Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux

Infobox Saint
name=Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
death_date=death date|1153|8|20|mf=y
feast_day=August 20
venerated_in=Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church

caption=St Bernard in "A Short History of Monks and Monasteries" by Alfred Wesley Wishart (1900).
birth_place=Fontaines, France
death_place=Clairvaux, France
titles=Abbot, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church
canonized_date=January 18, 1174
canonized_by=Pope Alexander III
attributes=in his white habit watching the Virgin Mary, a white dog
patronage=Cistercians, Burgundy, beekeepers, candlemakers, Gibraltar, Queens' College, Cambridge, Speyer Cathedral

Bernard of Clairvaux, O.Cist (1090 - August 20, 1153) was a French abbot and the primary builder of the reforming Cistercian monastic order. After the death of his mother, Bernard sought admission into the Cistercian order. Three years later, he was sent to found a new house, which Bernard named Claire Vallée, 'of Clairvaux', on 25 June, 1115. Bernard would preach an immediate faith, in which the intercessor was the Virgin Mary. In the year 1128, Bernard assisted at the Council of Troyes, at which he traced the outlines of the Rule of the Knights Templar, who soon became the ideal of Christian nobility.

On the death of Pope Honorius II, which occurred on February 14, 1130, a schism broke out in the Church. King Louis VI convened a national council of the French bishops at Etampes, and Bernard was chosen to judge between the rival popes. In 1139, Bernard assisted at the Second Council of the Lateran.Bernard denounced the teachings of Peter Abelard to the Pope, who called a council at Sens in 1141 to settle the matter. Bernard soon saw one of his disciples, Bernard of Pisa, elected Pope. Having previously helped end the schism within the Church, Bernard was now called upon to combat heresy. In June 1145, Bernard traveled in Southern France and his preaching there helped strengthen support against heresy.

Following the Christian defeat at the Siege of Edessa, the Pope commissioned Bernard to preach the Second Crusade. The last years of Bernard's life were saddened by the failure of the crusaders, the entire responsibility for which was thrown upon him. Bernard died at age 63, after 40 years spent in the cloister. He was the first Cistercian monk placed on the calendar of saints, and was canonized by Pope Alexander III on 18 January, 1174. Pope Pius VIII bestowed upon him the title of "Doctor of the Church."

Early life (1090-1113

Bernard's parents were Tescelin, lord of Fontaines, and Aleth of Montbard, both belonging to the highest nobility of Burgundy. Bernard was the third of a family of seven children, six of whom were sons. At the age of nine years, Bernard was sent to school at Chatillon-sur-Seine, run by the secular canons of Saint-Vorles. Bernard had a great taste for literature and devoted himself for some time to poetry. His success in his studies won the admiration of his teachers. Bernard wanted to excel in literature in order to take up the study of the Bible. He had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, and he would later write several works about the Queen of Heaven.

Bernard would expand upon Anselm of Canterbury's role in transmuting the sacramentally ritual Christianity of the Early Middle Ages into a new, more personally held faith, with the life of Christ as a model and a new emphasis on the Virgin Mary. In opposition to the rational approach to divine understanding that the scholastics adopted, Bernard would preach an immediate faith, in which the intercessor was the Virgin Mary,Bernard was only nineteen years of age when his mother died. During his youth, he did not escape trying temptations and around this time he thought of retiring from the world and living a life of solitude and prayer. [Bunson (1998) p.129.]

In 1098, St Robert of Molesme had founded the monastery of Cîteaux, near Dijon, with the purpose of restoring the Rule of St Benedict in all its rigour. Returning to Molesmes, he left the government of the new abbey to St Alberic, who died in the year 1109. In 1113, St Stephen Harding had just succeeded him as third Abbot of Cîteaux when Bernard and thirty other young noblemen of Burgundy sought admission into the Cistercian order. [McManners (1990) p.204.]

