Cistercian’s Golden Age (1134-1342)

Spearheaded by St. Bernard, the Cistercian movement began to spread quickly throughout Europe to include over 500 monasteries by the end of the 13th century.

Several congregations and monasteries, which had existed before the Order of Cîteaux, became affiliated to it.  Among them were the Congregations of Savigny and Obazine, which were incorporated into the order in 1147.

Bernard and other Cistercians took a very active part in the establishment of the great military orders.  They supplied them with their constitutions and their laws.  Among these various orders of chivalry included the Templars, the Knights of Calatrava, of Alcántara, of Avis, of St. Lazarus, of St. Maurice, of of St. Michael of the Wing, of Montessa, etc.

Military Orders

Military Orders

In addition to the significant influence of Bernard, one important reason which contributed to the prosperity of the new order, was the perfect unity which existed between the monasteries and the members of every house. This unity was wonderfully maintained by the punctual assembling of General Chapters, and the faithful performance of the Regular Visits.

During this Golden Age a general chapter was held annually.  This consisted of an assembly of all the abbots of the order, according to the prescriptions of the Charter of Charity.

The Visitor“, say the ancient statutes, “will urge the Religious to greater respect for their Abbot, and to remain more and more united among themselves by the bonds of mutual love for Jesus Christ’s sake . . . The Visitor ought not to be a man who will easily believe every one indiscriminately, but he should investigate with care those matters of which he has no knowledge, and, having ascertained the truth, he should correct abuses with prudence, uniting his zeal for the Order with his feelings of sincere paternal affection. On the other hand, the Superior visited ought to show himself submissive to, and full of confidence in, the Visitor, and do all in his power to reform his house, since one day he will have to render an account to the Lord.

Everything was foreseen and provided for the maintenance of good order and charity and for the preservation of the unity of observance and spirit. Thus, it was during this period that the order produced the greatest number of saints, blessed, and holy persons.

The Order of Cîteaux constantly enjoyed the favour of the Holy See, which in numerous Bulls bestowed upon the Cistercians the highest praise, and rewarded their services to the Church with great privileges. For instance, the Parvus Fons of Pope Clement IV (1265), aimed to regulate the governance; and the Fulgens sicut stella of Pope Benedict XII, dealt with financial management and studies. The General Chapters were charged with putting these reforms into action.

St. Mechtilde (left) instructing the novice, St. Gertrude

St. Mechtilde (left) instructing the novice, St. Gertrude (right)

The Order enjoyed as well the favour of sovereigns, like Frederick II, who having entire confidence in them, entrusted to them important delegations.  Another example was Alphonsus I of Portugal.  They placed their people and kingdoms under the care and protection of Our Lady of Clairvaux.  When Frederick II was near the point of death, he asked to die clothed in the Cistercian habit.

The most important Cistercian spiritual theologians of the 12th century were: St. Bernard of Clairveaux (†1153), William of St. Thierry (†1148), St. Aelred of Rievaulx (†1167) and Guerric of Igny (†1157). Their affective spirituality emphasized the sacred humanity of Christ and had a strong Marian orientation.

These themes were further developed in the 13th century by the nuns of Helfta, most notably St. Gertrude of Helfta (†1302), St. Mechthild of Magdeburg (†1294) and St. Mechtild of Hackeborn (†1298).



The Cistercians benefited society by their agricultural labours and, we may say, were catalysts for development of a market economy in the 12th century Europe; and, until the Industrial Revolution, most of the technological advances in Europe were made in their monasteries.

It was as agriculturists and horse and cattle breeders that the Cistercians exercised their chief influence on the progress of civilization in the Middle Ages. As the great farmers of those days, many of the improvements in the various farming operations were introduced and propagated by them. They developed an organized system for selling their farm produce, cattle and horses, and notably contributed to the commercial progress of the countries of Western Europe. To the wool and cloth trade, which was especially fostered by the Cistercians, England was largely indebted for the beginnings of her commercial prosperity.

Choir and religious duties took up a considerable portion of Cistercian’s time; and so, from the beginning, the system of Lay Brothers was introduced on a large scale. The duties of these lay brothers, recruited from the peasantry, consisted in carrying out the various fieldworks and plying all sorts of useful trades. They formed a body of men who lived alongside of the choir monks, but separate from them, not taking part in the canonical office, but having their own fixed round of prayer and religious exercises. They were never ordained, and never held any office of superiority. It was by this system of lay brothers that the Cistercians were able to play their distinctive part in the progress of European civilisation.

The Cistercian order was innovative in developing techniques of hydraulic engineering for monasteries established in remote valleys. In Spain, one of the earliest surviving Cistercian houses, the “Real Monasterio de Nuestra Senora de Rueda” in Aragon, is a good example of such early hydraulic engineering, using a large waterwheel for power and an elaborate water circulation system for central heating.

The Cistercians are also known to have been skilled metallurgists, and knowledge of their technological advances was transmitted by the order. Iron ore deposits were often donated to the monks along with forges to extract the iron, and when time permitted they were offered for sale. The Cistercians became the leading iron producers in Champagne, from the mid-13th century to the 17th century.  They used the phosphate-rich slag from their furnaces as an agricultural fertiliser.

Another important Cistercian contribution was the development of architecture, which made an important contribution to European civilisation. The Cistercian monasteries and churches may be counted among the most beautiful relics of the Middle Ages. They were primarily constructed in Romanesque and Gothic architecture during the Middle Ages; although later abbeys were also constructed in Renaissance and Baroque.

Cistercians conferred great benefits on society by the exercise of Christian charity. By means of their labours, their economy, their privations, and sometimes owing to generous donations, they became more or less rich in the things of this world, and used their wealth for the education of the illiterate, the promotion of letters and arts, and the relief of their country’s necessities. The Cistercian abbeys had a house for the reception of the poor, and an infirmary for the sick, and, in them, all received generous hospitality and remedies for the ills of body and soul.

Intellectual labour also had its place in the life of the Cistercians. Many important historical and critical writings were produced in the monasteries. The Cistercian libraries were rich in books and manuscripts, which were produced or copied by the monks. In the very first period, for instance, St. Stephen Harding completed a work on the Bible which is superior to anything of its kind produced by any contemporary monastery, including Cluny.


Continue to ‘The Decline (1342-1790)