Foundation of the Cistercian Order Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Cistercian monastic order adopted more austere practices than the Benedictines in following the Rule—poverty, solitariness, simplicity, labor—returning to its original simplicity in Christianity and antiquity and justifying this “new” way of life.

Summary of Event

The history of monasticism Monasticism;France France;monasticism in the Roman Catholic Church has been said to be an account of a continuing series of internal reformations. The founding of the Order of Cistercians in 1098 is no exception. Reform was in the air during the eleventh century, and the reform of the Cistercians, or White Monks as they were called, changed monasticism during the twelfth century, and the Roman Catholic Church was not the same thereafter. [kw]Foundation of the Cistercian Order (March 21, 1098) [kw]Cistercian Order, Foundation of the (March 21, 1098) Cistercians France;Mar. 21, 1098: Foundation of the Cistercian Order[1720] Religion;Mar. 21, 1098: Foundation of the Cistercian Order[1720] Organizations and institutions;Mar. 21, 1098: Foundation of the Cistercian Order[1720] Benedict of Nursia, Saint Robert of Molesme, Saint Hugh de Die Alberic, Saint Stephen Harding, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint

This reform as well as other reforms of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were reactions to the changing times. The Carolingian reforms around 800 were by the eleventh century out of date. So, too, was the Cluniac reform Cluniac reform begun in 909. In broad terms, what was needed at the time was institutional separation of church and state. More narrowly, within monasticism what was needed was a return to following strictly the Rule of Saint Benedict Benedictine Rule of Nursia Benedict of Nursia, Saint that had governed monastic life in western Europe since the sixth century. More specifically, a threefold reform was necessary: a return to poverty, an emphasis on the higher nature of eremetical (solitary) rather than conventional (communal) monastic life, and a desire to imitate the lives of Christ’s first apostles as literally as possible, including providing for themselves through their labor while leading a life of poverty and simplicity. A return to the ideals and practices of the earliest hermits and monks also seemed desirable. Church reform

The reformers wanted monks to leave the secular world as far behind as possible in order to lead a life of prayer, penance, and mortification. Specifically, the reform included living monastic life according to the literal interpretation of the Benedictine Rule, having an abbot for each house rather than one for the whole order as with the Benedictines and the Cluniacs, having a yearlong novitiate probationary period, and setting a minimum age of fifteen for admission.

The Cistercian order began at Cîteaux, the place known in Latin as Cistercium. An important precursor to Cîteaux was the founding of the monastery of Molesme by Robert Robert of Molesme, Saint in 1075. The son of noble parents, Robert was born about 1027 in Champagne. Robert became a monk in his youth and rose rapidly to become a prior and abbot. Disillusioned with the practices of contemporary monastic life, he joined a group of hermit monks in the forest of Collan in 1074. The next year, he founded the reform monastery of Molesme. Many new men were called to monastic life because of Molesme, and gifts allowed for about forty daughter monasteries to be founded by 1100. These successes eventually made Molesme similar to the monasteries it had set out to reform. The need for reform and its success eventually begets the need for further reform.

A group of thirteenth century Cistercian nuns receive the charter to their convent from Maria de Molina, queen of Castile.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

In 1098, Robert and twenty-one other monks set out for another reformed “new monastery” in Burgundy that was to be Cîteaux, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Dijon and about 60 miles (96 kilometers) north of Cluny. Archbishop Hugh de Die Hugh de Die of Lyons, papal legate in France, gave permission for this establishment. Robert had told the archbishop that the observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict at Molesme was “lukewarm and negligent.” When Robert and his hermit monks arrived at Cîteaux they found a few peasant buildings and perhaps even the remains of an old chapel as the base for their monastery. For several years, the name “Cîteaux” was not used; instead, it was called generically the New Monastery. The date officially given for the founding of the monastery of Cîteaux is March 21, 1098, Palm Sunday that year and appropriately the feast day of Saint Benedict. Exactly when the canonical erection of the abbey, the oath of obedience of Abbot Robert to the local bishop, or the stability vows of the monks to the New Monastery took place is not known. Probably it was during the same year, possibly during the summer.

