St. Bernard of Clairvaux
An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
The academy, the battlefield, the royal court, and the chapel of twelfth-century Europe all bore the mark of St. Bernard's hand.
❧ Full name: Bernard of Clairvaux [bŕ-näŕd, klêŕ-vō; see our pronunciation guide for details], O. Cist.
❧ Dates: 1090-20 Aug. 1153
❧ Areas active: Burgundy (modern eastern France), France, the Holy Roman Empire (mainly the republics of northern Italy and the Rhineland), and the Papal States (modern central Italy)
❧ Original language of writing: Latin
❧ Exemplary or important works: Apologia ad Gullielmum Sancti Theoderici Abbatem (“Apologia to William, Abbot of St. Thierry”); Sermones Supra Cantica Canticorum (“Discourses on the Song of Songs”); Liber ad Milites Templi de Laude Novæ Militiæ (“Book to the Knights Templar in Praise of the New Knighthood”)
The eleventh century saw the beginnings of a movement for revival and reform in the Catholic Church in Western Europe. The tenth had been characterized by violence and corruption, even at the highest levels*; the reform movement gathered intellectual and cultural power and strengthened the energies of academia and the arts in turn, until all blossomed together in what is called the renaissance of the twelfth century. Much of our popular idea of the Middle Ages as a whole comes from this period—the first three Crusades, the Graal cycle, the chivalric code that owed much to both, and the zenith of the power of the papacy (both in effective influence and legal control). We have visited it before at the Journal, in the persons of Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Abælard, and Héloïse d’Argenteuil; we now revisit it in one of the movers of Abælard’s fate, Bernard.
St. Bernard was born in a noble family, but, rather than pursue a political or military career, he joined the Cistercian Order. This new branch on the Benedictine tree had been inspired by the reform movement.** Many cloistered orders at that time were in practice under the control of the local aristocracy, who expected the right to choose the abbot (generally from among their own kindred), might plan to retire there, and were—how shall we put it—not conspicuous for leading the lives we expect of monks.† The Cistercian Order were founded to pursue strict adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict, as a means of purifying itself from these corruptions. They laid great emphasis on manual labor, silence, fasting, and simplicity, making themselves unappealing to anyone who was not seriously dedicated to the religious life; they circumvented another aristocratic strategy for influence by refusing to admit children as novices. The order grew rapidly during the twelfth century, with daughter houses appearing from Italy to Ireland and from Sweden to Spain, and gained a respected reputation in engineering and architecture; their architectural style, thanks in no small part to St. Bernard’s influence, was elegantly spare and clean, a striking contrast to the Gothic profusion of colors and fantasticated shapes in paint, embroidery, and stained glass. (The Cistercians even invented a new numeral system, more compact than the new Arabic numerals, though its use was mostly confined to the order.)
Within only a few years of Bernard’s arrival, the abbot was sufficiently impressed with him—and perhaps, who knows, sufficiently worn out by governing the other thirty young men he had drawn with him into the order!—that he made him the leader of a new Cistercian house. This was located in a place called Vallée d’Absinthe, “Wormwood Valley”; Bernard renamed it “Clear Valley,” or in French, Clair Vaux. Within a decade or so, he had become a widely respected member of the order, and was being summoned here, there, and everywhere in France and the Holy Roman Empire to help found new religious houses, resolve disputes, debate heresies, and give advice. He remains among the most influential mystics in Catholic history, particularly in his devotion to the Mother of God.‡ Even among the Protestant Reformers, figures like Martin Luther and John Calvin admired St. Bernard and cited him as an authority on theological questions.
When he is spoken of today, it is usually on one of three topics. The first is his lengthy quarrel with Peter Abælard, of which it must be said that it does not show the great Cistercian mystic at his best. Perhaps Bernard disliked Abælard due to his own contentment with mystery; perhaps the contemporary charge of arrogance on Abælard’s part was perfectly true. All the same, when Bernard first denounced Abælard’s theology to the pope but repeatedly refused Abælard’s request for a public debate, and then, when both men were summoned to give their side of the story to a council and Bernard went about convincing the judges to side with him the night before—well, it is difficult to accept that sort of behavior as fair play on St. Bernard’s part. (However, we can at least relate that on Abælard’s deathbed, Bl. Peter of Cluny was able to effect a reconciliation between the two men.)
The second is his involvement in the Crusades, which had begun when he was a boy. In preaching the First Crusade, Pope Urban II had declared that anyone who died in battle would be equivalent to a martyr, which had been quite the about-face for the Church; as late as the eleventh century, it was normal to treat even just warfare as requiring penance. This was very far from St. Bernard’s own outlook: he not only preached the Second Crusade, he was all but the driving force behind it, moving the at-first unenthusiastic populace of Germany and France by his unrivaled eloquence. (It may at least be added that when this fervor spilled over into violence against local communities of Jews, led partly by a renegade monk named Randulphe, St. Bernard denounced this with great effect and was able to compel Randulphe to return to his monastery.) He also endorsed a holy war against the Wends, Slavic pagans on the coast of the Baltic Sea.
The third topic does show St. Bernard at his best. He has been referred to as “the last of the Fathers,” since after his time nearly all theology has taken place in the strictly academic context established by the Scholastics, and according to their methods of analysis and reasoning. St. Bernard hearkens back to an earlier paradigm of Christian theology, one as much literary and affective as systematic, accepting and even relishing what it cannot understand. He is an especially important figure in the Christian practice of interpreting the Bible allegorically and mystically—not that he originated this tradition by any means, but that he was a key contributor to it. His eighty-six Discourses on the Song of Songs, possibly developed from homilies he gave to his monks at Clairvaux on the Song of Solomon, are particularly admired. He interprets every verse as expressing God’s love for the soul in bridal imagery. His commentary on the book is so rich that, when he died without being able to complete the series, he had not yet reached the fourth chapter of the Song of Solomon—which is a grand total of eight chapters long!
*The corruption of Rome at this time rivaled anything the Borgias had to offer in the fifteenth-century renaissance. This was largely due to political manipulations of the House of Theophylact, the secular rulers of the city (whose real and reputed corruptions, indecencies, and simonies we have no space to relate, even in brief).
**Bernard was the first but not the last member of his family to enter the religious life. After his mother’s death (which took place shortly before his own decision to become a monk), all five of his brothers and even his own father took the cowl. The only member of his immediate family who did not promptly enter the religious life was his married sister, Humbeline; it was only some years later that she amicably separated from her husband to become a nun.
†Though, if we are cynical, we might with equal truth say that they were conspicuous for leading exactly the lives we expect of monks.
‡One of St. Bernard’s mystical visions of her gave rise to an artistic motif known as the lactation of St. Bernard; though quite popular in the Middle Ages, it often shocks modern sensibilities, so we leave our readers to explore it at their discretion.
Gabriel Blanchard has worked for CLT since 2019, and is its editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like some of our past profiles of significant figures in medieval history, such as Alfred the Great and Marie de France. Thank you for reading the CLT Journal.
Published on 6th November, 2023. Page image of the abbey church of the Royal Abbey of St. Mary of Veruela (source) in northern Spain, exemplifying the spare character of Cistercian architecture.