Exordium monasterii Carae Insulae

From medieval

by Brian McGuire

The Exordium Monasterii quod dicitur Cara Insula (The Beginning of the Monastery called the Beloved Isle) is an account of the efforts by the Cistercian monks of Vitskøl (founded 1158) in Northern Jutland to establish a daughter house in Central Jutland, known in Danish as Øm, about 35 km southwest of Århus, in what is known as the Danish Lake District (Søhøjlandet). The Øm foundation account is supplemented first by a description of the early abbots and then a chronicle of the controversies that took place between the monastery in the 1250s and 1260s with the bishops of Århus. To this is added a brief description of the boundaries of the monastery’s land on Djursland. The account survives in its original medieval manuscript and so is one of the great treasures of Nordic Latin culture.


Ad noticiam posterorum transmittere cupientes...


...Postea idem amnis a molendino vsque ad mare diuidit inter nos, Hagthweth et Glappæthweth.


106 pages.


  • CHRISTENSEN, C.A. 1960: Øm Bogen, CCD 2, Copenhagen (facsimile edition of the manuscript).
  • LANGEBEK, J. 1783: SRD 5, Copenhagen, 235-302.
  • • GERTZ, M.CL. 1922: Exordium Monasterii Carae Insulae, in SMD 2, Copenhagen, 158-264.


(Danish) OLRIK, J. 1997 (together with J. Isager and H. N. Garner): Øm Klosters Krønike. Scriptorium. Øm Kloster Museum. Reprint of Århus Stifts Årbøger 1912 with additions.

Date and place

The Exordium Monasterii Carae Insulae exists in a manuscript which can conveniently be called the Øm Book (MCGUIRE 1982, 16-17). The first section, the description of the monastery’s foundation (fols. 2r-23r), can be called the Exordium 1 (MCGUIRE 1976). It is dated to 1207 and reflects the situation of the monastery some decades after its difficult foundation and in the light of challenges to Cistercian houses’ exemption from payment of tithes on new land acquisitions.

The second section of the Øm Book is made up of a commented list of the abbots: Nomina abbatum qui prefuerunt in hoc monasterio (fols. 23r-25r). The first of these thumbnail biographies were written at the same time as the Exordium 1, but others were added later. The list expands into a fuller chronicle of the fate of the monastery in the 1240s and 1250s, going to the dedication of the new church in 1257 (fol. 27v), and followed (fol. 28r-v) by a much briefer abbot list that was continued to 1320 (see the list of Øm abbots in FRANCE 1992a, 513-15). The biographies of at least the first six abbots were made in the same hand as Exordium 1 (see the notes in GERTZ 1922, 193-96).

The third section of the Øm Book consists of a description of the controversies with the bishops of Århus at the end of the 1250s and 1260s (fols. 29r-43r = GERTZ 1922, 206-63) and has been named Exordium 2 (MCGUIRE 1976, 24-26). There have been various attributions of the authorship of the chronicle but there is no consensus on the matter, though one authority points to Abbot Bo (CHRISTENSEN 1960, XIV). There is no doubt, however, that the author was a member of the Øm community and the account was written as the controversy developed at the end of the 1250s and the early 1260s.

The account ends abruptly in the middle of a word (fol. 43r) and the lower part of the page has been cut away. On the back (fol. 43v) starts a description of the boundaries of the monastery’s lands on Djursland (GERTZ 1922, 263-64).

A new quire contains the biography of Bishop Gunner of Viborg, abbot of Øm from 1216-1221 (fols. 45r-53r; GERTZ 1922, 265-78). It used to be thought this was written at Øm in the 1260s but now consensus is that the work was composed by a monk of Vitskøl sometime after Gunner's death in 1251 and was later copied into the Øm Book (Vita Gunneri episcopi Viburgensis).

Summary of contents

The Exordium 1 of the Øm Book starts with a preface making it clear that its purpose is to defend the legitimacy of the foundation in the forty years that had passed since the beginnings of the monastery. A list of chapters is then given, ending with the twenty-sixth chapter, containing the names of the abbots who had headed the monastery.

The first chapters tell the complex story of how the monks in 1165 came to Sminge, given to them by Bishop Eskil of Århus, but had to move because of the poverty of the place. Their next stop was Veng (1166), but here they experienced difficulties not only because of an existing monastic foundation which the Cistercians tried to reform but also due to a woman who was related to King Valdemar I and who had other plans for the place (ch. 4, GERTZ 1922, 163-64). At every stage of the monks’ movements their efforts are documented by copies of charters granted by King Valdemar, bishops and popes. In ch. 12 we are told how the monks left Veng and in 1168 went to the island of Kalvø in Skanderborg Lake (GERTZ 1922, 169). Once again they were unlucky: their location was unsuitable because of problems with transportation (GERTZ 1922, 176: “sometimes for half a month no one could leave or come to [the area], hindered by bad weather or ice”). Finally in the spring of 1172 the brothers transferred to a site between the lakes Gudensø and Mossø, with the help of a brother named Martin whose knowledge of engineering demonstrated that a canal could be made between the two lakes to bring water to the place.

