A shared imitation: Cistercian convents and crusader families in thirteenth-century Champagne

Cistercian Nuns 2A shared imitation: Cistercian convents and crusader families in thirteenth-century Champagne

Anne E. Lester (Department of History, University of Colorado at Boulder)

Journal of Medieval History: 35:4 (2009)


This article examines the relationship between Cistercian nunneries and the crusade movement and considers the role of gender in light of the new emphasis on penitential piety and suffering prevalent during the thirteenth century. Focused on evidence from the region of Champagne in northern France, it argues that female family members of male crusaders adopted Cistercian spirituality as a means of participating in the experience of suffering and the pursuit of the imitation of Christ that had come to be associated with the act of crusading. The connection between Cistercian nuns and crusaders was further strengthened during this period as the Cistercian order expanded its liturgy to include specific rounds of prayers for success in the east and in southern France, for Jerusalem, and for the well-being of crusaders. Many crusader families in Champagne founded Cistercian nunneries to function as family necropolises, further sharpening the connections between crusaders, memory, and suffering as experienced in female Cistercian houses.

Over the past three decades medievalists have recast the history of the crusades in significant ways, asking new questions about who joined the movement, how each expedition differed, and expanding the sources for such a history. As a consequence, crusade studies have broadened our understanding of the undertaking, defining the crusades as a much larger religious movement, which extended beyond the limits of the middle ages strictly speaking and which informed conceptions of medieval Christendom both along its borders and within its bounds.1 Acknowledging the crusades as a religious movement rather than a military expedition or series of campaigns also meant compassing its reverberations and effects within Europe and specifically among the families and social networks that fostered and supported crusaders.2 Jonathan Riley-Smith, Marcus Bull and others have shown persuasively that crusaders cannot be extracted from their kin. Rather, families often promoted crusading over generations. Habits of aristocratic patronage linked crusaders with local religious houses, hospitals and family members long after their departure and return.3 Moreover, by the thirteenth century, the crusade movement became ever more entwined with contemporary notions of penitential piety and ideas of self-sacrifice and suffering that were integral to the practice of the imitatio Christi, or imitation of Christ, one of the central spiritual ideals of the high middle ages.

Click here to read this article from the Journal of Medieval History

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