The Century of the Cistercians

The expansion of the cistercian order, which evolved from the humble beginnings in Cîteaux, finds no comparison in history. Within a century the newly founded order managed to spread it's daughter foundations nationwide over Europe. The political, as well as economic and spiritual importance of this development justify the title “century of Cistercians“. Not only do important personalities as Bernhard of Clairvaux, Pope Eugene III or William of St.-Thierry stand for this development, moreover there are cultural elements which were carried on in the process. The building schools of the cistercians exported the early Gothic style of their burgundian home into every part of Europe. Viniculture, agriculture, the urbanization of whole areas and the firm economy of the daughter foundations stand for this achievement.

It was out of this humble beginning that soon a whole network of monastic foundations came into being. After the difficult years towards the beginning the order expanded explosively after 1115. When pope Callixtus II. Acknowledged the this new order it already consisted of twelve abbeys. In 1133 one could already count 69 abbots at the general chapter; at the time of Bernhard's death (1153) there were 343 abbeys, and they grew into a number of 647 until the middle of the 13th century, while it were 742 until the end of the middle ages. In addition to these numbers there existed 761 nunneries, which developed their own individual dynamics ( see : Braunfels, p. 113, Eberl, p.47). The formations by mother Cîteaux and her four daughter foundations spread and ramified like the braches of a tree.



“All of Europe's loneliness, from Ireland to the borders of the Russian realm was searched for places to found a new monastery on... It was astonishing to see how the abbots trusted their fellow brothers, some of them still very young, who, year after year, departed into the unknown in squads of twelve, in order to found new monasteries. In the end it even became difficult to find lonely places in Europe. In 1152, the general chapter decided that, from then on, every foundation was to be subject to authorisation. None of them was to be founded in a distance of less than 15 000 ft from the other.“ see Braunfels, p. 113/114

This amazing success can be explained through the interplay of different factors. The growth in population as well as the influence of monasticism on the power vacuum between the ascending kingdoms and the sovereigns can be taken into account as external factors (see Leroux-Dhuys, aaO., p.33). It is the internal factors, though, that are much more crucial. Backgrounds to the success of the Cistercians were the thought of being poor, the wish to escape the world, the system of filiatiion as well as the independence of the daughter foundations, the high functionality and the high striving for order.


The idea of filiation works like a pyramid scheme: as soon as an abbey is economically stabilised and has a sufficient number of members it starts founding daughter formations (lat. Filia = daughter). While the mother foundation still has the right of a yearly visit, the daughter foundation still is economically independent. Every monastery is a unity of its own, and the whole order functions after the same rules. This extensive autonomy is the reason for the economical and organisational success of the Cistercian monasteries. All of the monasteries follow the same models in their liturgy and their architecture as well as their rules and economy. The economic achievements are secured by an elaborate system of monastic yards (granges) and urban commercial settlements, which shows an almost modern structure. The general chapter becomes the clip which is supposed to hold the whole together. However, the larger the order became and the more the original idea of poverty lost itself, the more it became clear that the downfall was approaching.