abbey walks

Who were the Cistercians?

Abbey in CiteauxThe Cistercian family of monks takes its name from the Latin word "Cistercenses", referring to the name of the town Citeaux (Latin Cistercium), a village just south of Dijon in France. 


A small community of monks first settled at Citeaux in 1098 having been unhappy with the nature of monastic observance at their previous Benedictine monastic community of Molesme, Burgundy, France. The three founding Abbots of Citeaux were Abbot Robert of Molesme ( the acknowledged founder of the Cistercians ), Prior of Molesme, Albert, and Sub-Prior Stephen Harding, an Englishman. These men felt that the Molesme community failed to observe the Rule of St. Benedict sufficiently, and as a result created a stricter and more structured way of life at Citeaux than they had led before.


The newly settled Citeaux / Cistercian monks were recognised by other monks of the time as having ‘ the surest road to Heaven ‘ due to their austere and strict lifestyle and church.  They were knows as a ‘ new breed of monks ‘ by the Benedictine monks of the same era.  Cistercians observed new rites and wore different habits - their preference was to wear un-dyed robes over their habits, leading to them being known as the White Monks.


One main feature in early Cistercian way of life was the emphasis on manual labour and self-sufficiency.  Many abbeys supported themselves through agriculture and brewing ales.  Over the centuries education and academic pursuits became more prominent in the life of a Cistercian monastery.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux became a monk at Citeaux in 1113 along with 35 relatives and friends.  It was to St Bernard that the rapid expansion of the Cistercian order is attributed. He wrote, ‘ Our order is humility, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Our order is silence, fasting, prayer and labour; and above all, to follow the more excellent way, which is charity ‘.


Citeaux AbbeyThe popularity and success of the Cistercian way of life led to monasteries being founded very quickly across Europe. Colonies of monks were sent out from Citeaux and founded Mother Houses and then Daughter Houses leading to the creation of a network or structure of Cistercian monasteries that were bound together as had never been done before. There were 650 Cistercian abbeys in existence in 1250 and 900 Cistercian nunneries.


In order to maintain unity and uniformity in the Cistercian way of life and worship, the Abbot of each Mother House in Europe travelled to Citeaux to attend the Annual General Chapter around Holy Cross Day on14 September of each year. This olden day equivalent of an AGM was an event at which Cistercian legislation, disciplines and penalties were set down. These rules were laid down in the Cistercian constitution named the ‘ Charter of Love’.  After he had attended the General Chapter, the Abbot of each Mother House then visited his Daughter Houses in order to inspect life there and to pass on the Charter.


The end of the ‘ Golden Age’ of the Cistercian Order came by the end of the 14th century.  During subsequent years the Rule of St. Benedict was not so closely followed and abbeys had financial problems. There were many attempted revivals and reforms, but eventually relaxations and abuses of the Charter resulted in a less strong Order.   In subsequent years Cistercians suffered due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII, and the French Revolution.


In the early 19th century the Cistercian Order was almost no longer visible. However, in 1820 abbeys started to group together again combining to take the title of the Cistercian Order of Common Observance.  Along with the Trappist Order of Strict Observance created in 1892 the Cistercians have become stronger once again.  Today there are over 2500 Cistercian men and women in Cistercian Orders across the world.


It is the annual journey made by the early Abbots of each Cistercian Mother House to the General Chapter at Citeaux that has inspired us to create this website. We document and publish routes taken from Mother Houses to Citeaux, and will eventually have a network of walks from Mother to Daughter Houses too.



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