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The Cistercian Evolution
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The Cistercian Evolution
The Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-Century Europe

Constance Hoffman Berman

408 pages | 6 x 9
Paper 2010 | ISBN 9780812221022 | $27.50s | Outside the Americas £20.99
Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
A volume in the Middle Ages Series
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"An extremely important book, one that will redefine the ways we conceive of medieval religiosity and politics."—Virginia Quarterly Review

"A significant contribution to the study of the history of monasticism in the twelfth century."—EHR

"Stimulating, controversial, and compelling, Constance Berman's major revisions of early Cistercian history, The Cistercian Evolution, should be read by historians of monasticism and will greatly interest scholars in the institutional and religious history of the twelfth century as well as those who study the experience of women in that period."—The Medieval Review

"An important and provocative book: important because it challenges scholars to rethink a central medieval theme, the creation and expansion of the Cistercian order in twelfth-century Europe; provocative because it brazenly upends received narratives, two generations of accumulated monastic scholarship."—Speculum

"This important work builds on and continues Berman's solid, indeed splendid, scholarship on the institutional history of the Cistercians in southern France. She explores and rejects much traditional thinking in fields as diverse as the supposed uniformity of Cistercian architecture and the propagation of the order through colonization or 'apostolic foundation,' pointing out that much Cistercian expansion was by incorporation of existing communities."—Church History

"[Berman's] book changes our understanding of the early Cistercians. It will shape our research for some time to come. Berman's questioning of Cistercian documents, her new picture of Cistercian growth, her warnings about reading thirteenth-century administrative structures and ideas back on to the twelfth, and especially, her insistence that we consider houses of both men and women, make this book an important contribution to the history of religious institutions in the central Middle Ages."—Catholic Historical Review

According to the received history, the Cistercian order was founded in Cîteaux, France, in 1098 by a group of Benedictine monks who wished for a stricter community. They sought a monastic life that called for extreme asceticism, rejection of feudal revenues, and manual labor for monks. Their third leader, Stephen Harding, issued a constitution, the Carta Caritatis, that called for the uniformity of custom in all Cistercian monasteries and the establishment of an annual general chapter meeting at Cîteaux.

The Cistercian order grew phenomenally in the mid-twelfth century, reaching beyond France to Portugal in the west, Sweden in the north, and the eastern Mediterranean, ostensibly through a process of apostolic gestation, whereby members of a motherhouse would go forth to establish a new house. The abbey at Clairvaux, founded by Bernard in 1115, was alone responsible for founding 68 of the 338 Cistercian abbeys in existence by 1153. But this well-established view of a centrally organized order whose founders envisioned the shape and form of a religious order at its prime is not borne out in the historical record.

Through an investigation of early Cistercian documents, Constance Hoffman Berman proves that no reliable reference to Stephen's Carta Caritatis appears before the mid-twelfth century, and that the document is more likely to date from 1165 than from 1119. The implications of this fact are profound. Instead of being a charter by which more than 300 Cistercian houses were set up by a central authority, the document becomes a means of bringing under centralized administrative control a large number of loosely affiliated and already existing monastic houses of monks as well as nuns who shared Cistercian customs. The likely reason for this administrative structuring was to check the influence of the overdominant house of Clairvaux, which threatened the authority of Cîteaux through Bernard's highly successful creation of new monastic communities.

For centuries the growth of the Cistercian order has been presented as a spontaneous spirituality that swept western Europe through the power of the first house at Cîteaux. Berman suggests instead that the creation of the religious order was a collaborative activity, less driven by centralized institutions; its formation was intended to solve practical problems about monastic administration. With the publication of The Cistercian Evolution, for the first time the mechanisms are revealed by which the monks of Cîteaux reshaped fact to build and administer one of the most powerful and influential religious orders of the Middle Ages.

Constance Hoffman Berman is Professor of History at the University of Iowa.

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