Bernard of Clairvaux

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Bernard of Clairvaux

Fontaines-les-Dijon, France

August 20, 1153
Clairvaux, France

Catholic religious leader and saint

"The earth has been shaken; it trembles because the Lord of heaven has begun to lose his land.... What are you doing, you servants of the cross? Will you throw to the dogs that which is most holy?"

—Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted in The Crusades.

Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the most powerful figures of the twelfth century. A Catholic priest and abbot (director) of a religious institution at Clairvaux, France, Bernard's influence stretched far beyond the borders of France. A powerful speaker and convincing writer, on one occasion he helped choose the pope, or leader of the Catholic Church, and had significant influence on another pope in religious and civil matters. Bernard could charm kings yet be firm toward fellow Catholics about leading a religious life filled with prayer rather than riches. He preached of love but also spoke forcefully in favor of the Second Crusade (1147–49), a Christian military expedition to the Holy Land to help stop the rising power of Islamic forces there. When that Crusade failed badly, he blamed the sins of the Crusaders. Bernard helped spread the popularity of the Cistercian order, a religious group that believed in a simple and disciplined lifestyle, and wrote widely on church matters. He was canonized (made a saint) in 1174.

A Noble Birth

Bernard of Clairvaux was born into a noble family in 1090, in the Burgundy region of France. The males were respected knights, or gentlemen trained in the art of war. His father was killed during the First Crusade (1095–99), when Christian soldiers traveled to Palestine and Jerusalem to free the sacred sites of Christianity from control by the Muslims, or followers of the Islamic religion. The life of a soldier, however, was not for Bernard: Before his birth it was said that there was a prophecy, or prediction, that this child would be a great leader of the church. He was sent to Chatillon-sur-Seine, a famous religious school, where he developed his love for literature and writing. There he memorized religious writings and was recognized by his instructors as a promising church scholar.

Following the death of Bernard's mother in 1107, the youth decided to become a monk, a religious man who withdraws from society and chooses to live a life of prayer and hard work. His noble relatives opposed such a move, wanting him to seek higher church offices, but Bernard had made up his mind. Sometime between 1111 and 1113 Bernard and thirty young noblemen of Burgundy, including several of his brothers and an uncle, joined the Cistercian order at the abbey of Cîteaux (or, in Latin, Cistercium), near Dijon, France. This new religious order took its name from its location. Founded in 1098, the Cistercians were a breakaway branch of the Benedictine order of monks. Bernard was attracted to the reforming philosophy of the Cistercians, who wanted to bring religion back to basics.

The monks at Cîteaux were poor and very religious. They did not interact with society, as did other monastic orders. Their buildings and food were all quite simple, and they led a life close to nature, unlike such wealthier orders as the Cluniacs, named after the abbey church of Cluny in France. In his "Apology," dating from 1125 and quoted in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Bernard takes these rich and lazy orders of monks to task for their luxurious surroundings:

In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren't embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn't we at least be disgusted by the expense?

Bernard and his friends pumped new blood into the Cistercian order and helped it grow. By 1115 Cîteaux had become large enough that additional houses were needed. Bernard and a group of his followers built another monastery at a place called Clairvaux, far from civilization. He was made abbot (director of the house) and planned to devote his life to prayer and hard work. This routine of manual work, little food, and less sleep eventually took its toll. Although Bernard was sick most of his life, he still managed to work long hours. As a preacher he soon became famous locally; people came to pray at his simple monastery. Word of his good deeds and hard work continued to spread, winning new members for the Cistercians. Soon his dream of a simple life had to change, however, for he was drawn into larger matters of the church.

A Battle between Popes

Bernard became so well known in the church that other priests and religious officials came to him for advice. He began writing explanations dealing with church law and sent letters to friends and church leaders alike. He also began to record his sermons in works such as Eighty-Six Sermons on the Song of Songs. As his fame grew, however, he had less and less time to attend to the daily affairs at Clairvaux.

