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The Cistercians

The Cistercian Order of monks, or White Monks, as they were also known, founded a monastery near Dijon in eastern France, which they named Cîteaux, and it is from this abbey that the name ‘Cistercian’ was taken. The Cîteaux was founded because a group of monks in an abbey in Burgundy were ‘unhappy with the nature of monastic observance’, feeling it to be insufficient at Burgundy, and so left in order to build Cîteaux. The term ‘White Monk’ came from the fact that the habits that the monks wore were left white, and were not dyed.

After 1113, monks were sent out from Cîteaux to establish new Cistercian houses, and by 1152, there were around 350 Cistercian houses in western Europe. The monks arrived in Britain from Clairvaux from 1140 onwards. In Wales there were fifteen Cistercian houses, including Strata Florida, and it was this house that was a ‘mother house’ to Llantarnam Abbey. The relationship between mother house (in this case Strata Florida), and daughter house (Llantarnam Abbey) meant that once a year, the abbot of the mother house had to visit all the daughter houses to make sure that the daughter houses were obeying the Cistercian rules correctly. The daily routine of a Cistercian monk was divided between work, prayer, and reading.

Eventually, the initial successes of the Cistercian monasteries would lead to their downfall. The reduced numbers of monks following the Bubonic Plague, and dwindling numbers of young men entering into religious vocations in the sixteenth century meant that there were fewer people to work on the land. With work being carried out by hired labourers, the monks could not always afford to keep the land, and some of it was sold off to the gentry and rich serfs.

The Bubonic Plague, better known as the Black Death, tore through Europe, indiscriminately killing the rich and the poor, the young and the old, and the sinner and the religious. It devastated communities across the country, and even today it is not known how many people died from the disease, although estimates place it as much as half the population of Europe, and drastically altering the class system of lordship and peasant in Britain. Yet the devastation of the Black Death did not mean the end for Cistercian monasteries. Rather, they ‘continued to flourish’ into the fifteenth century

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