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QuizCistercian administration

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MS 130 f. 104: St Stephen Harding (right) and the Benedictine abbot of St Vaast (left) present models of their churches to the Virgin© Bibliotheque Municipal Dijon
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MS 130 f. 104: St Stephen Harding (right) and the Benedictine abbot of St Vaast (left) present models of their churches to the Virgin. A scribe, Osbert, is shown at the foot of the image and offers his manuscript
The administration of the Cistercian Order was original and highly efficient. All of the abbeys were federally arranged, with the abbot of Cîteaux presiding as the figurehead of an extensive network of houses. Each abbey was to a certain extent autonomous, but uniformity and unity were controlled through two mechanisms. The General Chapter of abbots met annually at Cîteaux to discuss disciplinary problems and issue new legislation, and each abbey was visited once a year by representatives of its mother-house. The Cistercians were the first Order with a written constitution – the Carta Caritatis (the Charter of Charity) – and the first fully to legislate for the lay-brothers.

The organisation of the Cistercian Order was forward-thinking and had a profound impact on the administration of other religious orders, such as the Gilbertines and Premonstratensians, who both adopted their system of an annual meeting of heads of houses and a yearly visitation of the abbeys; the Carthusians held a general chapter from 1141, the Cluniacs from 1200. At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 the Cistercians’ administrative procedures received the papal seal of approval and were presented as the model for the black monks and canons, who had no such arrangement. Innocent III decreed that all religious orders should thenceforth hold a general chapter of all heads of houses every three years, and that two Cistercian abbots should be appointed to offer guidance during the initial stages.

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