For example, in 1128 he played an important role in writing the rules of the Knights Templars, an order of soldier-monks that came into being in the Holy Land under the direction of Bernard's friend Hugh de Payens (see entry). These rules were approved at the Council of Troyes that same year. In 1130 bigger matters attracted his interest, involving the election of a new pope, or leader of the Roman Catholic Church and essentially of Christianity in Europe. Innocent II was elected by one group of cardinals, or church officers, but another group elected his rival, Anacletus II. Bernard threw his support behind Innocent II, and as a result the French people accepted Innocent II as the true pope. However, Anacletus II and his friends occupied Rome, the seat of church power, and Innocent II was forced to leave the city. Bernard next persuaded Lothair II, the leader of the Holy Roman Empire, a loose collection of mostly German states and kingdoms, to back Innocent II. Lothair ultimately helped restore the pope to his rightful place in Rome.

Bernard also took an interest in church doctrine (beliefs). He fought against what he saw as the misguided policies of the famous medieval philosopher Peter Abelard (1079– 1142). Bernard did not like the way Abelard used reason, or rational and logical thought, to teach about Christianity and the Bible. For Bernard, religion was a matter of faith more than reason. In 1140 Bernard used his influence with Pope Innocent II to have Abelard's theories and writings condemned.

The Second Crusade

Simultaneously, in the Holy Land and the Middle East, events were taking place that directly affected Bernard's life. Since 1099 parts of this region had been held by Crusader knights from the First Crusade, who had carved out kingdoms, or counties, following the defeat of the Muslims at Jerusalem. Edessa was one of these tiny kingdoms to the north of Jerusalem. Throughout the four decades the Crusaders had been in the Holy Land, the Muslims had slowly joined together to fight their own holy war, or jihad, to win back land and holy sites that they considered rightfully theirs. For the Muslims these Christian Crusaders—or Franks, as Muslims called them—were foreign invaders and did not belong in the Middle East. Strong leaders rose up and tried to unite the people of Islam, a diverse group that included Turks, Arabs, and North Africans, among others in the region. One such leader was Zengi, the powerful Turkish ruler of Aleppo and Mosul, who managed to capture the Crusader stronghold of Edessa in 1144.

News that the Islamic fighters were on the move again reached Europe and made leaders think of starting another crusade to help their fellow Christians in the Holy Land. Both Louis VII, the king of France, and Eugenius III, the new pope, called for a Second Crusade. This new pope had been a monk at Bernard's abbey for ten years, and it was Bernard who first recommended him to higher church offices that Bernard himself stubbornly refused to accept during his lifetime. Bernard and this pope were thus very close, and Bernard had great influence over Eugenius III. The pope now asked Bernard, who was one of the most prominent of the church's speakers, to begin preaching for a new Crusade to the Holy Land.

At first there was little enthusiasm among the nobles of Europe for such a Crusade, but as Bernard began to write in favor of a Crusade and to speak at various locations in France and Germany, he soon built up a huge army of supporters. Preaching at a major gathering of nobles and the faithful at Vézelay, in France, on March 31, 1146, he laid out the case for another holy war against the Muslims. He saw this not only as a chance for sinners to win pardons for their previous bad

Ephraim ben Jacob

Bernard of Clairvaux made a personal appearance in the Rhine Valley of Germany to try to stop the renegade monk Randolph from urging the people to kill Jews at the start of the Second Crusade (1147–49). As had happened during earlier Crusades, the spirit of killing nonbelievers began before the Crusaders reached the Holy Land. Bernard preached that Crusaders who killed in the name of God would have all their sins removed. It also became clear there was a second motivation for these Christian warriors: They were free to plunder (grab the possessions of) those they defeated. The Jews of Europe thus became a prime target for Crusaders even before they set out for the Middle East, not because they were particularly wealthy, but because their outsider status in most European countries made them easy targets.

Such anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) actions were recorded during the Second Crusade by the German Jewish rabbi and scholar Ephraim ben Jacob (1132–1198). His Sefer Zechirah ("Book of Memoirs" or "Book of Remembrance") provides a historical record of these killings and also contains poetic prayers for the dead. It was Ephraim who documented the words of Bernard of Clairvaux when he was attempting to stop the killings in German cities: "Whoever touches a Jew to lay [a] hand on his life does something as sinful as if he had laid a hand on Jesus himself."