Abbot of Clairvaux (1113-28)

The little community of reformed Benedictines at Cîteaux, which would have so profound an influence on Western monasticism grew rapidly. Three years later, Bernard was sent with a band of twelve monks to found a new house at Vallée d'Absinthe, in the Diocese of Langres. This Bernard named Claire Vallée, of Clairvaux, on the June 25, 1115 and the names of Bernard and Clairvaux would soon become inseparable. [Bunson (1998) p.129.] During the absence of the Bishop of Langres, Bernard was blessed as abbot by William of Champeaux, Bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne. From that moment a strong friendship sprang up between the abbot and the bishop, who was professor of theology at Notre Dame of Paris, and the founder of the cloister of St|"" in the 1913 "Catholic Encyclopedia"]

The beginnings of Clairvaux Abbey were trying and painful. The regime was so austere that Bernard became ill, and only the influence of his friend William of Champeaux, and the authority of the General Chapter could make him mitigate the austerities. The monastery, however, made rapid progress. Disciples flocked to it in great numbers and put themselves under the direction of Bernard. His father and all his brothers entered Clairvaux as religious, leaving only Humbeline, his sister, in the world and she, with the consent of her husband, soon took the veil in the Benedictine convent of Jully. Gerard of Clairvaux, Bernard's older brother became the cellarer of Citeaux. The abbey became too small for the religious who crowded there and it was necessary to send out bands to found new houses. In 1118, the Monastery of the Three Fountains was founded in the Diocese of Châlons. In 1119, that of Fontenay in the Diocese of Autun and in 1121, that of Foigny, near Vervins, in the Diocese of Laon were founded. In addition to these victories, Bernard also has his trials. During an absence from Clairvaux, the Grand Prior of Cluny went to Clairvaux and enticed away the Bernard's cousin, Robert of Châtillon. This was the occasion of the longest, and most emotional of Bernard's letters.

In the year 1119, Bernard was present at the first general chapter of the order convoked by Stephen of Cîteaux. Though not yet 30 years old, Bernard was listened to with the greatest attention and respect, especially when he developed his thoughts upon the revival of the primitive spirit of regularity and fervour in all the monastic orders. It was this general chapter that gave definitive form to the constitutions of the order and the regulations of the "Charter of Charity" which Pope Callixtus II confirmed December 23, 1119. In 1120, Bernard authored his first work "De Gradibus Superbiae et Humilitatis" and his homilies which he entitled "De Laudibus Mariae." The monks of the abbey of Cluny were unhappy to see Cîteaux take the lead rôle among the religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church. For this reason, the Black Monks attempted to make it appear that the rules of the new order were impracticable. At the solicitation of William of St. Thierry, Bernard defended the order by publishing his "Apology" which was divided into two parts. In the first part, he proved himself innocent of the charges of Cluny and in the second he gave his reasons for his counterattacks. He protested his profound esteem for the Benedictines of Cluny whom he declared he loved equally as well as the other religious orders. Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, answered Benedict and assured him of his great admiration and sincere friendship. In the meantime Cluny established a reform, and Abbot Suger, the minister of Louis VI of France, was converted by the "Apology" of Bernard. He hastened to terminate his worldly life and restore discipline in his monastery. The zeal of Bernard extended to the bishops, the clergy, and lay people. Bernard's letter to the Archbishop of Sens was seen as a real treatise, "De Officiis Episcoporum." About the same time he wrote his work on "Grace and Free Will".

Doctor of the Church (1128-46)

In the year 1128, Bernard participated in the Council of Troyes, which had been convoked by Pope Honorius II, and was presided over by Cardinal Matthew, Bishop of Albano. The purpose of this council was to settle certain disputes of the bishops of Paris, and regulate other matters of the Church of France. The bishops made Bernard secretary of the council, and charged him with drawing up the synodal statutes. After the council, the Bishop of Verdun was deposed. It was at this council that Bernard traced the outlines of the Rule of the Knights Templar who soon became the ideal of Christian nobility. He later praised them in his "De Laudibus Novae Militiae." [Durant (1950) p.593.]

Again reproaches arose against Bernard and he was denounced, even in Rome. He was accused of being a monk who meddled with matters that did not concern him. Cardinal Harmeric, on behalf of the pope, wrote Bernard a sharp letter of remonstrance stating,

:"It is not fitting that noisy and troublesome frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals."

Bernard answered the letter by saying that, if he had assisted at the council, it was because he had been dragged to it by force. In his response Bernard wrote,

:"Now illustrious Harmeric if you so wished, who would have been more capable of freeing me from the necessity of assisting at the council than yourself? Forbid those noisy troublesome frogs to come out of their holes, to leave their marshes . . . Then your friend will no longer be exposed to the accusations of pride and presumption."

This letter made a positive impression on Harmeric, and in the Vatican.


