The Cistercians first made their appearance in France at the end of the eleventh century, as a reform of the great Benedictine institute. They base their monastic life on Saint Benedict’s Rule for Monks, but they interpret and supplement this Rule by their own special constitutions, and especially by the renowned Carta Caritatis (Charter of Love). This document dates from the earliest years of the Cîteaux reform, and embodies the fundamental laws and spirit of the Order.
The acknowledged founder of the Cistercians was Abbot Robert of Molesme (1029-1111). Molesme was a large Benedictine abbey in north-eastern France, and it was from here that Cîteaux Abbey, the mother-house of all the Cistercians, was founded in 1098. Robert’s principal co-founders were Alberic, who was then prior (second superior) of Molesme, and Stephen Harding, an Englishman who was the sub-prior and monastic secretary. Robert, Alberic and Stephen were the first three abbots of Cîteaux, and are now venerated as saints, having a common feast-day on 26 January.
Cîteaux (Cistercium in Latin) is fifteen miles south of Dijon. The ‘New Monastery,’ as it is called in the Annals of Cîteaux, was solemnly inaugurated on Saint Benedict’s Day, 21 March 1098, which that year fell on Palm Sunday. This date is regarded as the birthday of the Cistercian Order.
The rapid expansion of the Order, which continued after Stephen Harding’s death in 1134, must be attributed largely to the personality, preaching and widespread fame of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Though he was not one of the actual founders of the Order, he has come to personify the accepted spirit of Cistercianism. He defined what he regarded as the true Cistercian spirit when he wrote: ‘Our order is humility, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Our order is silence, fasting, prayer and labour; and above all, to follow the more excellent way, which is charity.’
Saint Bernard, now referred to even by the Popes as the ‘Last of the Fathers’ of the Church, was born in 1090 at Fontaines, about a mile from Dijon, the ancient capital of Burgundy. He became a monk at Cîteaux in 1113, and two years later became abbot of Clairvaux, Cîteaux’s third daughter-house. By the time of Bernard’s death in 1153 there were three hundred and forty three Cistercian abbeys of monks in existence. The expansion continued into the following century, and in 1250 the Order had six hundred and fifty monasteries of men.
The growth slowed down, however, after the start of the Mendicant Orders. By the end of the fourteenth century, when the ‘Golden Age’ was over, a decline was setting in, there were about seven hundred and forty abbeys of men and nine hundred Cistercian nunneries in existence. These houses were spread all over the continent. The Cistercians were in France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Bohemia (now Slovakia and the Czech Republic), the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Poland, and even in Greece, Cyprus and Syria.