We All Work in Common: Medieval Cistercian Lay Brothers in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Doctoral Dissertation


This dissertation examines the lives and work of Cistercian lay brothers throughout a roughly a two-century period in the high Middle Ages. It investigates the unique contributions they made to Cistercian life during the main period of their existence. Unlike previous studies, which have concerned themselves predominantly with the origins of lay brothers as a way into their status, this project begins with the question of whether those from the countryside could be part of the religious life. It then aims to show how the lay brothers themselves created their own version of the religious life. Cistercian monks brought in lay brothers as helpers in the goal of restoring manual labor to an important place in monasticism. Thus, the dissertation opens by studying the grange, the space of agricultural labor within the Cistercian economy. Through an analysis of two French monasteries, the study argues that lay brothers were on the frontlines of Cistercian labor, bringing their own unique know-how to resolving conflicts commensurate with the way monks were specialists in the divine office. Then, the dissertation surveys the customaries that guided monks and lay brothers both at work and during communal liturgical celebrations to illuminate how these practices reinforced the subordinate status of lay brothers. Finally, it probes several exempla to uncover how lay brothers became part of a larger Cistercian narrative, which in turn served to influence ways that monks thought about lay brothers and expected them ideally to conduct themselves. Eventually authors outside of the Cistercian world adopted these exempla and promulgated a largely unchanged image of lay brothers to diverse audiences. In the end, the lay brothers were more than simply auxiliaries to the monks, despite the rhetoric of the monks themselves. These men, largely from the countryside and never intending to embrace monasticism the way choir monks did, and eventually not allowed to, forged a different version of the religious life adapted to peasant ways of life.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-04132015-205946

Author Damian Francis Zurro
Advisor John Van Engen
Contributor Brad Gregory, Committee Member
Contributor Thomas F. X. Noble, Committee Member
Contributor John Van Engen, Committee Chair
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline History
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2015-03-26

Submission Date 2015-04-13
  • United States of America

  • European History

  • Middle Ages

  • Monasticism

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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