Exordium magnum Cisterciense

From medieval

by Brian McGuire

The Exordium magnum Cisterciense (The Great Cistercian Exordium, commonly abbreviated as EM) is a collection of stories about the foundation and first decades of the Cistercian Order. The sources behind much of the EM are for the most part exempla, brief moral tales, but the overall framework and narrative point of view turn the compilation into a chronicle. The EM covers the years from about 1098 to 1190, but starts with the life and teachings of Christ and a brief but fascinating history of monasticism until the twelfth century. The author is probably Conrad of Eberbach, who was monk at Clairvaux in the 1180s and early 1190s and then went to Eberbach in the Rhineland, where he became abbot in 1221, a few months before his death.

The EM is of interest in a Nordic (or at least Scandinavian) context because it contains rich materials about Danish and Swedish monastic figures and foundations. In Denmark the work has been known through the printing of a fragment in SMD 2, entitled De Eskillo archiepiscopo et duobus Eskilli patruis (GERTZ 1922, 428-42)


Quisquis ad aeternam cupiens pertingere vitam...


...vivit et regnat Deus per immortalia saecula saeculorum Amen.


740 pages (370 pages in GRIESSER).


  • IGNATIUS DE YBERO, 1621: Exordia Sacri Ordinis Cisterciensis... Aedita et recollecta per Magistrum D. F. Ignatium de Yvbero Abbatem perpetuum Fuiteriensem. Anno 1621 Pamplonae, Ex officina Nicolai de Assiayn, Typographi Regni Navarrae.
  • TISSIER, B. 1660: Exordium Magnum Cisterciense (Biblioteca Patrum Cisterciensium 1, Bonofonte, repr. in J.P. MIGNE, PL 185, 995-1198).
  • MAGNUSSEN, A. 1695: As an appendix to Vetus Chronica Sialandie, the story of Archbishop Eskil’s youth, in SRD 2, 638-41.
  • GERTZ, M.CL, 1922: “De Eskillo archiepiscopo et duobus Eskilli patruis,” in SMD 2, Copenhagen, 428-42 (repr. 1970) (GERTZ printed the EM's distinction 3, chapters 27 and 28, but referred to these as chapters 25 and 26, concerning Archbishop Eskil’s youth and his uncles’ pilgrimage to and death in Jerusalem).
  • • GRIESSER, B. 1961: Exordium magnum Cisterciense sive Narratio de Initio Cisterciensis Ordinis (Editiones Cisterciense), Rome.


  • (Danish) MCGUIRE, B.P. 1981: “Den lykkelige død af to pilgrimme til herrens grav, ærkebiskop Eskils farbrødre,” in MIV. Museerne i Viborg Amt 11, 82-84.
  • (English) Ward, B. & Savage, P., ed. by Elder, R 2012: The Great Beginning of Cîteaux. A Narrative of the Beginning of the Cistercian Order. The Exordium Magnum of Conrad of Eberbach. Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, Michigan 2012.
  • (French) PIÉBOURG, A. 1998: Le Grand Exorde de Cîteaux ou Récit des débuts de l'Ordre cistercien, traduit par Anthelmette Piébourg, Introduction de Brian P. McGuire, sous la direction de Jacques Berlioz, ed. C. d'Eberbach, C. Brepols/ Cîteaux Commentarii cistercienses.
  • (Spanish) EBERBACH, C. de 1998: Gran Exordio de Cister. Narración de los orígenes de la Orden Cisterciense. Revista Cistercium. Abada Cisterciense de Viaceli.

Date and Place

The dates commonly given for Conrad’s compilation of this work are between 1190 and 1210. The first four books or distinctions were probably written at Clairvaux, while the last two were done at Eberbach (cf. MCGUIRE 1979, 37-42).

