerity in their buildings, a characteristic noted by William of Malmesbury and defended by Bernard of Clairvaux as appropriate to the Cistercians’ desire for poverty. The austerity of their physical environment was matched by the simplicity of their lifestyle in terms of what they ate and drank and how they dressed. Bernard’s Apologia (c. 1125) makes it clear that in all these ways the Cistercians contrasted with the traditional Benedictine and especially Cluniac monks. 

The customs developed over the years by the General Chapter came to cover all aspects of monastic observance. The Cistercians cultivated the image of themselves as ‘desert monks’, and their regulations stated that their abbeys should be located ‘far from the dwellings of men’, or, in the words of Orderic Vitalis, ‘in lonely wooded places’. 

They developed a particular view of the desirable economic basis of their abbeys. This rejected what were, by the eleventh century, traditional forms of revenue for monastic houses, that is, manors, churches and tithes, and laid down an economic framework based on the direct exploitation of land consolidated into granges (farms) and administered by conversi, or lay brothers. Although the conversi, men who took vows but who were workers rather than monks, were not unique to the Cistercian Order, the White Monks were the first group to utilize them effectively to manage their vast estates and, in many areas, to develop on a large scale the keeping of sheep and production of wool for which the medieval Cistercians were famous."

This blog quotes sections, with minor alterations, of this source. Illustration shows Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500), source, Public Domain

 Support TemplarsNow™ by becoming a Patrontipping us or buying one of our Reliable Books

No comments: