Cloisters of Saint John Lateran, Rome. Source:

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Cistercians. Part Five.

Text is from Wikipedia - the free encyclopaedia,
unless otherwise stated.

Ruins of the Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx,
Yorkshire, England.
Confiscated by King Henry VIII.
Photo: Taken by Flaxton.
Source: Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.
Author: The original uploader was Flaxton at English Wikipedia.
(Wikimedia Commons)

In Ireland, the information on The Cistercian Order, after The Anglo-Norman Invasion, gives a rather gloomy impression. Absentee-ism among Irish Abbots at The General Chapter became a persistent and much criticised problem in the 13th-Century, and escalated into the conspiratio Mellifontis, a "rebellion" by the Abbeys of the Mellifont filiation. Visitors were appointed to reform Mellifont Abbey in its Head and Members, on account of the multa enormia that had arisen there, but, in 1217, the Abbot refused their admission and barred the Abbey Gate with a crowd of Lay Brothers. There was also trouble at Jerpoint, and, alarmingly, the Abbots of Baltinglass, Killenny, Kilbeggan and Bective supported the actions of the "revolt".

In 1228, The General Chapter sent the Abbot of Stanley, in Wiltshire, England, Stephen of Lexington, on a well-documented Visitation to reform the Irish Houses. A graduate of both Oxford and Paris, and a future Abbot of Clairvaux (to be appointed in 1243), Stephen was one of the outstanding figures in 13th-Century Cistercian history. He found his life threatened, his representatives attacked and his party harassed, while the three key Houses, of Mellifont Abbey, Suir Abbey, and Maigue Abbey, had been fortified by their Monks to hold out against him. However, with the help of his assistants, the core of obedient Irish Monks, and the aid of both English and Irish Secular Powers, he was able to envisage the reconstruction of The Cistercian Province in Ireland. Stephen dissolved the Mellifont filiation altogether, and subjected fifteen Monasteries to Houses outside Ireland. In breadth and depth, his instructions constituted a radical Reform programme:
"They were intended to put an end to abuses, restore the full observance of The Cistercian way of life, safeguard Monastic properties, initiate a regime of benign paternalism to train a new generation of Religious, isolate trouble-makers and institute an effective Visitation system".
The arrangement lasted almost half a Century, and, in 1274, the filiation of Mellifont Abbey was re-constituted.

In Germany, The Cistercians were instrumental in the spread of Christianity, East of The Elbe. They developed Grants of Territories of 180,000 acres, where they would drain land, build Monasteries and plan villages. Many towns near Berlin owe their origins to this Order, including Heiligengarbe, Chorin, which was the first brick Monastery in the area. By this time, however, "The Cistercian Order, as a whole, had experienced a gradual decline and its central organisation was noticeably weakened."

English: Portrait of Pope Benedict XII
(Papacy 1334 - 1342),
Avignon, France.
Pope Benedict XII was a former Cistercian Monk.
Български: Портрет на папа Бенедикт XII, Авиньон, Франция.
Français: Portrait du pape Benoît XII, Avignon, France.
Date: 18th-Century.
Source: Own work.
Author: Henri Segur.
(Wikimedia Commons)

In 1334, the French Cardinal Jacques Fournier, a former Cistercian Monk and the son of a Miller, was Elected and Consecrated Pope Benedict XII. The maxim attributed to him, "the Pope must be like Melchizedech, who had no father, no mother, nor even a family tree", is revealing of his character. Benedict was shy of personal power and was devoted exclusively to restoring the authority of The Church. As a Cistercian, he had a notable Theological background, and, unlike his predecessor, Pope John XXII, he was a stranger to nepotism and scrupulous with his appointments. He promulgated a series of Regulations to restore the primitive spirit of The Cistercian Order.

By the 15th-Century, however, of all The Orders in Ireland, the Cistercians had most comprehensively fallen on evil days. The General Chapter lost virtually all its power to enforce its will in Ireland, and the strength of The Order, which derived from this uniformity, declined. In 1496, there were efforts to establish a strong National Congregation to assume this role in Ireland, but Monks of the English and Irish "nations" found themselves unable to co-operate for the good of The Order.