Much of the remainder of Exordium 1 is a declaration of affection to the memory of Bishop Svend of Århus, who not only enriched the monastery but also showed great devotion to the monks (especially ch. 31, GERTZ 1922, 186-89). The monks’ commentary is threaded among a number of royal, episcopal and papal charters whose intention is to demonstrate the monastery’s legal status. The enthusiasm for constructing such a legalistic story indicates the monastery in the early thirteenth century felt threatened, assumedly because of controversy over exemption from tithes, resolved at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, a few years after the documents in Exordium 1 were compiled.

The Abbot List starts, as mentioned above, with a few brief sentences about each of the first ten abbots, indicating that the first to come from Denmark was the fourth abbot, Brandan, 1193-1197 (FRANCE 1992a, 514). With Abbot Michael or Mikkel (1235-1246) the list turns into a fuller chronicle of the monastery but stops short of being a complete account, for it refers to the monks’ now lost cronica nostra et acta temporum (GERTZ 1922, 199). The tone of the account becomes more and more bitter in describing how political leaders mistreated the monastery, such as King Abel, who is named non Abel sed Babel (Ibid.) From Asgod (1255-1260) to Niels Finsen, elected in 1320, the List reverts to its previous brevity.

The Exordium 2 or account of disputes with the bishops of Århus Peter Ugotsen (1249-1260) and Tyge (1260-1272) provides the most polemical piece of writing we have from any Cistercian house in Scandinavia. Once again it is a question of rights and privileges for a Cistercian monastery and the assumption of the monks that they could continue to remain the darlings of the secular church in Denmark at a time when bishops had other interests. The monks refused to house the bishop of Århus and his men in providing hospitality or procurations on the conditions demanded and allied themselves with the Archbishop of Lund, Jacob Erlandsen (1252-1274). The archbishop’s uncompromising stance on the question of ecclesiastical-royal relations eventually drove him into permanent exile.

According to one interpreter (SKYUM-NIELSEN 1971, 183-92) the monks of Øm were deceitful in their attempt to maintain what they considered to be their rights. Another view of the controversy (MCGUIRE 1976, esp. 82-86) has emphasized how the monks could have experienced the attacks made on them. They could not understand how the world had changed in the previous century and how little their old privileges mattered in a tougher and more competitive society. Whoever is correct in interpreting the motives and behaviour of the monks, there is no doubt that the monastery by 1267 was in a sorry state. The abrupt ending of Exordium 2, which has long fascinated historians and novelists, may reflect a sense on the part of the monks that it was no longer useful to try to account for right or wrong: they simply had to give way to the royal party and its advocate in the bishop of Århus. Composition and style

The reader of the Øm Abbey Chronicle cannot help noticing the difference between the leisurely, almost stately Latin prose of the Exordium 1 with the hectic, anxious language of the Exordium 2. The earlier Exordium is written by a monk who may have well come to Øm from abroad and who was well trained in grammar and had a superb Latin vocabulary. Consider, for example, the description of how the former abbot of Veng submitted himself to the regulari disciplina of Vitskøl: ... semper gemens in contritione lacrimarum, quod in priori ordine inordinate nimis uixerit; et post ad propriam domum in melius commutatam reuersus reliquum uite sue tempus in incepto opere consummans... (always sighing in tearful contrition that in his former order he had excessively lived in a disordered manner; after he had been changed for the better, he returned to his own house and completed the rest of his life in the work he had begun...: GERTZ 1922, 161). This long period is built up in exquisite manner, working up to the ending of the reformed abbot’s life.

A good contrast to this measured style is one of the final sentences in the Exordium 2 (GERTZ 1922, 263): Ad ultimum prefixus est abbati terminus finalis ex parte domini regis, mandans ei, ut personaliter se presentaret aspectui suo, mittens ei litteram, ut secure posset uenire et redire... (Finally a final date was set for the abbot on behalf of the lord king, commanding him that he personally appear before him, and sending to him a letter, that he could safely go and return...). The phrase terminus finalis is not the best Latin; the verb is placed in the middle of the sentence; the participle mittens is confusing in its position. The language is understandable but has none of the elegance of its predecessor.

