Ailred died in 1167, a significant date because of what had not yet occurred. He died before the hard work and systematic organization of the Cistercian conversi, the lay-brothers, in England effected the flourishing wool trade. The resulting wealth would rebuild Abbot William’s Rievaulx into the gothic monastery, the ruins of which are the impressive memorial we see today. That wealth and prosperity would also mark the decline of Cistercian observance and intellectual life. Ailred died before Thomas a Becket was murdered in 1170. Ailred was still alive in 1163 when King Henry II assembled the English bishops at Westminster to end the benefit of clergy and the separation of ecclesiastical courts. Thomas a Becket sought refuge at the Cistercian monastery at Potigny in France. There seems to be some evidence that at the General Chapter Ailred, the dyed-in-the-wool monarchist, felt that the Cistercians should not shelter the Archbishop of Canterbury but send him back to obey his king. Another Cistercian Abbot (and author), Isaac of Stella, an Englishman in a French Abbey, took the opposite point of view. As you may recall, Ailred had lauded the young Henry II and had conveniently not referred to his marriage to the (divorced) Eleanor of Aquitaine, former Queen of France. Would the mueder of Thomas a Becket have left him in conflict? In 1187 Jerusalem would fall from the control of the Frankish, Latin Christians to Salah ha-Din; the seeming “high point” of a Catholic Syrian kingdom in the Near East was past. The Cistercian Bishop, Baldwin of Ford, an avid supporter of Thomas a Becket, would die at Acre in 1190 during the Third Crusade, the “Crusade of Kings”. As Bishop of Canterbury and Bethlehem, he may have represented the furthest extent, in one man, of Cistercian influence and ecclesiastical authority since Pope Eugene III (died 1153). Baldwin might be considered one of the last, theologically creative Cistercian writers of the Twelfth Century. Not long after his death, the Cistercians would bungle the Albigensian mission entrusted to them by the Pope; their failure would be repaired by the new Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, and the rise of the mendicant friars, eclipsing the older monastic Orders. The next century would witness the rise of scholastic thought over monastic writing, the consolidation of monarchy, as emerging nation-states in the secular realm and the centralization of the Papacy in ecclesiastical affairs.
Understanding Ailred’s life and work is also understanding a unique and fruitful summation of medieval thought preceding the tensions of new movements, political and cultural. His life and work, poised between cultural continuity and cultural breakdown and reorganization, may explain–in part–immediacy of his work to readers today.
If you’re interested in deepening your appreciation of Ailred, here are a few helpful texts:
The Monastic Theology of Aelred of Rievaulx: an Experimental Theology, by Amedee Hallier, Cistercian Studies 2 (Liturgical Press, Colegeville). This is a systematic treatment of Ailred’s unsystematic writings which can help clarify Ailred’s thought.
Aelred of Rievaulx, A Study, by Aelred Squire, Cistercian Studies 50 (Liturgical Press, Collegeville). This book is organized biographically and is easy reading by one of the great admirers of Ailred.
Aelred of Rievaulx, On Love and Order in the World and the Church, by John Sommerfeldt (The Newman Press, New York/Mawah, NJ). Dr. Sommerfeldt treats the great themes of Ailred’s writings and provides an ordered guide to exploring Ailred’s individual works. John Sommerfeldt was one the great supporters of Cistercian Studies in this country and a devoted friend to our monasteries.
Brother and Lover: Aelred of Rievaulx, by Brian Patrick McGuire (Crossroad, New York). Dr. McGuire’s very readable study is a responsible consideration of Ailred’s though and life, skillfully considering the psychological (especially psycho-sexual) development of Ailred. The affective focus of so much of Ailred’s writings demands such a treatment which earlier authors seemed unable to adequately address.