Chapter Six – Monasterium Sancta Maria De Rupe (of The Rock)
When the two Richards helped to found The Monasterium de Sancta Maria de Rupe (of the Rock) in 1147, they were taking part in the great European social and economic movement of the time.
“It was on the frontiers of Christendom that the Cistercian monks’ expansion was most remarkable”, wrote an eminent historian.
The impressive ruins of the Monastery of Roche are a powerful reminder of this. There had been communities of “religious” in the past in Britain. In Northern Britain they had been inspired by Celtic missionaries – Columba of Iona and Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. About 535 AD a new impetus was given to monastic life and influence. Its effect was to be felt across Europe. In the Sixth Century Benedict, father of Western Monasticism, gave to the world from the solitude of Monte Cassion, near Rome, a new code of “religious life”. This “Rule of Saint Benedict” became for centuries one of the most powerful instruments of the civilisation of Europe.
In Britain the Celtic “orders” were not able to compete with the order and discipline of the new Benedictines. The Order spread to Britain and established itself. Then came the Vikings. Their invasion was heralded by the sack of the Holy place of the Island of Lindisfarne. Viking energies were not directed at churches and monasteries because of any particular hatred of Christianity. The invaders sought the treasures which the great buildings held. For near two hundred years until the Norman Conquest there was confusion.
Benedict had created his Order in the Sixth Century, just when the bonds of civil law was breaking down. He pointed to a new order, a new community for living. The great families responded to Benedict. They saw to it that monastic establishments were provided in the main centres of political power. They were ready to transfer to the monastic order large parts of their land and property.
By the Eleventh Century, just before the Norman Conquest, the Benedictine monopoly of power seemed an achieved permanent ideal. By the Twelfth Century it had come to an end. The Benedictines in their search for perfection forgot the individual. From 1050 AD there was in Europe a great development in economic activity. This is doubtless why Doomsday mentions the economically important water mills at Maltby. In the face of this new economic aggressiveness many faithful Benedictines retreated. They looked for a renewal of their ideals of simplicity and truth.
This call for new strictness within the Benedictine tradition found expression in Citeaux in Burgundy. From this renewal of the monastic ideal sprang the Monastery of Roche and a large number of others across Europe. Monks from a Benedictine Monastery at Molesme in Norther France moved to Citeaux. There they founded their own monastery in 1098. Among their number was a young nobleman, Bernard. His Abbot, an Englishman named Stephen Harding, asked Bernard to found his own monastery. This he did in 1115 at Clairvaux. So it was that the new order came into being. It was called the Cistercian Order after the break-away monastery in Citeaux.
The movement spread rapidly across Europe. In 1066 there were only 35 monasteries of the old Benedictine and Celtic Orders in Britain. By the middle of the Twelfth Century there were 20 houses of the new Cistercian Order in Yorkshire alone. Roche was one of them.
In his original rule Benedict had not wished to impose a harsh order. All he wanted was that his monks should take seriously his saying, “Laborare est Orate” – “to work is to pray”, or equally “to pray is to work”. It was a noble ideal. The monks expressed the Rule in the periods of daily prayer – the Hours – which punctuated their hard work and study.
Bernard of Clairvaux adapted Benedict’s Rule and recovered the simplicity of the earlier centuries. Thus it was that the great Cistercian Abbey Churches in England, like Roche, were simple and austere. The new order demanded self-denial, simplicity of life, poverty. Paradoxically this simplicity of life in the midst of a time of growing economic expansion set them on the path of material success in spite of themselves! The Cistercian Rule laid it down that the communities should be far away from towns, cities and castles. Roche in its remote and beautiful valley filled the requirement perfectly.
The great Norman Lords, like Maltby’s de Busli and Fitz Turgis had much halfsettled land. What better than to bequeath this to the monks of the new and austere Order? The gift would not upset the economy of Sandbeck, Maltby and Tickhill. It would guarantee the Lord and his people benefit in Heaven! Thus in an expanding economy, in spite of themselves, their simple order of life made the monks of Roche suitably organised for the powers the two Richards gave to them.
It was the Cistercian’s choice to go to the edges of civilisation. An economic judgement to do this instead of a religious one would have pointed the same way. The monks of Roche put the old Benedict motto into practice. They prayed in their great austere churches. They also prayed through their work. they farmed their lands. They drained swamps. They bred sheep and instituted a crop rotation. They involved “lay brothers” in the organisation – the “conversi”.
These men were illiterate (and kept so). Therefore they could not take a full part in the monastic community. They were in effect the monastery’s vassals. Economically they were important. They provided a disciplined workforce which asked for no wages. They had no dependents to support. They could not withdraw their labour.
The Cistercians with such a labour force in an expanding economy could not go wrong. Taking into account their dedicated spiritual discipline in the age when so called “popular religion” was the vogue, the monks of Roche and their brothers over Europe had a greater influence than the King or Pope.Professor Southern sums it up:
“The Cistercian system was the first effective international organisation in Europe, more effective than the Papal organisation. It had narrower aims and a smaller field of operation”.