Bernard of Clairvaux

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Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated in A Short History of Monks and Monasteries by Alfred Wesley Wishart, 1900
Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated in A Short History of Monks and Monasteries by Alfred Wesley Wishart, 1900

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (Fontaines, near Dijon, 1090August 21, 1153 in Clairvaux) was a French abbot and theologian who was the main voice of conservatism during the intellectual revival of Western Europe called the Renaissance of the 12th century. The voice of conscience, the dominating figure in the Christian church from 1125 to 1153 (Cantor 1993), he was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1830. Bernard is a saint of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches and was the primary builder of the reforming Cistercian monastic order.

Bernard preached in favor of a second crusade at Easter 1145 at Vezelay in front of King Louis VII. Louis took the cross and spent 1147-1149 conducting the disastrous Second Crusade.


Early life

He was born at Fontaines, near Dijon, in France. Bernard was born into the noble class: his father, a knight named Tecelin, perished on crusade; and his mother Aleth, a daughter of the noble house of Mon-Bar, and a woman distinguished for her piety, died while Bernard was a boy. Constitutionally unfitted for a military career, his own disposition, as well as his mother's early influence, directed him to the church. His desire to enter a monastery was opposed by his relations, who sent him to study at Chlons in order to qualify him for high ecclesiastical preferment. Bernard's resolution to become a monk was not, however, shaken, and when he at last definitely decided to join the community which Robert of Molesme had founded at Citeaux in 1108, he took with him his brothers and many of his relations and friends.

Abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux

General history of Clairvaux: Clairvaux Abbey.

The little community of reformed Benedictines at Citeaux, which would have so profound an influence on Western monasticism and had seemed on the point of extinction for lack of novices, gained a sudden new life through this accession of some thirty young noblemen. Others followed their example, and the community grew so rapidly that it was soon able to send out offshoots. One of these monasteries, Clairvaux, was founded in 1115, in a wild valley of a tributary of the Aube, on land given by Count Hugh of Troyes. There Bernard was appointed abbot.

By the new constitution of the Cistercians, Clairvaux became the chief monastery of the five branches into which the order was divided under the supreme direction of the abbot of Citeaux. Though nominally subject to Citeaux, Clairvaux soon became the most important Cistercian house, owing to the fame and influence of Bernard.

Missing image
Bernard exorcizing a possession, altarpiece by Jrg Breu the Elder, ca. 1500.

His saintly character and severe self mortification (about which his friend, William of Champeaux, Bishop of Chlons, remonstrated with him) and above all, his power as a preacher, soon made him famous and drew crowds of pilgrims to Clairvaux. His miracles were noised abroad, and sick folk were brought from near and far to be healed by his touch.

Wider influence

Before long the abbot, who had intended to devote his life to the work of his monastery, was drawn into the affairs of the outside world. When in 1124 Pope Honorius II was elected, Bernard was already reckoned among the greatest of French churchmen; he now shared in the most important ecclesiastical discussions, and papal legates sought his counsel.

Thus in 1128 he was invited by Cardinal Matthew of Albano to the synod of Troyes, where he was instrumental in obtaining the recognition of the new order of Knights Templar, the rules of which he is said to have drawn up; and in the following year, at the synod of Chlons-sur-Marne, he ended the crisis arising out of certain charges brought against Henry, Bishop of Verdun, by persuading the bishop to resign.

The schism of 1130–1138

The European importance of Bernard, however, began with the death of Honorius (1130) and the disputed election that followed. In the conclave Anacletus II was elected by a narrow mnargin, but many influential cardinals favored the contender, Pope Innocent II, a disciple of Bernard and the Cistercian reforms. In the synod convoked by Louis the Fat at Etampes in April 1130, Bernard successfully asserted the claims of Innocent II against those of Anacletus, and from this moment became Innocent's most influential supporter. He threw himself into the contest with characteristic ardour. While Rome was held by the faction that supported Anacletus, France, England, Spain and Germany declared for Innocent, who, though banished from Rome, was—in Bernard's phrase—"accepted by the world." The pope traveled from place to place, with the powerful abbot of Clairvaux at his side; he stayed at Clairvaux itself, humble still, so far as its buildings were concerned; and he went with Bernard to parley with Lothair II, Holy Roman Emperor, at Lige.

