1902 Encyclopedia > St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
French theologian and reformer
ST. BERNARD, one of the most illustrious Christian teachers and representatives of monasticism in the Middle Ages, was born at Fontaines, near Dijon, in Burgundy, in 1091. The son of a knight and vassal of the duke of Burgundy who perished in the first crusade, Bernard may have felt for a time the temptations of a military career, but the influence of a pious mother and his own inclinations towards a life of meditation and study led him to the cloister. While still a youth he is said to have been "marvellously cogitative" ("mire cogitativus," St Bern. Op., vol. ii. col. 1063), and the ascendancy of his mind and character were soon shown. He joined the small monastery of Citeaux in 1113 when twenty-two years of age, and such were the effects of his own devotion and eloquent enthusiasm in commending a religious life, that he drew after him not only his two younger brothers, but also his two elder ones, Guido and Gerard, both of whom had naturally taken to soldiering, and the elder of whom was married and had children. The effect of his preaching is said to have been that " mothers hid their sons, wives their husbands, companions their friends," lest they should be drawn away by his persuasive earnestness.
Bernard of Clairvaux
as depicted in a medieval illuminated manuscript
(Note: initial letter B for Bernard)
The monastery of Citeaux had attracted St Bernard not only on account of its neighbourhood (it was only a few miles distant from Dijon), but by its reputation for austerity. The monks were few and very poor. They were under an Englishman of the name of Stephen Harding, originally from Dorsetshire, whose aim was to restore the Benedictine rule to its original simplicity and give a new impulse to the monastic movement. In Bernard, Harding found a congenial spirit. No amount of self-mortification could exceed his ambition. He strove to overcome his bodily senses altogether and to live entirely absorbed in religious meditation. Sleep he counted a loss, and compared it to death. Food was only taken to keep him from fainting. The most menial offices were his delight, and even then his humility looked around for some lowlier employment. Fortunately he loved nature, and found a constant solace in her rocks and woods. "Trust one who has tried it," he writes in one of his epistles, "you will find more in woods than in books; trees and stones will teach you what you can never learn from masters." ("Expertocrede: aliquid amplius invenies in silvis quam in libris; ligna et lapides docebunt te quod a magistris audire non possis," Epist. 106.)
So ardent a nature soon found a sphere of ambition for itself. The monks of Citeaux, from being a poor and unknown company, began to attract attention after the accession of St Bernard and his friends. The fame of their self-denial was noised abroad, and out of their lowliness and abnegation came as usual distinction and success. The small monastery was unable to contain the inmates that gathered within it, and it began to send forth colonies in various directions. St Bernard had been two years an inmate, and the penetrating eye of the abbot had discovered beneath all his spiritual devotion a genius of rare power, and especially fitted to aid his measures of monastic reform. He was chosen accordingly to head a band of devotees who issued from Citeaux in 1115 in search of a new home. This band, with Bernard at their head, journeyed northwards till they reached a spot in the diocese of Langres--a thick-wooded valley, wild and gloomy, but with a clear stream running through it. Here they settled and laid the foundations of the famous abbey of Clairvaux, with which St Bernard's name remains associated in history The hardships which the monks endured for a time in the new abode were such as to drive them almost to despair, and their leader fell seriously ill, and was only rescued from what seemed impending death by the kind compulsion of his friend William of Champeaux, the great doctor of the age, who besought and received the direction of Bernard for a year from his superior at Citeaux. Thanks to his considerate friend the abbot of Clairvaux was forced to abandon the cares of his new establishment, and in retirement and a healthful regimen to seek renewed health . The effect was all that could be desired, and in a few years Bernard had not only recovered his strength, but had begun that marvellous career of literary and ecclesiastical activity, of incessant correspondence and preaching which was to make him in some respects the most influential man of his age.
Gradually the influence of Bernard's character began to extend beyond his monastery. His friendship with William of Champeaux and others gave currency to his opinions, and from his simple retreat came by voice or pen an authority before which many bowed, not only within his own order but within the church at large. This influence was notably shown after the death of Pope Honorius II. in 1130. Two rival popes assumed the purple, each being able to appeal to his election by a section of the cardinals. Christendom was divided betwixt the claims of Anacletus II. and Innocent II. The former was backed by a strong Italian party, and drove his adversary from Rome and even from Italy. Innocent took refuge in France. The king, Louis the Fat, espoused his cause, and having summoned a council of archbishops and bishops, he laid his commands on the holy abbot of Clairvaux to be present also and give the benefit of his advice. With reluctance Bernard obeyed the call, and from the depths of seclusion was at once plunged into the heart of the great contest which was afflicting the Christian world. The king and prelates put the question before him in such a way as to invite his decision and make him arbiter. After careful deliberation he gave his judgment in favour of Innocent and not only so, but from that time forward threw himself with characteristic fervour and force into the cause for which he had declared. Not only France, but, England, Spain, and Germany were won to the side of Innocent, who, banished from Rome, in the words of St Bernard, was "accepted by the world." He travelled from place to place with the powerful abbot by his side, who also received him in his humble cell at Clairvaux. Apparently, however, the meanness of the accommodation and the scantiness of the fare (one small fowl was all that could be got for the Pope's repast), left no wish on the part of Innocent or his retinue to continue their stay at Clairvaux. He found a more dainty reception elsewhere, but nowhere so powerful a friend. Through the persuasions of Bernard, the emperor took up arms for Innocent; and Anacletus was driven to shut himself up in the impregnable castle of St Angelo, where his death opened the prospect of a united Christendom. A second anti-pope was elected, but after a few months retired from the field, owing also, it is said, to St Bernard's influence. A great triumph was gained not without a struggle, and the abbot of Clairvaux remained master of the ecclesiastical situation. No name stood higher in the Christian world.
