Cistercian Abbeys in the Southwest of France

Fontfroide Cistercian Abbey

Some of the most interesting tourist sites of France are its abbeys; the ones that still house communities of monks or nuns as well as the former religious houses many of which are now reduced to beautiful ruins. These centuries old edifices built mainly at the peak of the Middle Ages are illustrations of the different religious architecture styles during the transition period from the Romanesque to Gothic styles.
The abbeys are, somehow confusingly for the novice, always described as Benedictine or Cluniac or Cistercian or Augustinian abbeys depending on the Catholic religious order that their monks or the nuns were following.
This short blog post tries to go over the main points of the history of the Cistercian order and its abbeys – several of which are still exist in the southwest France.
Flaran Abbey
Flaran Cistercian Abbey

A Cistercian abbey is the spiritual and temporal house of monks or nuns that observe the Rule of Saint Benedict (which makes them Benedictine abbeys!) in a reformed way that stresses the detachment from worldly affairs and the desire to live a semi-hermitic austere life of manual labour and prayer.
The Cistercian order was initiated by Saint Robert who with a group of hermit monks founded in 1075 the Molesme Abbey. In 1098 Saint Robert, Saint Aubry and Saint Stephen Harding, an Anglo-Saxon, together with a group of 21 monks left Molesme and establish a new abbey near the village of Cîteaux – “Cistercium” in Latin- close to the nowadays town of Dijon in eastern France. Saint Robert, Saint Aubry and Saint Stephen Harding are considered the founding fathers of the Cistercian order and are celebrated as such each January 26.
Cadouin Abbey was a "daughter abbey" of Clairvaux
Cadouin Abbey was a “daughter abbey” of Clairvaux Cistercian abbey

Their new abbey took the name of “Notre-Dame de Cîteaux” and is the ancestor of all the other Cistercian monasteries.
In 1119 Stephen Harding drew up the “Carta Caritatis” (“Charter of Charity”) the Order’s governing document that stipulates among other things that each abbey is an autonomous entity and in a “mother-daughter” relationship with other abbeys: all the Cistercian abbeys save the initial Cîteaux Abbey – that founded famous daughter abbeys like “La Ferté” in 1113, “Pontigny” in 1113, “Clairvaux” that was founded by Saint Bernard in 1115 and “Morimond” in 1115 – were “daughters” and hopefully “mothers”! Each mother was supposed to visit its daughters once every year to ensure the correct application of the order’s rule, while the abbots of all the Cistercian abbeys were to convene each year at Cîteaux to ensure its unity.
A total of 225 Cistercian monasteries were founded in the 12th century, 169 in the 13th century and only 18 in the 14th century.
Originating in France, the Cistercian order expanded beyond French borders with England numbering 76 monasteries, Italy 95 and Germany more than 100.
A leading figure of the Cistercian order was Saint Bernard who helped found in the 12th century not fewer than 72 monasteries.
A specificity of the Cistercian abbeys, designed to be economically independent, self-sufficient entities, was that they were housing besides monks, the so called “conversi”, lay brothers, usually coming from poor peasant families, that were bound by the vows of chastity and obedience to their abbot, but were otherwise permitted to follow a less demanding form of Cistercian life. The conversi, who were usually doing the most humble tasks, were replaced in time with outside workers who were more qualified for construction work or other more elaborate jobs.
Notre-Dame de Ré cistercian abbey
The beautiful ruins of Notre-Dame de Ré Cistercian abbey in the Charent department of southwest France

The Cistercian monasteries were mainly agricultural establishments whose land originated from donations. The abbeys’ main church was located usually on the highest point of the estate, dominating with its usually single tower the other buildings of the monastery. Its position had to be central enough to allow the monks and the conversi to reach it for the Sunday mass even when coming from the most remote parts of the property. Between 1140 and 1225 many monasteries discovered metal ore on their grounds and started to extract and process it and sell metal wares.
Flaran abbey cloister
Cloister of Flaran abbey in the Gers department of southwest France

In keeping with the order’s rule for a humble life the Cistercian architecture is a simple utilitarian one: the superfluous ornamentation was believed to distract from the religious life and thus avoided.
Extreme sobriety was the rule; the monks were to live in austere rooms and to perform their liturgical acts with objects devoid of any embellishments, the crosses were made of wood and simply painted, the chalices of unpolished silver, candelas of iron and the censers of copper. The churches had at most one tower, the stained glass windows were not colored and the only sculpture admitted was the image of the Virgin
Usually Cistercian churches were cruciform, with a short presbytery to meet the liturgical needs of the brethren, small chapels in the transepts for private prayer, and an aisled nave that was divided roughly in the middle by a screen to separate the monks from the lay brothers. The cloister situated on one side of the church had multiple functionalities; besides allowing the free circulation between different buildings of the compound: it was a contemplation and relaxation place, and the location of different activities like the “mandatum” – the ceremony of the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday – as well as the shaving and the hair cutting of the monks. Usually on the eastern side of the cloister one could find the chapter house, the head office of the monastery where each morning the abbot was meeting the monks to discuss and plan the daily tasks.
Flaran Abbey chapter room
Flaran Abbey chapter room

Belleperche cloister
Arched hallway part of the what is left from the cloister of Belleperche abbey in the Tarn-et-Garonne department of southwest France

Fontfroide abbey
Fontfroide abbey in Aude department of southwest France
Fontfroide abbey interior court
Fontfroide abbey interior court
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