The Beginning (1098-1134)

Citeaux Abbey

Citeaux Abbey

The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance is part of the larger Cistercian family, which traces its origin to 1098. Then a group of monks from Molesme Abbey – a Monastery dependent of Cluny – seeking to follow more closely the Rule of St. Benedict, founded the Cîteaux Abbey, near Dijon in eastern France. The term Cistercian (French Cistercien), derives from Cistercium, the Latin name for the village of Cîteaux.

Robert of Molesme, Alberic, and Stephen Harding were the first three abbots to lead the community. They had a great importance in the birth of the new Order and were all canonized.

Robert remained only one year at Cîteaux.  The monks who remained in Molesme sent a deputation to Pope Urban II asking that Robert might be sent back there.  The Pope agreed to this request.

Alberic was elected to replace Robert.  Immediately thereafter he begged the pope to take the church of Cîteaux under the protection of the Apostolic See.  On 18 April 1100 the Pope, Pascal II, took under his immediate protection the abbey and the religious of Cîteaux. From then on, Alberic and his religious established at Cîteaux the exact observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict.  They substituted the white habit for the black which the Benedictines wore. In order to better observe the rule in regard to the Divine Office day and night, lay brothers joined them.  They were mainly occupied with the manual labours and the material affairs of the Order.

Robert, Alberic, Stephen

Founders of Citeaux

His successor, Stephen Harding, wrote the Carta Caritatis – Charter of Charité – a kind of Constitution which bound all the monasteries of the Order to a common observance of rules and customs.  He also promoted the regular visits.

In 1112 Stephen received Bernard of Fontaines-les-Dijon and thirty of his relatives as monks of Cîteaux, among them four were his brothers. It was a sign of the extraordinary development of the Order of Cîteaux.

The exceptionally charismatic and talented young Bernard was sent in 1115 to begin another Cistercian foundation, Clairvaux, in the Diocese of Langres, which attained a high development. Hereafter he would be known throughout the Christian world as Bernard of Clairvaux.

During his 38 years as abbot, Bernard personally saw to the establishment of 65 Cistercian monasteries and still found time to write extensively on spirituality and theological issues, being one of the greatest spiritual masters of all times.

At the death of St. Stephen (1134), the Order, after thirty-six years of existence, numbered 70 monasteries, of which 55 were in France.


Hefta Monastery

Hefta Monastery

With the assistance of Stephen Harding, nuns from the Benedictine monastery of Juilly, a dependence of Molesme Abbey, founded the first Cistercian monastery for women in the 1125.  It was called the Le Tart Abbey, and was located in the Diocese of Langres (now Dijon). It was at Juilly that the sister of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Humbeline, lived and died.

From then on, individual monasteries of women, as well as whole federations of nuns, sought to ally themselves with the Cistercian monks.  During the 12th century, monasteries were successively founded in France, Spain and Italy.  Among them was the important Abbey Santa Maria Real de Las Huelgas. Expansion flourished throughout the 13th century.  Monasteries were founded in Switzerland and Germany as well as in Flandres and other countries throughout Europe.  The Monastery of Helfta was known as “the crown of German convents”.


Continue to ‘The Golden Age (1134-1342)