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Stephen Harding

(d. 1134) abbot of Cîteaux


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(d. 1134),

third abbot of Cîteaux. He is generally believed to have been responsible for the Carta Caritatis, which established the Cistercian constitution, and for the introduction of lay brothers into the Cistercian regime. Modern research has emphasized that the development of the supposedly primitive Cistercian documents belongs to a date after Stephen's death, so his full importance in the history of early Cîteaux has yet to be evaluated. It is certain that he was abbot of Cîteaux when Bernard arrived there with thirty other postulants, and it was he who appointed Bernard first abbot of Clairvaux.

Stephen was born in the south-west of England (his name points to a village near Porlock), and became a monk, or at least a student, in the Benedictine monastery of Sherborne (Dorset). William of Malmesbury implied that he left the monastery to return to lay life, first in Scotland and then in France. After studying the liberal arts there for some years, he was converted and went to Rome, visiting various monasteries on the way and reciting daily the whole psalter. On his return to Burgundy he found Molesme and became a monk. But he became dissatisfied with observances which seemed to be based on neither reason nor authority and was one of a group of seven monks, including the abbot, Robert of Molesme, who founded the new and austere monastery of Cîteaux. This was in 1098. Robert returned to Molesme, Alberic was elected abbot and Stephen Harding prior. In 1109 Stephen was elected abbot.

The final form for the Cistercian monastic family owes much more to his influence than to Robert or Alberic. Stephen was probably the author of the original draft of the Exordium Cisterciensis Cenobii and the Carta Caritatis. The latter document, extremely influential in the constitutions of other monastic congregations, provided a juridical framework which enabled Cîteaux, unlike similar monastic endeavours of the same time, to achieve a permanent place in the life of the Church. Its two most important provisions were a yearly visitation of each abbey by the abbot of the founding house and the yearly assembly of all heads of houses for general chapter at Cîteaux. Its purpose was to safeguard permanently the original spirit and observance of Cîteaux. This also had been fostered by the rejection of all sources of luxury for personal and liturgical use and of feudal sources of income such as mills, fairs, and serfs, and proprietary churches, tithes, and rights to customary church offerings for the community. Lay brothers, who came to live largely in the granges, exploited the lands of the monasteries, which were grouped together, as far as possible, near the monastery in large, contiguous areas. The choir monks devoted themselves to public and private prayer, lectio divina, and manual work (according to the letter of the Rule of St Benedict), but not to systematic study at the beginning. Artistic work was discouraged later, but the Cîteaux Bible, regarded as the work of Stephen himself, shows marked affinities with contemporary English work. This is only one of many surviving illuminated manuscripts from the Cîteaux Scriptorium in Stephen's time.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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