Bernard of Clairvaux Essay - Critical Essays

Bernard of Clairvaux


Bernard of Clairvaux 1090-1153

French theologian and philosopher.

Known as “Doctor Mellifluus” (the “honey-mouthed doctor”), Bernard was a monk of the Cistercian order and one of the most eloquent preachers in twelfth-century France. He was instrumental in setting up Cistercian monasteries all over his country and achieved great influence in ecclesiastical circles all over Europe. In his writings, the most important of which is the theological treatise Sermones in canticum canticorum (Sermons on the Song of Songs, c. 1136), he presents a creed of mystical contemplation, meditation, and personal union with God. The Sermons and other works develop the metaphor of the church as the bride of Christ, stressing the importance of human love in understanding service to God. Although Bernard's writings have not reached a wide audience outside the church, his works have been studied by theologians and philosophers for their original explication of church doctrine and mystical ideas, as well as for their rejection of heresy and rationalistic theology. Commentators have also pointed out Bernard's vivid descriptions and characterizations and his extensive use of metaphor in his writings. His letters are of particular interest because of the portrait they present of an intensely emotional and driven man. Bernard's reputation today is as a mystic who was also one of the most commanding church leaders in the first half of the twelfth century, one of the most important representatives of monasticism in the Middle Ages, and a powerful propagator of the Cistercian reform.

Biographical Information

Bernard was born near Dijon, France, in 1090. His father was a knight who died during the Crusades, and his mother, descended from nobility, died when Bernard was seventeen. Because Bernard was not suited to a military life, he turned to the church for a career. His family sent him to study at Châlons to qualify for high ecclesiastical preferment, and they opposed his choice in 1111 to enter the monastery of reformed Benedictines founded by Robert of Molesmes in Citeaux. In 1113 Bernard became a monk in the Cistercian order and in 1115 he became abbot of a monastery at Clairvaux, one of the daughter monasteries of Citeaux. Bernard had a reputation for insisting on fierce monastic discipline and under his rule, the monastery at Clairvaux flourished. Although the monastery was actually subject to Citeaux, Clairvaux soon became the most prominent home of the Cistercian order, owing to Bernard's fame, his saintly character, his self-mortification, his reputed miracles, and his eloquent preaching, which attracted numerous pilgrims. By 1124 Bernard was already counted among the most influential ecclesiastical figures in France, engaging in important, high-level discussions about the church. Around 1124 Bernard began to experience health problems, a result of his relentless fasting and unremitting work schedule. After this illness, his health was poor for most of the rest of his life. In 1128 he was invited by Cardinal Matthew of Albano to the synod of Troyes, where he was instrumental in obtaining recognition for the new order of Knights Templar, the rules of which he is said to have drawn up. The following year, at the synod of Châlonssur-Marne, he ended the crisis arising out of certain charges brought against Henry, Bishop of Verdun, by persuading the Bishop to resign.

In 1130 Pope Honorius II died and two men were elected to the papacy, resulting in a schism in the church. In the synod at Etampes in April 1130 Bernard successfully asserted the claims of Pope Innocent II against those of Anacletus II. He supported Innocent vigorously for the eight years of the schism and triumphed when, after the death of Analectus in 1138, he convinced his successor to abdicate his position so that Innocent could be the undisputed head of the Catholic Church. Between 1130 and 1145, more than ninety monasteries were founded in connection with Bernard and he traveled all over Europe on church matters. The monastery at Clairvaux was transformed to reflect its status as the seat of power of one of the most influential branches of the Catholic Church. In 1145 a Cistercian monk, once a member of the community of Clairvaux, elected Eugenius III as Pope, due in part to Bernard's influence. In 1146, at the command of the Pope, Bernard began preaching the Second Crusade; its eventual failure was a great blow to him. He continued to write and to be active in ecclesiastical affairs until his death in 1153. Bernard was canonized in 1174 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1830.