In 1133, the year of the emperor's first expedition to Rome, Bernard was in Italy persuading the Genoese to make peace with Pisa, since Innocent had need of both. He accompanied Innocent to Rome, successfully resisting the proposal to reopen negotiations with Anacletus, who held the castle of Sant'Angelo and, with the support of Roger II of Sicily, was too strong to be subdued by force. Lothar, though crowned by Innocent in St Peter's, could do nothing to establish him in the Holy See so long as his own power was sapped by his quarrel with the house of Hohenstaufen. Again Bernard came to the rescue; in the spring of 1135 he was at Bamberg successfully persuading Frederick Hohenstaufen to submit to the emperor.

In June he was back in Italy, taking a leading part in the council of Pisa, by which Anacletus was excommunicated. In northern Italy the effect of his personality and of his preaching was immense; Milan itself, of all the Lombard cities most jealous of the imperial claims, surrendered to his eloquence, submitted to Lothar and to Innocent, and tried to force Bernard against his will into the vacant see of Milan.

In 1137, the year of Lothar's last journey to Rome, Bernard was back in Italy again; at Monte Cassino, setting the affairs of the monastery in order, at Salerno, trying in vain to induce Roger of Sicily to declare against Anacletus, in Rome itself, agitating with success against the antipope.

When Anacletus died on January 25 1138 and the cardinal Gregory was elected his successor, assuming the name of Victor IV, Bernard's crowning triumph in the long contest was the abdication of the new antipope, the result of his personal influence. The schism of the church was healed, and the abbot of Clairvaux was free to return to the peace of his monastery.

The contest with Ablard

Clairvaux itself had meanwhile (1135--1136) been transformed outwardly-- in spite of the reluctance of Bernard, who preferred the rough simplicity of the original buildings-- into a more suitable seat for an influence that overshadowed that of Rome itself. How great this influence was is shown by the outcome of Bernard's contest with Pierre Ablard. Bernard was the prosecutor in Ablard's trial for heresy. Bernard had been hostile to the scholars at the University of Paris, the center of the new learning based on Aristotle. Bernard suspected those who learned "merely in order that they might know" for the vanity of a learned reputation. For Bernard of Clairvaux the liberal arts served but a narrow purpose: to prepare the priesthood (Cantor 1993 p 338). In intellectual and dialectical power the abbot was no match for the great schoolman; yet at Sens in 1141 Abelard feared to face him, and when he appealed to Rome Bernard's word was enough to secure his condemnation.

Bernard and the Cistercian Order

Main article: Cistercian Order.

One result of Bernard's fame was the growth of the Cistercian order. Between 1130 and 1145 no less than 93 monasteries in connection with Clairvaux were either founded or affiliated from other rules, three being established in England and one in Ireland. In 1145 a Cistercian monk, once a member of the community of Clairvaux-- another Bernard, abbot of Aquae Silviae near Rome, was elected pope as Pope Eugenius III. This was a triumph for the order; to the world it was a triumph for Bernard, who complained that all who had suits to press at Rome applied to him, as though he himself had become pope.

Bernard and heresy

Having healed the schism within the church, Bernard was next called upon to attack heretics. Languedoc especially had become a hotbed of heresy, and at this time the preaching of Henry of Lausanne was drawing thousands from the orthodox faith. In June 1145, at the invitation of Cardinal Alberic of Ostia, Bernard traveled in the south, and by his preaching did something to stem the flood of heresy for a while.

Missing image
The Vision of St Bernard, by Fra Bartolommeo, ca 1504 (Uffizi)

The Second Crusade

Main article: Second Crusade.

Far more important was his activity in the following year, when, in obedience to the pope's command, he preached to promote the Second Crusade. The effect of his eloquence was extraordinary. At the great meeting at Vezelay, on March 21, as the result of his sermon, King Louis VII of France and his queen, Eleanor, took the cross, together with a host of all classes, so numerous that the stock of crosses was soon exhausted. Bernard continued through northern France, Flanders and the Rhine provinces, everywhere rousing the wildest enthusiasm; and at Spires on Christmas day he succeeded in persuading Conrad, king of the Romans, to join the crusade.

