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13.05.07, Ward and Savage, trans., Elder, ed., The Great Beginning of Cîteaux

13.05.07, Ward and Savage, trans., Elder, ed., The Great Beginning of Cîteaux

The Exordium Magnum was described by Cistercian scholar Louis Lekai as "a collection of facts and pious fable reflecting upon the origin and early life of Cistercians, [which] has always been recognized as an important source of monastic history and spirituality." [1] A fine Latin scholarly edition was published in 1961. Fifty years later, this volume has used that scholarly edition to render the difficult Latin text into a smooth, clear and enjoyable English translation which successfully conveys a sense of the flowery language, allegory and learned background of the work, continuing the longstanding tradition of the Cistercian Fathers series of Cistercian Publications.

The Exordium Magnum is a complex text which was composed between 1180 and 1215 and appears in a number of manuscript variations. It builds upon the Exordium Parvum, an earlier text collection, in which the stories of the founding of the order had first been narrated and accepted, and other important Cistercian texts. The Exordium is an intriguing work. Its stories illuminate issues of the everyday difficulties of living in community, such as favoritism to relatives, selfish use of food and other community resources, disobedience to senior monks and abbots and excessive pride in singing the Office. Others relate tales which shed light on medieval beliefs including miracles, appearances of the devil, individuals rising from the dead to complete their confessions and frequent visions of Saint Bernard who admonishes monks and illuminates events.

Conrad of Eberbach, first a monk at Clairvaux and later at Eberbach, wrote the Exordium Magnum over a period of decades. He begins with a verse prologue which outlines his goals: to help teach new monks about the history and philosophy of the Order, to reinforce Cistercian ideals, to memorialize the leaders of the order, to defend against critics of Cîteaux and to provide both good and bad examples to the brethren. The Exordium Magnum was written at a crucial time for the order, after its initial growth and expansion had resulted in acclaim with the accompanying potential for laxity and complacency, and when competition from the new mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, signified a sea-change in both clerical and popular religious life in Western Europe. The audience for the work extended beyond the Cistercians themselves to include critics of the order, who would see the Cistercians in their rightful place as the "culmination of the monastic tradition" (xxviii) through the Exordium Magnum.

The work is divided into six sections: The Rise of the Monastic Order and the First Cistercians, Bernard of Clairvaux and the Early Abbots of Clairvaux, The Monks of Clairvaux, More on the Monks of Clairvaux, Devotions and Dangers in Monastic Life, and Blessed Deaths and A Final Summary. The first two books are primarily historical. The first begins with Jesus and the apostles as the models for monasticism and continues through the desert fathers, Benedict, Cluny and the first five abbots of Cîteaux. Book 2 focuses upon Clairvaux with an emphasis on Saint Bernard. The third and fourth books relate stories centered upon the inhabitants of Clairvaux both as examples of saintly living and in their human failings. The final two books, generally assumed to have been written after Conrad moved to Eberbach, focus upon dangers to individual monks from the temptations of the world and laxity toward the sacraments. Each of these books is made up of historical narratives, documents and stories from the oral traditions of the Cistercians. This complex combination of genres, in addition to the intricacies of Conrad's Latin and his many references to a wide variety of other writers, has resulted in little scholarly attention to the text, which will certainly enjoy renewed attention with this accessible edition.

In his foreword, Brian Patrick McGuire notes that the intended audience for this modern translation includes the monks and nuns of today who may read it as a part of their formation, as well as scholars, who will appreciate this addition to the body of monastic literature not only for its view into monastic spirituality but also for its ability to inform many aspects of medieval culture. The scholarly apparatus includes thoughtful notes, an extensive bibliography, and indexes of scriptural references, classical references, patristic and medieval references and a full general index. The well-written foreword, prologue and introduction, combined with a handy glossary, make the Exordium accessible to general readers as well and these features will certainly aid any who wish to assign this fascinating text to undergraduates, who will doubtless be as intrigued as novice monks by the fantastic, varied and rich stories in this "door through which we may enter the Cistercian past and better understand it" (4).



1. Louis J. Lekai, Review of Exordium Magnum Cisterciense, by Bruno Griesser, Speculum 37/4 (Oct 1962): 613-614.