Skip to main content

Bernard of Clairvaux


BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX (10901153), monastic reformer, abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, France. Bernard is known principally through four biographical accounts written in his own century (which contain more legend than fact), through other writings of his contemporaries, and through his own works. Born to a noble family at the château of Fontaine, near Dijon, Bernard was educated by the canons of Saint-Vorles, Châtillon. At about the age of twenty he decided to commit himself to monastic life at the recently founded abbey of Cïteaux, which he entered in 1113. In 1115 he was sent to found the abbey of Clairvaux. So many recruits came that in 1118 he founded another abbey, and he continued to found one or more each year for a total of about seventy monasteries.

By 1125 Bernard had written three treatises: The Steps of Humility, In Praise of the Virgin Mother, and Apologia to Abbot William. His reputation spread. Around 1127 he wrote On the Behavior and Duties of Bishops and On Grace and Free Choice; On Loving God was composed between 1126 and 1141, and In Praise of the New Knighthood be-tween 1128 and 1136. In 1133 he traveled to Italy to settle the schism in the papacy between Innocent II and Anacletus II. In about 1135 Bernard began the long series of sermons On the Song of Songs, leaving the last sermon, the eighty-sixth, unfinished at his death. In 1139 he began to participate in the controversy then raging over the writings of Abelard, as is particularly illustrated by his Letter 190, "Against the Errors of Abelard." At this time he wrote the treatise On Conversion for the students in Paris. Before 1144 he dedicated to some Benedictine monks On Precept and Dispensation. He also took an active part in church politics, first in the combat against the heresies of the Cathari in the south of France, and then in Flanders, the Rhineland, and Bavaria, to rally men for the Second Crusade, initiated in 1146 by Eugenius III, the first Cistercian pope, for whom Bernard wrote Five Books on Consideration. After 1148 he penned The Life and Death of Saint Malachy, a biography of the bishop of Armagh who died at Clairvaux. About five hundred of Bernard's many letters are extant, as are numerous sermons on various subjects. Bernard died at Clairvaux on August 20, 1153 and was canonized by Alexander III in 1174.

Bernard was essentially a monk and a reformer, and his way of being both was determined by his character. His extremely artistic literary style tended to conceal his natural spontaneity. One senses deep conflict in this man: a tendency to be aggressive and domineering versus a will to be humble, to serve only "the interests of Jesus Christ." By constant examination of his motivations Bernard acquired a certain self-control. Occasionally charity gave way to passion; however, his humanity toward all won him more friends than enemies.

Bernard reformed monasticism by introducing greater poverty and austerity among the monks of the older orders, such as those at Cluny and Saint-Denis. He encouraged the new orders, the Regular Canons and the Carthusians. He strove for similar reform in the papacy, in the Curia Romana, and among bishops, clergy, and laity. He continued the institutional reform of Gregory VII by a spiritual reform in favor of interiority.

In the controversies over Abelard, historians have detected a conflict between personal rather than doctrinal points of view. Bernard and Abelard were in basic agreement on most points of doctrine and especially on the necessity of the appeal to reason, but Bernard, ill informed about the details of Abelard's teachings, won the support of the clergy of his day more by the form of his presentation of Christian dogma than by his criticism of Abelard.

In the political field, and especially in connection with the continual warfare of his day, Bernard defended nonviolence and made every effort to bring about reconciliation. About the pagan Wendes he said, "We must persuade to faith, not impose it." Elsewhere, he pointed out that the faithful of the Eastern and the Western churches were united by faith. Further, he defended the persecuted Jews of the Rhineland.

Bernard's theology had its roots in his own spiritual experience and in scripture, which served as the norm of interpretation for experience. He affirmed that the Holy Spirit, who inspired the sacred authors, gives understanding to their readers. His style is a tapestry of biblical quotations and allusions, often worded as they are found in the liturgy or in the writings of the fathers of the church. He borrowed very little from profane authors.

His doctrine is founded on the idea that the image of God in man has been dimmed by sin but not effaced. This image is restored when grace gives true self-knowledge or humility. In Jesus Christ, God became imitable. The Holy Spirit enables us to share in the salvation brought by Christ by keeping alive in us his "memory"through meditation, in the celebration of the "mysteries" (the sacraments), in the liturgy, and by following his example. Within the churchChrist's brideascesis and prayer lead to union with God, to peace and joy.


The best critical edition of Bernard's writings is Sancti Bernardi Opera, 8 vols., edited by Jean Leclercq, C. H. Talbot, and H. M. Rochais (Rome, 19571977). English translations are available in the "Cistercian Fathers Series" (Kalamazoo, Mich.). For historical orientation, see N.-D. d'Aiguebelle's Bernard de Clairvaux (Paris, 1953), volume 3 in the series "Commission d'histoire de l'Ordre de Citeaux." For discussions of Bernard's thought, see Saint Bernard théologien, edited by Jean Leclercq (Rome, 1953), volume 9, nos. 34, of the series "Analecta Sacri Ordinis Cisterciensis," and Gillian Evans's The Mind of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (Oxford, 1983). An analysis of Bernard's work and influence is my own Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercian Spirit, translated by Claire Lavoie (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1976).

Jean Leclercq (1987)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Bernard of Clairvaux." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 18 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Bernard of Clairvaux." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 18, 2018).

"Bernard of Clairvaux." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.