Cistercians, a widely extended branch of the Benedictine order, founded in the 11th century by St. Robert, a French nobleman by birth, and a Benedictine abbot, who, being very zealous for the strict observance of the Benedictine rule, and unsuccessful in his efforts to enforce it in his abbey, placed himself at the head of some hermits and settled with them at Molesme. Some difficulties arising in this new community, he left it in company with several others, and made a new settlement at Citeaux (Lat. Cistercium), near Dijon, in the diocese of Chalons-sur-Marne (1098). After enduring great poverty and hardships for some time, the infant community was taken under the protection of Eudes, duke of Burgundy, and the bishop of Chalons; the latter of whom erected it into an abbey, and appointed St. Robert abbot. The latter was recalled after a time to Molesme, and left Citeaux under the direction of St. Al-beric, after whose death, in 1109, St. Stephen Harding, an Englishman, became abbot. The austerities practised in this community were so great that many of the members died, and no person dared to enter the order, which was threatened with extinction. The accession of St. Bernard, with 30 young men, mostly of noble birth, saved it from destruction, and infused into it new life.
It soon began to flourish and extend itself, so that in 1151 the number of abbeys had increased to 500, and in 1251 to 1,800. The order became so powerful that several popes were indebted to its recognition and support during the confusion of the 12th century for the maintenance of their authority. Cardinals, archbishops, and bishops often assisted at the general chapter of abbots. Two popes (Eugenius III. and Benedict XII.), 40 cardinals, and a great number of bishops were elected from the order, and several kings and princes assumed its habit. St. Bernard implanted a taste for literature and science in the order in its infancy, and took measures to have every monastery furnished with an excellent library. The especial branch of the Cistercians was music. The golden age of the order continued until the relaxation of discipline, and the foundation of the Dominicans and Franciscans, caused it to begin to decline. Extraordinary and oft-repeated efforts were made to bring it back to its pristine state, but they proved only partially successful. The spirit of reform produced several new congregations under the Cistercian rule, the principal of which are the Bernardines and Feuillants. The number of convents of the Cistercian order at present existing is small.
There are some in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and Belgium. There is also one in Leicestershire, England, called Mt. St. Bernard. In Italy they have been suppressed, with the exception of one house in Rome. An order of Cistercian nuns was founded in 1120 by Abbot Stephen of Citeaux. They were at first subject to the authority of the abbot general, subsequently to that of the diocesan bishops. They increased so rapidly that at one time they had 0,000 convents. In Germany some of the abbesses had till 1803 the dignity of princesses of the empire. The most celebrated convent of the order was that of Port Royal in France. At present (1873) only a few convents are left in Switzerland, Germany, and France.
A Cistercian Monk.