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Cistercian Abbey of Noirlac (Central France)



Introduction by Adrian Fletcher (aka "Dom Paradox")


I had never heard of the Cistercians, or indeed mindfully looked at any monastery or abbey, until I visited the ruins of the Abbey of San Galgano during my first extended stay in Tuscany in 2000.  Even then, the purpose of the trip was to see the "sword in the rock" (which probably gave rise to part of the English Authurian mythology) rather than the abbey.  Then the bookshop yielded a book about the Cistercian movement, and the journey had started!


Since then I have been fortunate to be able to visit and photograph 3 or 4 dozen Cistercian Abbeys, Monasteries and Nunneries in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Britain (the latter sadly all ruins).  The abbeys and monastery buildings (especially the Churches, Chapter Houses and Refectories) are mostly beautiful, and in some cases sublime - an architecture of simplicity, light and perfect proportionality (try Noirlac (above) or Fontenay to experience the original French Cistercian style).  They are also usually in interesting locations and always adjacent to a running river (fresh monkly water from upstream, dirty ex-monkly waste sent downstream) preferably on the south side of the church. 


As Romanesque migrated into Gothic, the beauty of simple lines was sustained with a more vertical but still simple proportionality - for example Alcobaça (Portugal) and Santes Creus (Spain)


Luckily present day monastic explorers can also reap the rewards of huge expenditures on restoration projects since the end of the Second World War (see for example Rueda, recently the recipient of a no expenses spared restoration and hotel project by the government of Aragon).


Cistercian Monks and Abbeys first appeared on the European scene around 1100 (just after the First Crusade).  Their first abbey (no longer there) was built at Cîteaux (latin Cistercium, hence "Cistercian") near Nuits-Saint-Georges in Burgundy. 


Over the next  two hundred years the Cistercians were responsible for building hundreds of abbeys in places they made into the most beautiful in Europe.  They became the monastic movement of choice of the high Middle Ages, before the Black Death of 1348 killed off over half the population of Europe and brought everything to a juddering halt (including the supply of men for the Cistercians' Lay Brother workforce) .


There was much more to the the Cistercians than being monks and abbey builders at the centre of High Medieval European life.  From the outset the Order had its own international governance agreement,  800 years before the term was invented by international accountants.  During their two hundred years in the sun they were the only monastic order to directly manage and work their lands (as opposed to renting them out), and alone amongst the monastic orders, they were also responsible for significant advances in land and animal management (particularly wool production),  inland fisheries, and civil engineering (particularly water (power) management and swamp draining). 


In France they pioneered the iron smelting industry (the Abbey of Fontenay contained the first pneumatic hammer), in Italy as well as pioneering Italian Gothic at San Galgano, they ran the treasury of Siena, the most successful early City Republic (and did its plumbing as well), in England they turned the uninhabited, barren and unwanted Yorkshire moors and Welsh Borders into great wool production areas, and they invented (and suffered from) forward selling of wool.  None of the other orders had this focus on productive technology and innovation, and it's interesting to bear this in mind when you visit their abbeys, because there is very little discussion of this distinguishing characteristic in the literature you will read.   


All this and more slowly became clearer to me as I found and visited new Cistercian Abbeys, and learned about their life and history and the history of the Order itself (improvement in guide book quality is another major feature benefiting today's traveller).  This journey remains a fascinating work in progress - one of the several interesting threads that links my wanderings and reveals new out of the way places.





Cistercian Abbey of Santes Creus (Catalonia)



Before going to the page on the foundation and early years of the Cistercians, it is interesting to look at the history of monastic reform in the earlier Middle Ages.




Before 1000, monasticism in Western Europe had been dominantly associated with the rules for monastic life laid down by Saint Benedict (480 - 550) at Montecassino (located between Rome and Naples).  These rules had been made compulsory for all Frankish monasteries by the Emperor Louis the Pious in 816.  From this time on the monks and nuns started developing a sense of belonging to a community stretching beyond the walls of their individual monasteries, a community that eventually became known as the Order of St Benedict.  However, apart from their (differing) observance of "The Rule", monasteries were not governed by any other overall rules, and fiercely guarded their independence.   In many cases these independent monasteries, by the end of the first millennium, had become rich, lazy and corrupt owners and rent collectors of huge tracts of land - well over a quarter of Europe - and they were often no longer really interested in Saint Benedict or his rules!




