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Severity and early English Cistercian architecture Roy, Robert Arthur


It is generally agreed that Cistercian architecture of the twelfth century is plain and simple. Many writers attribute this severity wholly to the influence of St. Bernard, without considering the political, social and economic conditions that prevailed during the early years of the Cistercian order's history. In this paper, a wider approach is taken; from a study of early Cistercian architecture in England it is suggested that the simplicity was the product of several factors, rather than the decree of one man. The paper begins with a brief resume of the events leading to the foundation of the Cistercian order and of its early development. The impact of St. Bernard on the order was considerable. Without him it is doubtful if the order would have expanded or, indeed, survived. In England, the movement was faced with many problems. The land was inadequate to support a community that wished to live entirely on its own agricultural production. As the order expanded, the acquisition of extra land became an ever present problem, thus involving the Cistercians in the secular world they had vowed to leave. They took to producing cash crops, such as wool and adopted other financial practices contrary to their rules. The Cistercian ideal had proved unattainable in the England of the time. Early French Cistercian buildings reflect the essential simplicity of the architecture. Although the early churches share the same characteristic features, absolute uniformity was not required. Little decoration was added before the fourteenth century. There is no example of Cistercian architecture left intact in England. However examination of the ruins that remain do reveal the severity of the earliest constructions. As these were extended more decoration and higher quality stonework is evident. English Cistercian architecture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries reflects the development of the order in England during those years. As the order deviated from its rules, so its architecture became more elaborate. Because of this we may conclude that simplicity in English Cistercian architecture was the result of factors other than strict legislation.

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