Bernard of Clairvaux Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.