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Cistercians, Cistercian Abbeys and Abbots of Cîteaux

The Order of Cistercians (Latin Cistercienses) is an "enclosed" Roman Catholic order of monks.

The order was created by a breakaway group of 21 Cluniac monks, who in 1098 left the abbey of Molesme in Burgundy along with their Abbot. Their motivation was to live in strict observance of the Rules of Saint Benedict - the Cluniacs were an offshoot of the Benedictines..

In 1098 the group acquired a plot of marsh land south of Dijon called Cîteaux. In Latin the name is "Cistercium" from which we have the name Cistercian. The remaining monks in Molesme petitioned the Pope (Urban II) for the return of their abbot. Robert was instructed to return to his position in Molesme, where he spent the rest of his life. Some of the monks remained.

They elected a new abbot, Alberic. He discontinued the use of Benedictine black garments and clothed his monks in white dyed wool, who thus became known as the White Monks.

Alberic forged an alliance with the Dukes of Burgundy, working out a deal with Duke Odo for the gift of a vineyard at Meursault and stones to built a church opn it. Alberic was succeeded by Stephen Harding who created the Cistercian constitution, the Carta Caritatis or Charter of Charity. He also acquired a number of farms for the abbey. Like other orders of monks the Cistercian monks were all from noble or rich families. To keep them in their accustomed style they hit on the idea of recruiting lay-brothers - ordinary men who would do all the work. These lay brothers lived in the west wing of the monastery and worked at farming and other trades, supporting the monks in their accustomed lifestyle.

By 1111 this economic model had proved itself. Stephen sent a group of 12 monks to start a "daughter house". In the same year, 1113, Bernard (later known as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux) arrived at Cîteaux with 30 others to join the monastery. In 1114 another daughter house was founded, and in 1115 Bernard founded Clairvaux, followed by Morimond the same year. Then a series of similar economic enterprises. At Stephen's death in 1134 there were over 30 Cistercian daughter houses. At Bernard's death in 1154 there were over 280. By the end of the twelfth century there were over 500. As the economic power of the Cistercians grew, so did their political clout. St Bernard saw one of his monks ascend the papal chair as Pope Eugene III. The first nunnery was founded in 1125; at the period of their widest extension there are said to have been 900 nunneries. There were also "double houses" of monks and nuns.


The Cistercians initially renounced all sources of income arising from benefices, tithes, tolls and rents, and depended for their income wholly on the land and the labour of their lay brethren. They developed a system for selling their farm produce; cattle, sheep and horses; and other agricultural products. By the middle of the 13th century the export of wool by Cistercians had become a major factor in the commerce of England. Farming operations on a massive scale were carried out by the lay brothers who needed no pay and who fed themselves - though not quite as well as they fed the choir monks. Lay brothers were recruited from the peasantry. They were simple uneducated men, whose function was to labour in the fields and carry on useful trades. They formed a body of lesser beings who lived alongside of the noble choir monks, separate from them, not taking part in the canonical offices and having their own fixed round of prayer and religious exercises. Lay brothers were never ordained, and never held any office of superiority. There were sometimes as many as 300 in a single abbey - much like worker bees in a bee hive.

Cistercians represented a compromise between the Benedictine system, in which each abbey was autonomous and isolated, and the Cluniac system which was completely centralised with the abbot of Cluny the only superior in the whole organisation. The Cistercians adopted a middle course. Each abbey had its own abbot, elected (initially) by its own monks; its own property and its own finances. But all the abbeys were subjected to the general chapter of Cistercian abbots, which met yearly at Cîteaux. The abbot of Cîteaux was the president of the chapter and of the order, with the power to enforce conformity in all details of observance. Cîteaux was the model to which all the other houses had to conform.



A rule that churchmen were not permitted to shed blood had a number of consequences. For one thing it brought an end to the ancient practice of surgery in monasteries - a secular barber even had to be brought in for the monk's monthly blood-letting. Another consequence was that warrior churchmen were not expected to use cutting weapons like swords, so they tended to favour crushing weapons for killing their enemies and in particular maces like the one shown below.

The rule was not applied to the Knights Templars who used swords like other knights.


Cistercians played a leading part in the Crusades - both military and spiritual aspects. The Knights Templar were literally warrior Cistercians, monks who took normal monastic vows and who were also licensed to kill.