The disastrous outcome of the crusade was a blow to Bernard, who found it difficult to understand why God would move in this way but ascribed it to the sins of the crusaders (Episte 288; de Consideratione. ii. I). The news of the defeats of the crusading host first reached Bernard at Clairvaux, where Pope Eugenius III, driven from Rome by the revolution of Arnold of Brescia, was his guest. Bernard had in March and April 1148 accompanied the pope to the council of Reims, where he led the attack on certain propositions of the scholastic theologian Gilbert de la Porre. From whatever cause—possibly the growing jealousy of the cardinals, or the loss of prestige owing to rumours about the crusade, the success of which he had so confidently predicted—Bernard's influence, previously a danger to those suspected of heterodoxy, on this occasion had little effect.

On the news of the disaster that had overtaken the crusaders, an effort was made to retrieve it by organizing another expedition. At the invitation of Suger, abbot of St Denis, now the virtual ruler of France, Bernard attended the meeting at Chartres convened for this purpose, where he himself was elected to conduct the new crusade, the choice being confirmed by the pope. He was saved from this task, for which he was physically and constitutionally unfit, by the intervention of the Cistercian abbots, who forbade him to undertake it. Bernard was aging, broken by his austerities and by ceaseless work, and saddened by the loss of several of his early friends. His intellectual energy remained undimmed. He continued to take an active interest in ecclesiastical affairs, and his last work, the De Consideratione, shows no sign of failing power.

Bernard and the veneration of the Virgin Mary

Bernard expanded upon Anselm of Canterbury's role in transmuting the sacramental ritual Christianity of the Early Middle Ages into a new, more personally held faith, with the life of Christ as a model and a new emphasis on the Virgin Mary. In opposition to the rational approach to divine understanding that the schoolmen adopted, Bernard preached an immediate faith, in which the intercessor was the Virgin Mary. "the Virgin that is the royal way, by which the Savior comes to us." "Bernard played the leading role in the development of the Virgin cult, which is one of the most important manifestations of the popular piety of the twelfth century. In early medieval thought the Virgin Mary had played a minor role, and it was only with the rise of emotional Christianity in the eleventh century that she became the prime intercessor for humanity with the deity." (Cantor 1993 p 341)

Bernard's character

The greatness of St Bernard is generally regarded as being his character. The age saw him as the embodiment of its ideal: that of medieval monasticism at its highest development. The world had no meaning for him save as a place of banishment and trial, in which men are but "strangers and pilgrims" (Serm. i., Epiph. n. I; Serm. vii., Lent. n. I); the way of grace, back to the lost inheritance, had been marked out, and the function of theology was merely to maintain the landmarks inherited from the past. He had no sympathy with the dialectics of many teachers. Bernard's vision was clear. With merciless logic he followed the principles of the Christian faith as he conceived it. For all his overmastering zeal he was by nature neither a bigot nor a persecutor. Even when preaching the crusade he interfered at Mainz to stop the persecution of the Jews, stirred up by the monk Radulf. As for heretics, "the little foxes that spoil the vines should be taken, not by force of arms, but by force of argument". However, if any heretic refused to be thus taken, he considered "that he should be driven away, or even a restraint put upon his liberty, rather than that he should be allowed to spoil the vines" (Serm. lxiv). He was troubled by the mob violence which made the heretics "martyrs to their unbelief." He approved the zeal of the people, but believed that "faith is to be produced by persuasion, not imposed by force"; adding that, "it would without doubt be better that they should be coerced by the sword than that they should be allowed to draw away many other persons into their error." Finally, he ascribes the steadfastness of these "dogs" in facing death to the power of the devil (Serm. lxvi. on Canticles ii. 15).

Bernard at his best displays a nobility of nature, a wise charity and tenderness in his dealings with others, and a genuine humility, that make him one of the most complete exponents of the Christian life. His broadly Christian character is witnessed to by the enduring quality of his influence. The author of the Imitatio drew inspiration from his writings; the reformers saw him as a medieval champion of their favourite doctrine of the supremacy of the divine grace. His works have been reprinted in countless editions. This is perhaps due to the fact that the chief fountain of his own inspiration was the Bible. He was saturated in its language and in its spirit; and though he read it, as might be expected, uncritically, and interpreted its plain meanings allegorically-- as the fashion of the day was--it saved him from the grosser aberrations of medieval Catholicism. He accepted the teaching of the church as to the reverence due to our Lady and the saints, and on feast-days and festivals these receive their due meed in his sermons; but in his letters and sermons their names are at other times seldom invoked. They were overshadowed by his idea of the grace of God and the moral splendour of Christ; "from Him do the Saints derive the odour of sanctity; from Him also do they shine as lights " (Ep. 464).

