The Cistercians were exempt from episcopal visitation
which meant that their abbeys were not visited by the bishop or
his representative (unlike most monasteries of the other religious
orders, which would expect regular inspection). The Cistercians
instead conducted their own visitations and each abbey, including
Cîteaux, was subject
to visitation once a year by its mother-house. This was intended
to maintain standards and ensure uniformity of practice.
A standard procedure for each visitor to follow was carefully
set out in the Usages of the Order, which were first
compiled in the mid-late twelfth century and updated in later
emphasised that the visitor should encourage good behaviour and
motivate rather than oppress. The visitor was first to conduct
careful enquiry of the state of the house, asking about the liturgy,
their observance of silence, their diet, stability, the care
the sick and guests. He was to ensure that each house had a copy
of the statutes from the last General
Chapter, to check the financial state of the abbey and ascertain
whether the community had incurred any debt. Each monk was given
the opportunity to speak in private with the visitor to air any
grievances he might have.
The extent of visitors powers was carefully defined to ensure
that whilst he was allowed to carry out his duties properly, he
respected the authority of the house and did not exert his powers
unduly, provoking hostility. The visitor could dismiss underage
novices, depose unworthy
officials, and, if there were too many members for the community
to support, he might alter the numbers. He could not, however, depose
an abbot without taking advice, punish or expel monks without first
taking counsel from senior monks. At the end of the visitation,
his findings were read to the chapter, written in parchment, and
retained by the precantor
for reference; they were read out three times a year as a reminder.
Visitation was intended to be a positive experience, to benefit
and not destroy the community. Nevertheless, this was not always
the case. There were complaints of visitors who were overly harsh
or didactic and even open to bribery, and those who exploited their
privileges. Some visitors who found the travelling burdensome and
resented the absence from their own community, neglected their duties.
This was especially the case with abbots who had a number of daughter-houses
to visit or had to travel a great distance to conduct their visitation.
In 1210 Abbot John of Fountains
was reprimanded by the General Chapter from neglecting to visit
in person his daughter-house of Lyse,
Norway. He had sent two monks of Fountains in his place, who were
accused of abusing their position. In 1212 the General Chapter acknowledged
that Lyse was too far away from Fountains for the abbot to visit,
and the responsibility was instead accorded to the abbey of Alvastra.