Janet Burton & Julie Kerr, The Cistercians in the Middle Ages, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2011.

Janet Burton & Julie Kerr, The Cistercians in the Middle Ages, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2011. £25.00, ISBN 9781843836674 (hardback), pp. 256 (including glossary) 

Reviewed by: Kimm Curran, University of Glasgow, April 2012


To date, there has not been an overall study of the Cistercian order in the Middle Ages that encompasses a wide ranging set of themes and current debates.  Burton and Kerr draw upon years of research, teaching and experience of the Cistercians to provide a text that is accessible to all.  For those who teach religious orders or church history, this is must have.

The book is broken down in two parts: the first looks primarily at the historical debates surrounding the order and the nature of is dispersal and spread across western Christendom.  The second provides a more in-depth look at the physical locations of buildings and sites, administration of the Order, daily life, spirituality, economy and their interactions with the outside world.

The Cistercian Order had a distinct identity from other orders and in chapter 1, Burton provides us with the historical debates and sources of the foundation narratives of the Order.  The collection of the sources surrounding the formation of the Order are pulled together neatly and conveyed clearly.  A natural segue follows and highlights the spread of the Order in the early twelfth century (1113) to its peak of 1152 and beyond. The dispersal of the Order was characterised by charismatic abbots like Stephen Harding, who drew up the constitution, Carta Caritatis, and St Bernard.  Chapter 2 also discusses the identity of the Order more closely, the nature of the establishing of the  Order and daughter houses linked to that Order. In particular, Burton outlines the difficulty in identifying the Order, most especially for female religious, who desired to become part of the Cistercians at its early stages.

With the expansion of the Cistercians in western Christendom, the sites and surroundings of the houses are the focus of chapter 3. Kerr outlines how sites were chosen followed by the design and decor of the buildings. Cistercian sites were usually rural (with few exceptions) as legislation dictated that houses should be built away from human habitation, further emphasising the monks’ mental withdrawal from world (58). Kerr points out that most Cistercian sites were secluded but within communication and transport links. However, if the sites were too secluded, monks (or nuns) may have chosen to move their house altogether.  Kerr also points out that Cistercians would adapt to their surroundings in establishing their site but were also keen promoters of new ideas in design and decor. The physical site of houses were important for Cistercians as they were symbolic and practical but what makes the Cistercians stand out; ‘The took on and promoted developments in style [whilst retaining] a simplicity and purity that defined the Order. They accommodated change whilst preserving the Cistercian spirit.’ (81)

Chapter 4 and 5 are tied together by looking at the administration and organisation of the Order, including the Carta Caritatis, and how this filtered down to daily life in the cloister.  The structure of the Order was set down in the Carta Caritatis  and houses were arranged in a hierarchy with the Abbot of Citeaux at the top and put into practice by the General Chapter of the Order. Visitations by the General Chapter and how it offered support and maintained discipline are outlined here. Chapter 5 in particular, looks at the internal management of monasteries, the abbot and the Rule, what daily life in the monastery was like, how monks spent their day, the conditions they lived, and their relationships within the cloister. Kerr points out that although life in the cloister was customarily with ordered regularity, the monks were affected by developments around them as conditions changed over time and by region (124).

Chapter 6 follows nicely from chapter 5 as it focuses on Cistercian spirituality. It addresses how it was part of the daily life of monks, the attitude of Cistercians towards saints and relics as well as Cistercian mysticism. Kerr briefly outlines the religious developments of the time to provide an awareness of how Cistercians fit into a wider context.  She also provides examples of Marian devotion and promotion of particular saint cults as well as how mystical experiences could pose problems within community life for those who were the receivers of ecstasies.

The Cistercian economy and the development of the monastic estate and precinct to support the needs of a Cistercian community are addressed in chapter 7. Kerr provides us with a discussion on the important role of the conversi — or lay brothers — in providing the much needed labour to expand and maintain estates.  How Cistercians gained land and exploited it, the development of granges of Cistercian houses, industrial activities and the involvement of Cistercians in commerce are addressed.  Kerr notes that Cistercians were ‘pioneers’ in the economic development and reorganisation of land and some granges are still in use today. (188).

The final chapter looks more closely at the interactions the Cistercian Order had with the outside world, in particular the administration of charity and good works from monasteries and second, their involvement in the Crusades. Kerr provides examples of how charity was provided, like almsgiving or care for the sick; Cistercian nunneries in France, for example, were responsible for  the care of lepers, the sick and the poor. (194)  The involvement in the Crusades was seen as  the ‘battle against evil’ and Cistercians were active in supporting campaigns against heretics and heathens both in the Holy Land, and closer to home with the Cathar heretics in France (1209-29).

This text draws together recent debates, research and disciplines to provide a landmark contribution to monastic studies.  It provides a wider understanding of the Cistercian Order and how they interacted with the world as well as a firm basis of their organisation and life in general.  Both Burton’s and Kerr’s passion for their subject comes through and makes it an enjoyable read.