International Colloquium
Collège des Bernardins, Paris, 16 and 17th October, 2019

The Carta Caritatis (1119-2019): A document
to preserve the Unity of Communities(1)

Éric Delaissé,
Leader of CERCCIS, Cîteaux


The Association for the Spread of Cistercian Culture (ARCCIS), in partnership with the Collège des Bernardins and the Foundation of monasteries, organised a colloquium in Paris on the 16th and 17th October, 2019, on the history and the effect of this fundamental text which is celebrating its ninth centenary.

Cîteaux was founded in 1098. The year 1113 witnessed the birth of its first daughter, La Ferté. The entry of Bernard de Fontaine and his companions into Cîteaux led rapidly to the establishment of new daughters. It is in this context that the editing of the Carta Caritatis must be understood. The text was born of the care of Abbot Stephen Harding to organise the relationship between Cîteaux and the new communities issued from it. It was important for the monks to retain the spirit of Cîteaux in the new establishments and to regulate the relationships between the monasteries. The prologue of the document anyway explains that ‘this decree must carry the name ‘Charter of Charity’ because its objective, putting aside any burden of material debt, aims only at the charity and usefulness of souls in matters divine and human’.

If we are celebrating the ninth centenary of the Charter we must recognise that the text has known several stages. Its composition dates probably from 1114, but this continues well after the death of Stephen, in the course of the twelfth century. Generally four stages are distinguished: 1. The Charter of charity and unanimity, today lost; 2. The earlier Charter of charity, approved by the Pope in 1119; 3. The Resume of the Charter of charity, composed in about 1124; 4. The later Charter of charity, approved by Alexander III in 1165, but originally by Eugenius III in 1152.

The text of 1119 already notes the essential principles which must regulate Cistercian communities. The first chapter of the Charter explains that ‘the mother-church [the founding abbey] does not ask any material contribution from its daughter’. Another aspect is the relationship to the Rule of St Benedict. On this matter the second chapter stresses that ‘the Rule shall be understood and observed by all in the same way’. This unanimity is elaborated also right through the third chapter, according to which ‘all shall have the same liturgical books and the same customs’. Over and above the chapters regulating the relationships between the abbeys, it is important to note that the Charter of Charity endows the Cistercian Order with mechanisms essential to its healthy functioning. Thus the fifth chapter institutes an annual visitation of the mother-church to its daughter: each year the abbot of the mother-church is obliged to visit all the churches which it has founded. In the same vein, the seventh chapter establishes a general chapter of the abbots at Cîteaux: all Cistercian abbots must present themselves once a year at Cîteaux for a general meeting.

After an introduction by Dom Olivier Quenardel (Abbey of Notre Dame of Cîteaux) the Paris Colloquium brought together, around seven axes, historians, monks and nuns, but also directors from the world of business, to make a point about the history and the relevance of this thousand-year-old text. Five of the axes are linked to history. The first was consecrated to the Charter in the twelfth century and its different versions. In this framework Alexis Grélois of the University of Rouen dealt with the genesis and evolution of the text, stressing the importance of a serious study of the dating of the document, and underlining the need to re-evaluate the role of the episcopate in its elaboration (‘The genesis and evolution of the Carta Caritatis in the 12th century’). Studying the versions of the Carta, Monika Dihsmaier (Heidelberg) concentrated especially on the mechanisms of making decisions at the general chapters (‘Entscheidungsfindung und die Versionen der Carta Caritatis).

The second axis of the colloquium considered the role of Stephen Harding and Bernard of Clairvaux in the construction of the Order. In the course of his paper Patrick McGuire (Roskilde Universitet)
showed that, despite his prominence, no influence from Bernard can be demonstrated in the Carta. He discussed the relationship between Bernard and Stephen, since the latter played a central part in the establishment of the structure of the Order (‘Abbot Stephen of Cîteaux and Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux: Bonds of Charity?’). Fr Alkuin Schachenmayr (Abbey of Heiligenkreuz) discussed Stephen as the presumed author of the Carta. In this connection he emphasised the perception of the abbot - notably his veneration – in the course of the centuries. The paper of Martha G. Newman (University of Texas) constituted a third axis of the colloquium, studying the place of the Carta in texts at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries (‘The Benedictine rule and the Narrow Path: The Place of the Charter of Charity in the Exordium Magnum and other late twelfth-century Cistercian texts’). She showed that no text of this period presents the Carta Caritatis as the central characteristic mode of Cistercian life; they insist rather on specific elements contined in the Carta, such as the General Chapter and the annual visit of the abbot-father to the daughter-house. A fourth axis of the colloquium centred on the application of the Carta. Constance Berman (University of Iowa) dealt with the practical application of the text (‘The Charter of Charity in Practice’). Her paper showed that in the 1170s the preservation of peace and charity seemed to be a recurrent worry in the texts. Jörg Oberste (Universität Regensburg) asked what had enabled the Cistercians to preserve the spirit of their foundation (‘Auf neuen Wegen Altes bewahren – Was leistete die zisterziensische Ordensverfassung des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts?’). He showed that the Carta should not be understood as a Constitution in the sense of a simple juridical system, but that it aimed rather to protect the Rule and the ascetic life practised at Cîteaux. The Carta as a source of inspiration in other religious Orders was the object of a fifth axis of the colloquium. In this connection Guido Cariboni (Università Cattolica of Milan) discussed the regular Canons, concentrating particularly on the canonical reservoir stemming from Saint-Martin of Laon (‘La Carta Caritatis quale documento per fondare un’abbazia’). His paper showed that documents stemming from Saint-Martin of Laon and its affiliated houses present elements adopted from the Cistercians; in certain cases they even anticipate the experience of Cîteaux as it appears in the earlier versions of the Carta.

Some parts of the colloquium touched on other aspects of practice. Thus a sixth axis concerned openness to management in civil society. Hubert de Boisredon, director general of Armor, a specialist enterprise for inks and printing aids, offered a re-reading of the principles of the Carta from an entrepreneurial standpoint (‘La Charte de charité, une source d’inspiration pour des sociétés d’un même groupe’). Finally a seventh axis of the colloquium was devoted to the Carta and how it is lived today in the bosom of the Cistercian family. For this topic a round table brought together representatives of the monastic communities of the Cistercian family: Dom Vladimir Gaudrat (Abbey of Lérins, OCist), Dom Jean-Marc Chéné (Abbey of Notre-Dame de Bellefontaine, OCSO), Mother Mary Helen Jackson (monastery Notre-Dame de La Plaine, Bernardines d’Esquermes). The colloquium was concluded by Dom Gérard Joyau (Abbey of Notre-Dame de Scourmont). He discussed the place of the Rule of St Benedict in the process of unity of Cistercian communities (‘La règle de saint Benoît, fondement de l’unité des abbayes cisterciennes selon la Charte de charité’). He noted how much the Carta, a document nine centuries old, is still a text for Cistercians of today, with institutional mechanisms which endure with regard to respect for the tradition of each of the elements which compose the Cistercian family.


(1) Printed with the generous permission of the review Collectanea Cisterciensia.