Trappist Order Is Founded

At a time when monastic life was becoming lax, an abbot set out to reform monastic practice at the La Trappe monastery. Following a strict regimen, the abbot’s reform became known as the Trappist movement, which survived the French Revolution and grew to be an important monastic reform movement. The order exists into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

The history of the monastic movement in Europe is filled with highs and lows. When the strict Benedictine Order (founded in 529) grew weak, the reforming monk, Saint Robert of Molesme (c. 1029-1111), founded a new monastery at Cîteaux Cîteaux in southern France in 1098. His followers were known as Cistercians, after the monastery’s Latin name. For several centuries, this movement flourished, expanding to hundreds of sites and producing bishops and theologians of the Church, such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). By the early seventeenth century, the monastic movement was again in decline. Monks became lax in their practices. Many monasteries were directed by wealthy noblemen who, according to a system called commendation, were allowed to profit from the revenue of the abbeys. Monasticism, France
[kw]Trappist Order Is Founded (July 13, 1664)
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Organizations and institutions;July 13, 1664: Trappist Order Is Founded[2170]
France;July 13, 1664: Trappist Order Is Founded[2170]
Trappist Order

One such figure was Arman-Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé, Rancé, Arman-Jean le Bouthillier de who had inherited, at the age of twelve, five run-down monasteries in the Normandy region of France, among them the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe, which was established in 1140. Born on January 9, 1626, de Rancé was the son of the secretary to Marie de Médicis, the powerful widow of King Henry IV. His godfather was the famous Cardinal de Richelieu, adviser to French kings. He was trained as a scholar and became a priest in 1651, teaching at the Sorbonne. He preached from time to time in Paris, but was known to frequent salons as much as churches.

However, the year 1657 marked a turning point for de Rancé, when he was faced with the death of a dear friend. He retreated to his castle at Véretz near Tours, where he began a life of meditation and prayer. Eventually, he decided to give away four of his monasteries, keeping only La Trappe, where he would reside. Still, he had no intention of becoming a monk. He despised them, thinking that they wasted away their lives. On April 17, 1663, however, while reading Psalm 124 during noontime prayers, he felt the call to become a monk. After a year as a novitiate at the monastery of Perseigne, he said his monastic vows on July 13, 1664, at the age of thirty-eight, becoming a genuine abbot of La Trappe. For the next thirty-six years, he would bring about monastic reform, known as the Trappist movement.

From the beginning, de Rancé was determined to revive the ancient rule of Saint Benedict at La Trappe, with strict observance of silence, seclusion, abstinence from eating meat, penance, and hard manual labor. Within the Cistercian Order, there had been extensive debate over these rules. The majority, including the abbot general of Cîteaux, Claude Vaussin, Vaussin, Claude argued that a more moderate approach was necessary to attract new monks. This approach was known as the common observance, which was in contrast to the strict observance promoted at La Trappe. De Rancé was not alone. In 1598, the abbot of Charmoye had reintroduced the practice of abstinence from meat. In 1615, Abbot Denis Largentier Largentier, Denis led the monastery at Clairvaux to follow strict practices. By the time de Rancé began his reform at La Trappe, there were sixty monasteries following the strict order. However, these sixty were still in the minority, and pressure from Cîteaux was organized against Largentier.

The conflict became highly politicized, and it involved both the Papacy and the monarchy. In 1634, a new charter gave adherents of the strict observance control over the mother house at Cîteaux. When Pope Urban VIII Urban VIII annulled this decision, King Louis XIII, convinced that this was unfair interference in French affairs, appointed his own adviser Cardinal de Richelieu Richelieu, Cardinal de;monasteries and as protector of all French monasteries. Twenty-six members of the strict observance were assigned to Cîteaux in charge of administration, while opponents were expelled. Only after the death of Richelieu in 1642 was the situation reversed. The election of the all-important position of abbot general of Cîteaux was contested with every political intrigue, including the inclusion and exclusion of monks as electors, a veto by King Louis XIV, and the papal appointment of an investigative commission. The eventual election of Vaussin in 1645 was thus considered a mandate to minimize the influence of the strict observance group. Vaussin took control of the important College of Bernard in Paris and instituted a unified policy for all Cistercians.

