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


Monks at work, detail from La Thebaid, 1418-1420, paintings attributed to by Fra Angelico (ca 1400-1455), tempera on panel, 73,5 x208 cm. Florence, Galleria Degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery)

Continued from part VIII

Bouchard’s book shows that the longstanding scholarly claim that “the ideals of Cistercian monasticism and the rapidly developing economy of the twelfth century were incompatible” does not survive close analysis of the economic and religious records. So why was it made in the first place?

Another key reason for the scholarly claims about decline due to economic engagement is the existence of “The ‘legislation of 1134,’ setting out what types of property were and were not suitable for Cistercian monks.” Scholars have assumed this to be “a reiteration of what the monks had believed and practiced since Citeaux’s foundation in 1098.” The document raises up farming over other economic activities, so “scholars have treated the early Cistercians as exclusively farmers, who concentrated on opening up uncultivated lands and who were economic innovators only in their pioneering use of draining methods.” They have therefore taken the evidence for other kinds of economic transactions as de facto evidence of declension.[i]

Then the dissection of the paradigm begins. First Bouchard notes that it has had to be modified and re-modified in recent years, as evidence for non-farming economic transactions has pushed earlier and earlier,[ii] and as scholars have had to wrestle with a lack of any kind of numerical decline that would imply that the monks’ secular neighbors no longer valued them as holy men – quite the contrary, as the order continued to gain members and resources at a rapid rate. This has caused scholars to back away from harsher language of “decadence,” preferring instead to state that their “ideals” had not survived the encounter with certain “realities.”[iii]

But even this paradigm runs up against problems, such as Bernard of Clairvaux’s “own willingness to welcome into the Cistercian order the monks of Savigny, who lived from income generated by peasant tenants” which “has made some scholars ease the order’s ‘turning point’ from the 1150s back into the 1140s.” (186)

Then studies emerged casting doubt on whether “the texts usually considered to be the order’s 1134 legislation concerning the types of property that were suitable for the Cistercians . . . were indeed all products of 1134.” Some sections may have in fact been composed twenty years later. (186) Then came Jean-Baptiste Auberger’s study of the text, and his resulting scholarship that seems to “show that there was diversity within Cistercian thinking and practice nearly from the beginning” – so fresh as to not yet be “integrated into the literature” at the time of Bouchard’s writing. But his conclusion that “one cannot speak of ‘Cistercian practice’” as a “single phenomenon” was already being affirmed by scholars.” (187)

She also notes that some of the statues attributed to 1134 may have been written twenty years later, per Auberger, and that whenever it was written, its writing likely came from a much less than fully representative group[iv] – which is also evidenced by the fact that the proscribed types of transactions continued on after 1134 in every monastery except Bernard’s own, in Clairvaux.[v]

So several phases of scholarly back-pedaling had already come by the time Bouchard wrote her 1991 book. Old paradigms die hard, however, and Bouchard notes that “even with all these recent modifications, there is still something of a scholarly consensus that the early Cistercians began with a deliberate rejection of a sorts of economic activity except for direct agricultural exploitation of their land,” which continued to be the case for “two or three generations.” (187) Evidence to the contrary is pushed aside or reinterpreted to fit the paradigm. (187)

Bouchard offers a new paradigm:

“that the Cistercians were involved from the beginning with the rapidly developing economic practices of the twelfth century and were in some instances prime movers in their evolution. Because from the first generation of the order the monks took part in a variety of economic activities, it is not necessary to try to explain, whether as ‘decadence’ or merely as ‘facing reality,’ such activities in the later twelfth century.”

“Indeed,” she adds, “I would argue that it was this very involvement in economic exchange that made possible the order’s rapid growth and success.”[vi] (187) But, “This is not [italics hers] to suggest that the Cistercians hypocritically ignored their ‘ideals’; far from it. Rather, the first Cistercians did not define themselves in terms of what sorts of economic activities they did or did not undertake.” (188)

In fact we have to look to the last half of the twelfth century for “most of the . . . authentic legislation on Cistercian property,” which leads us to the conclusion that “the monks of the first two generations did not believe that the uniqueness of their order lay in any distinctive type of property ownership or economic exchange.” (189)

All of this harkens back, I think, to the willing acceptance of “the active life” – a pragmatic acceptance at least in part, I would think – of the tradition of Augustine, Gregory, and Bernard himself (et al).

