Hildegard of Bingen wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux in 1146 or 1147, asking for advice. She had been having visions her whole life and finally, at age 49, felt the need to speak out about them. But doing so without the approval of some higher authority was not an option. Bernard’s reply to her was short, but encouraging, urging her to “recognize this gift as grace and respond eagerly to it with all humility and devotion”.
A century or so later, it was quite common to find Cistercian houses taking beguine communities under their protection. The beguines got political protection, spiritual guidance, and validation in the outside world based on the fact that the Cistercians, who were known for their holiness as an order, were seeing to their orthodoxy. The Cistercians, meanwhile, gained both access to sense of spirituality from outside their monasteries and the prestige of guiding another holy group of people.
The prestige connected with the Cistercians was no small thing. Accounts of the founding of the Gilbertine Order** make much of the rather minor role Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians played. For smaller and newer groups, association with the Cistercians gave them both credibility and some protection against accusations of heresy. The Cistercian Order as a whole, was not generally so enthusiastic, though they seem to have preferred encouraging and protecting other sorts of monasticism and religious life over admitting more women’s houses to their Order. There was, after all some benefit. They gained prestige and a reputation for encouraging good spiritual practices among both the religious and the laity. It was a situation that worked out relatively well on both sides.
*There were actually so many religious orders being founded at this time that the Fourth Lateran Council had to ban the formation of new ones in 1215.
**The only monastic order originating in England, its communities were all double monasteries.
Cook, William R. and Ronald B. Herzman. The Medieval Worldview: an Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Baird, Joseph L. and Radd K. Ehrman, trans. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Volume I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 1998, 2004. [Most specifically, Letters 1 and 1r.]
Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen: a Visionary Life. 1989.
Simons, Walter. Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Nichols, John A. and Lillian Thomas Shank, eds., Distant Echoes: Medieval Religious Women, Volume One. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984.