The medieval Cistercian numerals, or “ciphers” in nineteenth-century parlance, were developed by the Cistercian monastic order (the Order of Cistercians are a Catholic religious order of monks and nuns that branched off from the Benedictines and follow the Rule of Saint Benedict) in the early thirteenth century at about the time that Arabic numerals were introduced to northwestern Europe. They are more compact than Arabic or Roman numerals, with a single character able to indicate any integer from 1 to 9,999.

Digits are based on a horizontal or vertical stave, with the position of the digit on the stave indicating its place value (units, tens, hundreds or thousands). These digits are compounded on a single stave to indicate more complex numbers. The Cistercians eventually abandoned the system in favor of the Arabic numerals, but marginal use outside the order continued until the early twentieth century.

The system uses a horizontal or vertical stave as its base. Either side of either end of the stave may carry a digit from 1 to 9. The place value of the digit is determined by its location. The numeral system was invented in the 1300s by French Cistercian monks, based on symbols introduced by John of Basingstoke. It was contemporary with the introduction of the Hindu–Arabic numeral system.

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