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


“Cistercians at work,” Alexander Bremen, 13th c.; Expositio en Apocalypsim (University Library Cambridge Ms. mm 5.31. fol. 113), manuscript from Northern Germany; Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Continued from part IX

Nor did contemporary observers seem to think the Cistercians were defined by their economic activities – either used or eschewed.[i]

And indeed, even the document considered to have been written in 1134 didn’t single out “pawning, leasing, sales, and exchanges” for censure.[ii] (196)

She concludes that the Cistercians “participated vigorously in the economic changes of the twelfth century while retaining the solitude of their houses and granges and the simplicity of the food, clothing, and liturgy that made them appear so intensely holy to their neighbors.” (196)

By this example of simplicity and austerity, Bouchard argues, the knights were attracted to them “psychologically,” as they were “reaching a level of social prominence . . . at the beginning of the twelfth century,” thus “just reach[ing] the point both of being able to enjoy [the] comforts [of the aristocracy] and of recognizing that the soul’s salvation might lie in the rejection of them.” (197)

But at the same time, there was a “social” appeal of the Cistercians to the knights as well, “because the Cistercians were integrated into the rural knightly system of ‘give-and-take,’ where property transactions were used not only to transfer ownership of property but also to bind people together.” (197)

This observations harkens back to an earlier one, recorded above, about the fact that these transactions were not always undertaken for “purely economic purposes,” but also to “open a dialogue” between people, and forge longer-term relationships.

And by the circumstances of the “rapid economic expansion of the twelfth century,” and the many gifts they received early on,

“the monks were well positioned to raise the produce and herds that could be sold at market. Their use of granges and conversi [lay brothers] labor and their ability to form compact and easily managed holdings through judicious purchase, leases, and exchanges meant that their agriculture was well managed and efficient. Land the monks received as gift or pawn, where they had less control over what they were being given, could then be integrated into well-managed economic entities.” (197)

Bouchard concludes that the twelfth-century Cistercians “were able to [198] combine holiness with economic success.” (197-8) She counts “the number of pious gifts the monks received” as “a sure index of their spiritual value to their secular neighbors,” and noted that those gifts “increased at the same time and the same rate as the numbers of other kinds of economic transactions.” And then, tellingly: “The same knights who treated the Cistercians as a source of cash, if they wanted to sell or needed to pawn some land, also treated them as pious and holy men whose prayers they wanted when they died. [my emphasis] (198)

So that we must finally take “the monks’ isolation from the city and the simplicity of their way of life, rather than any antimarket tendencies,” as their distinguishing marks both when considered by their contemporaries and in their own eyes as well.” (198)

I believe the survey of Augustine and Gregory on the active and contemplative lives – and I hope to add Bernard, the founder of the Cistercians, and other early Cistercians (material from these can be found both in Butler and in Miles Constable’s essay on medieval interpretations of the story of Mary and Martha; I have excerpts at the ready) – lend support to Bouchard’s case, and suggests that we may broaden that case. For that tradition clearly affirms that working by the sweat of one’s brow can both allow for contemplation, and may in fact be necessary for a mature contemplative life.

Further, in Bouchard’s work on the Burgundian Cistercians, we see that there was no assumption of any inherent toxicity of money or economic relationships – in fact, those relationships were framed spiritually (e.g. with Bible verses), and were an important way that the Cistercians forged relationships with their knightly and noble neighbors.

A further nail in the old scholarly paradigm of the irreconcilability of economic and spiritual work is the observation of C S Lewis, himself an accomplished and reputable medievalist, that medieval discourse often put the crassest material concerns side-by-side with the highest spiritual concerns (this may be found in the first chapter of his monumental work Sixteenth-century Literature, Excluding Drama, in the Oxford History of English Literature) – it will be worth quoting in the final draft. In other words, Lewis finds nothing inherent in the material concerns – perhaps even the monetary or economic concerns – involved in land leases, etc. – that would prevent a medieval from “in the same breath” invoking God and spirituality. And of course one evidence of this potential harmony between spirituality and economics is the cornucopia, per Bouchard, of Biblical passages quoted at the beginnings of charters.


[i] “Contemporaries observing the order from the outside did not define the Cistercians’ uniqueness in terms of their economic activities any more than did the monks themselves. When Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux in the 1140s to detail the differences between the white monks and the black [of the latter of which he himself was the leader, as Bernard was of the white monks], he put “all the emphasis . . . on literal adherence to the Benedictine Rule, simplicity of life, and solitude,” not at all stressing economic exchange. (195)

[ii] “Although some scholars have maintained that only ‘pure alms’ were intended by the order’s founders and that the rapid growth of other forms of economic exchange violated the ‘spirit if not the letter’ of the order’s statutes, such an approach bases an assessment of Cistercian spirituality on a modern, not twelfth-century, vision of spirituality as incompatible with such economic activities.” (196)

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