The chief events which fill up his subsequent life attest the greatness of his influence. These were his contest with the famous Abelard, and his preaching of the second crusade.
Peter Abelard was twelve years older than Bernard, and had risen to eminence before Bernard had entered the gates of Citeaux. His first intellectual encounter had been with Bernard's aged friend William of Champeaux, whom he had driven from his scholastic throne at Paris by the superiority of his dialectics. His subsequent career, his ill-fated passion for Heloise, his misfortunes, his intellectual restlessness and audacity, his supposed heresies, had all shed additional renown on his name; and when a council was summmoned at Sens in 1140, at which the French king and his nobles and all the prelates of the realm were to be present, Abelard dared his enemies to impugn his opinions. St Bernard had been amongst those most alarmed by Abelard's teaching, and had sought those to stir up alike Pope, princes, and bishops to take measures against him. He did not readily, however, take up the gauntlet thrown down by the great hero of the schools. He professed himself a "stripling too unversed in logic to meet the giant practiced in every kind of debate." But "all were come prepared for a spectacle", and he was forced into the field. To the amazement of all, when the combatants met and all seemed ready for the intellectual fray, Abelard refused to proceed with his defense. After several passages considered to be heretical had been read from his books he made no reply, but at once appealed to Rome and left the assembly. Probably he saw enough in the character of the meeting to assure him that it formed a very different audience from those which he had been accustomed to sway by his subtlety and eloquence, and had recourse to this expedient to gain time and foil his adversaries. Bernard followed up his assault by a letter of indictment to the Pope against the heretic. The Pope responded by a sentence of condemnation, and Abelard was silenced. Soon after he found refuge at Cluny with the kindly abbot, Peter the Venerable, who brought about something of a reconciliation betwixt him and Bernard. The latter, however, never heartily forgave the heretic. He was too zealous a churchman not to see the danger there is in such a spirit as Abelard's, and the serious consequences to which it might lead.
In all things Bernard was enthusiastically devoted to the church, and it was this enthusiasm which led him at last into the chief error of his career. Bad news reached France of the progress of the Turkish arms in the East. The capture of Edessa in 1144 sent a thrill of alarm and indignation throughout Christian Europe, and the French king was urged to send forth a new army to reclaim the Ho]y Land from the triumphant infidels. The Pope was consulted, and encouraged the good work, delegating to St Bernard the office of preaching the new crusade. Weary with growing years and cares the abbot of Clairvaux seemed at first reluctant, but afterwards threw himself with all his accustomed power into the new movement, and by his marvellous eloquence kindled the crusading madness once more throughout France and Germany. Not only the French king, Louis VII., but the German emperor, Conrad III., placed himself at the head of a vast army and set out for the East by way of Constantinople. Detained there too long by the duplicity of the Greeks, and divided in counsel, the Christian armies encountered frightful hardships, and were at length either dispersed or destroyed. Utter ruin and misery followed in the wake of the wildest enthusiasm. Bernard became an object of abuse as the great preacher of a movement which had terminated so disastrously, and wrote in humility an apologetic letter to the Pope, in which the divine judgments are made as usual accountable for human folly. This and other anxieties bore heavily upon even so sanguine a spirit. Disaster abroad and heresy at home left him no peace, while his body was worn to a shadow by his fasting and labour. It was, as he said, " the season of calamities." Still to the last, with failing strength, sleepless, unable to take solid food, with limbs swollen and feeble, his spirit was unconquerable. "Whenever a great necessity called him forth," as his friend and biographer Godfrey says, "his mind conquered all his bodily infirmities, he was endowed with strength and to the astonishment of all who saw him, he could surpass even robust men in his endurance of fatigue." He continued absorbed in public affairs, and dispensed his care and advice in all directions often about the most trivial is well as the most important affairs. Finally the death of his associates and friends left him without any desire to live. He longed rather "to depart and be with Christ." To his sorrowing monks, whose earnest prayers were supposed to have assisted his partial recovery when near his end, he said, "Why do you thus detain a miserable man? Spare me. Spare me, and let me depart." He expired August 20, 1153, shortly after his disciple Pope Eugenius III.
His character appears in our brief sketch as that of a noble enthusiast, selfish in nothing save in so far as the church had become a part of himself, ardent in his sympathies and friendships, tenacious of purpose, terrible in indignation. He spared no abuse, and denounced what he deemed corruption to the Pope as frankly as to one of his own monks. He is not a thinker nor a man in advance of his age, but much of the best thought and piety of his time are sublimed in him to a sweet mystery and rapture of sentiment which has still power to touch amidst all its rhetorical exaggerations.
His writings are very numerous, consisting of epistles, sermons, and theological treatises. The best edition of his works is that of Father Mabillon, printed at Paris in 1690 in 2 vols. folio, and reprinted more than once -- finally in 1854 in 4 vols. 8vo. His life, written by his friend and disciple Godfrey, is also contained in this edition of his works. (J. T.)
The above article was written by the Very Rev. John Tulloch, D.D., LL.D., Principal of St Mary's College, University of St. Andrews; author of Leaders of the Reformation, English Puritanism and its Leaders, Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England in the Seventeenth Century, and Pascal; editor of Fraser's Magazine.