Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Robert, Abbot of Molesme, Founder of the Cistercians

[Saint Robert of Molesme]Article

A.D. 1110.

Saint Robert was born in Champagne, about the year 1018. His parents, Theodoric and Ermegarde, were no less noble than virtuous, and brought him up in learning and piety. At the age of fifteen, he became a Benedictin monk in the abbey of Montier-la-celle, where he made such progress in perfection, that, though he was one of the youngest in that house, he was chosen prior, and some time after made abbot of Saint Michael de Tonnerre. But not finding the monks of this place disposed to second his good intentions and labours to establish regular discipline among them, but rather of a refractory temper and obstinate behaviour, he left them on the following occasion. There dwelt at that time, in a neighbouring desert called Colan, certain anchorets, who, not having then any regular superior over them, besought him to undertake that office. After several impediments he complied with their request, and was received by them as another Moses to conduct them through the desert of this world to the heavenly Canaan. Colan being unhealthily situated, Robert removed them thence into the forest of Molesme, where they built themselves little cells made of boughs of trees, and a small oratory in honour of the Holy Trinity, in 1075. The poverty of those religious, and the severity of their lives being known, several persons of quality in the neighbourhood, stirred up by the example of the bishop of Troyes, vied with one another in supplying them with necessaries, which introduced by degrees such a plenty as occasioned them to fall into great relaxation and tepidity, insomuch, that the holy Robert, having tried in vain all means to reduce them to the regular observance of their profession, thought proper to leave them, and retired to a desert called Hauz, where certain religious men lived in great simplicity and fervour. Among these he worked for his subsistence, and employed as much of his time as possible in prayer and meditation. These religious men, seeing his edifying life, chose him for their abbot. But the monks of Molesme, finding they had not prospered since his absence, obtained of the pope and the bishop of Langres, an order for his return to Molesme, on their promising that Robert should find them perfectly submissive to his directions. He accordingly came back; but as their desire of his return was only grounded on temporal views, it produced no change in their conduct after the first year. Some of them, however, seeing their lives were not conformable to Saint Bennet’s rule, which was daily read in their chapter, were desirous of a reformation, which the rest ridiculed. Yet the more zealous, seeing it was impossible faithfully to comply with their duties, in the company of those who would not be reformed, recommended the matter to God by ardent prayers, and then repaired to Robert, begging his leave to retire to some solitary place, where they might be able to perform what they had undertaken, find were engaged by vow to practise. Saint Robert promised to bear them company, and went with six of the most fervent of these monks to Lyons, to the Archbishop Hugh, legate of the holy see, who granted them letters patent to that effect; wherein he not only advised, but even enjoined them to leave Molesme, and to persist in their holy resolution of living up to the rigour of the rule of Saint Bennet. Returning to Molesme, they were joined by the rest that were zealous, and, being twenty-one in number, went and settled in a place called Cistercium, or Citeaux, an uninhabited forest covered with woods and brambles, watered by a little river, at five leagues distance from Dijon, in the diocess of Challons. Here these religious men began to grub up the shrubs and roots, and built themselves cells of wood, with the consent of Walter, bishop of Challons, and of Renaud, viscount of Beaune, lords of the territory. They settled there on Saint Bennet’s-day, the 21st of March, in 1098. From this epoch is dated the origin of the Cistercian Order. The archbishop of Lyons, being persuaded that they could not subsist there without the assistance of some powerful persons, wrote in their favour to Eudo, duke of Burgundy. That prince, at his own cost, finished the building of the monastery they had begun, furnished them for a long time with all necessaries, and gave them much land and cattle. The bishop of Challons invested Robert with the dignity of abbot, erecting that new monastery into an abbey. The first rule established by Saint Robert, at Citeaux, allotted the monks four hours every night for sleep, and four for singing the divine praises in the choir: four hours were assigned on working days for manual labour in the morning, after which the monks read till None: their diet was roots and herbs.

The year following, 1099, the monks of Molesme sent deputies to Rome, to solicit an order for their abbot Saint Robert’s return to Molesme, alleging that religious observance had suffered greatly by his absence; and that on his presence both the prosperity of their house, and the security of their souls depended: assuring his Holiness that they would use their best endeavours to give him no further reason to complain of them. Urban II. therefore wrote to the archbishop of Lyons, to procure Saint Robert’s return to Molesme, if it could be conveniently compassed. The legate sent his orders to that effect, and Robert immediately obeyed, remitting his pastoral staff for Citeaux to the bishop of Challons, who absolved him from the promise of obedience he had made him. He was installed anew by the bishop of Langres, abbot of Molesme, which he governed till his happy death, which happened not in 1100, as Manriquez imagined, but in 1110; for, in that year, he reconciled together two abbots, who had chosen him umpire in a quarrel. The ancient chronicle of Molesme says, that Saint Robert was born in 1018, and died in 1110: consequently he lived ninety-two or ninety-three years, and survived Saint Alberic, who died in 1109. Upon proof of many miracles wrought at his tomb, Pope Honorius III enrolled his name among the saints. Martenne has published the information of several of these miracles, taken by an order of that pope. Mention is made of this his canonization by Manriquez, the Younger Pagi, and Benedict XIV.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Robert, Abbot of Molesme, Founder of the Cistercians”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 27 April 2013. Web. 24 March 2018. <>