The Great Beginning of Cîteaux: A Narrative of the Beginning of the Cistercian Order – The Exordium Magnum of Conrad of Eberbach
Translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, and Paul Savage; Edited by Rozanne Elder
Cistercian Publications/Liturgical Press, 2012
Publisher’s Description: In the closing decades of the twelfth century, the Cistercian Order had become an important ecclesiastical and economic power in Europe. Yet it had lost its influential spokesman, Bernard of Clairvaux, and as the century drew to a close, religious sensibilities were changing. The new mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and the impulses they embodied, were to shift the center of gravity in Christian religious life for centuries to come.
It was in this transitional period that Conrad of Eberbach gradually—between the 1180s and 1215—compiled the Exordium magnum cisterciense: The Great Beginning of Cîteaux. It is a book of history and lore, often with miraculous stories, meant to continue a great spiritual tradition, and it is also a book meant to justify and repair the Order. The Exordium magnum was in part an effort to provide a historical and formative context for those who were to be Cistercians in the thirteenth century.
Conrad’s combination of a historical sensibility and the edifying exempla makes the Exordium magnum a remarkably innovative book. Its unique combination of genres—narratio and exempla—is conceivable only within the intellectual world of the twelfth or early thirteenth centuries, before exempla collections came to be complied solely for edification or use in sermons. The Great Beginning of Cîteaux is a revealing book and an excellent place to begin more detailed study of the Cistercian Order between 1174 and the middle of the thirteenth century.
“Benedicta Ward and Paul Savage have done a great service in making this important text easily accessible to students, scholars, and all those interested in the Cistercians and their stories. They offer a lucid translation of Conrad of Eberbach’s difficult prose and provide extensive commentary that places Conrad’s work in its monastic context.” -Martha G. Newman
“The Great Beginning of Cîteaux is a rich treasure trove of stories, visions, and miracles that should be a mandatory reading for all those interested in twelfth- and thirteenth-century spirituality, history, and culture. The translation is superb, and the introduction very helpful for general readers and scholars alike.” – Stefano Mula
Book 2, Chapter 15: About the Robber Who Was Bound with Cords and Already Had the Rope around His Neck, Ready for Death, and How Bernard Put His Own Habit on Him and Made Him a Lay Brother at Clairvaux
It happened one time that the servant of God [Bernard of Clairvaux] was going to see Count Theobald [Theobald, count of Champagne, 1125–52] on business. As he drew near the town where Theobald then was, he saw on the road a large crowd of men who were, at the count’s order, taking a nefarious and infamous robber away to punishment. When he saw this, the ever-gentle father laid his hand on the ropes that bound the wretch and said to his executioners, “Leave this assassin to me, for I want to hang him with my own hands.” The count, having heard that the man of God was coming, had immediately hurried to meet him, for he always loved and honored him with a wonderful affection. When he saw in his hand the rope by which he was dragging the robber after him, he was extremely horrified and cried out, “Hey, venerable father, what is this you want to do? Have you called back from the gates of hell [Ps 88:49] this brigand, a thousand times condemned? Surely you cannot mean to save him, for he is already completely made into a devil. His rehabilitation is entirely hopeless and he will never be able to do any good except by dying. Let it go, lord father, let this man of perdition go to perdition [John 17:12], for the lives of many have been endangered by his pestilential life.” The holy father answered him, saying, “I know, best of men, I know that this robber is thoroughly wicked and deserves full well the bitterness of every kind of torment. Do not think that I want in this way to release a sinner from punishment; instead, I intend to hand him over to the torturers [Matt 18:34] and to apply an appropriate punishment which will be all the more deserved because it is more divine. You have condemned him to quick death and momentary suffering, but I will inflict on him a daily crucifixion and a long, drawn-out death. You have caught a thief and would have him stay on the gibbet for one or several days; I will leave him nailed to the cross [Matt 27:38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:33] for many years to live and hang continually in punishment.” When that most Christian prince heard this he was silent, and he did not dare to contradict the words of the saint. Immediately, that most kindly father took off his tunic and put it on his captive and after cutting his hair he added him to the flock of the Lord [John 10:16], making of the wolf a lamb [John 10:12], of the robber a lay brother. He came with him to Clairvaux, where he was then made obedient even unto death [Phil 2:8], and he was called Constantius, expressing by this beautiful name the constancy of his intention. Unless I am mistaken, he lived in the Order thirty or more years before he went home to the Lord who had mercifully deigned to deliver him by the merits of our most blessed father from the double death of both body and soul.