At the end of the ninth and beginning of the 10th century, European society faced the turbulent effects of the destruction of central authority in civil government. This major crisis was not without repercussion in the ecclesial sphere, including: schisms and scandals in the papacy, seizure of church power—even in monasteries—by the laity, and simony and sins against celibacy among the clergy.
Paradoxically a religious monastic movement marked the same period. The first and most influential center of reform was the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny (in Burgundy, France), founded in 910 by the monk Berno. The spiritual movement that began with Cluny promoted a renewal of religious life based on the Rule of Saint Benedict (sixth century) and contributed to the vigorous affirmation of the ideals proposed by Pope Gregory VII (c. 1020–85) for the reform of the whole church. Characteristics of this new monastic trend were regularizing monastic duties, development of liturgical ritual, monastic culture based upon the study of the Bible and the church fathers, and charitable activity.
To achieve exemption from control by lay people or even bishops, the Cluniac monks established a congregation of monasteries under the control and guidance of Cluny and placed themselves under the immediate jurisdiction of the pope. Thanks to outstanding abbots, Cluny and its congregation turned into something like a monastic empire and contributed to a most powerful reform of monks, diocesan clergy, and ordinary faithful.
But the strength of Cluny became its weakness. The emphasis put on prayer became so exaggerated that there was no time left for the other monastic ideal of manual labor; this in turn opened the door of the monastery to feudal and political affairs.
To remedy the crisis of authority facing the church, Cluny chose a strongly hierarchical and centralized organization with a head (the abbot) that ruled over the local communities. It had nevertheless become too much involved in the political establishment linked to the ruling powers of civil society.
Consequently the 11th century saw the development of a widespread desire for a simpler and less institutionalized monastic life. It led to the rediscovery of eremitical life, that is, the life of solitude, and produced a variety of new orders.
The Cistercians were one of them, ready to offer another solution to the problem. In 1098 Robert, the Benedictine abbot of Molesme (in Champagne, France), left his monastery with a score of brothers and established a new monastery at Cîteaux (near Dijon, about 30 miles away from Cluny).
Their goal was to promote a community way of life involving greater separation from the feudal society, poverty, simplicity, return to manual labor, and authentic conformity to the Rule of Saint Benedict. At Cluny the abbot had become the head of a congregation of monasteries with great temporal power; the dependent houses had no abbots.
By contrast, each Cistercian monastery founded and guided by Cîteaux was autonomous and required its own abbot to live a regular monastic life. To guarantee the return to sound traditions, the network of monasteries held themselves accountable to their way of life: Every year, another abbot visited each monastery; all the abbots would also meet together annually.
Both these measures aimed at mutual aid, assurance of regular observance, and remedying of abuses and failures. This federalist type of organization, as opposed to the centralization of Cluny, better safeguarded the spiritual and material interests of each monastery.
The difference of perspective however became a significant source of tension and jealousy among Cistercians and Cluniacs. It was epitomized in the correspondence, for over 20 years, between Saint Bernard, abbot (1115–53) of Clairvaux (founded by Cîteaux) and spokesman for the Cistercian order, and Peter the Venerable, abbot (1122–56) of Cluny. Both were proponents for change.
Peter was aware of the need for change at Cluny. He had already modified obsolete customs, shortened some of the prayer services, and emphasized precepts concerning fasting, silence, and clothing. But Bernard and Peter could not agree on what constituted true monasticism.
What the Cistercians considered as an authentic return to the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Cluniacs perceived as novelty and self-righteousness. Bernard’s impetuous character did not make the conflict easier. When the Cluniacs stressed moderation, he saw laxity.
A well-known document of the controversy is Bernard’s satirical treatise The Apology (1125), in which he actually also criticized those of his own monks who did not share his zeal for reform. Both men finally developed a more friendly relationship, but the rivalry between both orders lasted for quite some time.
In the 13th century the Cistercians’ influence began to wane, partly because of internal decline. In the 15th century there were again serious efforts to reform Cluny. As for the later history of the Cistercians, it is largely one of repeated attempts at revival; the most famous began at the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe (France) in the 17th century by De Rancé. The houses that embraced his reform were called Trappists for the men, and Trappistines for the women. Nowadays, their official title is Cistercians of the Strict Observance.