Bernard's influence was soon felt in provincial affairs. He defended the rights of the Church against the encroachments of kings and princes, and recalled to their duty Henri Sanglier, Archbishop of Sens and Stephen of Senlis, Bishop of Paris. On the death of Pope Honorius II, which occurred on February 14, 1130, a schism broke out in the Church by the election of two popes, Pope Innocent II and Pope Anacletus II. Innocent II having been banished from Rome by Anacletus took refuge in France. King Louis VI convened a national council of the French bishops at Etampes, and Bernard, summoned there by consent of the bishops, was chosen to judge between the rival popes. He decided in favour of Innocent II. This caused the Pope to be recognized by all the great powers. He then went with him into Italy and reconciled Pisa with Genoa, and Milan with the Pope. The same year Bernard was again at the Council of Reims at the side of Innocent II. He then went to Aquitaine where he succeeded for the time in detaching William X of Aquitaine, Count of Poitiers, from the cause of Anacletus. [Bunson (1998) p.129.]

In 1132, Bernard accompanied Innocent II into Italy, and at Cluny the Pope abolished the dues which Clairvaux used to pay to that abbey. This action gave rise to a quarrel between the White Monks and the Black Monks which lasted 20 years. In May of that year, the Pope supported by the army of Emperor Lothaire III, entered Rome, but Lothaire, feeling himself too weak to resist the partisans of Anacletus, retired beyond the Alps, and Innocent sought refuge in Pisa in September 1133. Bernard had returned to France in June, and was continuing the work of peacemaking which he had commenced in 1130. Towards the end of 1134, he made a second journey into Aquitaine, where William X had relapsed into schism. Bernard invited William to the Mass which he celebrated in the Church of La Couldre. At the Eucharist, he "admonished the Duke not to despise God as he did His servants". William yielded and the schism ended. Bernard went again to Italy, where Roger II of Sicily was endeavouring to withdraw the Pisans from their allegiance to Innocent. He recalled the city of Milan to obedience to the Pope as they had followed the deposed Anselm V, Archbishop of Milan. For this, he was offered, and he refused, the Archbishopric of Milan. He then returned to Clairvaux. Believing himself at last secure in his cloister, Bernard devoted himself with renewed vigour to the composition of the works which would win for him the title of "Doctor of the Church." He wrote at this time his sermons on the "Song of Songs." In 1137 he was again forced to leave his solitude by order of the Pope to put an end to the quarrel between Lothaire and Roger of Sicily. At the conference held at Palermo, Bernard succeeded in convincing Roger of the rights of Innocent II. He also silenced the final supporters who sustained the schism. Anacletus died of "grief and disappointment" in 1138, and with him the schism ended.

Contest with Abelard

In 1139, Bernard assisted at the Second Council of the Lateran, in which the surviving adherents of the schism were definitively condemned. About the same time, Bernard was visited at Clairvaux by Saint Malachy, Primate of All Ireland, and a very close friendship was formed between them. Malachy wanted to become a Cistercian, but the Pope would not give his permission. Malachi would die at Clairvaux in 1148.

Towards the close of the 11th century, the schools of philosophy and theology were dominated by a spirit of independence. This led for a time to the exaltation of human reason and rationalism. This movement found an ardent and powerful adherent in Peter Abelard. Abelard's treatise on the Trinity had been condemned in 1121, and he himself had thrown his book into the fire. In 1139, Abelard advocated new positions at odds with those of Rome. Bernard, informed of this by William of St-Thierry, wrote to Abelard who answered in an insulting manner. Bernard then denounced him to the Pope who called a council at Sens in 1141 to settle the matter. There, Abelard asked for a public debate with Bernard. Bernard delivered Rome's case with such clearness and force of logic that Abelard made no reply. He was obliged, after being condemned, to retire. The Pope confirmed the judgment of the council, Abelard submitted without resistance, and retired to Cluny to live under Peter the Venerable, where he died two years later. [Bunson (1998) p.129.]

Cistercian Order and heresy

Bernard had occupied himself in sending bands of monks from his too-crowded monastery into Germany, Sweden, England, Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland, and Italy. Some of these, at the command of Innocent II, took possession of Three Fountains Abbey, from which Pope Eugenius III would be chosen in 1145. Pope Innocent II died in the year 1143. His two successors, Pope Celestine II and Pope Lucius II, reigned only a short time, and then Bernard saw one of his disciples, Bernard of Pisa, and known thereafter as Eugenius III, raised to the Chair of Saint Peter. [Bunson (1998) p.130.] Bernard sent him, at the Pope's own request, various instructions which comprise the "Book of Considerations," the predominating idea of which is that the reformation of the Church ought to commence with the sanctity of the Pope. Temporal matters are merely accessories, the principals according to Bernard's work were piety, and meditation which was to precede action. [McManners (1990) p.210.]

