12.10.25, Burton and Kerr, The Cistercians in the Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Martha Newman

The Medieval Review 12.10.25

Burton, Janet and Julie Kerr. The Cistercians in the Middle Ages. Monastic Orders. Woodbridge:The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. viii, 244. ISBN: 978-1-84383-667-4.

Reviewed by:

Martha Newman
University of Texas, Austin

The Cistercians in the Middle Ages provides a much needed introduction to one of the most successful and influential monastic congregations in medieval Europe. The last such survey of the Cistercian order in English was Louis Lekai's volume, initially published in 1953 and revised in 1977 as The Cistercians: Ideals and Reality, but it, like Marcel Pacaut's Les moines blancs (1993), covers the history of the Cistercians into the twentieth century. Over the last decades, we have come to new understandings of the early Cistercian documents, of the monks' economic activities and their use of space, of the place of women in the order, and of the relationship between the monks' spirituality, their social interactions, and their material culture. This volume, part of Boydell & Brewer's series on Monastic Orders, engages with this recent scholarship. Janet Burton and Julie Kerr offer a detailed and readable account of the Cistercians' origins and an analysis of the distinctiveness of the medieval Cistercians' way of life.

The book is divided into an introduction and eight chapters. The first quarter of the book unfolds chronologically: in the introduction and the first two chapters, the authors discuss the order's origin and spread. The remaining chapters present six topics: sites and buildings, administration, daily life, spirituality, economic practices, and relations with "the world." Throughout the book the overarching theme is the question of Cistercian distinctiveness. This is a welcome choice as both the Cistercians and their monastic contemporaries asserted Cistercian difference. But an analysis of "distinctiveness" is difficult to sustain without comparisons with other monastic congregations, and the authors seldom make these differences explicit. As a result, two other themes re-emerge out of an older Cistercian historiography--the contrast between Cistercian ideal and reality and the discussion of Cistercian impact and influence--and the question of Cistercian distinctiveness gets lost.

There is much praiseworthy about this book. In the introduction and first chapter, Burton and Kerr place the Cistercians in the context of late eleventh- and early twelfth-century movements of monastic reform and renewal. They suggest that the Cistercians, like other new monastic groups, were inspired by both the ideal of the desert and a desire to find a pure observance of the Benedictine Rule. But they also argue that the Cistercians differed from their contemporaries because the New Monastery at Cîteaux was more a secession from an existing community than a movement following an inspired holy man. They astutely point out that, in some ways, Cîteaux should be seen not as a beginning but as the last of Robert of Molesme's many monastic experiments, and they emphasize the cooperation of ecclesiastical and temporal authorities in promoting Cîteaux's foundation.

In presenting the order's origin and its spread, Burton and Kerr judiciously pick their way through the difficult problems of the early Cistercian documents. They rely on Chrysogonus Waddell's dating of the Exordium parvum and the Exordium cistercii, and they retain the long-standing position that Stephen Harding did indeed write the Charter of Charity and thus created not just a Cistercian "way of life" but the first monastic "order." They do, however, ask what the Cistercians' idea of ordo meant in the 1120s, suggesting that we should see in a variety of documents the Cistercians' own sense of their distinctiveness and the set of mechanisms by which they transmitted this self-identity and created uniformity. The authors question elements of this Cistercian self-presentation, agreeing with Constance Berman that much Cistercian expansion entailed incorporating already existing communities rather than establishing abbeys de novo; they also note that the spread of Cistercian monasticism often corresponded with the territorial ambitions of centralizing lords, whether in Wales, the Baltic region, or Iberia. And they recognize that, even in the twelfth-century, women as well as men considered themselves Cistercians.

In the excellent chapters on the Cistercians' buildings and their economic practices, Burton and Kerr succeed in demonstrating Cistercian distinctiveness while showing regional variations and change. The chapter on sites and buildings emphasizes the placement of Cistercian abbeys in rural locations, the symbolic and practical significance of these sites, and the simplicity and purity of Cistercian buildings, but it also offers examples of regional variations in design and décor, concluding that the monks "accommodated change whilst preserving the Cistercian spirit" (81). In the long discussion of the Cistercians' economic practices, the conclusions are similar. Burton and Kerr stress the flexibility of the order: they illuminate regional differences in the ways the monks accumulated their lands, organized their granges, and compacted their estates, and they discuss the ways in which many communities, by the thirteenth-century, moved toward indirect exploitation of their lands and commercial and industrial activities. And they conclude that the order's "economy was Cistercian at the core but took on a regional gloss as communities responded to their environment" (187).