Summary of contents

Here is included only materials of interest for Scandinavia. EM 3.27 (GRIESSER 1961, 210-14; GERTZ 1922, 430-37) is entitled “De domno Eskilo, quondam Danorum archiepiscopo, postea monacho Claraevallis” (On lord Eskil, once archbishop of the Danes, later monk of Clairvaux), emphasizing the fact that Eskil left high Church office in order to become a humble monk of Clairvaux. As a lad of twelve Eskil was sent by his parents to study at the cathedral school of Hildesheim in Saxony. Here he fell ill and, near death, was almost given up by the doctors. In this state he had a vision in which he was trapped in a room that was surrounded by fire, like an oven. He was able to escape through a door into a royal palace, where he found the “queen of heaven” sitting “on a throne of glory”. With the “mother of mercy” (who in this account is never called Mary) were three distinguished clerical figures of Hildesheim, including its bishop. The royal lady accused Eskil of failing to honour or pray to her. He begged for mercy and promised always to serve her. He assured her that his parents had sufficient gold to pay for his redemption, and he promised to do whatever she asked. The “queen of virgins” answered that from the five types of grain Eskil was to give her five bushels. The three churchmen guaranteed the pledge he then made. Eskil rejoiced, “Thanks be to God; I shall not burn; I shall not burn”.

One of the churchmen of Hildesheim then told Eskil that he would become a great man of the Church and would come to build five monasteries as fulfilment of his promise to Mary. The same year, all three of the churchmen Eskil had seen in his vision died. He grew up to become an outstanding prelate and founded several monasteries, including two Cistercian houses, one from Cîteaux (Herrisvad) and one from Clairvaux (Esrum). He also became known for his fight against pagan superstitions, and those who disobeyed him and incurred his anathema were dreadfully punished.

The narrative continues by describing Eskil’s devotion to Saint Bernard, the abbot of Clairvaux, whom Eskil visited. When Eskil was about to return home, Bernard gave him some bread, which he blessed in order to make sure it retained its freshness. When Eskil later heard of the death of Bernard, in a letter from Bernard’s secretary Geoffrey of Auxerre, he was deeply saddened. Later he gave up his office and came to Clairvaux, where he lived as a simple monk in the desire to die there and be buried close to his friend Bernard.

The chapter ends with a story of how Eskil once when he was praying alone had a vision of one of his brothers in the flesh, who had died a violent death and who in life had treated Eskil badly. Now the man stood before Eskil, saying nothing, but bowing his head in humiliation. Only the man’s head, neck and shoulders were visible; the rest of his body seemed enveloped in flames. The next day Eskil entered the monks’ chapter and told them of his vision.

EM 3.28 (GRIESSER 1961, 214-17; GERTZ 1922, 437-42) “De felici consummatione duorum peregrinorum sepulcri Domini, avunculorum domni Eskilli archiepiscopi” (The happy end of two pilgrims to the Sepulchre of the Lord, uncles of the lord archbishop Eskil). On his father’s side of the family, Eskil had a warrior uncle, also called Eskil, and a peace-loving uncle, Sven, who became bishop of Viborg (d. 1150). Sven did his best to dissuade his brother Eskil from his evil ways and finally succeeded in convincing him to take the cross and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Eskil insisted, however, that his brother Sven accompany him. In Jerusalem they visited the sepulchre of Our Lord and saw the wood of Christ’s cross. Outside the city they came to the church known as “Pater Noster”, so named because it was supposed to occupy the site where Jesus gave his apostles the Lord’s Prayer.

When the two pilgrims then washed themselves in the Jordan and asked for forgiveness of sins, the warrior Eskil prayed that he could die then and there, for he was afraid of returning to his sinful life in Denmark. His wish was granted, and he died on the spot. When his brother Sven realized what had happened, he thanked God and asked that he should not be separated from his brother. He arranged that his body and that of his brother be taken to the church of Our Father. He then died, and his wishes were carried out. The church was completely restored with the money the two pilgrims left.

The story ends by returning to Archbishop Eskil, who is said to have been inspired by the example of his uncles so that he too wanted to die for Christ. But his death to the flesh consisted in his abandonment of office and riches and becoming a poor man of Christ as a monk of Clairvaux, where he was buried before the altar of Mary. Such people as Eskil preferred the virtues of Bernard rather than the pomp of Egypt.

EM 2.14 (GRIESSER 1961, 108), “De noviciis, quos benedicens et habitum monachicum tradens in spiritu praedixit eos omnes abbates futuros” (Concerning the novices whom he [Bernard] blessed and gave the monastic habit. He foretold that they would all become abbots). This story is included in a group of narratives about Saint Bernard. One of the novices Bernard blessed was Peter, who was sent to a new foundation in Sweden, Nydala (from 1145). Peter lived there to a ripe old age and was considered to be too simple-minded to be elected to any position of importance. At a time when the prophecy of Bernard had almost been forgotten, Peter was chosen to be the first abbot of Nydala’s daughter house, Gudvalla, founded in 1164 on Gotland. The “promotion of so old and simple a man” was taken as proof that every word of Bernard’s many prophecies was being fulfilled.

