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The Cistercian order, which had its origins in the late eleventh century, transformed the spiritual landscape of western Europe. The order's insistence on a return to the austerity and simplicity that had originally informed Benedictine life reenergized monasticism, spawning hundreds of new abbeys within decades. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Cistercians dominated monastic life, surpassing their black-robed predecessors in terms of popularity and replacing them among patrons as favored recipients of donations. Yet, while a sizable body of historiography exists concerning the ability of men's houses to translate this appeal into spiritual and material success, questions remain regarding the order's female members. In particular, some scholars have constructed a narrative of financial difficulties and eventual decline for Cistercian nunneries, one that began in the thirteenth century and accelerated throughout the late Middle Ages. According to this narrative, such difficulties, by-products of the secondary status of religious women, manifested themselves in small monastic complexes and limited patrimonies. In her work on English Cistercians, Sally Thompson argues that religious women were dependent upon men because of their inferior position in medieval society and generally lacked a true religious vocation, characteristics that led to smaller, impoverished houses. Cistercian nunneries are portrayed in monastic histories as constantly struggling and are often “lumped together as being poor, scandalous, passive institutions which were eschewed by medieval patrons.” The majority of their houses are characterized by modern historians as enjoying a perilous existence at best, permanently poised on the brink of extinction and beset by a host of financial and spiritual difficulties.

Original Publication Citation

Jordan, E. L. (2012). Gender concerns: Monks, nuns, and patronage of the Cistercian Order in thirteenth-century Flanders and Hainaut. Speculum, 87(1), 62-94. doi:10.1017/S0038713411003861