The General Chapter appointed special Reformatores, but their efforts proved fruitless. One such Reformer, Abbot John Troy of Mellifont Abbey, despaired of finding any solution to the ruin of The Order. According to his detailed report to The General Chapter, the Monks of only two Communities, Dublin and Mellifont, kept The Rule or even wore The Habit. He identified the causes of this decline as: The ceaseless wars and hatred between the two nations; a lack of leadership; and the control of many of the Monasteries by Secular Dynasties, who appointed their own relatives to positions.

Yvelines, France.
Français: Abbaye des Vaulx de Cernay,
Yvelines, France.
Photo: 23 August 2008.
Source: Own work.
Author: Fathzer.
(Wikimedia Commons)

In the 15th-Century, various Popes endeavoured to promote Reforms. All these efforts at a Reform of the great body of The Order proved unavailing; but local Reforms, producing various semi-independent offshoots and Congregations, were successfully carried out in many parts in the course of the 15th- and 16th-Centuries.

The English Reformation was disastrous for The Cistercians in England, as King Henry VIII's Dissolution of The Monasteries saw the confiscation of Church land throughout the Country. Laskill, an out-station of Rievaulx Abbey and the only Mediaeval Blast Furnace so far identified in Great Britain, was one of the most efficient Blast Furnaces of its time. Slag from contemporary Furnaces contained a substantial concentration of Iron, whereas the slag of Laskill was low in Iron content, and is believed to have produced Cast Iron with efficiency similar to a modern Blast Furnace. The Monks may have been on the verge of building dedicated Furnaces for the production of Cast Iron, but the Furnace did not survive Henry's Dissolution in the Late-1530s, and the type of Blast Furnace pioneered there did not spread outside Rievaulx. Some historians believe that the Suppression of The English Monasteries may have stamped out an Industrial Revolution.

In the 17th-Century, another great effort at a General Reform was made, promoted by the Pope and the King of France. The General Chapter elected Richelieu (Commendatory) Abbot of Cîteaux, thinking he would protect them from the threatened Reform. In this, they were disappointed, for he threw himself wholly on the side of Reform. So great, however, was the resistance, and so serious the disturbances that ensued, that the attempt to reform Cîteaux, itself, and the General Body of the Houses, had again to be abandoned, and only local projects of Reform could be carried out.

In the 16th-Century, had arisen the Reformed Congregation of The Feuillants, which spread widely in France and Italy, in the latter Country under the name of Improved Bernardines. The French Congregation of Sept-Fontaines (1654) also deserves mention. In 1663, de Rancé Reformed La Trappe (see Trappists).

The 17th- and 18th-Century Baroque Altar
at the Cós Monastery, Alcobaça, Portugal,
is a long way 
from the earlier principles of Saint Bernard.
Photo: 16 September 2008.
Source: Own work.
Author: Karstenkascais.
(Wikimedia Commons)

The Reformation, the Ecclesiastical policy of Joseph II, The French Revolution, and the Revolutions of the 18th-Century, almost wholly destroyed The Cistercians; but some survived, and, since the beginning of the last half of the 19th-Century, there has been a considerable recovery. Mahatma Gandhi visited a Trappist Abbey, near Durban, South Africa, in 1895, and wrote an extensive description of The Order:
The Settlement is a quiet little model village, owned on the truest Republican principles. The principle of liberty, equality, and fraternity is carried out in its entirety. Every man is a brother, every woman a sister. The Monks number about 120 on the Settlement, and the Nuns, or the Sisters as they are called, number about sixty . . . None may keep any money for private use. All are equally rich or poor . . .
A Protestant Clergyman said to his audience that Roman Catholics were weakly, sickly, and sad. Well, if The Trappists are any criterion of what a Roman Catholic is, they are, on the contrary, healthy and cheerful. Wherever we went, a beaming smile and a lowly bow greeted us, we saw a Brother or a Sister. Even while the guide was decanting on the system he prized so much, he did not at all seem to consider the self-chosen discipline a hard yoke to bear. A better instance of undying Faith and perfect implicit obedience could not well be found anywhere else.


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