EM 2.31 (GRIESSER 1961, 138-41), “De converso qui per gratiam Dei et orationem venerabilis abbatis Heinrici damnationis sententiam evasit” (Concerning a lay brother who by the grace of God and the prayer of the venerable Abbot Henry escaped the sentence of damnation). The story concerns a lay brother of Clairvaux who on his deathbed confessed that in his youth, when he was at Esrum Abbey in Denmark, he had fathered a child and had never before confessed or received absolution for the act. Now he was convinced that he would go to hell. The abbot of Clairvaux, Henry (1176-1179, who later became cardinal of Albano and died in 1189), convinced the lay brother that he could still obtain God’s forgiveness.

EM 4.28 (GRIESSER 1961, 258-60), “De venerabli viro domno Gerardo, monacho Claraevallis, postmodum abbate” (On the venerable man, Lord Gerard, monk of Clairvaux, later abbot), concerns a monk of Clairvaux who became the second abbot of Alvastra in Sweden. Alvilda, the queen of King Sverker, asked for monks from Clairvaux to found Alvastra in 1143. Many of the monks were hesitant about going to “distant and barbarous regions”, but Bernard encouraged them to obey his will. As a sign of his blessing on the project, Bernard left the imprint of his finger in a vessel for collecting water from the hands of the priest at mass. The brothers, according to the narrative, still contemplated, “not without a certain horror”, their departure “to the most remote and hidden nations in the furthest clime of northern winter” but trusted in the grace of God because of “the merits and prayers of the holy father”, Bernard.

In the group was a youth of great simplicity, Gerard, who insisted on telling Bernard how hard it was to be separated from the very man whose sanctity had brought him to Clairvaux. Bernard promised Gerard that he would one day return to Clairvaux to die there. Gerard accepted this promise and went to Alvastra, where he became cellarer and prior, and finally abbot. The region is described here as suffering from a paucity of priests, who had to be called in from England and parts of Germany. The presence of monks is said to have had a profound effect on people “who had heard the name of monk but had not seen one”. Gerard left the physical care of the house to his cellarer, Abraham, and spent most of his time in prayer and manual labour. He became famous for his gentleness and patience, even forgiving a monk who in a rage had struck him.

EM 4.29 (GRIESSER 1961, 260-62), “De monacho qui magno miraculo gratiae Dei invisibiliter flebotomatus est” (Concerning a monk who by a great miracle of God’s grace was invisibly bled), continues stories of Alvastra, again emphasizing the “barbarous people” in whose midst the monks had to live. There was a monk who suffered from a severe headache which could only be relieved if the blood in the artery on his forehead were drawn off, a dangerous operation. Abbot Gerard feared this might lead to the monk’s death and refused permission for the operation. The monk went and prayed fervently for a solution, assuring God that he would obey whatever the abbot ordered. A miracle took place, by which the blood was let out of the artery in an invisible manner. With the pressure released, the headache disappeared. Gerard is said to have engendered great respect from the king and the magnates of the land because of his way of life. One of the dukes is supposed to have said that whenever he saw Gerard he was struck by fear, “as if all the secrets and hidden matters of my heart are exposed to his eyes”. As an old man Gerard got his wish to return to Clairvaux. He was taken on a stretcher placed between two horses “through countless dangers of sea and rivers” and brought to the infirmary of Clairvaux, where he soon died. He was buried close to the Bernard “who had loved him so dearly while he lived”. At Gerard’s death the king of Sweden is supposed to have protested that his kingdom and land was not worthy to have the bones of so holy a man laid to rest there.

EM 6.1 (GRIESSER 1961, 366): as part of the long final chapter or recapitulatio of the work, the compiler mentions Henry, the first abbot of Vitskøl in Denmark, who used to tell how as a novice at Clairvaux he shared his quarters with ninety other candidates. One day Bernard entered the probatorium and gave Henry a piece of cheese, with the words: “Brother, eat, a long road is in front of you”. This was Henry’s pittance or special meal to strengthen him for the long road that would first take him to Sweden to help found a monastery and then to Jutland. The mention of the Scandinavian houses is a preface to the remark that “neither Iberian heat nor Scythian cold” could keep the brothers from abandoning their Cistercian ways.

