Friday 5 August 2016

Men of Yore: Stephen Harding

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

Stephen Harding, O.Cist. (French: Étienne Harding, died 28 March 1134), was an English-born monk and abbot, who was one of the founders of the Cistercian Order in what is now France. He is honoured as a saint in the Catholic Church.

Harding was born in Sherborne, Dorset, in the Kingdom of England, and spoke English, Norman, French and Latin.[1] He was placed in Sherborne Abbey at a young age, but eventually left the monastery and became a travelling scholar, journeying with one devout companion, into Scotland and afterwards to Paris and then to Rome.[2] He eventually moved to Molesme Abbey in Burgundy, under the Abbot Robert of Molesme (c. 1027-1111).

When Robert left Molesme to avoid its corruption and laxity, Harding and Alberic of Cîteaux went with him; but upon the complaint of the monks, they were called back again — Robert, by an order of the pope, the other two by the local bishop. The young Harding was then made superior. Seeing no hope of a sufficient reformation, Robert appointed another abbot at Molesme; then, with Alberic, Harding and twenty-one other monks, received permission from Hugh, Archbishop of Lyons, and legate of the Holy See, to retire to Citeaux, a marshy wilderness five leagues from Dijon where they formed a new, more austere, monastery.[2] Eudes, afterwards Duke of Burgundy, built them a little church, which was placed under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, as all the churches of the Cisterians from that time have been.

Robert was initially abbot of Cîteaux Abbey, returning to Molesme after a year. Alberic then took over, serving as abbot until his death in 1109.[2] Stephen, the youngest of the three, became the third abbot of Cîteaux. However, very few were joining the community and the monks were suffering from hunger and sickness. It seemed for a while as if the new order was destined to die out.[3] In 1112,Bernard of Clairvaux entered the community, bringing with him thirty companions.[4] Between 1112 and 1119, a dozen new Cistercian houses were founded to accommodate those joining the young order. Harding's powers as an organiser were exceptional, he instituted the system of general chapters and regular visitations. In 1119, he wrote the "Carta Caritatis" (Charter of Charity), an important document for the Cistercian Order, establishing its unifying principles.[4]

Stephen Harding served Cîteaux Abbey as its abbot for twenty-five years. While no single person is considered the founder of the Cistercian Order, the shape of Cistercian thought, and its rapid growth in the 12th century, was arguably due to the leadership of Harding. Insisting on simplicity in all aspects of monastic life, he was largely responsible for the severity of Cistercian architecture.[5] In 1133, he resigned as head of the order, because of age and infirmity.[4] He died on 28 March 1134,[6] and was buried in the tomb of Alberic, his predecessor, in the cloister of Cîteaux.[5]

In a joint commemoration with Robert of Molesme and Alberic, the first two abbots of Cîteaux, Stephen Harding's feast day is celebrated by the Cistercian Order, on 26 January.


It's often  said that 'women are a civilising force on men'.  Are they heck.  Monasteries are proof that men don't need the influence of 'a good women' in order to become civilised and create great works.  Some great achievements have come out of monasteries over the past millenia: architecture, agricultural technology, the written word, medical care and so on.  Monasteries from the East and monasteries from the West prove to us that men like can live together and peaceful and fruitful lives, and that they don't need a woman to 'civilise' them.

In the west one of the more remarkable monastic orders are the Cistercians.  They contributed greatly to the development of agriculture.  So much did they contribute to the advancement of agriculture that some historians have speculated that if it wasn't for the protestant revolution and the dissolution of the monasteries in England, that the Industrial Revolution may have occured a few hundred years sooner.  Which means for thee and me we could be taking vacations on Mars ourselves rather than watching sci-fi movies about Mars instead.  Shame really, I rather fancy having a trundle around the base of Mount Olympus and having a butchers in the souvineer shop..


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