Having previously helped end the schism within the Church, Bernard was now called upon to combat heresy. Henry of Lausanne, a former Cluniac monk, had adopted the teachings of the Petrobrusians, followers of Peter of Bruys and spread them in a modified form after Peter's death.cite book | title =Henry of Lausanne | work =Encyclopedia Britannica | publisher =Encyclopedia Britannica | date =1911 | url = | accessdate = ] Henry of Lausanne's followers became known as Henricians. In June 1145, at the invitation of Cardinal Alberic of Ostia, Bernard traveled in Southern France. [McManners (1990) p.211.] His preaching, aided by his ascetic looks and simple attire, helped doom the new sects. Both the Henrician and the Petrobrusian faiths began to die out by the end of that year.Soon afterwards, Henry of Lausanne was arrested, brought before the Bishop of Toulouse, and probably imprisoned for life. In a letter to the people of Toulouse, undoubtedly written at the end of 1146, Bernard calls upon them to extirpate the last remnants of the heresy. He also preached against the Cathars. [Bunson (1998) p.130.]

econd Crusade (1146-49)

News came at this time from the Holy Land that alarmed Christendom. Christians had been defeated at the Siege of Edessa and most of the county had fallen into the hands of the Turks. [Riley-Smith (1991) p.48] The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the other Crusader states were threatened with similar disaster. Deputations of the bishops of Armenia solicited aid from the Pope, and the King of France also sent ambassadors. The Pope commissioned Bernard to preach a Second Crusade and granted the same indulgences for it which Pope Urban II had accorded to the First Crusade.Durant (1950) p.594.] There was at first virtually no popular enthusiasm for the crusade as there had been in 1095. Bernard found it expedient to dwell upon the taking of the cross as a potent means of gaining absolution for sin and attaining grace. On 31 March, with King Louis present, he preached to an enormous crowd in a field at Vézelay. When Bernard was finished the croud enlisted en masse; they supposedly ran out of cloth to make crosses. Bernard is said to have given his own outer garments to be cut up to make more. Unlike the First Crusade, the new venture attracted Royalty, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, then Queen of France; Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders; Henry, the future Count of Champagne; Louis’ brother Robert I of Dreux; Alphonse I of Toulouse; William II of Nevers; William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey; Hugh VII of Lusignan; and numerous other nobles and bishops. But an even greater show of support came from the common people. Bernard wrote to the Pope a few days afterwards, "Cities and castles are now empty. There is not left one man to seven women, and everywhere there are widows to still living husbands."

Bernard then passed into Germany, and the reported miracles which multiplied almost at his every step undoubtedly contributed to the success of his mission. Conrad III of Germany and his nephew Frederick Barbarossa, received the cross from the hand of Bernard. [Riley-Smith (1991) p.48] Pope Eugenius came in person to France to encourage the enterprise. As in the First Crusade, the preaching inadvertently led to attacks on Jews; a fanatical French monk named Rudolphe was apparently inspiring massacres of Jews in the Rhineland, Cologne, Mainz, Worms, and Speyer, with Rudolphe claiming Jews were not contributing financially to the rescue of the Holy Land. The Archbishop of Cologne and the Archbishop of Mainz were vehemently opposed to these attacks and asked Bernard to denounce them. This he did, but when the campaign continued, Bernard traveled from Flanders to Germany to deal with the problems in person. He then found Rudolphe in Mainz and was able to silence him, returning him to his monastery. [Durant (1950) p. 391.]

The last years of Bernard's life were saddened by the failure of the Second Crusade he had preached, the entire responsibility for which was thrown upon him. [Bunson (1998) p. 130.] He had accredited the enterprise by his reported miracles, but he had not guaranteed its success against the misconduct of those who participated in it. Lack of discipline and the over-confidence of the German troops, the intrigues of the Prince of Antioch and his niece Queen Eleanor, and finally the blunders of the Christian nobles, who failed at the siege of Damascus, appear to have been the cause of disaster. Bernard considered it his duty to send an apology to the Pope and it is inserted in the second part of his "Book of Considerations." There he explains how the sins of the crusaders were the cause of their misfortune and failures. When his attempt to call a new crusade failed, he tried to disassociate himself from the fiasco of the Second Crusade altogether. [Runciman (1952) pp. 232-234 and pg. 277.]