Major Works

Bernard was a prolific writer, producing more than four hundred letters and numerous theological treatises. Because they were not officially published but circulated as working documents, the dates for many of his works are uncertain. Many of Bernard's theological tracts were composed at the request of others or for church business. His first known formal treatise, De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae (The Steps of Humility and Pride, c. 1124), was written for Godfrey of Langres, Abbot of Fontenay. The work, which elaborates upon the twelve steps of humility outlined by St. Benedict, delineates a threefold division of truth and urges monks to contemplate truth directly after leaving human understanding behind them. The treatise is an early expression of Bernard's contemplative, mystical theology and displays his vivid style and rhetorical skill. While he was convalescing during his illness in 1124, Bernard wrote his De in laudibus matris virginis (Sermons in Praise of the Virgin Mother), probably the only tract he wrote for himself and not at the request of anyone or to formalize the order's position on a subject. In his treatise on the Virgin Mary, Bernard likens himself to a knight errant who serves Mary as a courtier would serve his lover. Other treatises that were probably written around this time are Apologia (c. 1125), in which Bernard rebukes the Cistercians for criticizing the Benedictines before critiquing the Benedictines for what he saw as their laxity and luxuriance; De gratia et libero arbitrio (On Grace and Free Will c. 1126-35), which contends that humans are free to say “yes” or “no” to any idea but are not free from sin and misery, except through the grace of Christ; and De laude novae militiae (In Praise of the New Knighthood, c. 1128-35), in which Bernard praises and encourages the Knights Templar, a fledgling crusading order of warrior-monks.

Around 1136, Bernard wrote his best known and most influential work, Sermons on the Song of Songs. The work, comprising eighty-six sermons illuminating the first two chapters of the biblical Song of Songs, is a study of the relationship between Christ and the church as bridegroom and bride. The treatise uses the erotic elements of the Song of Songs to stress the importance of spiritual desire. This theme of human love is also explored in De diligendo Deo (On Loving God, c. 1126-41). Other important works by Bernard include Liber de praecepto det dispensatione (On Precept and Profession, c. 1141-44), an answer to various questions on monastic conduct and discipline posed to him by the monks of St. Peter at Chartres; a tract denouncing the heterodox views of Peter Abelard in Contra quaedarn capitala errorum Abaelardi ad Innocentem II (Against the Errors of Peter Abelard, 1140); and Vita Sancti Malachiae (The Life of St. Malachy, after 1148), which concerns itself with the conduct of the ideal prelate and presents Bernard's ideals for a reformed church. A companion piece to the biography, De Consideratione (On Meditation, c. 1148-53), Bernard's last work, was written at the Pope's request for the edification and guidance of Eugenius III.

Many hymns by Bernard continue to be used in the Roman breviary and the translated versions are used in the Protestant Church. Bernard also wrote miscellaneous sermons on a number of subjects, many of which reveal his mystical bent. His numerous letters—there are more letters by Bernard than by any of his contemporaries—are addressed to men and women of all classes and positions and provide a living picture of the abbot as well as an overview of religious concerns in twelfth-century France. The letters have been studied extensively for the portrait they provide of Bernard, who is revealed as a man of tempestuous emotions—sometimes terribly angry, sometimes irritated, and sometimes joking. From the letters there emerges an image of a man who is at once counsellor to kings, interested in the concerns of those who approached him for comfort, and devoted to his intimate relationship with God.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Bernard was one of the most important religious figures in France; he was regarded as the embodiment of the ideal of medieval monasticism. He had enormous political influence and he moved in the company of secular and church leaders from all over Europe. But even while he was alive, Bernard's greatness was assessed not by his writings or deeds but by his life and character. He rejected heresy but did not have a shallow or conservative view of Christian teachings. He believed that faith was to be fostered by persuasion and his eloquent sermons were said to be full of charm and vivacity. Like his letters, his sermons touch on a variety of subjects, great and small and are addressed to people of diverse stations—evidence of how he could successfully appeal to both unlearned and learned audiences. He was revered for his unflinching devotion to his order and his untiring work in serving God and his people.

The first complete edition of Bernard's writings appeared in Paris in 1508, edited by André Bocard and published under the title Seraphica melliflui devotique doctoris S. Bernardi scripia. A critical edition of his writings edited by Dom J. Mabillon, Sancti Bernardi, appeared in 1667. The church's interest in Bernard and his writings has been steady over the centuries and Bernard's writings have had great influence on mystical writing, religious poetry, and theology. He has been admired by such thinkers as Erasmus of Rotterdam in the fifteenth century and Thomas Merton in the twentieth. With Etienne Gilson's 1940 study of Bernard's theology, his writings reached a wider critical audience. Scholars writing in English have focused on his mystical bent, his views on love, and his humanism; most have concentrated on his most accessible work, his Sermons on the Song of Songs. In particular, Merton has written extensively on Bernard, discussing his ideas about the monk's life of active contemplation, among other things. Because of his often formal style and extensive quotation of Scripture, Bernard is not easy reading for a popular audience, so several new translations and studies have appeared to make his writings more accessible to modern readers.