Cistercians also played an important role in the wars against the people of the Languedoc, first as preachers, then as Crusade leaders and chroniclers. A few of the important French Cistercians in the wars against the people of the Languedoc include:



Cistercian failure in Preaching against the Cathars. The Cistercians became a laughing stock in the Languedoc in the early thirteenth century, as a result of their attempts to convert Cathars (or Albigenses). The Catholic Encyclopedia under the entry on St. Dominic gives a hint as to why this was:

The Cistercians, on account of their worldly manner of living, had made little or no headway against the Albigenses. They had entered upon their work with considerable pomp, attended by a brilliant retinue, and well provided with the comforts of life. To this display of worldliness the leaders of the heretics opposed a rigid asceticism which commanded the respect and admiration of their followers.

  • St Bernard, (Abbot of Clairvaux) whose preaching in the Languedoc failed so conspicuously, and from whose letters we have valuable information about the state of the Catholic Church in the twelfth century in the area around Toulouse. Click on the following link for more on Bernard of Clairvaux (Saint Bernard)
  • Henry of Marcy, Abbot of Clairvaux took part in a failed mission to the Languedoc in 1178. A little later, now Cardinal-Bishop of Albano, he tried again. Presaging the Albigensian Crusade, but on a smaller scale, his failure as a preacher led to him heading a military expedition against the territories of Roger II Trencavel, Viscount of Béziers. Commanding armed forces provided by Raymond V of Toulouse, Henry successfully took Lavaur in 1181, capturing two Cathar Parfaits.
  • Pierre de Castelnau, a papal legate of Innocent III from the Abbey of Fontfroide, whose murder provided the pretext for the Cathar Crusade
  • Arnaud Amaury (Abbot of Cîteaux) who was the military leader of the Crusade which started in 1209, and who is most famously remembered for his command "Kill them all. God will recognise his own" spoken before the massacre at Béziers and recorded by a fellow Cistercian. Click on the following link for more on Arnaud Amaury
  • Raynaldus, an early thirteenth century Cistercian chronicler who wrote a tract against the Cathars called Accusations against the Albigensians. Click on the following link for more on the Raynaldus and his Accusations against the Albigensians Next:
  • Guy and Pierre des Vaux de Carney. A Crusading Cistercian Abbot (Guy) and his nephew (Peter), a monk who left an invaluable record of the Crusaders actions and their belief system. Click on the following link for more on Pierre Des Vaux-de-Cernay and his Historia Albigensis   
  • Jacques Fournier. A famously obese Cistercian Inquisitor from Saverdun. He became Abbot of Fontfroide in 1311, Bishop of Pamiers in1317 and Bishop of Mirepoix in 1318. Jacques Fournier was made a Cardinal in 1327 and elected Pope in Avignon in 1334 and is better known to history as Benedict XII (died 1342). His Inquisitorial records from his stint as bishop were moved to the papal archives, where they provided the raw material for the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie who wrote a classic book about the fate of Montaillou, a Cathar vilage: Montaillou, Village Occitan, published in 1975. Click on the following link to read an English translation of the transcript of one of his interrogations   

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For a hundred years, up to the first quarter of the 13th century, the Cistercians supplanted Cluniacs as the most powerful order and the chief religious influence in western Europe.





Cistercian architecture is largely attributed to Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (St Bernard).

Cistercian churches were often constructed away from centres of population, often in remote valleys near streams. Cistercian Architecture was sceptical of artistic excess. No statues or pictures were allowed in or even near the church and the windows were generally of clear glass.

They used water as a source for power, with the nearby streams, laid the church on the North side of the site, with Monasteries and Cloisters to the South.

Buildings were made of smooth, pale, stone with plane columns, pillars and windows. Plastering was kept extremely simple or not used at all. Stone decoration was invariably simple, and it was the architecture rather than the ornamentation that betrayed its religious nature.

Cistercian abbeys generally followed a standard design - so that most Cistercian abbeys have a common layout - useful for amateur enthusiasts as they are almost all now in ruins. A good example of a Cistercian church is Fontenay, in France, built in 1139 A.D.


1. Church
2. Door to graveyard
3. Choir for lay Brother
4. Sacristy
5. Cloister
6. Cloister garden
7. Chapterhouse


  8. Dormitory
9. ???
10. Workroom
11. Warming room
12. Monks' Refectory
13. Kitchen
14. Lay brothers' Refectory



Relaxations were introduced with respect to rules around diet and simplicity of life, and also in regard to the sources of income. Rents and tolls were admitted and benefices incorporated, as was already standard among the Benedictines. Farming operations tended to promote a commercial ethos, and the Order became fabulously wealthy. Splendour and luxury became a feature of many Cistercian monasteries, and the choir monks abandoned even the pretence of working in the fields. Then their influence began to wane, largely because of their unwieldy size, their extensive corruption, and the rise of the mendicant orders - the Dominicans and the Franciscans.

