St. Bernard of Clairvaux

The French churchman St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a Cistercian monk and founder and abbot of the monastery of Clairvaux. A theologian and Doctor of the Church, he dominated Europe through his eloquence and his counselling of popes and rulers.

Of a noble family in Burgundy, Bernard was a tall, handsome, slender youth endowed with great charm, a talent for eloquence, sensitivity, and a passion for learning. When he was 23 he persuaded two uncles, his five brothers, and about thirty other young nobles to enter the forlorn Cistercian monastery of Clteaux, founded in 1098 in a swampy area near Dijon. He chose it because, he said, "I was conscious that my weak character needed a strong medicine."

Life at Citeaux was austere and included manual labor, prayer, and study. Bernard's ascetic practices ruined his health, and he was often sick. In 1115 he was chosen to lead a group of 12 monks in founding a new monastery at Clairvaux, 70 miles from Citeaux. Bernard's personality, holiness, persuasive eloquence, and the beautiful Latin style of his writings soon made him and Clairvaux famous throughout Europe. He was sometimes very critical of the Church. He excoriated in colorful language the monks of Cluny for giving up manual labor and for their rich ceremonial dress and food. He was no less blunt with Pope Eugenius III in his De consideratione ad Eugenium papam.

Bernard soon became involved in the most important affairs of the Church. He played a key role in drawing up the Rule of the Knights Templar and obtaining approval for it at the Council of Troyes in 1128.

In 1130 Innocent II, a man of character and responsibility, was elected pope by a minority of the cardinals. A few hours later the majority of cardinals elected the brutal intriguer Anacletus II. The decision in favor of the better man, Innocent II, was the result of the persuasive influence of Bernard. It was Bernard too who helped to convince the German emperor Conrad III not to repudiate the Concordat of Worms (1122) and to support Innocent II in the conflict which lasted until the death of Anacletus II in 1138.

Two years later Bernard became deeply involved in challenging Peter Abelard, the brilliant and arrogant teacher in Paris. Opponents of Abelard protested that his application of dialectic to theology was dangerous to the point of destroying faith. Bernard accepted Abelard's challenge to a debate at the Council of Sens in 1140. There Bernard presented a list of theses taken from Abelard's writings which showed how far Abelard had departed from the traditional faith. When asked to abjure them, Abelard said, "I will not answer the Cistercian. I appeal to Rome," and left the assembly. After the Pope condemned the theses, Abelard accepted the decision and made peace with Rome and Bernard.

The fall of Edessa in 1142 led to a demand for a new crusade to protect the Holy land. Bernard launched his first appeal for a crusade at Vezelay, France, in 1146. His eloquence overcame widespread apathy. He preached the cause widely and even persuaded Emperor Conrad III to go. The failure of the Second Crusade left Bernard heartbroken and dimmed his prestige and popularity.

Bernard's name is sometimes associated with the "two swords theory," whereby both the spiritual and temporal swords belonged to the pope and the Church—the temporal sword being used by the prince at the request of the Church. Bernard expressed this idea in his De consideratione and in a letter to Eugenius III. In each case, however, he recommended it to the time. Others expanded Bernard's statements into a general theory.

A prolific writer, Bernard composed treatises on asceticism, polemical works, commentaries on the Bible, and innumerable sermons. His originality is best seen in his biblical commentaries and sermons. Bernard's emphasis was constantly on love; his genius lay in his talent for communicating his musical teaching to others.

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Further Reading on St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard of Clairvaux Seen through His Selected Letters, translated with an introduction by Bruno Scott James (1953), gives a vivid picture of the saint in his various moods. There are two good monographs on St. Bernard: Watkin Williams, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1935), and Bruno Scott James, St. Bernard of Clairvaux: An Essay in Biography (1957). Accounts of St. Bernard by his contemporaries—William of St. Thierry, Arnold of Bonnevaux, Geoffrey and Philip of Clairvaux, and Odo of Deuil—were gathered and translated by Geoffrey Webb and Adrian Walker in St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Bernard, of Clairvaux, Saint, Bernard of Clairvaux: a saint's life in word and image, Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Div., 1994.

Bredero, Adriaan Hendrik, Bernard of Clairvaux: between cult and history, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1996.

Coulton, G. G. (George Gordon), Two saints, St. Bernard & St. Francis, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Cristiani, Laeon, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090-1153, Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1977.