Braca, Lorenzo (2009) Cistercensi nello specchio dell'aldilĂ . [Journal papers (printed)]
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Led by the Clairvaux entourage, in the second half of the twelfth century Cistercian monks started to compile new histories or their ordo. These texts were collections of miracle tales in which a depiction of a privileged bond linking white monks with the glory of the celestial world was ever prominent. The holy charisma of the Cistercian congregation is represented in historical forms of moral stories and parenetic exempla. The objective of these ideological representations was to consolidate and disseminate an institutional sanctity to those within the congregation and others. The fundamental values of a collective identity were reiterated and transmitted from the centre to the periphery of a widely dispersed congregation. The Exordium Magnum is perhaps the work that emphasises most the importance of a direct cultural intervention. The original Cistercian purity reflects, overturned, an hegemony in decline. The perception of a deep cultural and spiritual crisis led the White Monks to contradict, in some texts, even some teachings of St. Bernard.
The writers perceived a 'danger' of the dissolution of their ordo, partly due to the papal authority's expressed desire to subject the autonomy of the congregation to the libertas ecclesiae, and in part to a progressive disintegration of the Cistercian cultural homogeny, which was compromised by the vast heterogeneous territory in which the monasteries were located. The literature provides a channel through which the white monks endeavoured to strengthen the defence of their economic and juridical autonomy, and bolstered the legitimacy of the many ties linking Cistercian organisations to other powers, be they secular or religious.
My essay examines the symbolic codification of the images adopted by the White Monks. The form of a multi-causal crisis is examined in the context of the literary representation of core themes or motifs: the guarantee of a safe passage to the afterlife, the strong relations between living monks and holy souls, the identification of the monastery as a semi-celestial place, the description of special areas in Heaven exclusively reserved for Cistercian monks. Whilst the themes belong to a single literary tradition, they differ from text to text according to modulation of narrative form, dispositional aspects and detail of reference. The texts all share the same core concept, the Cistercian superiority in the secular world reflected in the spiritual world.
Contemporary historiography has documented the need for Cistercian unity and furthermore the discrepancies between idealistic models and actual situations, particularly with regards to juridical and institutional aspects. Here the analysis of ideological histories permits an integration of the theme of the distance between ideal and reality through an examination of functional development within the representational system.
The symbolic motifs became part of a strategy of cultural consolidation, but these same motifs were also used by certain enemies of the congregation as ammunition in idealogical and material disputes. To reflect on such a conflict, the essay relates the techniques employed in the De Nugis Curialium by Walter Map who adopts and inverts the Cistercian symbolic themes to satirize the White Monks and reveal the camouflage excesses of their literature.
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