The Cistercian Order began in the 11th Century. This has been called a revolutionary time in the church. That is because, after the fall of Rome, Europe was beset by wave after wave of invasions by Vikings and Saracens and so life was very chaotic for the people who lived there. Then, in about the middle of the 10th century, life began to settle down, in part because of the influence of the great Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, founded in the year 910. When war ends and life becomes more orderly and peaceful, people are more able to foster friendships, read, reflect, make beautiful art and pray. As peace was restored, people were able to cultivate their interior lives and devote time to becoming closer to God. At this same time Gregory the Great, one of the most inspired popes in the history of the church, began a reform of the whole church which captured the hearts and imaginations of Christians and especially monks.
During this time of renewal, the Abbey of Cluny grew and founded new monasteries all over Europe. People loved and admired the monks and also loved the Gregorian Chant and the beautiful way they celebrated mass, and showed their appreciation by giving the monks many donations and gifts. Over time, the monasteries of Cluny became very large and the lifestyle of the monks became more complex and maybe a little more comfortable too. Gradually, some monks, like the famous St. Peter Damian, complained about the change they saw happening in monasteries. These “reformers” thought that the life of monks should be simpler, poorer, and more closely patterned after the life of the first Christians in Jerusalem. In particular, they dreamed of a life where monks shared everything in common and could celebrate eucharist with intense joy and faith. Finally, in 1098, a group of monks from Molesme, which had been founded by Cluny, separated to begin their own monastery at a place called “Citeaux”. This was the first Cistercian monastery which, over time, became an Order of many monasteries.