The monastery at Noirlac, south of Bourges, was founded in the 1100s. The buildings were constructed over the decades between 1150 and 1200, and the religious community at Noirlac was in its glory days by the year 1250. In the 1300s and 1400s, it went into decline.
By the end of the 1300s, there were 343 Cistercian monasteries operating in Europe. Some of the best known include Sénanque, Sylvacane, and Le Thoronet in Provence, and Cîteaux and Clairvoix in Burgundy. All are worth a visit. Walt and I have beautiful memories and photos of Le Thoronet, especially, from a 1993 trip to Provence.
The Cistercian movement was a revolution within the Catholic church, and a reaction to the worldliness of the medieval church. Cistercian monks rejected everything they thought might interfere with their quest for God. They got rid of all riches and decoration, including elaborate stained glass windows. They wanted plain stone buildings, unadorned walls, and an austere existence. They were purists.
The Cistercians were also workers and builders. Their motto was "the cross and the plow." The order slowly enriched itself by getting control of the lands around their monasteries and cultivating them. The communities produced more than they needed, and they began selling part of the crops they harvested. They learned how to use and control water for irrigation, becoming even more prosperous. They became landlords.
At Noirlac, the Cistercian community had the advantage of a location along an old Roman road and on the banks of a navigable river, the Cher. Their community started out in poverty, but ended up becoming affluent. It owned houses in nearby towns, and many of the monks had daily contact with the outside world — with all the corruption that eventually entailed.
It's a story as old as the world itself, of course. I've simplified it, and telescoped centuries of history into a few paragraphs. None of this takes away from the beauty and serenity of the complex of buildings at Noirlac.
The fact that CHM and I were there on a beautiful summer day and were just about the monastery's only visitors that day made the place especially impressive.