The Carthusian order comes from the foundation of the Grande Chartreuse, near Grenoble, in 1084, by Bruno, former canon of Reims, who left the Grande Chartreuse around 1090 and died in 1101 in southern Italy.
Between 1121 and 1140 various hermitages located mainly in Bugey, in Vercors and near Reims adopt usages of the Chartreuse (Consuetudines Cartusiae), written by the prior Guigues I.
In 1140 meets a common first instance, the general chapter, which brings together the priors of six hermitages. In 1155 this general chapter meets again, with fourteen priors. It then becomes annual: a monastic order, in the institutional sense of the term, is thus formed. Hermitages join order by submitting to the authority of the General Chapter. They are called "houses" (domus) in the Order’s texts and commonly « Charterhouses » ("chartreuses" in French) from the seventeenth century; the monks and lay brothers are called "Carthusians" ("chartreux" in French; the names "fathers" to designate the monks, "brothers" to designate the lay brothers, are not used until the seventeenth century).
Each chartrehouse is governed by a prior. They have for main characteristics, which differentiate them from most other forms of monastic life:
- the division into two groups, the house from above (domus superior) for the monks, the house from below (domus inferior) for the lay brothers, interrelated by various customary and statutory provisions. The houses of the lay brothers disappear however in the new foundations made from the end of the thirteenth century;
- life in solitude, in cells (cellae), almost always for the monks, mainly at night for the convers;
- the definition of boundaries around the Charterhouses, limits that circumscribe spaces originally called "deserts" (heremi) and to which specific prohibitions are attached.
For a century and a half the settlements of the first Charterhouses are all in austere places and in any case far from urban agglomerations. From the middle of the thirteenth century, with the founding of the Vauvert Charterhouse, near Paris, in 1257, Charterhouses were, however, founded near the cities, or even inside them. These urban or peri-urban foundations are numerous in particular in the Germanic countries, in the current Netherlands and Belgium as well as in Italy.
The role of the general chapter is to define the norms that complete, specify or adapt the indications given in the Cartusiae consuetudinesand also enacts new ones, which concern all aspects of life in all Charterhouses. At the latest in the second half of the thirteenth century, he often made the appointments of the new priors or new officers of the Charterhouses (vicars, procuratoresin particular). Throughout the Middle Ages, the prior of the Grande Chartreuse was very respected in all the order and had an important place in the general chapter but it was the general chapter, composed of the whole of the priors, which really directed the 'order. From the beginning of the sixteenth century to the second half of the seventeenth century, the institutional power of the prior of the Grande Chartreuse increased and the name of "prior general of the order" appeared.
The very strong homogeneity of the order, guaranteed by a centralized government, did not prevent the history of each of the Carthusian monastery from having very strong peculiarities, in particular in relations with the aristocracy and artists or thinkers, with whom very strong links are woven at the end of the Middle Ages.
The order growed slowly: in the second half of the twelfth century new Charterhouses were founded, mainly in the south-east of present-day France, but also in northern Italy, Catalonia, England and Styria (now Slovenia). At the end of the twelfth century, there are about thirty Charterhouses. In the course of the thirteenth century thirty other Charterhouses appeared, in the same areas as before, but also in the north of present France, in central Italy, in the region of Valencia in Spain and as far as present-day Slovakia. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the order, unlike many other religious orders, continues to develop, especially in and around the Germanic-speaking countries (in Austria, Hungary, Belgium and the Low Countries). At the end of the fifteenth century there are thus 185 Charterhouses.
Subsequently, even if there are new foundations, the Order is declining: because of the Protestant Reformation it disappears from England and parts of Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
In the first half of the seventeenth century, there si a new growth, mainly in France, so that there were 160 Charterhouses active around 1650.
The situation remains unchanged until around 1780. From 1783 Josefism in Austria led to the disappearance of the Austrian Charterhouses. Subsequently the French Revolution led to the disappearance of the Charterhouses in France (1790-1971). The extension of Napoleon's empire led to the disappearance of Italian and Spanish Charterhouses. Around 1810 the order counts only a few Charterhouses in activity. Although there were resettlements in the Iberian peninsula, the policy initiated in 1835 led to their permanent disappearance. Around 1850 the order counts a dozen Charterhouses, some having been relocated (including Grande Chartreuse in 1814).
Only a few foundations were founded in the second half of the 19th century and in the course of the 20th century Charterhouses continued to close, in Germany or France, due to weak recruitment. In France, the Carthusians were expelled in 1903 and did not return until 1941. In the second half of the 20th century, however, Charterhouses’ founding took place in Brazil, South America (Brazil and Argentina) and South Korea. The order thus counts currently 19 monks' Charterhouses and 5 Charterhouses of nuns.