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The Origins of Cistercian Sign Language
By Scott G. Bruce
Cîteaux: Commentarii cistercienses, Vol. 52 (2001)
Introduction: In the summer of 1624, ten abbots of the Cistercian Strict Observance gathered at Vaux-de-Cernat near Paris to draft a series of reforming statutes intended to inspire a return to the heroic austerity of the monks of early Cîteaux. They proposed new internal administration and ordered the adoption of neglected forms of personal asceticism. The discipline of silence was particular important to the ideals of the reformers. The abbots of the Strict Observance advised the rigorous cultivation of personal silence in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Desert Fathers, which were unanimous in their praise of this custom as a fundamental component of the religious life. As a corollary to this discipline, they also encouraged monks to adopt a system of manual signs, allegedly the same sign language that the Fathers themselves had invented and instituted for the very purpose of safeguarding silence in their ancient monasteries.
The reformers were eager to associated the use of manual signs with the austere asceticism of the Desert Fathers, but in all likelihood the sign language of the early Cistercians and their seventeenth-century imitators was not a product of Christian antiquity. Rather, it was one of many known variations of sign system first attested in the tenth century at a circle of monasteries in Burgundy, including the abbey of Cluny. The history of this silent language has only begun to receive critical attention. The present study begins with a discussion of the different forms of non-verbal communication used in early medieval monastic communities, with an emphasis on the sources for the use of sign language among Cluniac monks. It then explores the evidence for the adoption and application of this custom in early Cistercian abbeys. A fuller understanding of the history of monastic sign language and its transmission sheds light on a fundamental aspect of the internal lives of the white monks in the Middle Ages. It also reveals some of the strategies that Cistercian abbots employed to safeguard the standards of discipline in their communities.