Unfortunately, condemning and recording such behavior did not stop it. Anti-Semitic actions occurred again during the Third Crusade (1189–92) in England and parts of continental Europe. Ephraim was still alive and recorded some of the worst atrocities (appalling acts of cruelty), including mass killings. He was also able to record an awful incident that happened in 1171 in France, when thirty-one Jewish men and women were burned after being accused of killing a Christian child as part of a religious ritual. Unfortunately, such tall tales of blood sacrifices by Jews were common in Europe. In this document, part of his Book of Historical Records, Ephraim wrote, "O daughters of Israel, weep for the thirty-one souls that were burnt for the sanctification of your Name, and let your brothers, the entire house of Israel, bewail [cry out] the mourning."

deeds but also as an opportunity for the two halves of the Christian church—the Roman Catholic Church, based in Rome, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, based in Constantinople in the Byzantine or eastern Roman Empire—to come together again. The powerful members of the audience were swept away by the strong words of this "honey-tongued teacher," as Bernard has been called. Among others, the king of France and his wife, the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine (see entry), agreed to go on the Crusade. Bernard ultimately persuaded Conrad III, the Holy Roman Emperor, to lead an army as well. He so excited the common people about the Crusade and fighting non-Christians that commoners began slaughtering Jews in Germany. Bernard himself had to travel to Germany to stop these killings (see box in previous page).

The crusading armies finally assembled and set off for Jerusalem and the Holy Land, but a combination of overconfidence, lack of discipline, and infighting among the various local Christian princes and the leaders of the expedition led to a tragic failure. Thousands of Crusaders died of disease even before reaching the Holy Land. Once there, the rest of them were either killed by the enemy or taken prisoner in battles. They did not capture the city of Damascus in Syria, which was one of their goals. This was a serious setback for the West and made the Islamic fighters even bolder. They now saw that the knights of Europe could be defeated if Muslims united against them. For the people of Europe this defeat put an end to the mass popularity of crusading. The Second Crusade was the last fought by common people; future Crusades would involve professional armies drawn from the West.

Bernard was saddened at this defeat for Christianity, but he felt that he was not personally responsible and blamed the Crusaders themselves for this setback. He defended the role he had played in organizing the Crusade and refused to admit it was a mistake. In his "Apologia for the Second Crusade," quoted in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, he does not apologize at all. Instead, he takes aim at the critics of the Second Crusade:

The perfect and final apology for any man is the testimony of his own conscience. As for myself, I take it to be a small matter to be judged by those 'who call evil good, and good evil, whose darkness is light, whose light darkness. ...' i would rather that men murmur against us than against God. It would be well for me if He deigns to use me for his shield. ... I shall not refuse to be made ignominious [deserving of shame], so long as God's glory is not attacked.

Although Bernard, feeling ill and near death, tried to retire to Clairvaux, one last public service awaited him. In 1153 he helped work out a peace between two warring German regions. Then, exhausted by a lifetime of service, he returned to Clairvaux, where he died on August 20, 1153, not long after his former student Pope Eugenius III had died. Bernard's influence was many-sided. As the historian Hans Eberhard Mayer has noted in The Crusades, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was "at that time the most distinguished figure in the intellectual and political life of the West." An adviser to popes and kings, he was the power behind the major movements of his day, though he always refused to accept a high church office. His preaching and writings were influential in his day and long afterward. He wrote more than three hundred sermons covering all aspects of Christianity and living a good life, more than five hundred letters, and more than a dozen longer works on themes ranging from love and understanding God to explanations of church doctrine. He also played a very important role in the growth of the Cistercian order. During his lifetime almost seventy additional houses grew out of his abbey at Clairvaux. In 1830, more than six hundred years after he was canonized, Bernard was declared a doctor of the church, a respected explainer of church doctrine. He remains one of the most studied figures in church history.

For More Information


Evans, G. R. The Mind of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Hala, James. "Bernard of Clairvaux." In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 208: Literature of the French and Occitan Middle Ages, Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries. Edited by Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1999.

James, Bruno Scott. St. Bernard of Clairvaux: An Essay in Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1957.

Luddy, Ailbe J. The Life of St. Bernard. Dublin: Browne & Nolan, 1963.

Mayer, Hans Eberhard. The Crusades. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Web Sites

"Bernard of Clairvaux." Medieval Church. (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Bernard of Clairvaux: Apology." Internet Medieval Sourcebook. (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Military Orders: In Praise of the New Knighthood." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies. (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Patron Saints Index: Bernard of Clairvaux." Catholic Forum. (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"St. Bernard: Apologia for the Second Crusade." Internet Medieval Sourcebook. (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"St. Bernard of Clairvaux." New Advent. (accessed on June 24, 2004).

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Bernard of Clairvaux

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