Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part VIII – the Cistercian example (I)


Cistercians at work, from Aleteia (public domain)

Continued from part VII

Now we turn to a more direct example of the supposed conflict between economic work and spiritual health. This is from the fascinating study of Cistercian economic activities penned by Constance Bouchard.[i] Bouchard states the crux of her argument like this:

“Whereas modern scholars usually contrast spirituality and economic success, the Cistercian order in Burgundy, in its first century of development and expansion, was able to participate in the multiplying economic activities of the period and at the same time continue to be considered by its secular neighbors an intensely holy order whose monks had the ear of God.” (ix-x)

I note again that “secular” used above means what it has meant to older generations and still means to the Roman Catholic Church: those Christians who, in contrast to the “regular” (rule-following) monastics whose daily round focused on eternity, engage in the business of the world and of “this age” (the saeculum). Thus even priests were considered seculars. And certainly knights, peasants, and craftsmen as well – most of whom would have been trying to live as Christians, and had at least elementary understanding of, and agreement with, key theological sources such as the creeds.

Bouchard “use[d] the rich but largely untapped Cistercian archives to study economic exchanges between the monasteries and their secular, primarily knightly, neighbors,” reviewing records of over 2,000 economic exchanges, nearly two-thirds of them never having seen print, and only accessible in Burgundian archives. (ix)

In introducing the context of this economic activity, Bouchard reminds her readers that “the twelfth century was a time both of rapid economic development and of an intense pursuit of the spiritual life.” The Cistercian order, she demonstrates throughout the book, participated in both without finding them incompatible.

This may indeed seem on the face of it unlikely. Founded in 1098 on the principles of “separation from society and close adherence to the original tenets of the Benedictine Rule,” the Cistercians sought “purity and knowledge of God through poverty, manual labor, silence and obedience, and intellectual learning and contemplation.” And they grew rapidly both in number and in wealth. (1)

Bouchard notes that while Cistercian spirituality had been well-studied by her time (e.g. by the prolific and honored scholar Dom LeClerq), and their innovations in “opening up uncultivated land and in draining bogs . . . has been widely discussed,” and “the Cistercian grange system has been studied as a tool of agricultural exploitation,” on the other hand “the role of the Cistercians in other kinds of economic transactions—pawning leasing, sales, and exchanges—or even in the monetary aspects of gifts and countergifts, has been relatively neglected.” (2)

Granges were outlying landholdings held by monasteries independent of the manorial system. A grange might be established adjacent to the monastery but others were established wherever it held lands, some at a considerable distance. Some granges were worked by lay-brothers belonging to the order, called conversi—who worked the land so that the “choir monks” could spend more time in contemplation, liturgical rounds, etc.—and others by paid labourers.

“The neglect of the Cistercians’ economic activities, however, can also be attributed to the assumption that spirituality and economics are and were antithetical. As a result, scholars interested in the spiritual life have not usually concerned themselves with the kinds of transactions that charters [documents recording property transactions, usually between the monks and their secular knightly or noble neighbors] record.[ii] In fact, it has often been assumed that economic activities were the slightly sordid ‘reality’ that Cistercian ‘ideals’ could not ultimately overcome and that these activities represent a rather sad decline from the original pinnacle of the order’s founding intentions and dreams.”(3-4)

“[T]he charters reveal that even the earliest leaders of the order did not aspire to quite so lofty a separation from economic transactions as most scholars have assumed. . . . [in fact,] throughout the twelfth century the Cistercians continued to be considered holy men with the ear of the saints, even while they also become accomplished financial managers.” (4)

Bouchard admits that “solitude” and “anti-urbanism” were demonstrable values in the founding of the order, and the siting of many subsequent houses on parish boundaries, away from population centers – but that seems to have more to do with avoiding (1) distractions of urban life (as opposed to Cluniac houses, or “black monks,” who ended up in urban areas) and possibly (2) the spiritual dangers of urban life.

“The solitude the Cistercians sought,” says Bouchard, “was not an isolation from certain forms of exchange or economic activity so much as isolation from the distractions and demands of the city.” (193) This seems to point more toward our “worldliness thesis,” Or at least, to our “busyness thesis.”

