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Founded by Bruno of Cologne in 1084 at the Grande Chartreuse (from which derives the name Carthusian), the Carthusian Order lays special emphasis on the contemplative life. At the beginning there was no special rule. In time, however, three collections of the customs of the order were made. One of these was by Guigues de Chatel, prior of the Grande Chartreuse, who compiled the Consuetudines Carthusiae in 1127, and this was approved by Innocent II in 1133. The monks lived a rigorous and austere life, eating no meat, drinking only watered wine, fasting frequently, and wearing hair shirts. They vowed to observe silence, lived in individual cells within the monastery, and devoted several hours each day to the discipline of mental prayer. Their physical needs were met by a community of lay brothers, and only on feast days did they meet their brethren for meals. The Carthusians thus combined the solitary life of Egyptian desert ascetics with the discipline of a monastic life.

The abbot of the order was the bishop of Grenoble, and the head was an elected prior. The prior of the Grande Chartreuse was the general who was elected by the monks of his own house and a general chapter consisting of visitors and priors which met annually. The order also has a few houses of nuns who observe a rule similar to the monks'. The rigorous life of the movement prevented it from becoming widespread. In 1104 there were still only thirteen monks at the original foundation. By 1300 there were thirty-nine foundations, most of these being in France. Because of its austere life, however, it was least affected by the monastic decline of the late Middle Ages. The most notable event in the history of the order is the split which occurred between 1378 and 1400, known as the Great Schism, healed only by the resignation of two generals and the election of another to replace them. The order has also been subject to persecution. During the Reformation Henry VIII put a number of English Carthusians to death. Their property was confiscated during the French Revolution (much of it was restored in 1816). They were driven by the anticlerical legislation of 1901 from the Grande Chartreuse and sought refuge in Spain, but returned in 1904. The order has had many mystics and devotional writers, among them Hugh, founder of the first English Charterhouse at Witham in 1175- 76.