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Bernard of Clairvaux 1090-1153

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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...

(The entire section contains 1745 words.)

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Principal Works