But it does not point to a restriction on, or positing of an inherent opposition to spiritual flourishing of, economic exchange per se. So we may here adduce some of Antony’s motivations in heading out to the desert. And also remember that as each wave of reform in monasticism occurred in the Middle Ages, Athanasius’s life of Antony came easily to hand as a statement of the ideals of those reforms.

Distraction? Yes.

Pollution by the city? Maybe.

Pollution by the very fact of economic exchange, or by certain types of economic exchange? No.

This early commitment to solitude and simplicity has led scholars to assume that “the Burgundian Cistercians would have kept themselves aloof from the kinds of transactions they have found elsewhere, and that therefore these transactions are a sign of falling away from early ideals.” (8) But Bouchard dismantles this assumption quite effectively.

To start, she points out that despite the Cistercians’ desire for solitude, the Duchy of Burgundy was no backwater: “The Burgundian dioceses on which this study is based were located halfway between Paris and Lyon, in a region that was both a religious and aristocratic center of medieval Europe.” (9-10) There was no pristine initial solitude of the order, far from neighbors and the need to develop relationships with them that sometimes involved economic transactions.[iv]

Then, she notes that for the knights giving pious gifts to the monasteries – which was the biggest category of transaction recorded, their purposes were “not necessarily economic” – nor were the monks who received these gifts only interested in their material gain. Rather, “both sides attempted through the medium of property transfers to establish and maintain a dialogue.” (31) This assertion is supported by “the enormous variety of Bible quotations used in charter prefaces.” (28)

Bouchard notes that “Nothing in early Cistercian legislation forbade such activities” (32). Also, importantly, while there were later limitations imposed on the kinds of properties Cistercian houses could buy, receive in pawn,[v] and lease,[vi] those self-imposed limits did not emerge from spiritual but rather economic concerns, as some monasteries were getting in financial trouble by the late twelfth century.

Continued in part IX


[i] Holy Entrepreneurs: Cistercians, Knights, and Economic Exchange in Twelfth-Century Burgundy, Constance Brittain Bouchard (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991.

[ii] A cartulary is a book containing copies of original charters – “it was common for the monks to copy their charters, including the pancartes, into one (or sometimes two) large book(s)—that is, cartularies.” (16) [This was for both organization and preservation – to avoid losing individual pieces of parchment, Bouchard notes], and the pancartes were“charters drawn up (generally by a diocesan bishop) to record a large number of different transactions by different people.” (14)

[iv] Though the 1120s document the “Exordium parvum,” describing the movement’s founding and early years, talked about Benedict, in the 6th c., building monasteries “not in cities, not in castles, not in villages, but in places remote from the throng,” the Cistercians still were not able to found their new houses in “an untouched wilderness.” In fact, “Burgundy had been a political and financial crossroads since before the Romans reached Gaul.” (192) And though the Cistercians tended to build their monasteries on the intersections between dioceses, so as to be as far as possible from those dioceses’ inevitable central towns or cities, there was, by the late 11th and early 12th centuries, “nowhere in Burgundy where the Cistercians could not have been reached after a fairly short ride by a mounted neighbor.” (193)

[v] “An increasingly common transaction after about 1150 was the pawn, in which the monks advanced a layman a lump sum of money in return for a piece of property. If he or his heirs wanted the pawned property back, they would have to [34] repay the money, generally within a specified interval. Six years was the most common term, although a layman who pawned an especially large amount of property might be given longer.” This practice originated in the late 10th and 11th c.s but “became common only in the rapidly expanding economy of the twelfth century.”(33-34) Bouchard notes that these were not mortgages, for several reasons, including the fact that the repayment had to be in one lump sum, and that “the money the monks lent on the basis of security was less than they would have had to pay for buying the property outright.” (Also the term “mortgage” wasn’t used at the time.) (34)

[vi] “Another common method the Cistercians used to acquire property and rights, especially pasturage for their flocks, was leasing. That is, they would pay an annual fee, a cens, commonly specified as due in March, or occasionally on the Feast of Saint John (June 25), to someone in return for property or certain rights. . . . there are some examples of property held for an annual cens from the time Citeaux was originally founded, but the practice became increasingly frequent in Burgundy after 1150. Indeed, leases became the second most common sort of economic transaction, after gifts.” (43)

2 responses to “Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part VIII – the Cistercian example (I)

  1. Pingback: Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part IX – the Cistercian example (II) | Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part VII | Grateful to the dead

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