The Cistercian Order or Order of White Monks is so called because of the mother house at Citeaux, France, founded in 1098 by Robert of Molesme who sought to establish a stricter form of Benedictinism than any then existing. The Cluniac reform of Benedictinism was an earlier attempt to go back to the strict observance of the Rule of Benedict, which had been slackening in the monasteries at the time, but it did not achieve any lasting result. So Robert of Molesme, himself a monk of the Cluny abbey, founded a monastery at Molesme in 1075,but not satisfied with it, he gathered a group of monks and established the monastery of Ciaeaux (Latin: Cistercium) in 1098 for a stricter observance of the Benedictine Rule. After some precarious years the Order rose to prominence throughout the Western Church. On the eve of the Reformation, there were some 700 men’s and 600 women’s abbeys of the Cistercians.
The Order was another outcome of the restless search for a simpler and more secluded form of ascetical life. It was also a reaction against corporate wealth, worldly involvement and surfeited liturgical ritualism and tried to create a monastery in which the pristine observance of the Benedictine rule would be restored. By doing this, the Cistercians were trying to abandon centuries of monastic development, which was neither possible nor desirable. Houses were to be erected only in remote situations, while its churches were to be plain in character and their ornamentation and vestments simple. Strict rules on diet and silence were laid down and manual labour was given its primitive prominent position. But the puritanism that resulted from it was not according to the spirit of the Rule of Benedict. The use of the white coarse habit as against the black habit of the Benedictines drew a bitter aside from Peter the Venerable who called them a new race of Pharisees who wanted to show that only they were white, while the rest were black! This sort of renunciation would surely prove impossible beyond a generation and dilution set in very soon.
It was the intention of the founders that the monks should live by the work of their own hands. But it was impossible for the monks to do all the work and so they made use of the lay brothers. A lay brother was a monk who took monastic vows but lived a separate existence altogether, chiefly occupied with manual work. There was no justification for this inequality created in the monastery in the name of the rule of Benedict who had eschewed any such distinction in his communities. The use of the lay brothers was meant to offer the monks enough time for the observance of the Rule.
The Cistercian constitution was unique. It evolved for the first time a federal, representational framework where an annual general chapter developed as the sovereign body instead of the abbot of Citeaux. This helped keep the abbeys in relationship with one another through uniformity of observance through a system of mutual supervision. The general chapter met every year, which all abbots were obliged to attend. This represented something new not only in the monastic tradition but in the polity of medieval Europe as well. The Cistercians, as to be expected, came into conflict with the Cluniacs who claimed that they were the custodians of traditional Benedictine monasticism. They rejected the Cistercian claim to have revived the pure and undiluted form of the Benedictine Rule. Both defended their positions passionately and with considerable polemics.
By the end of the 12th century they had acquired for themselves the unenviable reputation for avarice and group acquisitiveness. The numerous exemptions and endowments made the order exceedingly wealthy. Having begun as a rebellion against the established conventions of monastic life, the Cistercians gradually adopted the same ways. Their attempt to seclude themselves from the world also did not succeed. They were involved in the ecclesiastical, political and social affairs of the day. Bernard himself preached the second Crusade. Before the end of the thirteenth century much that was distinctive in the Cistercian vocation had been lost. Their compromises made their voice less compelling. They suffered the same fate of their predecessors in observing the ideal of Benedict.