Bernard's popularity as a preacher cannot be judged by the sermons that survive. These were all delivered in Latin, to congregations more or less on his own intellectual level. Like his letters, they are full of quotations from and reference to the Bible, and they have all the qualities likely to appeal to men of culture at all times.

In the Divine Comedy Bernard is the last of Dante's spiritual guides, and offers his prayer to the Virgin Mary to grant Dante the vision of the true nature of God that is the climax of the story.

"Bernard," wrote Erasmus of Rotterdam in his Art of Preaching, "is an eloquent preacher, much more by nature than by art; he is full of charm and vivacity and knows how to reach and move the affections." The same is true of the letters and to an even more striking degree. They are written on a variety of subjects, great and small, to people of the most diverse stations and types; and they help us to understand the adaptable nature of the man, which enabled him to appeal as successfully to the unlearned as to the learned.


Bernard's works fall into three categories:

  • (1) Letters, of which over five hundred have been preserved, of great interest and value for the history of the period.
  • (2) Treatises:
    • (a) dogmatic and polemical, De gratia et libero arbitrio, written about 1127, and following closely the lines laid down by St Augustine of Hippo; De baptismo aliisque quaestionibus ad mag. Ilugonem de S. Victore; Contra quaedam capitala errorum Abaelardi ad Innocentem II (in justification of the action of the synod of Sens);
    • (b) ascetic and mystical, De gradibus humilitatis ci superbiae, his first work, written perhaps about 1121; De diligendo Deo (about 1126); De conversione ad clericos, an address to candidates for the priesthood; De Consideratione, Bernard's last work, written about 1148 at the pope's request for the edification and guidance of Eugenius III;
    • (c) about monasticism, Apologia ad Guilelmum, written about 1127 to William, abbot of St Thierry; De laude novae militiae ad milites templi (c. 1132--1136); De precepto et dispensatione, an answer to various questions on monastic conduct and discipline addressed to him by the monks of St Peter at Chartres (some time before 1143);
    • (d) on ecclesiastical government, De moribus et officio episcoporum, written about 1126 for Henry, bishop of Sens; the De Consideratione mentioned above;
    • (e) a biography, De vita et rebus gestis S. Maiachiae, Hiberniae episcopi, written at the request of the Irish abbot Congan and with the aid of materials supplied by him; it is of importance for the ecclesiastical history of Ireland in the 12th century;
    • (f) sermons--divided into Sermones de tempore; de sanctis; de diversis; and eighty-six sermons, in Cantica Canticorum, an allegorical and mystical exposition of the Song of Solomon;
    • (g) hymns. Many hymns ascribed to Bernard survive, e.g. Jesu dulcis memoria, Jesus rex admirabilis, Jesu decus angelicum, Salve Caput cruentatum.

Of these the three first are included in the Roman breviary. Many have been translated and are used in Protestant churches.

St Bernard's works were first published in anything like a complete edition at Paris in 1508, under the title Seraphica melliflui devotique doctoris S. Bernardi scripta, edited by Andr Bocard; the first really critical and complete edition is that of Dom J. Mabillon Sancti Bernardi opp. etc. (Paris, 1667, improved and enlarged in 1690, and again, by Massuet and Texier, in 1719), reprinted by JP Migne, Patrolog. lat. (Paris, 1859). There is an English translation of Mabillon's edition, including, however, only the letters and the sermons on the Song of Songs, with the biographical and other prefaces, by Samuel J. Eales (4 vols., London, 1889--1895).da:Bernhard af Clairvaux de:Bernhard von Clairvaux fr:Bernard de Clairvaux it:San Bernardo di Chiaravalle nl:Bernard van Clairvaux ja:クレルヴォーのベルナルドゥス pl:Bernard z Clairvaux pt:Bernardo de Claraval sk:Bernard z Clairvaux fi:Bernhard Clairvauxlainen


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