Final years (1149-53)

The death of his contemporaries served as a warning to Bernard of his own approaching end. The first to die was Suger in 1152, of whom Bernard wrote to Eugenius III, "If there is any precious vase adorning the palace of the King of Kings it is the soul of the venerable Suger". Conrad III and his son Henry died the same year. From the beginning of the year 1153, Bernard felt his death approaching. The passing of Pope Eugenius had struck the fatal blow by taking from him one whom he considered his greatest friend and consoler. Bernard died at age sixty-three on August 20, 1153, after forty years spent in the cloister. [Bunson (1998) p.130.] He was buried at the Clairvaux Abbey, but after its dissolution in 1792 by the French revolutionary government, his remains were translated to the Troyes Cathedral.


At the 800th anniversary of his death, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical on Bernard, Doctor Mellifluus in which he labeled him "The Last of the Fathers." Bernard did not reject human philosophy which is genuine philosophy, which leads to God; he differentiates different kind of knowledge, the highest being theological. Three central elements of Bernard’s mariology are: how he explained the Virginity of Mary, "the “Star of the Sea”", how the faithful should pray on the Virgin Mary, and how he relied on the Virgin Mary as Mediatrix.


Bernard's theology and mariology continue to be of major importance, particularly within the Cistercian and Trappist orders. [His texts are prescribed readings in Cistercian congregations] Bernard led to the foundation of 163 monasteries in different parts of Europe. At his death, they numbered 343. His influence led Pope Alexander III to launch reforms that would lead to the establishment of canon law.Duffy (1997) p. 101.] He was the first Cistercian monk placed on the calendar of saints and was canonized by Pope Alexander III January 18, 1174. Pope Pius VIII bestowed on him the title of Doctor of the Church. He is fondly remembered as the "Mellifluous Doctor," (the Honey-Sweet Doctor), for his eloquence. The Cistercians honour him as only the founders of orders are honoured, because of the widespread activity which he gave to the order. [Bunson (1998) p.130.] The works of Bernard are as follows:

*"De Gradibus Superbiae," his first treatise.

*Homilies on the Gospel "Missus est" written in 1120.

*"Apology to William of St. Thierry" against the claims of the monks of Cluny.

*"On the Conversion of Clerics," a book addressed to the young ecclesiastics of Paris written in 1122.

*"De Laudibus Novae Militiae," addressed to Hugues de Payens, first Grand Master and Prior of Jerusalem (1129). This is a eulogy of the military order instituted in 1118, and an exhortation to the knights to conduct themselves with courage in their several stations.

*"De amore Dei" wherein Bernard argues that the manner of loving God is to love without measure and gives the different degree of this love.

*"Book of Precepts and Dispensations" (1131), which contains answers to questions upon certain points of the Rule of St Benedict from which the abbot can, or cannot, dispense.

*"De Gratiâ et Libero Arbitrio" in which the Roman Catholic dogma of grace and free will was defended according to the principles of St Augustine.

*"Book of Considerations," addressed to Pope Eugenius III.

*"De Officiis Episcoporum," addressed to Henry, Archbishop of Sens.

His sermons are also numerous:

*On Psalm 90, "Qui habitat," written about 1125.

*"On the Song of Songs."

*There are also 86 "Sermons for the Whole Year."

*530 letters survive.

Many letters, treatises, and other works, falsely attributed to him survive, such as the "l'Echelle du Cloître", "les Méditations", and "l'Edification de la Maison intérieure".

Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy" places him as the last guide for Dante, as he travels through the Empyrean. As the final guide, he represents the Contemplative Soul who is able to lead Dante to his viewing of God.



*Runciman, Steven. (1952). "A History of the Crusades, vol. II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East, 1100-1187."
*McManners, John. (1990). "Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity."
*Riley-Smith, Jonathan (1991) "Atlas of the Crusades."
*Cantor, Norman F. (1993). "The Civilization of the Middle Ages."
*cite book |title="Saints and Sinners, a History of the Popes" |last=Duffy |first=Eamon | authorlink=Eamon Duffy|year=1997
*Bunson, Matthew, Margaret, & Stephen. (1998). Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Saints. ISBN 0-87973-588-0.

External links

* [ "Opera omnia Sancti Bernardi Claraevallensis"] The Complete Works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in Latin.
* [ Audio on the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux] from

NAME = Bernard of Clairvaux
SHORT DESCRIPTION = French abbot, theologian
PLACE OF BIRTH = Fontaines, France
DATE OF DEATH = August 21, 1153
PLACE OF DEATH = Clairvaux, France

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