The first hundred years of Cistercian monasticism, coinciding almost exactly with the twelfth century (Cîteaux was founded in 1098), is notable as being one of the outstanding periods of Christian spiritual writing, above all the work of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, but also that of his contemporaries William of St. Thierry, Aelred of Rievaulx and numerous other monastic theologians. Less well known but extremely influential in its own time is the more popular tradition, largely dating from the latter part of this formative era, of Cistercian exempla collections, which brought together edifying tales, usually of a visionary or miraculous character, to encourage and inspire later generations of monks to emulate the fidelity and piety of their predecessors. Among these collections one of the largest, most significant and most complex in its purpose and development is the Exordium Magnum Cisterciense of Conrad of Eberbach, now available for the first time in English in a fine translation by Benedicta Ward, an Anglican nun well known for her translations and studies of monastic materials, and Paul Savage, whose 2000 Notre Dame dissertation was on the Exordium Magnum.
The English title, though a literal translation of the Latin (not found in the early manuscripts and thus not authorial), is perhaps somewhat misleading. “Exordium” in the rhetorical tradition is more indicative of an introduction than of a chronological beginning (as distinguished from the “initium” found in the subtitle), and it is “great” in implicit contrast to the earlier “Exordium Parvum” (also a title affixed much later), a considerably shorter (and more authoritative} narrative of the founding of the Order that is incorporated almost totally into the first section of the longer (or “great”) work; and after relating the events of Cîteaux’s foundation and early years it focuses almost exclusively on the Abbey of Clairvaux and its daughter houses, so that “Cisterciense” in the title refers not so much to the monastery as to the Order that it spawned. The subtitle, “Narratio de initio cisterciensis ordinis,” is thus a somewhat better indicator of what the work provides, though in fact narrative, understood as historical chronicle, is an important though not an exclusive or even a predominant genre of the work.
Although unidentified in most early manuscripts, the authorship of this work can be confidently ascribed to Conrad, who spent his early monastic life at Clairvaux in the decades shortly after Bernard’s death in 1153, and was later sent to the daughter house of Eberbach in Germany, of which he eventually became abbot. This combination of early immersion in the culture and history of the most famous and most important of the early Cistercian abbeys and later membership in a monastery far removed from the centers of early Cistercian life gave Conrad a unique perspective on the past, present and future of the Order and makes the Exordium Magnum stand out among similar works such as Herbert of Clairvaux’s Liber Miraculorum, which Conrad drew on extensively for the stories in his own work. As Paul Savage explains in his comprehensive and very helpful Introduction, Conrad did not simply gather together tales more or less at random as did most of the other compilers of exempla collections, but placed them within a framework of monastic history that he traced all the way back to the early Christian communities of the New Testament, and briefly summarized through the early desert fathers, the work of St. Benedict, the foundation and spread of Cluniac Benedictinism, and the reform efforts that led to the establishment of the “New Monastery” at Cîteaux, all discussed in the first of the work’s six books or “distinctiones.” The three following books are focused almost exclusively on stories of Clairvaux and its monks: the second largely centered on Bernard, who is clearly the hero and guiding spirit of the whole work; the third on various senior monks of the abbey, some of whom were later sent to become abbots and senior officials at the many monasteries founded from Clairvaux; the fourth consisting of stories of ordinary monks, including the lay brothers who made up the largest proportion of members of Clairvaux and most early Cistercian houses. Savage points out that Conrad’s verse prologue indicates that originally these four books were intended to constitute the complete work, and suggests that they were composed, though perhaps not given their final form, while Conrad was still at Clairvaux. The two final books, almost certainly written at Eberbach, are quite different in tone and focus, no longer employing a chronological framework: the fifth is largely composed of cautionary tales of lax or unfaithful monks, some of whom reform at the last minute and are saved, some of whom do not; the sixth focuses on the importance of confession and penitence, and on the conclusive events of death and judgment. As Conrad himself emphasizes in his closing summation, his two-fold purpose in writing the book, at least in its final form, is to “hand down a certain knowledge of our Order from its inception to our brothers . . . in the more remote parts of the world” and to “remove the occasion of calumny from the monks of the black [i.e. Benedictine] Order, who openly slander our Order to seculars and to those ignorant of the facts,” especially by claiming that the original founders of Cîteaux had left their abbey of Molesme irregularly (542). Particularly in the latter books, Conrad’s concern that the initial commitment of the first generations was dissipating gives his exhortations a monitory tone. He writes, “Let us do all we can against the listlessness that obliterates our strength and walk courageously in the footsteps of our forefathers, meditating on their memory in our hearts, and often and willingly reread the accounts of their actions, so that by their good conduct we may reflect on the confusion of our ways as if in a very clear mirror and so that we may learn to mingle salutary shame with the good we do” (547).
Though it is considerably more organized and carefully structured than similar works of this genre, it is doubtful that Conrad expected or intended his work to be read in large blocks rather than in small doses, and this way of approaching the text is probably even more necessary for contemporary readers, whether lay or monastic, than for Conrad’s original Cistercian audience. The relentless succession of stories of visions and miraculous happenings can tend to overwhelm the reader and to lose any individual character when encountered one after another. But Conrad’s singular combination of narrative and exempla does provide an unparalleled window on Cistercian sensibility and outlook as the Order moved into its second century, an era marked both by its increased wealth and influence in the Church at large and – though unrealized at the time – by a seismic shift in the entire conception of religious life with the rise of the mendicant orders at the very time of Conrad’s death in 1221. Conrad provides inspiring portraits of the early abbots of Cîteaux, Alberic and particularly Stephen Harding (though not of the founding abbot, Robert of Molesme, whom he castigates for returning to his former abbey despite the fact that papal permission to do so was given in order to quell dissention among the monks of Molesme). The portrait of Bernard as wonder-worker as well as spiritual master and monastic and ecclesiastical leader shows the esteem in which he was held not only by Cistercians but by his contemporaries in general. Information about many secondary figures in the Clairvaux filiation, such as Bl. Guerric of Igny, one of the four “evangelists” of the Cistercian golden age, or St. Bernard’s various successors as abbots of Clairvaux, is quite helpful in filling out the picture of early Cistercianism. And many of the individual stories have a delightful charm of their own. For example, one of the very few not centered on a monk tells of a knight pursued by his enemies who nevertheless stopped in a graveyard to say his customary prayers for the dead (6.6), and was rewarded by being surrounded by a band of spectral protectors – a story that ends with the reconciled opponents relating to one another their disparate experiences of this mysterious encounter. A story (4.34) mentioned by Brian Patrick McGuire, the scholar largely responsible for the renewal of interest in the Cistercian exempla tradition, in his brief but enlightening Forward on “The Cistercian Love of Story,” features a lay brother sent from Clairvaux to the king of Sicily only to discover that the king had died; inspired by Bernard’s encouragement in a dream, he continued on his way and received from the new king enough funds to build a new church at Clairvaux, and safely crossed the Alps and returned to the abbey with ten bison given him at Rome, the first such animals ever seen in France – a story that as McGuire points out “combines an assertion of Bernard’s spiritual power with recognition of the courage of a lay brother” (xxv), thus showing how both the celebrated and the obscure, the educated and the illiterate, the noble and the peasant, made crucial contributions to the growth of the Order and were likewise honored in the sight of God and sources of edification for the monks who were envisioned as the primary, if not exclusive, audience for the work. It is this sort of insight into the Order and the age that Conrad at his best provides, and that makes this translation a very welcome addition to early Cistercian literature available in English.