Cistercians (sĬstr´shənz), monks of a Roman Catholic religious order founded (1098) by St. Robert, abbot of Molesme, in Cîteaux [Cistercium], Côte-d'Or dept., France. They reacted against Cluniac departures from the Rule of St. Benedict. The particular stamp of the Cistercians stems from the abbacy (c.1109–1134) of St. Stephen Harding. The black habit of the Benedictines was changed to unbleached white and the Cistercians became known as White Monks. St. Bernard of Clairvaux is often regarded as their
Through a return to strict asceticism and a life of poverty, the Cistercians sought to recover the ideals of the original Benedictines. They expanded greatly, especially during St. Bernard's lifetime, and at the close of the 12th cent. there were 530 Cistercian abbeys. The life and writings of St. Bernard were their guiding influence. They considered farming the chief occupation for monks and led Europe in the development of new agricultural techniques. (In England the Cistercians were important in English wool production.) The Cistercians were the first to make extensive use of lay brothers, conversi, who lived in the abbey under separate discipline and aided the monks in their farm system. In the 13th cent. relaxation of fervor diminished Cistercian importance, and by 1400 they had ceased to be prominent, their place being taken by the Dominican and Franciscan friars. Of later reform attempts, the most important was the movement begun at La Trappe, France (17th cent.); those accepting the greater austerities were known popularly as Trappists, officially titled (after 1892) Cistercians of the Stricter Observance [Lat. abbr., O.C.S.D.], as distinct from Cistercians of the Common Observance [Lat. abbr., S.O. Cist.]. Today the difference is not great. The unit of Cistercian life is the abbey. Its members compose a permanent communal entity, with the abbeys joined in loose federation. Houses of Cistercian nuns (founded beginning in the 12th cent.) have rules and customs paralleling those of the monks; they lead contemplative lives in complete seclusion from the world. A 17th-century reform of Cistercian nuns produced the remarkable development of Port-Royal. Famous Cistercian abbeys include Cîteaux, Clairvaux, Fountains, Rievaulx, and Alcobaa.
See M. B. Pennington, ed., The Cistercian Spirit (1970); C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism (1984).