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Author Topic: Cistercians  (Read 185 times)
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« on: September 23, 2007, 02:37:51 am »

Monastic life and technological diffusion

The keynote of Cistercian life was a return to a literal observance of St Benedict's rule: how literal may be seen from the controversy between St. Bernard and Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny. The Cistercians rejected alike all mitigations and all developments, and tried to reproduce the life exactly as it had been in St Benedict's time, indeed in various points they went beyond it in austerity. The most striking feature in the reform was the return to manual labour, and especially to field-work, which became a special characteristic of Cistercian life.

To make time for this work they cut away the accretions to the divine office which had been steadily growing during three centuries, and which in Cluny and the other Benedictine monasteries had come to exceed greatly in length the regular canonical office: one only of these accretions did they retain, the daily recitation of the Office of the Dead.

It was as agriculturists and horse and cattle breeders that, after the first blush of their success and before a century had passed, the Cistercians exercised their chief influence on the progress of civilization in the later Middle Ages: they were the great farmers of those days, and many of the improvements in the various farming operations were introduced and propagated by them, and it is from this point of view that the importance of their extension in northern Europe is to be estimated.

The Cistercians at the beginning renounced all sources of income arising from benefices, tithes, tolls and rents, and depended for their income wholly on the land. This developed an organised system for selling their farm produce, cattle and horses, and notably contributed to the commercial progress of the countries of western Europe. With the foundation of Waverley Abbey in 1128, the Cistercians spread to England, and many of the most beautiful monastic buildings of the country, beautiful in themselves and beautiful in their sites, were Cistercian, as Tintern Abbey, Rievaulx Abbey, Byland Abbey and Fountains Abbey. A hundred were established in England in the next hundred years, and then only one more up to the Dissolution. Thus by the middle of the 13th century, the export of wool by the English Cistercians had become a feature in the commerce of the country.

In Spain, one of the earliest surviving Cistercian houses - the Real Monasterio de Nuestra Senora de Rueda in the Aragon region - is a good example of early hydrologic engineering, using a large waterwheel for power and an elaborate hydrological circulation system for central heating.

Farming operations on so extensive a scale could not be carried out by the monks alone, whose choir and religious duties took up a considerable portion of their time; and so from the beginning the system of lay brothers was introduced on a large scale. The lay brothers were recruited from the peasantry and were simple uneducated men, whose function 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.

A lay brother was 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 civilization. But it often happened that the number of lay brothers became excessive and out of proportion to the resources of the monasteries, there being sometimes as many as 200, or even 300, in a single abbey. On the other hand, at any rate in some countries, the system of lay brothers in course of time worked itself out; thus in England by the close of the 14th century it had shrunk to relatively small proportions, and in the 15th century the régime of the English Cistercian houses tended to approximate more and more to that of the Black Monks.

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