The Unitiy of Love

In 1109 Stephen Harding (1059 – 1134) took over the charge of the abbot of Cîteaux. He, too, used to be one of Robert of Molesme's abiders and had thus witnessed the whole course of the foundation. He had encountered Robert on his return from a pilgrimage to Rome and had then joined the monastery of Molesme. He showed his ability of organising in his post as prior of the new monastery of Cîteaux. He, as the new abbot, set entirely different benchmarks as his antecessor:


“The extremely strict observance in the religious order, and it's exceedingly great poverty under Alberich threatened the ruin of the monastery. The pragmatic Stephen Harding had a better understanding of how to provide growth and prosperity for the abbey, without dwarfing the religious spirit.“ Leroux-Dhuys, Zisterzienser, 1998, p. 27

One of Stephen Harding's great merits is his elaboration of a constitution, which gave the newly developing order it's particular characteristics, and rendered the unequalled growth of the order possible. The new regulations became necessary with the foundation of new abbeys, which emerged from Cîteaux. Stephen was particularly concerned in passing the spirit of Cîteaux down to the new foundations.


A special event brought forward the development of the foundation: In the year of 1113 the young aristocratic Bernhard of Fontaines entered the order of Cîteaux with 30 of his fellows. The great number of new brothers, but also Stephen's decision to charge and to accept donations, rendered the new foundations possible. In order to support the quickly growing community there also emerged a lay brotherhood under Stephen. Through the lay brotherhood alone the establishment could be kept up.


In 1114, already, Stephen charged Bernhard with the formation of Clairvaux. Starting especially from Clairvaux, as well as from the further foundations of Morimond and Pontigny, the order expanded throughout Europe. The fast increase in the number of daughter abbeys necessitated a distinct structure in the order's constitution. Stephen Harding adjusted the relationship between the single abbeys in the Charta Caritatis. The monasteries were to be bound in love and unanimity forever. Every monastery was to carry on the spirit of Cîteaux like a knighthood of Christ (milites Christi).


The Cistercian Order's special constitution can be seen as a key to it's success. Each single abbey was a autonomous unity. Unlike in Cluny, there neither was an existing dependence to the mother abbey (to which one could be dutybond trough dues), nor was there a hierarchy. Every Cistercian monastery was supposed to be economically independent. Merely once a year the abbots of the mother monastery were allowed to use their right to a visitation of the daughter foundations (the four abbots of the primary monasteries visited the mother in Cîteaux together). In the case of conflicts the local bishops were asked to take over the charge of the foundations. Compared to Cluny the Cistercian monasteries were thus more significantly bound into the local hierarchy of the church, and were not displaced by the exemption of the ecclesiastic order. The new oder was adopted in September 1119 and was confirmed by pope Callixtus II in the same year (bulla „Ad hoc in apostolici“)


However, the loose dependencies of the individual monasteries aroused the need of yet another instrument, which was to keep the unity of the Cistercian spirit. In 1115 the first general chapter, to which all the abbots forgathered once a year, held a meeting. The decisions made in this general chapter were binding for all monasteries from then on. The general chapter watched over the development of the order like a parliament. Go on --->


“ The historian of law Léon Moulin regards the general chapter of Cîteaux in 1115 as » the first supranational assembly in Europe «, and this a century before Englands 'Magna Charta', the embryo of a parliamentary form of government.“ (...)

„ Another connoisseur of the European history of law, Léon Pressouyre, judged the Cistercian basic constitution as »one of the most revolutionary structures in the middle ages«. It knew how to » avoid the decoys of centralism and to guard against the risks of statism and anarchy «.“

From Pfister, Klosterführer, Straßburg 1998, p.20