Meanwhile the monastery of Molesme had fallen even further from the ideals of the Benedictine Rule, and there was a call for Robert to return with the hope that he could bring about reforms. The nobles of the area around Molesme, the pope, the papal legate in France, and a number of bishops were involved in this attempt to get Robert to return. The papal legate Hugh called a synod probably during June, 1099; the abbot of Molesme at the time voluntarily resigned, and Robert was ordered by Hugh to return to Molesme. The monks of Cîteaux were given the option of remaining there or returning with Robert to Molesme. Several returned with him, leaving perhaps just eight monks at Cîteaux. Robert then served as abbot of Molesme until his death in 1110. There was a struggle for survival of the New Monastery at Cîteaux that went on for twenty years. Recruits were hard to come by, and it looked as if this too would be a failed monastic experiment.

Shortly after Robert’s departure, Alberic Alberic, Saint was elected abbot of Cîteaux. Alberic had been prior under Robert and seems to have been one of the founders not only of Cîteaux but also of Molesme earlier. Abbot Alberic, with the material support of Odo, duke of Burgundy, and his son Hugh, consolidated the founding of the monastery of Cîteaux and deserves along with Robert credit for the establishment of the Order of Cistercians. Independence from Molesme and other monasteries was obtained along with papal protection during the tenure of Alberic, who died January 26, 1109.

The monastery’s prior, Stephen Harding Stephen Harding, Saint , an Englishman, was elected abbot. During Stephen’s tenure, the new Cistercian order was fully established. Stephen was born about 1060 of noble Anglo-Saxon parents. The Norman Conquest of England ruined his family and resulted in his moving to Scotland and then to France. After studying in Paris and visiting Rome, he joined first the community at Molesme and then at Cîteaux. During his tenure, numerous additional woods and vineyards were added to the monastery holdings.

Also about April of 1112, a monk known later as Bernard of Clairvaux Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint had entered Cîteaux. Bernard brought about thirty new monks with him, many of them his relatives, and the reversal of the seemingly failing experiment was at hand. Bernard is given the credit for setting the New Monastery on a firm base and leading it to a time of impressive growth and influence. The number of monks had grown so that a second monastery was necessary at La Ferté by 1113. This expansion was followed quickly with new houses in 1114 at Pontigny, 1115 at Clairvaux and at Morimond, 1118 at Preuilly, and 1119 at La Cour Dieu, Bouras, Cadouin, and Fontenay. Abbot Stephen secured papal authorization from Pope Callistus II in 1119 for a further independence of Cîteaux and its affiliated monasteries.


The Order of Cistercians had indeed become a reality, and it soon spread to nearly every part of western Europe, bringing a much needed renewed vitality to monasticism and, as a side effect of work with the land, major agricultural pioneering advances, most notably with sheep farming in England.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berman, Constance Hoffman. The Cistercian Evolution: The Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-century Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Discusses Cistercian mythology, the beginnings of the order, religious reform, papal confirmations, and related documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Holy Entrepreneurs: Cistercians, Knights, and Economic Exchange in Twelfth-Century Burgundy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Explores the Cistercian contributions to the economic development of Burgundy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooke, Christopher. The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages. Rev. ed. Mahwah, N.J.: HiddenSpring, 2003. A history of medieval monasticism. Includes an extensive bibliography, index, illustrations, and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooke, Christopher. “The Cistercians.” In Monasteries of the World. Ware, England: Omega Books, 1982. Presents the origin and history of the Cistercian order in words and pictures. Includes a map, diagrams, and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Women at Work in Medieval Europe. New York: Facts On File, 2000. A social history with a chapter on women as leaders of medieval European monasteries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Archdale A. Cîteaux and Her Elder Daughters. London: Burns and Oates, 1954. The major study of the first physical home of the Cistercians and of four daughter houses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawrence, C. H. “The Cistercian Model.” In Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. London: Longman, 1984. Explores the new form of monastic life developed by the Cistercians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lekai, Louis J. The Cistercians: Ideals and Reality. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. 1977. The definitive study of the Cistercian order from its founding to Vatican II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lynch, Joseph H. “The Reformed Benedictines: Cistercians.” In The Medieval Church: A Brief History. London: Longman, 1992. Places the new order in its role as part of church history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Southern, R. W. “The Cistercians.” In Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1970. The story of the Cistercians by a major church historian in the context of cultural and ecclesiastical history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tobin, Stephen. The Cistercians: Monks and Monasteries of Europe. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1995. Surveys the history and architecture of the Cistercian Order and their monasteries. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliography, and index.

Categories: History