This was the situation in which de Rancé found himself in 1664. When Pope Alexander VII Alexander VII summoned representatives of both sides to Rome, de Rancé was called upon to represent the strict observance against Vaussin’s common observance. After a few years of negotiation, Alexander issued in 1666 a bull, In Suprema, which allowed two separate observances, common and strict, within the one Cistercian Order Cistercian Order .

Administratively, strict observance would be under the authority of Vaussin, even though he supported common observance. De Rancé took this as a defeat of his position, but he returned, determined to establish the La Trappe monastery as the model for reform.

De Rancé described the reformed regiment in his principal written work Le Traité de la sainteté et des devoirs de la vie monastique
Traité de la sainteté et des devoirs de la vie monastique, Le (Rancé) (1683; treatise of the holiness and duties of monastic life), which explains deep sacramental life, personal prayer, and fraternal dedication in terms of love for God and love for the monastic brothers. Charity makes possible life under such harsh circumstances. The Trappist day began very early, at 2 a.m., and ended by 8 p.m. Four hours of the day were dedicated to manual labor and several more hours to formal liturgical prayer, known as the Divine Office. The rest of the day was dedicated to contemplative prayer. In contrast to his finer style of upbringing, de Rancé stressed simplicity: Sleeping arrangements were in dormitories with pallets placed on plank boards, and silence was the norm.

The austere life and denial of meat led many monks in the seventeenth century into a kind of competition to see whose austerity was more meritorious. In fact, de Rancé had the reputation of chastising other orders of monks for their laxity. In return, he was criticized for neglecting study as part of monastic life. However, members of other monasteries began to abandon their comparatively easy life in order to embrace the stricter code of La Trappe. The numbers of Trappists grew, not only from the conversions of savory characters but also from the ranks of noblemen, princes, and army officers. Others, including King James II of England and the popular preacher Jacques Bossuet, visited La Trappe for spiritual retreat.

By the time of de Rancé’s death on October 27, 1700, La Trappe became one of the most impressive monasteries in France, along with a well-established network of monasteries of the strict order.


The impact of the reforms of Arman-Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé can be seen a century after his death at the time of the French Revolution, when most monasteries were closed in France. Under the leadership of Augustin de Lestrange, monks from La Trappe relocated to other countries in Europe and to the United States. Instead of dying out, the movement continued to flourish. Women, too, were first admitted around this time.

After twenty-five years of absence from France, at the fall of Napoleon in 1815, some monks returned to La Trappe to reestablish the monastery. Within a few years, the number of Trappist houses in France equaled those of the common observance that were directed from Cîteaux. In 1888, Pope Leo XIII recognized the Trappists as an autonomous order, giving it the official name “Cistercians of the Strict Observance” (O.C.S.O.).

In the early twenty-first century, there are one hundred houses of Trappist monks and sixty-nine houses of nuns around the world, with seventeen in Africa, thirteen in Central and South America, and twenty-three in Asia and the Pacific. Trappist monks number twenty-five hundred, and there are eighteen hundred Trappist nuns. The best known Trappists of modern times are Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton.

Further Reading

  • Kinder, Terryl N., and Michael Downey. Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2002. A leading expert on medieval architecture takes the reader on a tour of Cistercian monasteries, explaining the daily life of the monks who lived there.
  • Krailsheimer, A. J. Armand-Jean de Rancé, Abbot of La Trappe: His Influence in the Cloister and the World. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1974. A scholarly study focusing on the work of the Trappist reformer.
  • Merton, Thomas. The Waters of Siloe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949. Merton, a well-known twentieth century Trappist monk, examines the roots of the Cistercian Order, the seventeenth century reforms at La Trappe, and the order’s development.
  • Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980. The well-known spiritual mentor’s journal of his seven months in a Trappist monastery in upstate New York.
  • Rancé, Arman-Jean le Bouthillier de. The Letters of Armand-Jean de Rancé, Abbot and Reformer of La Trappe. Presented by A. J. Krailsheimer. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1984. From the Cistercian Studies series, this collection includes 365 translated letters, a bibliography, and indexes.
  • Tobin, Stephen. The Cistercians: Monks and Monasteries of Europe. New York: Overlook Press, 1996. A photo documentary that highlights the history of the Cistercian monastic order.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Alexander VII; Louis XIII; Louis XIV; Marie de Médicis; Cardinal de Richelieu; Urban VIII. Trappist Order