This nickname has an instructive history. By the early thirteenth century, under the patronage of some powerful political and ecclesiastical figures, together with the hard work of monks and lay brothers, the Cistercians were flourishing materially. However, material prosperity and power led to decline in monastic fervor and practices. In the thirteenth century, the new mendicant Orders appealed strongly to evangelical poverty and attracted those desiring to leave all and follow Christ. St. Francis of Assisi was the charismatic personality of the age, as St. Bernard had been for a previous age.
The Cistercians went into a slow decline. They split into two observances along political boundaries between French and German territories. These two observances were similar as to their monastic practices but the French Strict Observance ate meat less often. So they claimed to be more strict; such was the monastic laxity of the times.
By the mid-seventeenth century, both observances were ripe for reform, and the Strict Observance got its reformer in the person of Jean de Rancé (1626-1700), abbot of la Trappe, Normandy, France. It is from this monastery that we get our popular nickname “Trappist, Trappistine.” By his example, his learning, his eloquence, and his persistence, Rancé turned his abbey into a model of monastic life with a strong emphasis on silence, penance, and physical austerities. Candidates flocked to la Trappe, and some led truly holy lives.
In 1790 all monasteries and religious houses in France were suppressed and their property confiscated by the Revolutionary Government. The monks and other religious were guillotined or deported into exile, or they abandoned their religious status. In 1791, the novice master of la Trappe, Augustin de Lestrange, escaped from France with twenty-four monks and set up his community in a vacant Carthusian monastery in Switzerland. There they were joined by some Cistercian nuns, also fleeing France; in 1796 these became the first Trappistine nuns. Cistercian nuns trace their origin to the twelfth century. In 1798 Napoleon’s army invaded Switzerland. The Trappists and Trappistines, under de Lestrange, set out on a remarkable odyssey, looking for a place of refuge. It was from this group of Trappists and Trappistines, either directly or indirectly, that Cistercian monastic life came to the United States in the nineteenth century.