Composition and style

The EM is a compilation, based largely on earlier Cistercian written sources, but also using some material from Conrad of Eberbach’s own experience or stories he heard at Clairvaux or Eberbach. The main source is the Liber miraculorum of Herbert, monk of Clairvaux, composed between 1178 and 1181 (MCGUIRE 1979, 45-49). Herbert’s work, which is only partly available in PL 185, has long needed a modern editor, for it is a major collection of early Cistercian sources. GRIESSER makes clear in his edition of the EM which stories Conrad took from Herbert.

Herbert was interested mainly in pure tales of the miraculous, while Conrad sought to place these within the context of Cistercian ideals and values. Conrad frequently took a narrative from Herbert and provided his own introduction and conclusion. His style is much more ornate than Herbert’s, and the reader can usually tell in the EM when Herbert’s pure narrative stops and Conrad’s commentary begins.

The stories concerning Eskil’s youth and his uncles are first found in Herbert, who knew Eskil at Clairvaux in 1179-1181. It is interesting how the EM selected and edited these stories, usually cutting away narratives that had nothing to do with the Cistercians, except for the case of Eskil’s uncles. The inclusion of this tale in the EM is highly extraordinary and indicates that for Conrad the story was too good to be left out.

Conrad did not, however, take all of the tales Herbert wrote down from Eskil. In mentioning the punishment of those who resisted Eskil’s commands, Conrad greatly simplified a group of stories in Herbert and left out some of the most gruesome details. The portrait of Eskil as a great churchman and humble Cistercian in the EM is altered in comparison to Herbert’s portrait, where we see how Eskil enjoyed bragging about God’s harsh revenge against clerics or laymen who opposed the archbishop.

When Professor PINBORG of the Institute of Greek and Latin Medieval Philology, Copenhagen University, was first introduced to the EM in the late 1970s, he commented on the difficulty of its Latin style. Conrad was ambitious: he had literary ambitions, which went beyond his occasional use of classical sources. His sentences are complex and difficult to translate into modern languages. He savours his miracle stories and goes on line after line before coming to the point. Conrad’s wordiness and occasional turgidity are somewhat relieved by the use of dialogue, often taken directly from Herbert of Clairvaux. It is likely that the limited use of the EM has to some extent been due to its highly embellished style.

Another source for Conrad is the Vita Prima (First Life) of Bernard of Clairvaux, as in the passage about how Eskil first came to visit Bernard (= Vita Prima 4.25, in PL 185, 335A-C). At the end of this narration, in telling of Bernard’s death, Conrad mentions a letter sent by Bernard’s secretary, Geoffrey of Auxerre, to Eskil (included in the Vita Prima 5, PL 185, 351) and then reverts to materials taken from Herbert of Clairvaux and not found in the PL edition, but printed by WEIBULL 1931. With such diverse sources, all of Cistercian provenance, Conrad wove together a fabric of materials that provided summary biographies of the first abbots of Cîteaux and Clairvaux, together with stories of early Cistercian heroes, both inside and outside the cloister.

Sources and literary models

Above all else, the EM is a collection of exempla from a time when this literary genre was just beginning to expand in Western Europe. In most lexica the Franciscans and Dominicans are considered to be the fathers of a new exemplum literature, but the Cistercians were well ahead of them (MCGUIRE 1983).

Besides Herbert of Clairvaux and other Cistercian exemplum collections from the later decades of the twelfth century, Conrad had an eye on the standard accounts of Cistercian beginnings, especially the so-called Exordium parvum or foundation account of Cîteaux (MCGUIRE 1979, 42-45). The very title Exordium magnum was probably intended to remind the reader of the work’s relationship to its predecessor, even though the structure of the two works is quite different. The EP combines narrative with copies of documents concerned with the foundation, while the EM contains very few documents.

In its mini-portraits of good Cistercians, the EM is also close to the genre of hagiography, emphasizing deeds and sayings of saintly men worthy of notice and imitation for coming generations of Cistercians. The twenty chapters dedicated to Saint Bernard in the second distinction provide a new vita of Bernard with some materials not available in the Vita prima. The chapters devoted to monks who went to Sweden or Denmark contain an invaluable indication of the way twelfth-century monks looked upon the harrowing journey to the North and are derivatives of the genre of Christian missionary and travel literature that began with the Acts of the Apostles.

