“The great exodus”: history of the foundation of the Abbey of Citeaux

Around 1074, Saint Robert, benedictine monk, establishes the monastery of Molesame. A few years later, the monastery had become quite important for its surrounding area, so Saint Robert and a few other monks dediced t move away and establish a new monastery in Citeaux. The order they found, called Cistercian, takes its name from the latin name Cistercium.

Saint Robert

Saint Robert, a few years after the foundation of Molesme, realized that what he wanted was to live separated from society, living a life free of worries and fully dedicated to God. What he wanted was a stricter adherence to the benedictine rule.

In Molesme there were many conflicts between Roberet, who strived fdor a stricter interpretation of the Rule, and the majority of monks who agreesd with the way the abbey of Cluny did things.

Finding a long-lasting compromise between the two fronts seemed impossibile. This experience helped Robert develop a series of reforms which he would apply at Citeaux. He realized that living a monastic life of stricter adherence to the Rule was possible.

In the winter of 1097, Robert visited Archbishop Hugh of Die in Lyon, papal legate and one of the most fervent advocates for the Gregorian Reformation. Robert explained his plant to the Archbishop, saying he would “follow it, from then on, in a much stricter way and with greater perfection”.

Hugh was quite impressed by Robert’s idea, and encouraged the abbot to “persevere in his holy purpose”. Hugh also authorised Robert and his follower to move away from Molesme and build a newy abbey in a new place.

The Monastery of Citeaux

At the start of 1098, 21 monks followed Robert to a new monastery. The land it was built on, gifted to them by a local noble, was 20km south of Dijon in the middle of the woods. Paraphrasing a passage of the Book of Deuteronomy (32,10),

At the start of 1098, 21 monks followed Robert to a New Monastery. A local noble had gifted them a patch of land located 20km south of Dijon. Robert, borrowing a passage from Deuteronomy (32,10) called this place an “empty, howling wilderness”, and that’s undoubtedly one of the reasons why he chose to establish his monastery there. A few farmers lived on the property, which probably also included a chapel.

The location already had a name. It was known as Cîteaux (Cistercium in latin). There are many theories as to the origin of the name. The most likely answer is linked to its geographic location: it is located “this side of the third milestone” (cis tertium lapidem miliarum) on the ancient roman road that linked Langres and Chalon-sur-Saóne. For many years, the monastery was simply known as The New Monastery (Novum Monasterium). According to tradition, the monastery was founded on the 21st of March 1098, which was both Palm Sunday and the feast of Saint Benedict. It’s likely that the place becoming an abbey, Robert’s swearing in the hands of the Bishop and the monk’s vote of stantiality happened on the same day, but it’s more likely that all these events happend over the course of 1098.

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