This change in tone and style is hardly surprising, considering the alteration of the abbey’s fortunes. One can surmise that the monk or abbot who wrote the account of the abbey’s disputes with the bishops of Århus did not have the careful training in Latin prose as his predecessor from the beginning of the century. It would be useful to study the development of phrases describing character in the List of Abbots as an indication of the development of Latin style in a Danish Cistercian monastery. Sources and literary models

There is no doubt that the compiler of Exordium 1 knew of the existence of the Cistercian Exordium Parvum. The opening of the Øm Exordium indicates the same desire that the monks of Cîteaux expressed to defend the legitimacy of their foundation by describing its progress and including copies of documents issued especially by episcopal and papal authorities (BOUTON & VAN DAMME 1974). The monks of Øm were probably influenced by other Cistercian chronicles: the later twelfth and early thirteenth century was a golden age for the composition of such narrative accounts to defend the position of the monasteries in society (MCGUIRE 1976, 20-26).

There has long been scepticism about the worth of the Øm Exordium 1 as an historical source (BUCHWALD 1877, 51: GREEN-PEDERSEN 1964). Recent work, however, has attempted to look upon the Exordium 1 and other Scandinavian foundation chronicles “in their wider context” (FRANCE 1992b, esp. 160). The monk who drew up the Exordium 1, made use of biblical and monastic phrases as a background for his description of the monastery’s first years. This is the case, for example, in describing Bishop Svend of Århus on the basis of 1 Cor. 9.22: Omnibus omnia se fecit, ut omnia merita sua faceret (GERTZ 1922, 188).

The Abbot List, in all its brevity, is even more characterized by biblical reminiscences, as in referring to Abbot Thorkil in terms of the shrewdness of the serpent and the simplicity of the dove (GERTZ 1922, 193, cf. Matth. 10.16). He had the latter but lacked the former! There are also half-hidden references to the Rule of Saint Benedict, as when Abbot Mikkel is said to have shown “greater joy in the increase of the flock committed to him than if he had received any great temporal gift from someone” (GERTZ 1922, 196; cf. Regula ch. 2).

At times the narrative refers to other sources about Øm Abbey which are now lost. This is the case in a description of Abbot Jens Horsens in the late 1260s or early 1270s: “of whom here few things are written; for in another place more will be found about him” (GERTZ 1922, 203). The compiler of the later Abbot List from the end of the thirteenth century seems to have planned a larger and more complete work (ibid., 204: Quare, quomodo et qualiter, hoc honeste post hos dies expressius recitari non omittatur).

The Exordium 2 or account of the dispute with the Århus bishops in the 1250s and 1260s starts with a number of biblical references or reminiscences (GERTZ 1922, 207-10) but is soon taken over by its documentary sources, including copies of appeals by Danish Cistercian abbots to the abbot of Cîteaux and the General Chapter (GERTZ 1922, 228). Purpose and audience

The contents of the Øm Book have been looked upon primarily as elements in thirteenth century Danish legal controversies between monastic privilege on the one hand, and episcopal and royal power on the other. Without denying the relevance of this point of view, the Øm Book can also be seen as a declaration of devotion to the place and to the Rule of Saint Benedict, in the tradition of the first Cistercians who described themselves in the Exordium Parvum as “loving both the place and the observance of the holy Rule in it” (BOUTON & VAN DAMME 1974, 54). More work needs to be done on the literary and human bonds between the Cistercians in Denmark and in the rest of Europe. The Øm source, however, is part of a wider literature of Cistercian chronicles defending the legitimacy of monastic foundations, declaring devotion to the church leaders who helped out the monks, and polemicizing against those who opposed them.

There is no better indication of the purpose of the Exordium 1 than its own initial declaration: “Desiring to transmit to the notice of descendants, how this monastery, which is called Øm, began, we wish at the same time to show, at what time and by which persons it was built, or by which privileges it was confirmed and transferred to the place where it now is, from one place to another...” The compiler claims that anyone who knows “the truth of the foundation and the dignity of the founders” (cognita ueritate fundationis et reuerentia fundatorum) will hold back from doing harm and instead will “love and protect” the monastery. Such persons will thereby, together with the monks and their Order, obtain the hope of heaven (GERTZ 1922, 158).

The intention seems to be that by providing a documented account of their origins, the monks in future would be able to gain protection from all harm and be safe from all disturbance. At the same time, however, the growth of this account into a record of abbots may indicate that the chronicle also became important for the members of the monastery as their way of commemorating good – and less good – abbots.