Purpose and audience

The work can be characterized as polemical in tone. The compiler of the EM makes clear early in his work that he intended to defend the Cistercian Order from the attacks made upon it by Benedictine monks, especially in Germany (GRIESSER 1961, 61). At the end of his work he indicates a fear of Cistercian decline from the standards of the early days (p. 365), and he holds up as models the two abbots whom he had experienced at Clairvaux.

Practically everything that the Cistercians wrote at the end of the twelfth and the opening of the thirteenth century is indicative of a sense that the monks were under attack for their privileges and position in the Church (>Exordium monasterii Carae Insulae). Conrad’s strategy was to heroize the early monks and abbots but also to admit the problems plaguing the Order in his time: lay brother revolts, greed for possessions, and even too much sensuality in singing! In this context the Nordic materials were included as part of the record of the “good old days”, when monks made perilous journeys and left behind their beloved Clairvaux and Bernard. Conrad’s simultaneous emphasis on Eskil and his family was intended to show that the Cistercians had powerful friends who completely accepted the monks’ way of life and in the end came to join it.

The audience of the work was probably intended to be mostly Cistercian, even if Conrad mentioned Benedictines. It can be assumed, however, that Conrad would also have liked to have had his work read by members of the secular church, especially the bishops whose continuing goodwill was essential for the welfare of the monasteries.

Medieval reception and transmission

GRIESSER 1961 has a careful listing of the codices, including Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 174, a fifteenth-century paper manuscript from the Benedictine house at Cismar, and Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 175, dated to 1408, from Gouda in the Netherlands. GERTZ 1922 made use of these two manuscripts in his edition of the Eskil stories, especially the latter codex, which he calls A. Here the EM is called Liber de illustribus viris (The Book of Famous Men), a long way from its Cistercian context.

It is quite likely that the EM was available in Cistercian monastic libraries in Scandinavia. The author of the Older chronicle of Zealand (>Chronica Sialandie) knew the EM and made use of it (GERTZ 1922, 7, 35-38, 48-52, 428). In the first large borrowing (p. 35) we find the words: “...ita legitur in libro ‘De Exordio Cistertiensis Ordinis’...” (as it is read in the book on the exordium of the Cistercian Order). Here follows the narrative of the foundation of Alvastra and its abbot, Gerard’s, experiences (EM 4.28-29). In the second large segment from the EM, we find the story of Eskil’s youth and later devotion to Saint Bernard (EM 3.27).


  • •WEIBULL, L. 1931: “En samtida berättelse från Clairvaux om ärkebiskop Eskil av Lund,” Scandia 4, 270-90 (Pioneering work, virtually ignored for many decades, which gathered together hitherto unpublished segments of Herbert of Clairvaux that deal with Scandinavian monasticism and especially with Eskil of Lund).
  • FRANCE, J. 1992: The Cistercians in Scandinavia, Kalamazoo, Michigan (Account of all the Scandinavian foundations, using the Exordium Magnum, especially in the opening pages, 2-6).
  • •MCGUIRE, B.P. 1979: “Structure and Consciousness in the ‘Exordium magnum cisterciense’: The Clairvaux Cistercians after Bernard,” Cahiers de l'Institut du Moyen Age grec et latin 30, 33-90 (Places the work in the context of contemporary Cistercian literature as well as monastic consciousness).
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1981: “Eskild og hans farbrødre,” Museerne i Viborg Amt 11, 85-87 (Introduction to translation of the story of Eskil’s uncles).
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1982: The Cistercians in Denmark: Their Attitudes, Roles and Functions in Medieval Society. Kalamazoo, Michigan (Account of the Cistercian foundations in Denmark, with frequent use of the Exordium Magnum).
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1983: “The Cistercians and the Rise of the Exemplum in early thirteenth century France: A Reevaluation of Paris BN MS lat. 15912,” Classica et Mediaevalia 34, 211-67.
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1985: “Why Scandinavia? Bernard, Eskil and Cistercian Expansion in the North 1140-1180,” in Goad and Nail: Studies in Medieval Cistercian History 10, ed. E. Rozanne Elder, Kalamazoo, 251-82 (Makes use of the Exordium Magnum as well as other Cistercian sources to trace the relationship of Bernard and Eskil).