Church History

By Berman, Constance H. | Church History, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Church History


Berman, Constance H., Church History


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Book Reviews and Notes

Janet Burton and Julie Kerr have together presented a lively account of the Cistercians that includes occasional mention of Cistercian nuns as well as monks. Carefully drawn from the latest scholarship, the contents of this volume are nearly always unexceptionable. I find in it a wealth of information that will be useful to people at many stages of understanding of the early Cistercians. They discuss how often Cistercian abbeys were founded versus affiliated, how Cistercians created granges and introduced lay brothers, and provide a good sense of why the Cistercians were so successful. In so doing, they combat earlier tendencies to see Cistercians as pioneers rather than managers of land, and Cistercian sites as isolated deserts. Thus Kerr sensibly suggests: "the Cistercians were contemplatives rather than solitaries and their sites were more secluded than remote. Accordingly, the monks were sheltered but not cut off from the world and most houses were relatively near to transport links and communications routes" (57). They agree with such assessments as mine in Medieval Agriculture, the Southern-French Countryside, and the Early Cistercians (Philadelphia, Pa.: American Philosophical Society, 1986) that the advantages that the Cistercians had over their secular counterparts, as in tithe exemption or advantages of scale, or continuity beyond a single lifetime, explain their success.

In the first two chapters Burton provides her own assessment of the complex debate about the earliest Cistercians and their early accounts. Burton summarizes the issues under debate and then suggests that a more productive way to approach the questions at issue is to turn to the observations of Benedictine historians who mention the Cistercians in passing, but who may be assumed to be less-biased witnesses than those usually invoked (15). She notes that the Cistercian re-emphasis on a return to the manual labor associated with original Rule of Saint Benedict is well attested in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum (circa 1125) and Orderic Vitalis (writing circa 1135). William also provides evidence that as early as 1124 Stephen Harding, the early abbot of Cîteaux who ruled until 1133, had begun to think about the larger picture. She thus relies on more than only the Exordia accounts in arguing that it was Stephen Harding who began to shape the expansion of the community of Cîteaux. Similarly, she discusses the importance to the whole enterprise of Robert of Molesme for whom: "Cîteaux marked not a beginning but an ending: it was to be the last of Robert's many experiments in making monastic foundations" (17).

Burton also takes up the question of Cistercian nuns, noting that in the 1120s Stephen Harding as abbot of Cîteaux joined with its earlier founders to establish the first house of Cistercian nuns at le Tart. Similarly, Molesme's foundation at Jully had begun even earlier, circa 1113, as a community of religious women where so many of Bernard of Clairvaux's female relatives could follow some of the same religious under Bernard's authority until the nuns were attached to Molesme in the 1140s.

Burton's account sidesteps the issues about dating of documents that are so tied to the new volume of twelfth century Cistercian documents edited and translated by Chrysogonus Waddell (Narrative and Legislative Texts from Early Citeaux [Nuits-Saint-Georges: Abbaye de Cîteaux, 1999). While often deferring to Waddell's self-assurance that he knows more about the manuscripts than the rest of us, Burton is not entirely uncritical of that edition. …

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