A local community, a community of "locals": The Cistercians of Altenberg Abbey, 1133--1539

Date of Completion

January 2009


Religion, General|History, European|History, Medieval




Cistercian scholars often explore the order's early history (its 1098 establishment in northern France and subsequent rapid spread throughout Europe in the twelfth century), while the later Middle Ages are viewed as a period of economic and spiritual decline for the order. This study suggests, first, that by studying Cistercians over the course of the high to late Middle Ages, there is much to be learned about Cistercian patronage, community ties, and interactions between members of the monastery—both lay (conversi ) and spiritual (abbots and monks). In addition, evidence from this later period suggests that some Cistercian communities not only survived through the late Middle Ages, but were able to successfully navigate this period's sometimes rough economic and spiritual terrain. It is argued here that one of our most accurate measures of Cistercian "success" in the late Middle Ages is the manner in which Cistercians responded to economic, social, and religious shifts precipitated by events of the fourteenth century (namely, the devastation caused by successive epidemics of plague, and the pan-European economic decline which followed). After 1400, land charters and other documents of practice reveal that Altenberg not only continued to lease out its rural holdings, along with what sources suggest was a deliberately scaled-down number of urban holdings, but it steadfastly pursued and finally acquired the lordship of Riehl, north of Cologne. Altenberg's monks surely did not see themselves as belonging to an institution in decline, particularly if we consider that economic stability, not expansion and filiation, was of central concern to the order during this period. As sources demonstrate, Altenberg Abbey was indeed successful in this sense. ^