The Exordium 2, with its extremely polemical tone, is not as transparent in its purpose. We have no preface to provide an explicit declaration of intention. It may well be, however, that it was meant to provide an account that could be handed over to the General Chapter at Cîteaux, to the papal court, and to any episcopal authority that was willing to involve itself in the fracas for the sake of the monks. The Exordium 2 is thus formulated as “a general appeal to all who might have some influence in the matter” (MCGUIRE 1976, 25-26).

Medieval reception and transmission

Copenhagen, Royal Library, E don. var. 135 4°, was in 1731 given by Count Christian Rantzau to the University Library (LANGEBEK 1783, 231 ff.) We do not know how Rantzau got hold of the manuscript nor how it survived the period from the dissolution of Øm in 1560 until the eighteenth century. No trace of the Øm Book is to be found in the list of books from the Øm library made up in 1554 (MCGUIRE 1976, 128-35). But the existence of the Øm Book, with 53 parchment leaves that are written upon and bound in wooden plates covered by skin and with bronze buckles, remains one of the small miracles of survival from Denmark’s medieval period.


  • BUCHWALD, G. V. 1878: “Die Gründungsgeschichte von Øm und die dänischen Cistercienser,” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Schleswig-Holstein-Lauenburgische Geschichte 8, 1-121 (An attack on the veracity of the Øm foundation account and a point of departure for twentieth-century evaluations of the source).
  • DAHLERUP, P. 1998: Dansk Litteratur. Middelalder. 1 Religiøs litteratur 2. Verdslige litteratur (The Øm Chronicle is, peculiarly, placed under secular literature, vol. 2, 51-54, in this important treatment of Latin and vernacular literature in medieval Denmark).
  • DAMSHOLT, N. 1985: Kvindebilledet i dansk højmiddelalder, Copenhagen, esp. 90-97 (Evaluation of the Øm Chronicle in terms of its view of women).
  • DE FINE LICHT, K. and MICHELSEN, V. 1992: “Øm Klosterkirke,” Danmarks Kirker. Århus Amt, hæfte 40, 3777-3808 (Besides providing a complete archaeological history of the abbey, this superb article also gives the fullest bibliography of the monastery to date).
  • FRANCE, J. 1992a: The Cistercians in Scandinavia, Kalamazoo, Michigan (Frequent references to the Øm Chronicle are spread throughout this useful book, which includes an abbot list and chronology).
  • FRANCE, J. 1992b: “Cistercian Foundation Narratives in Scandinavia in their Wider Context,” Cîteaux Commentarii Cistercienses 43, 118-60 (The Øm Chronicle here finds a treatment in its rightful place amid medieval Cistercian literature. A response to GREEN-PEDERSEN 1981).
  • GREEN-PEDERSEN, S.E. 1964: “Øm Klosters grundlæggelse og dets forhold til bisp Sven af Århus,” Århus Stifts Årbøger 1964, 173-246 (Important attempt to bring Buchwald’s source criticism up-to-date, in the tradition of Niels Skyum-Nielsen’s critical view of the monks).
  • GREEN-PEDERSEN, S.E. 1981: “De danske Cistercienserklostres grundlæggelse og den politiske magtkamp i det 12. århundrede,” Middelalder, metode og medier. Festskrift til Niels Skyum-Nielsen på 60-årsdagen, 41-65 (The foundation of Øm, as well as that of other houses, is seen in a purely Danish context).
  • Gregersen, B. & Selch Jensen, C. (eds) 2003: Øm Kloster, Kapitler af et middelalderligt cistercienserabbedis historie. Øm Kloster Museum, Syddansk Universitetsforlag.
  • JØRGENSEN, A.D. 1879: “Striden mellem Biskop Tyge og Øm Kloster,” Årbøger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie, 111-53 (An answer, but in a polemical tone, marked by the War of 1864, to Buchwald’s evaluation of the Øm Chronicle).
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1976: Conflict and Continuity at Øm Abbey. A Cistercian Experience in Medieval Denmark (Museum Tusculanum Opera graecolatina 8), Copenhagen (An experiment in reorienting the interpretation of the Øm Chronicle so that the point of view of the monks themselves is taken more seriously).
  • MCGUIRE, B.P. 1982: The Cistercians in Denmark. Attitudes, Roles and Functions in Medieval Society, Kalamazoo, Michigan (The Øm Book is considered in an initial chapter on the sources and the evidence of the Chronicle is central for an understanding of the Cistercians in their social context).
  • SKYUM-NIELSEN, N. 1971: Kirkekampen i Danmark 1241-90. Jakob Erlandsen, samtid og eftertid, Copenhagen (Reprint of doctoral thesis from 1962 that secured Skyum-Nielsen’s reputation as an expert on historical method. The Øm Chronicle took a harsh beating).