The Decline (1342-1790)

The decline of the order was due to several causes:

Martin Luther nailing is thoughts to the Castle Church door

Martin Luther nailing his thoughts to the Castle Church door

  1. In the aftermath of the division of Christendom following the Protestant Reformation, and with the rise of nationalism, the monasteries of the Order were gradually divided into national groups.
  2. The Hundred Year’s War, which took place from 1335 to 1435, lead to the suspicion of the General Chapters for an entire century;
  3. The Western Schism (1378-1417), when the monasteries themselves were divided in their allegiance to rival Popes;
  4. The large number of monasteries, often-times situated in the most widely distant countries, preventing the “Fathers Immediate” from making the regular visits to all the houses of their filiations, and some of the abbots could not attend the General Chapter every year;
  5. The spirit of dissension animated certain superiors. Some abbots, even not far from Cîteaux, adapted to their own point of view, certain points of the Charter of Charity.
  6. As the very raison d’être of the Cistercian Order consisted in its being a reform – a return to primitive monasticism with its field-work and severe simplicity – any failures to live up to the ideal proposed was more detrimental among Cistercians than among Benedictines, who were intended to live a life of self-denial but not of great austerity. Relaxations were gradually introduced in regard to diet and to simplicity of life, and also in regard to the sources of income.  As was done among the Benedictines, rents and tolls were admitted and benefices incorporated; the farming operations tended to produce a commercial spirit; wealth and splendour invaded many of the monasteries, and the choir monks abandoned field-work.

The later history of the Cistercians is largely one of attempted revivals and reforms. For a long time, the General Chapter continued to battle bravely against the invasion of relaxations and abuses.

In 1494 Jean de Cirey, Abbot of Citeaux, courageously instituted a plan to revive monastic observance, long debilitated by war, the “commenda” system – whereby kings took over the selection of abbess or abbot of a monastery – and general mismanagement. The codification of this plan became known as The Articles of Paris.

There were some determined monks who started reforms and even founded new Congregations, which were detached from the old trunk of Cîteaux. They began what is called the Period of the Congregations. During this period of the Congregations, all Cistercians monasteries underwent great transformations, leaving deep marks of growth in the areas of spirituality, intellect, and community life. The congregations brought back to life a firm desire for rebirth in the Cistercian spirit, but then tended to disappear by the first half of the nineteenth century. None of them exists today.

Council of Trent

Council of Trent

Congregations created before the Council of Trent:

  1. The Congregation of Castile, founded by Dom Martin de Vargas, in 1425;
  2. The Congregation of St. Bernard of Tuscany and of Lombardy;

Congregations created in the wake of the Council of Trent:

  1. The Congregation of the Feuillants, founded by John de la Barriere in 1563;
  2. The Congregation of Portugal, or of Alcobaca, founded in 1567;
  3. The Congregation of Aragon, founded in 1616;
  4. The Congregation of Rome, founded in 1623;
  5. The High German Congregation, founded in 1623;
  6. The Congregation of Calabria and Lucania, established by Urban VIII in 1633, and to which was united the old Congregation of Flore, which had for its founder Blessed Joachim surnamed “the Prophet”.

    Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

    Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

  7. The Helvetic Congregation, founded in 1806;
  8. The Swiss-German Congregation, founded in 1894.

Together with the Congregations, which were separated from Cîteaux, there were five or six others that, while remaining subject to the jurisdiction of the parent house, were legislated by provincial or national chapters. Chief among these congregations were: Northern Germany, Strict Observance and La Trappe.

  1. The Congregation of Northern Germany was founded in 1595 by Nicholas II (Boucherat), Abbot of Cîteaux, at the desire of Pope Clement VIII, in the monastery of Furstenfeld. It comprised four provinces ruled by the abbots, vicars of the general. There were twenty-two abbeys, only three of which survived the revolutionary tempest, and now form part of the Common Observance of Cîteaux, as the Cistercian province of Austria-Hungary.
  2. The Congregation of Strict Observance, resulting from the efforts for reform of the Abbots of Charmoye and Châtillon, was established at Clairvaux by Denis Largentier, abbot of this monastery, in 1615. The Abbot of Cîteaux, Nicholas Boucherat, approved the reform and permitted it to hold special assemblies and to choose a vicar-general with four assistant generals. The general chapter of Cîteaux in 1623 praised it highly, Cardinal Richelieu became its protector, and the popes gave it encouragement.
  3. In 1663 the Congregation of Strict Observance received an important member in the person of Abbot de Rancé, who introduced the Strict Observance into the Abbey of La Trappe in the Diocese of Séez, adding to it other very severe practices.

Pope Alexander VII, in his Bull of 19 April, 1666, named Common Observance to the one formed by the abbeys which did not respond to these reformation appeals, distinguishing it from the Strict Observance, from which in reality it differed only in the use of meat and similar articles of food three times a week.  This practice is certainly contrary to the rule of perpetual abstinence of the early days.

The Congregation of the Strict Observance developed rapidly. In a very short time it consisted of fifty-eight monasteries. Etienne Maugier, who succeeded Denis Largentier after his death in 1626, inspired it afresh. From that time it aimed at a certain superiority to which it believed to have some claims, and was determined, in case of meeting with any opposition, to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the General of Cîteaux.

Hence quarrels and litigations arose which lasted forty years or more.

Finally, on 26th January 1662, the Pope Alexander VII in a decisive manner invited the parties to appear at the Court of Rome. And on the 19th of April, 1666 the Bull “In Suprema” was promulgated.  This put an end to the divisions. The Strict Observance remained under the jurisdiction of the Abbot of Cîteaux.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution

Despite protests from the opponents, and in particular of Abbot de Rancé, this constitution was accepted by the general chapter of 1667, which was held at Cîteaux; and the new reform was put into force in all the monasteries of France, where the number of monks was sufficient.

The political and religious disturbances which took place on the eve of the French Revolution, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century this venerable order was almost ruined. When the National Convention, by the decree of 13 February, 1790 - Civil Constitution of the Clergy -, secularized all the religious houses of France, the Order of Cîteaux had 228 monasteries with 1,875 religious in France.

From France the hatred of religion passed into Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and other countries, and there the work of destruction continued. By an imperial veto of the 25th of February, 1803, and a decree of the Prussian Government of the 28th of April, 1810, all the monasteries of Germany were destroyed. The abbeys of Portugal were abolished by a law of the 26th of May, 1834. The monasteries in Spain were abolished by the laws of the 25th of July and 11th of October, 1835. Those in Poland disappeared by the decrees of the Russian and Prussian rulers.

Continue to ‘The Restoration (after 1790)