Principal Works

De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae [The Steps of Humility and Pride] (theological treatise) c. 1124

Apologia (theological treatise) before 1125

De baptismo [On Baptism] (theological treatise) before 1125

De conversione ad clericos [Sermon Addressed to Clerics, on Conversion] (theological treatise) before 1125

De in laudibus matris virginis [Sermons in Praise of the Virgin Mother] (theological treatise) before 1125

De diligendo Deo [On Loving God] (theological treatise) c. 1126-41

De gratia et libero arbitrio [On Grace and...

(The entire section is 250 words.)


Etienne Gilson (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: Gilson, Etienne. “Regula LXXII.” In The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard, translated by A. H. C. Downes, pp. 6-13. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1990.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1940, Gilson explores some of the influences on Bernard's writing, including Aelred of Rievaulx, Gilbert of Holland, Isaac L'Etoile, Cistercian mysticism, and, most importantly, Cicero's writings on love.]

Behind [St. Bernard and William of St. Thierry] certain secondary figures are visible in the background. Aelred of Rievaulx, although belonging to a later generation, still directly depends upon St. Bernard. Living wholly within...

(The entire section is 2475 words.)

Thomas Merton (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Merton, Thomas. “Saint Bernard's Writings.” The Last of the Fathers: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Encyclical Letter, Doctor Mellifluus, pp. 47-67. New York, N.Y.: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1954.

[In the following excerpt, Merton surveys Bernard's best-known writings, which he says offer a coherent doctrine that embraces life. The critic characterizes them as the work of a mystic who emphasizes grace and expresses in lyrical terms his love for Jesus.]

It seems that one of the things Saint Bernard wanted to get away from, when he entered Citeaux, was literary ambition. Profoundly affected by the humanistic renaissance of the twelfth century, his works...

(The entire section is 5597 words.)

Jean Leclercq (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Leclercq, Jean. “St Bernard in Our Times.” In Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: Studies Commemorating the Eighth Centenary of His Canonization, edited by M. Basil Pennington, pp. 1-26. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1977.

[In the following essay, Leclercq surveys scholarship on Bernard's life and major writings in the 800 years after his death and reflects on the sociological, psychological, and linguistic possibilities for further research.]

In 1953 we celebrated the eight-hundredth centenary of the death of Bernard of Clairvaux. At the end of the last of the congresses held in Bernard's native Burgandy on this occasion, it occured to several of the...

(The entire section is 9497 words.)

William O. Paulsell (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Paulsell, William O. “Virtue in St Bernard's Sermons on the Song of Songs.” In Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: Studies Commemorating the Eighth Centenary of His Canonization, edited by M. Basil Pennington, pp. 101-17. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1977.

[In the following essay, Paulsell discusses the connection between virtue and spiritual progress in Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs.]

The eighty-six sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs constitute one of the great classics of Christian spirituality. Here the Abbot of Clairvaux outlined for his monks a methodology of spiritual development. He saw a direct...

(The entire section is 5574 words.)

G. L. J. Smerillo (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Smerillo, G. L. J. “Caritas in the Initial Letters of Saint Bernard.” In Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: Studies Commemorating the Eighth Centenary of His Canonization, edited by M. Basil Pennington, pp. 118-36. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1977.

[In the following essay, Smerillo explores the idea of Deus caritas est–God is love—as presented in Bernard's first twenty-one letters.]

This essay has as its intent the explication of one idea found in a small number of texts, an idea that is fundamental to the whole of St Bernard's thought. Its basis is 1 John 4: 16: Deus caritas est.

St Bernard's...

(The entire section is 7132 words.)

Thomas Merton (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Merton, Thomas. “Action and Contemplation in the Mystery of Christ.” In Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard, pp. 23-58. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Merton discusses Bernard's ideas regarding the active, contemplative, and apostolic lives in his Sermons on the Song of Songs.]


Before we approach the subject of this study, which is St Bernard's doctrine on the active and contemplative lives, let us first pause to consider the great mystery of action and contemplation in Our Lord Jesus Christ, as it is revealed to us in the New Testament....

(The entire section is 15237 words.)