The later history of the Cistercians is largely one of unsuccessful attempted revivals and reforms. In the 17th century an effort at a general reform was made, promoted by the pope and the king of France. The General Chapter elected Richelieu as commendatory abbot of Cîteaux, thinking that he would protect them from the threatened reform. In fact Richelieu tried his best to promote reform, but the endemic corruption was too deep, and he proved another in a long line of failed reformers. A later attempt at reform resulted in the formation (1663) of the Trappists.

Commendatory Abbots. A commendatory abbot is someone who holds an abbey in commendam, that is, who draws its revenues and may have some jurisdiction, but in theory does not exercise any authority over its inner monastic discipline. Originally only vacant abbeys were given in commendam.

As early as the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) vacant abbeys were given in commendam to bishops who had lost their episcopal sees. The practice began to be abused in the eighth century. Often commendatory abbots were laymen authorised to draw the revenues and manage the temporal affairs of the monasteries in reward for military services. As the Catholic Encyclopedia admits "The most worthless persons were often made commendatory abbots, who in many cases brought about the temporal and spiritual ruin of the monasteries".

Abuses in France at least were stopped at French Revolution and the secularization of monasteries in the beginning of the eighteenth century. Since that time commendatory abbots have become rarer, though they still exist. There are still commendatory abbots among the cardinals in Rome.

The Reformation and the later revolutions of the 18th century almost wholly destroyed the Cistercians. A few survived and there are still working Cistercian monasteries today. There are about 100 Cistercian monasteries around the world and about 4700 monks, including lay brothers.

Cistercian Abbeys in the Languedoc-Roussillon include:

  • Fontfroide Abbey.  One of the great Cistercian abbeys (XIIth century) in an excellent state of preservation.   Privately owned, but open to the public. It is in the Aude département.   Olivier de Termes is though to be buried here in the chapel of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Click on the following link for more on the Fontfroide AbbeyNext.
  • Lagrasse Abbey. in  the Corbières in the Aude département. Click on the following link for more on the Abbey of Lagrasse Lagrasse Abbey Next.
  • Saint-Papoul.   in the Aude département. Click on the following link for more on the Saint-Papoul AbbeyNext.
  • Saint-Hilaire.   In the Aude département. Click on the following link for more on the Saint-Hilaire AbbeyNext.
  • Alet les Bains   in the Aude département. Click on the following link for more on the Abbey at Alet-les-Bains Next.
  • Villelongue   in the Aude département
  • Saint Polycarpe   in the Aude département
  • Caunes-Minervois   in the Aude département
  • Saint Martin Le Vieil   in the Aude département
  • Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert   in the Hérault département. Click on the following link for more on the Abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert
  • Abbaye de Valmagne   This is a well preserved Medieval Cistercian abbey in the Hérault département, now in private hands. The abbey church dates from 1257, shortly after the end of the Crusade against the Cathars. The owners have won many prizes for the work done to restore the Abbey. It is classified as an Historical Monument and is open to visitors every day in summer and the afternoon in winter. Medieval gardens. Vinyards. Events. You can stay at the associated Auberge de frère Nonenque. The abbey is also available for receptions. Click on the following link for more on the Abbaye de Valmagne
  • Chartreuse de Valbonne: in the Gard Département Large medieval monastery located in a forest.
  • Saint-Félix-de-Montceau   in the Hérault département,
  • Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa   in the Pyrénées-Orientales Département. Benedictine monks have been here since 578. The Abbey is pre-Romanesque and the cloister (in pink marble) Romanesque.
  • Saint-Martin-du-Canigou   in the Pyrénées-Orientales Département. Abbey Church and cloister of the XI-XIIth centuries.
  • Prieuré de Serrabona   (literally, the Priory of the Good Mountain) in the Pyrénées-Orientales.


Some of the rulers of the Languedoc and their relatives are buried in the Cistercian Abbey at Fontevrault, a "double" house with both monks and nuns. Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse was interred in there, along with his grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, his mother Jeanne of England and his plantagenet uncle, King Richard I of England.



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Churchmen fighting in battle in Medieval times traditionally favoured the mace as a weapon.

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Arnaud Amaury