Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Cistercian Connection

Gordon S Fowkes, KCTJ, LTC USA RET
Cistercian order was unusual in that it got its hands dirty and acted as a agent of change
The very existence of the First and subsequent Crusades were made possible to a series of revolutions in economic and political life that transformed Northern Europe from backwater and boondock status to a dominance it is retained to this day.  Technology (Tools) drove the process, and it was the entrepreneurial spirt of inventive farmers, craftsmen, and what we call today business.  

The first markets for these inventive farmers were often held in front of the local church, as that was the single most accessible location. The monastery as an economic enterprise provided central direction upon reflection and quickly adopted the technologies to enhance the productivity of the monastery.  The Cistercian Order under Saint Bernard is found in the middle of the process.  What is now called the 12th Century Renaissance is also called the first “world” economy) that went from China to Indonesia to India to the Levant, Europe, and Iceland. Silk at one end, wool at the other. And back again.

 The soil of northern Europe was too dense and damp to be plowed efficiently with the scratch plows of the day to produce much past subsistence.  Even during Roman times the northern woods were at best a buffer or border even in areas under firm Roman control, economic activity was marginal.

 In order to cut the heavy soil, the heavy plow was invented which included a cutter (c), plowshare, and wheels and was initially drawn by oxen. The need for speed and horse power as horses pulled two hours longer and faster, lead to the invention of the horse collar which solved the problem of the oxen yoke which choked the horse.  The hooves of horses did not fare well in the damp earth, unlike oxen, which lead to the use of horse shoes. 

Oxen could survive largely on hay, but horses needed vegetable protein such as from grain and legumes (beans).  The additional protein in farmers diets lead to increased energy in the people in the area. Yes, bean power.

Since legumes contain symbiotic bacteria called Rhizobia were found to restore nitrogen to farmland, crop rotations changed from fallow and wheat to fallow, wheat, and legumes, a change to three crop rotation which also extended the productive use of the land.  Farming is always a gamble, and often a dead end career for those stuck on the farm, particularly when the crops fail.  The woods were often the only place a person could survive, often as bandits.  The woods were also where pigs were allowed to forage for nuts, tubers, and fruits that had been shaken loose by the farmer or game keeper.

 This resulted in a sea change in the land use that allowed the subsistence farmer to go the market originally at the local church to buy and sell.  The creation of markets at the churches gave way to more defined market places that specialized in certain products 

The world of agriculture produced product that was either mobile (sheep, cattle, horses) that required processing (hides, textiles) and resale elsewhere.  Some rooted to the ground that had to be taken to a market for further processing (wines, mines) and some that had several stages of production.  Sheep were a good investment, for their wool, especially fine in the colder northern climates.  Sheep’s wool was sheared by the shepherd, which wool was sold in the Fairs and markets of Champaign, later Belgian for processing and weaving, which was bought by Italians from Northern Italy for further refinement, and from there for international trade

The increase in the need for specialized labor and services like blacksmith (Smith) created an entirely system of family names based on trade, craft, or job such as: Spinner, Weaver, Fuller, tailors (Taylor), skinners (Skinner), Farmers, Banker, Driver, Gates, Monk, Priest,  Tucker, Walker, and the like.  The impact of this association of economic function with family name lasts to the present day is an indicator of the dramatic and dynamic change in society, economics, war and politics north of the Alps.

Commerce requires an exchange of goods, services, and/or money.   And the Northern Italians brought their financial, industrial, and transportation skills honed in the Mediterranean to plug into the Campaign, Belgian and English trade centers.  And with the Italian financiers came a necessary connection between the Papacy, and the Holy Roman Empire where St Bernard was a superb diplomat and player in the politics of the Catholic world. 


 This was enhanced by the law in many lands that if a peasant, serf or bound servant were able to stay away from the local area for a year, that person was a free person (Freeman) who could work at the growing towns.  The more successful in business and trades created a new social class that lived and worked in a town, called the burger (burg is Germanic for town) hence “bourgeoisie”.  They, then as now, organized into Guilds and associations for the purpose of quality control. 

Likewise the tradesmen, artisans, and workers did organize. The first labor laws protecting selected trades were enacted in Ghent in the 11th Century (give or take).  While Burger and the Trades often were at serious odds to each other, when it came time to protect the town, they raised city militias and trained professional quality troops.  All this at the same time as the Crusades.  Machiavelli’s “On War (De Re Militari)” argued that the best military for a Republic was a well-trained militia. 

Politically, there is always a group of “elders” or “good old boys” who serve as either formal or informal form of governance which before 1800 were called, a Commune.  Normally property owners, burgers, and representatives of the guilds and associations, shared power with the titular feudal authority except when they went their own way.  The communes controlled the means of production in their towns and with association with other towns.   The wool producing towns in France, Belgium and Germany were either dominated by the communes or independent as “communal republics”.

Yes, Marx stole the name of a form of governance run by business interests leaving scholars no noun to describe a business oriented polity.   The concept of “capitalism” likewise make it impossible to mix business and politics except behind the door. 

Many Italian city states used the communal republic as a form of governance. As such, Florence, Genoa and Venice were republic in form.   Universal suffrage was a 20th Century development.  Romeo and Juliet is about a family feud within the Republic of Venice.   These Italian cities provided the banking, trading and maritime skills for the wool producing regions which regions later shifted to Belgium and England. 

 We know that St Bernard of Clairvaux whose monastery was near the wool market at Bar-sur-Aube orchestrated the recognition of the Knights Templar at the Council of Troyes in 1129, a decade after their founding in Jerusalem.  Troyes was one of the cities that held the annual Champagne trade fairs which brought to the fore, the domination of the early wool trade.   Trade in textiles before the US Civil War had the same influence as does oil does today.  King Cotton did not save the CSA.

St Bernard was a cut above your average run of the mill king maker, he was the Pope maker (three or four) behind the door as well as up front in the pulpit.  King makers came to him.   As the Papacy’s premier and extraordinary representative, he was a Guelph (Papacy) versus Ghibelline (Holy Roman Emperor) in their struggle to control the wealthy north Italian cities. These cities had organized into alliances such as the Lombard League in league with the Frangipani (three popes and thirty four cardinals) and Orsini families. 

This further allied the powers that were in France and the Low Countries in also in opposition to the Holy Roman Empire.  Key amongst the French supporters of the Papacy included Counts of Anjou (Fulk or Foulques) family who were avid supporters of the Cistercians, St Bernard and the Knights Templar. Fulk III had built abbeys and monasteries in the Loire valley (heart of France).  Fulk IV became King of Jerusalem, and his son, Geoffrey Plantagenet was the first of the line of the Plantagenet Royal family of England (as in Richard the Lion Hearted) and of the Angevin Empire.

 Go figure