Theresa Moritz (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Moritz, Theresa. “The Church as Bride in Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs.” In The Chimaera of His Age: Studies of Bernard of Clairvaux; Studies in Medieval Cistercian History V, edited by E. Rozanne Elder and John R. Sommerfeldt, pp. 3-11. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1980.

[In the following essay, Moritz examines Bernard's ninth sermon in his Sermons on the Song of Songs and argues that it reflects Bernard''s conviction that the Church is Christ's true bride.]

In the Sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard of Clairvaux identifies the Bride, whose marriage the Song celebrates, as a figure both for the...

(The entire section is 4048 words.)

Emero Stiegman (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Stiegman, Emero. “Humanism in St. Bernard of Clairvaux: Beyond Literary Culture.” In The Chimaera of His Age: Studies of Bernard of Clairvaux; Studies in Medieval Cistercian History V, edited by E. Rozanne Elder and John R. Sommerfeldt, pp. 23-38. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1980.

[In the following essay, Stiegman argues that theological humanism underlies Bernard's writings, noting that he held a deep sense of human worth and profoundly humanistic ideas about the genesis of human love.]

Humanism, like all terms which historians invent to label a complex but broadly identifiable set of attitudes, is subject to ambiguity; the attitudes...

(The entire section is 6253 words.)

Thomas Renna (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Renna, Thomas. “St. Bernard and the Pagan Classics: An Historical View.” In The Chimaera of His Age: Studies of Bernard of Clairvaux; Studies in Medieval Cistercian History V, edited by E. Rozanne Elder and John R. Sommerfeldt, pp. 122-39. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1980.

[In the following essay, Renna explores Bernard's attitude toward the Latin classics, explaining that while he himself was learned in classical works, Bernard opposed the study of pagan writings for monks.]

Was there a monastic attitude towards pagan literature during the early Middle Ages? While historians prior to the 1920s stressed the monks' hostility toward the latin...

(The entire section is 4038 words.)

Thomas Renna (essay date September 1993)

SOURCE: Renna, Thomas. “Bernard and Bede.” American Benedictine Review 44, no. 3 (September 1993): 223-35.

[In the following essay, Renna compares Bernard's outlook regarding the goals and function of monks to that of the Anglo-Saxon Bede.]

Bede and Bernard. The one, the great monastic illuminary from Anglo-Saxon England; the other, from twelfth-century France. They lived at two important junctures in the development of Western monasticism. Modern historians have generally emphasized Bede's place in the Northumbrian renaissance, and Bernard's role in the monastic reforms after 1100. Bernard is sometimes contrasted with Benedict of Nursia, Benedict of Aniane,...

(The entire section is 4405 words.)

M. B. Pranger (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Pranger, M. B. Introduction to Bernard of Clairvaux and the Shape of the Monastic Thought: Broken Dreams, pp. 3-18. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Pranger speculates about the effect that the physical environment of the Cistercian monastery may have exerted on Bernard and his writings.]

Entering the site of the twelfth-century Cistercian monasteries at Fontenay in Burgundy or Le Thoronet in Provence, the visitor takes in two seemingly different sets of images. On the one hand, there is the austere but massive architectural form of the buildings making up the monastic complex, with their simple geometrical proportions. On...

(The entire section is 4256 words.)

Robert Englert (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Englert, Robert. “Monastic Humility: A Study of Humility in Bernard of Clairvaux and the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing.Studia Mystica 19 (1998): 36-44.

[In the following essay, Englert discusses Bernard's seminal ideas on monastic humility as the theological model for the fourteenth-century mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing.]

This study will deal with the subject, “monastic humility,” as it develops in the works of Bernard of Clairvaux and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. These representative authors of the twelfth and fourteenth centuries exhibit a continuity in doctrine that is characteristic of a monastic theology invoking...

(The entire section is 3509 words.)

Further Reading


Cattaui, Georges. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, translated by Ena Dargan. Dublin, Ireland: Clonmore and Reynolds, Ltd., 1966, 136 p.

Biography analyzing Bernard's work as an abbot as well as his humanity, his personal views, and his religious message.

James, Bruno Scott. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: An Essay in Biography, London, England: Hodder & Stoughton, 1957, 192 p.

Biography of St. Bernard focusing on his character and his life in the context of his times.

Meadows, Denis. A Saint and a Half: A New Interpretation of Abelard and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, New York: The...

(The entire section is 760 words.)