Burton and Kerr are especially interested in Cistercian practice, and they present lovely examples of the monks' building techniques and water works, their continued reverence for relics, their dietary observances, their participation in mining and manufacturing, their consolidation of lands, and their charitable offerings to the poor. We also get a strong sense of regional variations. But some of the topical chapters do not synthesize their material particularly well. In addressing the Cistercians' administrative structure, Burton and Kerr recognize the importance of the Cistercians' Chapter General and their abbots' visitations, but they vacillate between depicting the move away from these practices in the later middle ages as a sign of decline and presenting it as evidence of the order's survival and adaptability. Further, they discuss in much detail the authority of the abbot, the role of monastic officials, and the process of monastic discipline, but they note neither the similarities with other Benedictines nor the small differences in organization that contemporaries found so important. The same problem emerges in the chapter on the monks' daily life. There we get a detailed account of monastic observances, including discussions of food, dress, manual labor, and liturgical practices, but the authors do not compare these with the observances and customs of other communities. And, even in the chapter on the Cistercians' economic practices, we learn that the monks' "most enduring legacy" came from their reorganization of settlement patterns on the land (188), but we do not learn whether these patterns were unique to the Cistercians.

More troubling to me was the chapter on the Cistercians' spirituality. The Cistercians' articulation of religious ideas is not the authors' focus: their book provides one paragraph on Bernard of Clairvaux's Song of Song's commentary (142) while devoting several pages to the Cistercians' manufacture of clay tiles (179-181). They nowhere discuss Bernard's conception of "experience," and only briefly present the Cistercians' devotion to the humanity of Christ; Rachel Fulton's work on twelfth-century affective spirituality is absent. The authors do consider the Cistercians' Marian devotion, but like many others, they confuse Bernard of Clairvaux's later reputation with his own expressions. For Kerr and Burton, Cistercian spirituality is a form of "mysticism, " a term that they define, quite narrowly, as a "temporary fusion of the human soul with the Divine" (140), yet nonetheless consider broad enough to encompass contemplation, spiritual friendship, a devotion to the person of Christ, and the ecstatic (and sometimes disruptive) behaviors of lay brothers and women. Rather than analyzing Cistercian sermons and treatises or the constructed quality of the saints' lives they use to depict ecstatic behaviors, the authors again focus on practice, reminding us of the continued importance of saints' cults, relics, and even pilgrimage shrines for Cistercian religiosity.

The decision to organize the majority of the book topically rather than chronologically is a wise one, given the Cistercians' many contributions to medieval society and culture. However, Burton and Kerr often cull examples ranging from the twelfth to the fifteenth century as if the period were static. Although they at times discuss the process of change and questions of decline, they do not usually offer conclusions. This lack of attention to chronology occasionally leads to sloppiness: a shortage of lay brothers appears as early as 1208 (175), the lay brotherhood reached the highpoint of its power in the mid-thirteenth century (159), it experienced its "demise" in the late thirteenth-century (152), and yet its "decline" was exacerbated by the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth (159). And while I appreciate the authors' efforts to present examples from across Europe, there is an overemphasis on the British Isles; the Cistercians in Germany and Italy, for instance, are nearly absent.

The Cistercians in the Middle Ages emphasizes monastic practice. Burton and Kerr provide a picture of Cistercian diversity and depict the everyday lives of Cistercian monks rather than analyzing the ideas of their extraordinary men--they give us much less information about the everyday lives and observances of Cistercian women. It may be that the Cistercians' economic practices had a greater impact on European society than did their abbots' spiritual writings. Certainly, R. A. Donkin and others have long stressed the Cistercians' economic and geographic significance, and Geraldine Carville's work on the Cistercians in Ireland has reinvigorated this argument. It also may be that the Cistercians, as "reformed Benedictines," were not as distinctive as they claimed and that the religious observances and outlook of the great majority of Cistercian monks and nuns differed little from their contemporaries. But the authors merely gesture toward both these arguments; they neither make them explicit nor develop the comparisons needed to make them convincing. As a result, students reading this volume will learn much about the Cistercians' monastic observances and economic activities, but they will be hard pressed to articulate the distinctive qualities of the medieval Cistercian Order.

Article Details

Author Biography

Martha Newman

University of Texas, Austin