John Eby

title.none: Berman, The Cistercian Evolution (Eby)

identifier.other: baj9928.0009.010 00.09.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Eby, Loras College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Berman, Constance. The Cistercian Evolution: the Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-Century Europe. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: Unviersity of Pennsylvania, 2000. Pp. xxiv, 382. $59.95. ISBN: 0-812-23534-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.09.10

Berman, Constance. The Cistercian Evolution: the Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-Century Europe. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: Unviersity of Pennsylvania, 2000. Pp. xxiv, 382. $59.95. ISBN: 0-812-23534-7.

Reviewed by:

John Eby
Loras College

Stimulating, controversial, and compelling, Constance Berman's major revision of early Cistercian history, The Cistercian Evolution, should be read by historians of monasticism and will greatly interest scholars in the institutional and religious history of the twelfth century as well as those who study the experience of women in that period. In it, Berman challenges the traditional account of the rapid early growth of the Cistercian order that has been accepted since the thirteenth century, an account that portrayed a remarkable growth in the order in its first fifty years driven by an "apostolic" model of abbots and monks proceeding from established abbeys to found new ones in the wilderness. Instead, Berman proposes a model of growth dominated by incorporation, in which monasteries already in existence would for a variety of reasons come to associate themselves with other monastic houses claiming Cistercian customs. It was not until after the death of Bernard of Clairvaux, in 1153, and in part as a response to his passing, that the idea of a religious order was invented, contrary to the tradition associating the organizing principles of the Cistercians with Stephen Harding.

Berman observes that the account of the origins and early growth of the Cistercians has seldom been questioned, in large part because the main documents for the early history and organization of the order have themselves been viewed as quite early and therefore reliable for their rough chronology and for their depiction of "apostolic gestation." Berman shows, however, that there is good reason to question the traditional dating of these manuscripts, especially the Exordium Parvum, the Summa Cartae Caritatis, and the Exordium Cistercii, all of which she says postdate 1160. This later dating of these manuscripts has enormous consequences for consideration of the Cistercians, for, she suggests, their presentation of the early development of the order should be understood in the context of a growing desire to institute structure for a large but loose association of monasteries and convents. This means that the early Cistercians did not articulate the impressive multi-regional organization of the thirteenth century and indeed did not even envision an administrative order at all. In fact, she concludes, the late twelfth-century Cistercians were the principle force behind the transformation of the notion of "order" (ordo) from "a way of life" to an administrative organization.

The book is remarkably clear in style and argumentation. Although the argumentation is quite complex, it reads in most places with relative ease. Berman sets out her main points and their implications in the first chapter, "Twelfth-Century Narratives and Cistercian Mythology." She says that incorporation rather than colonization explains the rapid growth of the Cistercians in the first half of the century, that Bernard of Clairvaux's contribution was to his publicization of Cistercian notions of caritas, and she highlights problems she has identified in the traditional understanding of two texts: the Exordium Cistercii, which she says was written between 1160 and 1165, and the Exordium Parvum, which must have been written around 1170. Amidst a large number of astute observations characteristic of the book, Berman stresses difficulties in the texts such as the absence of any mention of Bernard of Clairvaux in the first two, that the Summa Cartae Caritatis is a chapter of the Exordium Cistercii and not a separate document, the charter-like quality of the Exordium Parvum, and the complete omission of women's foundations in these early accounts. This chapter also deals with the evidence from edifices and sites, often seen as proof of an early uniformity in the order. Berman asserts, however, (and shows later in the book) that it was in fact seldom that Cistercian monastic sites were in the "deserts" so frequently mentioned in the sources, and that the architecture of churches and other buildings often varied quite significantly. Finally, the chapter describes the "Illusion of an Order without Women." The myth of a monolithic, organized enterprise built upon "apostolic gestation" created in the later twelfth century allowed Cistercians to write women out of the early history of the order and assert that women's houses were somehow connected to the decadence that characterized the order's maturation.

Following the useful survey of themes and arguments in that first chapter, follow three detailed chapters investigating specific issues. Chapter 2, "Charters, 'Primitive Documents,' and Papal Confirmations," harnesses daunting complexity and a great number of sources with the clarity of expression so characteristic of the book. After outlining the issues concerning the dating of the "primitive documents" and discussion of related historiographical developments, Berman proceeds to show why these important documents should be dated to the 1160s and early 1170s, thirty years later than previous scholarship has suggested. Her conclusions are based upon an interesting study of Trent MS 1711, a palimpsest with an added quire. She speculates that the "primitive documents" therein were the constitutional documents confirmed by Alexander III in 1163 or 1165, the first papal confirmation of a Cistercian constitution and as close as we can come to an actual founding of the order. In fact, she argues in a fascinating section, the term ordo changed meaning in the late twelfth century in large part as a way to incorporate the entirely new approach to monastic organization proposed by the Cistercians -- to paraphrase what I believe she is suggesting, the Cistercian way of life came to be understood according to organizational principles, charity and chapter.

