English Monk Who Encouraged the Ministry of Women

In Wolf Hall, we become enmeshed in the English Reformation and enthralled by the figure of Thomas Cromwell, who dissolved the monasteries. Four centuries earlier, the planting of Cistercian monasteries had been envisaged by an English genius, Stephen Harding, a 12th-century monk from Sherborne, Dorset, who wrote the two-page constitution of the new monastery in Cîteaux, France. He urged the founding of further houses, with annual visitations and a General Chapter.

He was the third Abbot at Cîteaux, and also the mentor of a young novice, Bernard, who was encouraged to set up the monastery at Clairvaux and matured into a major theologian and key figure in medieval Europe. One night, the novice Bernard did not complete his private Psalms and went to bed early. His Abbot asked in the morning: “Bernard, where, I ask, did you leave your Psalms yesterday after Compline, or to whom did you entrust them?” Bernard was astonished at this mystical insight, blushed and threw himself at Harding’s feet, asking for pardon.

Harding was born in Sherborne about 1059 and educated in the Abbey, where he became a monk. He left to travel in Scotland and France, had a profound conversion experience and went to Rome. He was drawn back by God to the monastic life at Molesme in Burgundy and in 1098 went, with part of the community, to found a new monastery at Cîteaux. He was the Abbot from 1109 to 1133 (the year before his death), planted 12 other houses in France between 1112 and 1119, expanded the scriptorium, and wrote hymns.

The modern Harding window at Sherborne Abbey dates from 1963, but is situated in the oldest part of the abbey, in the Saxon porch in the northwest corner. Harding is holding his famous constitution, Carta Caritatis. Jesus College library in Cambridge holds the original Latin manuscript of the only private letter of Harding; we hear his voice near the end of his life. I quote from the English translation cited in Claudio Stercal’s Stephen Harding: a Biographical Sketch and Texts (2008):

To Thurston, venerable abbot of Sherborne and the congregation entrusted to his care by God. Brother Stephen, servant of the Church at Citeaux. Fear Christ, but with love; and love him, but with fear... I was your own monk, and with my staff I passed over the sea, so that in me, the least of all of you and of no importance whatever when I was with you, the Lord might show forth the riches of his mercy and provoke you to emulation of me.

Another source of his life is Exordium Magnum Cisterciense, a massive and complex book, written between 1180 and 1215 by Conrad, Abbot of Eberbach. It has recently been translated, with extensive commentary in the footnotes, by Benedicta Ward and Paul Savage. Conrad described Harding: “He was a man of outstanding holiness, adorned with the grace of all virtues, a lover of the wilderness and very zealous for holy poverty.”The monks noticed that after the readings at supper that it became customary for Harding to press the door of the church quite firmly with his fingers before entering. One brother plucked up courage to ask him about it. Conrad wrote: “The holy father replied, ‘Throughout the day I am compelled to entertain thoughts about matters of business for the welfare of the house, and I tell them to remain on the threshold and not to presume to follow me; tomorrow I will give them my first attention’. ”

The scriptorium at Cîteaux was founded in 1098, but Harding, rather than merely copying manuscripts, wanted to return to the sources. For the revision of the text of the Vulgate, he collated various manuscripts with the help of “some Jews expert in their scripture”.

He planted new monasteries at La Ferte (1113), Pontigny (1114), Clairvaux, led by Bernard (1115), and Morimond (1115). These four abbeys, with Cîteaux, form the “mother abbeys of the Order”. From 1120-25 he played an important part in the founding the female abbey of Tart (northeast of Cîteaux), which became the first Cistercian women’s monastery.

It is clear that Harding was a man of prayer, holiness and wisdom, with a vision for new enterprises and the encouragement of the ministry of women — key lessons for today, in this week of great moment in the Church of England with the consecration of the Right Rev Libby Lane. Perhaps it is time for this considerable English scholar, monk, genius administrator and influential mentor to be included in our liturgical calendar?


This article appears as the Credo column in The Times, 31st January 2015 and we are grateful for permission to co-publish on Fulcrum.

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