Founded in 1084 by Saint Bruno, the Carthusians are a contemplative order of monks who adhere to a strict regimen of prayer, self-denial, and solitude. Similar to the Cistercians, the Carthusians took their name from the place of their origin, the La Grande Chartreuse, a valley near Grenoble, France.
Since Saint Bruno never compiled a formal rule for the order during the early years, members were instructed to adhere, in spirit and custom, to the example of the founder. However, over time, this proved to be rather difficult. In 1127, Guigues du Chastel (the fifth prior of La Grande Chartreuse) laid down the first rule. Five years after Guigues wrote the rule, Pope Innocent II approved it. In 1245, the first Carthusian Order of nuns was started.
In 1258, the order issued a new edition of the rule entitled Statuta Antiqua, and in 1368, they promulgated another called the Statuta Nova. Subsequently, almost one hundred and fifty years later, the order delivered a collection of the various ordinances and a synopsis of the statutes under the title Tertia Compilatio. The following year, Johann Amorback printed the rule for the first time, and, in 1581, the Nova Collectio Statutorum was published.
Since the time of its foundation, the Carthusian Order has remained one of the strictest and most contemplative orders in the entire Church. Following Saint Bruno’s regulations, monks would devote their entire day to silence, prayer, and isolation. With the exception of coming together at morning Mass, Vespers, and for the evening office, they would spend the rest of their time laboring, praying, and eating alone. On certain feast days, however, they would come together to share their meals.
Owing to their almost total removal from society, the Carthusians did not share the unhappy fate that other religious orders experienced during the upheavals of the Middle Ages. Most escaped persecution, but certain members, however, did suffer execution under King Henry VIII in England. The French Revolution, however, was even less kind to the order. As anticlerical legislation swept through France during the 1800s and early 1900s, the Carthusians experienced many misfortunes. In places such as Spain and Italy however, they remained a popular favorite. Today, they can be found throughout the world.
According to a story told by the Carthusians, there was once a pope who felt their Rule was too severe, so he asked the monks to modify it. In response, the Carthusians sent a delegation of twenty-seven monks to Rome to plead their case. When the group arrived at the Vatican, the pontiff found that the youngest member of the group was eighty-eight years old, and the oldest ninety-five. As a result, the Holy Father left the Rule intact.
To this day, the Carthusian Order is considered by the Church to be the most perfect model of a penitential and contemplative state.