"Religious order" is not an appropriate term for the groups of abbeys that emerged in the twelfth century. Rather, Berman argues in Chapter 3 ("From Citeaux to the Invention of the Cistercian Order"), "congregation" reflects the realities of monastic association centered upon charismatic leadership. As reputation and influence from a particular monastery such as Clairvaux would grow, other abbeys would seek to be tied to it in more or less formal ways in order to reap economic and social benefits; curiously, in my view, spiritual motivations for associating with a congregation are essentially left out of the picture, even though these were undoubtedly critical, and probably often preeminent, considerations. It is in this chapter that Berman fully lays out the discussion of growth by incorporation and makes the point that much evidence suggests that "initiative for affiliation came from [independent] houses, rather than from abbeys in Burgundy" (p. 95). Berman describes an evolutionary growth of the order from houses that eventually became incorporated, "pre-Cistercian," to "proto-Cistercian" houses that adopted Cistercian customs before full incorporation. As affiliation with the Cistercians occurred, it tended to be rapid because whole congregations would attach themselves, not simply single houses. Often outright annexation of smaller houses was involved, frequently including the reduction of the status of a house to a grange, though the evidence suggests that women's convents did not engage in this sort of "imperialistic" activity. This process led to quite a variation in wealth between the monasteries. Berman demonstrates different patterns of filiation and incorporation through several specific cases, such as those of Silvanes, Mazan, and Fontfroide. One of the reasons that the congregations eventually sought to coalesce into an administrative order may have been to counteract the powerful influence of Bernard of Clairvaux after his death and limit the domination of Clairvaux -- this may explain why Bernard is absent in the "primitive documents" that formed the initial organization of the order.

Chapter 4, "Charters, Patrons, and Communities," uses micro-histories of Gimont, Nonenque, and Valmagne to show that southern-French reformers and also lay patrons, men and women in both categories, were essential to the emergence of early "proto-Cistercian" houses and congregations. The evidence from charters confirm the assertions of the rest of the book about the lack of central authority in the first half century of the Cistercians.

In addition to recapitulating the arguments of the book, the last chapter, entitled "Rewriting the History of Cistercians and Reform," discusses the implications of Berman's work for the history of religious women of the period. She suggests that although women had been active and important in the Cistercian movement of the early twelfth century, they were increasingly put under centralizing authority that was dominated by men in the later twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth, a trend accompanied by a loss of power and independence for the nuns.

At the end of the book are five appendices: a chronological survey of events relevant to the growth of the Cistercian Order up to 1215; a description of the contents and provenance of the manuscripts containing "primitive documents"; a list and map of southern French Cistercian abbeys; the documents of Calixtus II (one of which Berman shows to be a forgery) that have traditionally supported an early 1119 date for the Charter of Charity; and the "Restored Text of 1170 Letter from Pope Alexander III to the Cistercians" containing evidence for several of the book's assertions. The notes are full and the bibliography is extensive and current. There are forty-nine illustrations (photographs of churches, granges, and manuscripts) distributed throughout the book.

I found this book convincing and interesting. My main complaint concerns the work's style and complexity. I occasionally found myself uncertain as to whether a certain point being used as a basis for further argumentation had yet been convincingly demonstrated or not. For instance, where the attribution of a statute to 1152 is questioned, in part, because a General Chapter had not been held that early (pp. 50-51); but there had not yet been an extensive discussion of early General Chapters. Similarly, it is not uncommon to find references to forthcoming assertions serving as an important argument, a tendency that can sometimes be frustrating. Nonetheless, this is not a serious problem, for I cannot recall a single instance in which such gaps are left unresolved, and Berman's overall argument is so complex and multi-faceted that such difficulties were likely unavoidable.

The book opens up a number of new avenues for research, especially in regard to Cistercian nuns; for although Berman discusses women several times in various chapters there is no extended section devoted to them. It is certainly an area in which the reader will come away from the book stimulated but wanting to know a great deal more.

Constance Berman's The Cistercian Evolution is an important contribution to scholarship on the twelfth century. This work of revisionist history challenges the Cistercians' account of themselves which is so central to the mythology of that age of change: men inspired by the spirit of reform creating an organization to transform monasticism into a life of charity and consent. It is good to remember that mythology, story-telling, and fictionalization, while sometimes motivated by material gain and opportunism, most often seek to convey perceived truths or describe a dimension of reality less accessible through "facts." Berman's work is important not only for getting the story straight, but for enabling further consideration of the construction of Cistercian myths and the issues that lay behind them.