Bouchard then reminds us of a much simpler and more obvious explanation for the increase of “Cistercian economic activity in such areas as pawning and leasing . . . after the middle of the twelfth century.” (191) That was, quite simply, that those practices were only rarely found in the region before then! “One must not mistake the changes and developments in general economic opportunity which took place in the middle of the twelfth century for changes in the spiritual commitment of the Cistercian order,” (191) she warns.

There were, indeed, Bouchard admits, original ideals of the order, and they did favor certain practices “against many of the economic exchanges of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries,” (192) but these do not point in the direction of the scholarly consensus – that they forbade certain kinds of economic activities out of spiritual principles having to do with the inherent unsuitability of those practices to a rigorous spiritual life. “Rather, their goal was the development of a pragmatic approach that favored economic activities fostering simplicity and solitude.” (192)

And (importantly, to get the 12th-century economic context in focus:)

“The economic ‘realities’ of the twelfth century, especially the rapid growth of the market economy and the development of increasingly sophisticated instruments of economic exchange, were by no means spurned by the Cistercians, either at the end or the beginning of the twelfth century. Rather, such economic activities were taken up and utilized in a sophisticated manner wherever they could facilitate the realization of the order’s essential goals.” (195)

Note that in Bouchard’s use of the term “realities” above, she is referring to those realities which the ‘ideals’ of the Cistercian order have been assumed, by scholarly consensus, to have shipwrecked—hence her use of scare quotes.


[i] “As it is fairly clear that, by the thirteenth century, the Cistercians were not living in complete isolation, making their living from cropland worked only by the monks or their conversi, it has often been concluded that after 1200 or so the order had slipped into decline or even decadence.” (185)

[ii] “[A]s . . . many types of economic transactions have been shown to exist [in Cistercian practice] well before the end of the twelfth century, the dividing line between the ‘ideal’ life [185] of the early  monks and the period of decline has been moved back into the middle of the twelfth century. The death of Bernard of Clairvaux in 1153 is often taken as a convenient turning point.” (185-6)

[iii] “Because the order continued to grow rapidly in the second half of the twelfth century, after Bernard’s death and the short-lived attempt of 1152 to restrict any further foundation of Cistercian houses, the idea of ‘decline’ has also had to be modified. After all, an order that nearly doubled the number of its houses in fifty years, establishing them in countries throughout Europe, can scarcely said to be in decline. Although scholars used to say that early Cistercian practices were replaced by ‘decadence,’ it is more common now to describe ‘ideals’ having to give way before ‘reality.’” (186)

[iv] There are other issues with the 1134 statement that call in to question whether “the abbots at the chapter general” of that year actually “all agreed on the precepts that have usually been considered the result of that convocation.” Nobody at the meeting had in fact been at Citeaux in the founding year of 1098, the most recent presiding abbot, Stephen Harding, had just died, and the successor was unsuccessful and forced to resign. This appears a difficult document to take as “a blueprint of early Cistercian ‘ideals,’ from which any deviance spelled decadence.” (190). Rather, it seems to have been more of “a last-ditch attempt by certain abbots . . . to construct a statement of goals that they realized most of the order was not meeting.” (190)

[v] “But other houses of the order [besides Clairvaux], after 1134 as before, continued to receive the types of property a literal adherence” to the 1134 document “would have made impossible.” (191) And even Bernard “did not scold other abbots of the order for such practices,” indicating that “while these types of property might have been foreign to Clairvaux, he did not judge other abbots’ spirituality strictly on the basis of their material possessions.” (191)

[vi] “Rather, the Cistercians succeeded because they were able to assemble coherent, compact pieces of farmland for their granges, through a combination of gifts, leases, pawns, and purchases.” (188) And “Among the many energetic young converts to the Cistercian order, drawn mostly from knightly backgrounds, were certainly some with a talent for rational estate management, as is evidenced in the efficient planning and managing of Cistercian property.” (188)

Continued in part X

One response to “Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part IX – the Cistercian example (II)

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

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