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The Novice-master in the Cistercian Order

The Novice-master in the Cistercian Order

By Mirko Breitenstein

Generations in the Cloister: Youth and Age in Medieval Religious Life, edited by Sabine von Heusinger and Annette Kehnel (Berlin, Lit Verlag: 2008)

Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500)

Introduction: “An experienced senior shall be assigned to them who is suited for winning souls and watches over them with the utmost care.”

In his rule, Benedict describes – in these brief words – the character of the person, whose duty it is to introduce the novices to everyday life in a monastery. These are extremely sparse formulations when taking into account that the successful continuation in personnel of a monastery or a religious community in general depended on this man’s work to a significant extent.

Benedict’s brief description of the duties of a magister novitiorum corresponds to a generally striking discretion regarding this office in rule texts handed down to posterity, although it has to be considered one of the most important offices within the vita religiosa. Information relating to the novice master has to be rather sought in the customs, constitutions and in similar texts. Their explanations and regulations come closer to the practices of the respective community than can be expected from rules.

This essay now continues with a brief outline of the position and tasks of the magister novitiorum in order to show the importance of the office and its holders for the continuation in religious communities. This task appears all the more necessary in view of the absolutely inadequate research situation, because, compared to the noviciate as such, there are virtually no studies about the novice master. However, the lack of explicit sources concerning the master and his tasks constitutes a major reason for this situation.


Here, the Cistercian community is to serve as an exemplary research object, as this community has without doubt a model character within the range of orders in the 12th century. In this, the Cistercians are part of an unfolding vita religiosa in as much as they become prototypes and generators of this development themselves. With the help of selected texts, this essay will show the field of activity of the master as well as possible qualifications enabling him to take on this office.

Click here to read this chapter on Academia.edu

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