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

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


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.

Constance Hoffman Berman is Professor of History at the University of Iowa.


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. I soon had to consider why, despite much local evidence to the contrary, historians had denied that women were part of the twelfth-century reform movement. In so doing, I became aware of a series of dissonances in our traditional understanding of the early Cistercians that have led me step by step to a reconceptualization of early Cistercian history. I discovered that historians employed a “double standard” of proof with regard to Cistercian nuns. For women’s houses to be deemed Cistercian, they had to be mentioned in the published statutes of the Order, but the same tests were not applied to men’s houses. When I applied the same standards of proof to women’s and men’s houses, the required references in the early Cistercian records were found neither for houses of Cistercian monks nor for those of Cistercian nuns for any years before 1190. Such findings suggested that there was no Cistercian Order at all for much of the twelfth century.

This assertion turns out to be only a slight exaggeration of the main point of this book, namely that a Cistercian Order was only invented in the third quarter of the twelfth century. That Order as we usually think of it, an administrative institution that united more than five hundred abbeys by 1215 (when its organization was held up by the Fourth Lateran Council as a model to be emulated), did not appear in 1119 or 1113 or 1098, the dates usually asserted. There was no General Chapter or set of dated statutes or way of affiliation with such an Order until sometime after 1150. There could not have been, because these administrative institutions had not yet been invented. Just as the process of founding a new abbey is a gradual one, events in the creation of a religious order did not happen all at once, but were gradual developments. Only in the 1160s was a constitution written. Surviving statutes show order-building to have occurred over much of the 1180s. The five filiations to which abbeys were tied as mothers and daughters began to be devised in the 1190s and later. Moreover, the concept of a religious order itself only appeared in the second half of the twelfth century.

These conclusions are notably different from the conventional wisdom . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.