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Cistercian administration: the General Chapter

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All heads of Cistercian houses gathered yearly at Cîteaux around Holy Cross Day (14th September) to discuss business relating to the Order. At first this was simply a meeting of Cîteaux and her four elder daughters (La Ferté, Pontigny, Morimund, Clairvaux), but with the tremendous expansion of the Order it soon became a large and truly international assembly. At the end of the twelfth century the chapter-house at Cîteaux could accommodate three hundred people. All heads of houses were expected to attend this meeting to discuss disciplinary matters, issue new legislation, and thereby effect the centralisation of the Order.

Map showing the route probably taken by the Yorkshire abbots travelling to the General Chapter; after D. Williams, The Cistercians in the Early Middle Ages, p 39.
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Map showing the route probably taken by the Yorkshire abbots traveling to the General Chapter, after Williams, The Cistercians in the Early Middle Ages, p 39

The format
The abbots generally arrived on the ninth hour of the 13th September, to prepare for the first day of the Chapter on the morrow, when the delegates recapitulated the previous years’ legislation and letters that had been received since the last meeting were read aloud. On the second day, faults were examined before Sext, and several abbots were then appointed as definators to draw up the Statutes; in later years the definators acted as a steering committee, arbitrating over disagreements where necessary. Sermons and prayers for the dead were said on the third day, and over the following three or four days disciplinary problems and requests to the Chapter, such as those from houses seeking affiliation, were investigated and discussed. On the final day, prayers for earthly rulers and protectors were said and the agreed statutes promulgated. The abbots then left on their long and often precarious journey home. Upon their return to their own abbeys they read the statutes to their community, which were then stored for future reference and read on three more occasions throughout the year.

Attendance
Attendance at the General Chapter was compulsory, although those who were ill were excused, providing that they sent a letter of explanation and a deputy. Dispensation might be granted to abbots living in remote parts, who had an exceptionally long and arduous journey – it was agreed in 1157 that the abbots of Scotland should only attend once every four years and the same privilege was conceded to the Irish abbots in 1190. The English abbots requested this concession in 1201, but were turned down. Absenteeism was not, however, uncommon, for the length of the journey, the expense involved and the dangers of the roads deterred many from attending the meeting. An abbot travelling from London journeyed for about a month before arriving at Cîteaux, where he remained for a week; his return journey and the time it took to travel to and from London meant that he was away from his community for almost three months of the year, a considerable period of absence.

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