In Italy, the reform efforts against an increasingly corrupt papacy, church and monasteries took the form of some well publicized "retreats to hilltop monasteries" such as the that at Vallombrosa high in the hills to the East of Florence.  Vallombrosa had daughter houses at Badia a Passignano in Chianti (where the order's founder, San Giovanni Gualberto (995? - 1073 (78?)), is buried), San Salvi in Florence (where you can find a magnificent Last Supper (1530) by Andrea del Sarto), SS Trinita in Florence (the church of another Florentine Vallombrosan monastery, now visited primarily because of the Ghirlandaio Frescos in the Sassetti Chapel), Coltibuono, Torri, and several other places in Tuscany and Central Italy.  It was also given the Basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome by Pope Innocent III. In the main they were Benedictine houses who had "come over" and the order did not develop any distinctive architecture of its own (unlike the Cistercians, who would often flatten and reconstruct abbeys who joined up).




Italy was in reality too close to home (=Rome) for earth shattering reform, and it was in the "almost Nation State" of Burgundy, which in pre-nation state Europe was outside the effective jurisdictions of the then King of France (who in reality only held sway over a small area around Paris), the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, that the heavyweight reform movements emerged. 


The first was the Abbey of Cluny, which during the first two hundred years of its life from 910 soon came to wield enormous power in the church.  Cluny was the first Abbey to pursue a systematic policy of setting up daughter houses across Europe, and by the 1100s over 1200 had been established.  The daughters were mostly called "Priories" and were ruled by a head office (Cluny) appointed Prior.  The system of command within this enormous structure was completely centralized.  Monks swore allegiance to the Abbot of Cluny, not the Prior of their monastery.  At the other end of the scale the Abbot of Cluny answered directly to the Pope, not the local bishop or feudal lord.  Several conspiracy theories surround the Abbey of Cluny and its "true" objectives.




In the 1030s a Norman knight named Herluin founded the Abbey of Bec, on the river Bec in Normandy.  Whilst Bec never developed a large group of daughter houses, it did become one of the earliest intellectual power houses of Europe under the guidance of the Italians Lanfranc (born in Pavia, 1005 - 1089 (84)), who joined up in 1042, followed by Anselm (born in Aosta, 1033 - 1109 (76)) in 1060.   Lanfranc became the first Norman appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the English Church in 1070, after the last Anglo Saxon Archbishop, Stigand, was  deposed by a Great Council meeting at Winchester.


Anselm was Abbot of Bec from 1078 to 1093 and built on Lanfranc's base to make it one of the great centres of scholarship in Europe.  He reluctantly accepted an appointment as Lanfranc's successor as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, a post he held for 16 years until his death in 1109.  Anselm spent a significant amount of this time in exile from England - first from William II (Rufus) and then from his successor Henry I - mainly over disputes over the relative powers of Church and State. 


One suspects that he, a Northern Italian, was quite happy being away from England.  He was reluctant to take on the position in the first place, and later explained to Eulalia, the Abbess of Shaftesbury, how harassed he felt by it.  His real love was  philosophy - he is regarded, along with Saint Augustine (354 - 430 (76)) and Erigena (an Irish philosopher of the 800s) who both preceded him, and Abelard (1079 - 1142 (63)) and Roger Bacon (1214 - 1292 (78)), who came later, as one of the leading medieval philosophers and a major contributor to the development of Scholasticism.  This was the theological and philosophical system of the medieval church of Europe, which sought to integrate Christian teaching with Aristotelian (and to a lesser extent Platonic) philosophy and which reached its apex in the works of Thomas Aquinas (1226 - 1274 (48)).   Unconnectedly, Aquinas died at the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova in central Italy.




Corpus Domini flower tapestry in the classic brick Cistercian Abbey of Chiaravalle della Colomba near Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna

Next - The early years of the Cistercian Order





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