Abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, theologian, and preacher of the crusade.
Born at Fontaines-les-Dijon in Burgundy 1090 into a family of the lower nobility, Bernard was educated by the canons of St. Vorles at Châtillon-sur-Seine. He entered the new monastery at Cîteauxin 1113 with numerous companions. In 1115 Abbot Stephen Harding sent Bernard to establish a new house at Clairvaux, Cîteaux’s third foundation, where he was installed as abbot by William of Champeaux, bishop of Châlons-surMarne.
Bernard began his writing career early, composing his great spiritual treatise De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae in 1118-1119, although the publication of his works did not begin until the next decade. In the 1130s he became increasingly involved in affairs outside the monastery, notably when he defended the claims of Innocent II to the papacy against his rival Anacletus and became embroiled in controversy with the theologian Peter Abelard, whose condemnation at the Council of Sens (1140) he secured. In 1139 Bernard was offered the archbishopric of Rheims but refused it. When a monk of Clairvaux called Bernard Paganelli was elected pope, taking the name Eugenius III, Bernard’s involvement in ecclesiastical affairs accelerated. In 1145 he set out to preach in southern France against the heresiarch Henry, who had been condemned at the Council of Pisa (1135) but resumed his dissident preaching in the 1140s.
Bernard began to preach the Second Crusade (1147-1149) at Vézelay in Burgundy in March 1146. The same month Eugenius III reissued the encyclical Quantum praede- cessores (December 1145), which echoed the themes of Bernard’s writings and urged knights to take the cross as a service of sacrifice and liberate the Holy Land. The sermon at Vézelay, which is not extant, reportedly aroused such enthusiasm that the abbot had to tear up his own clothing to meet the crowd’s demand for crosses. Bernard wrote to Eugenius III about the successful impact of his preaching in France and Flanders. In Speyer at Christmas 1146, the abbot preached to King Conrad III of Germany and convinced him, his nephew Fredrick Barbarossa, and others to undertake a crusade. The German barons feared that the pagan Wends would attack Christian lands beyond the Elbe after the knights had departed for the East. Consequently, in 1147 Bernard advocated a crusade with the aim of imposing baptism on the Wends.
Bernard influenced the crusading movement through his preaching and sermonlike letters advocating the crusade, which were disseminated and read aloud throughout Europe; his drive for the Cistercian Order’s rapid expansion; and his treatise in support of the Order of the Temple: De laude novae militiae. In this influential treatise Bernard justified the Templars and developed the theological foundations for crusading and crusader knights. De laude novae militiae, literally “In Praise of the New Knighthood,” espoused Bernard’s views on the holiness of fighting for Christ and the necessity of force to recapture the Holy Land. Bernard assured knights that dying or inflicting death for Christ’s sake was not a sin but grounds for glory. The Christian knight served the Lord when he killed; he slew evil and avenged Christ on evildoers. Bernard stepped back somewhat from the boldness of these statements about the rightness of killing but ultimately justified slaying the enemies of Christendom: “I do not mean to say that the pagans are to be slaughtered when there is any other way to prevent them from harassing and persecuting the faithful, but only that it now seems better to destroy them than that the rod of sinners be lifted over the lot of the just, and the righteous perhaps put forth their hands into iniquity.” Countering the argument that no Christian should kill, Bernard restated his defense of force: “Certainly it is proper that the nations who love war should be scattered, that those who trouble us should be cut off, and that all the workers of iniquity should be dispersed from the city of the Lord Let both swords
of the faithful fall upon the necks of the foe, in order to destroy every high thing exalting itself against the knowledge of God, which is the Christian faith, lest the Gentiles should then say, ‘Where is their God?’” [In Praise of the New Knighthood, p. 135]. However, the contradictory character of the Templars as both monks and soldiers, praised by Bernard, only contributed to blurring of the boundaries that the abbot delineated against violence.
Bernard and the Cistercian Order became the targets of criticism because of their advocacy of the failed Second Crusade. In De consideratione libri quinque (1149-1152), Bernard refers to himself as a shield protecting God from the “scurrilous tongues of detractors and the poisoned darts of blasphemers” [Five Books on Consideration, p. 51]. Other Cistercian writers rose to the defense, casting blame on the crusaders’ sinfulness and pointing out that the dead were delivered from further sin. In De consideratione, Bernard lamented the death of so many Christians and recalled biblical precedents for God’s severe judgment: the Hebrews’ suffering as described in the Book of Exodus and their initial defeats at the hands of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20). Bernard asserted that the Hebrews’ eventual victory after a third battle should serve as a model for the crusaders and motivate them to renew their fight against the Muslims [Five Books on Consideration, p. 50]. In the same work the abbot drew a clear line on clerical use of force, advising Eugenius III that the “spiritual sword should be drawn by the hand of the priest, the material sword by the hand of the knight, but clearly at the bidding of the priest and at the command of the emperor” [Five Books on Consideration, p. 118].
Bernard of Clairvaux preaching the Second Crusade (1147-1149) in the presence of Louis VII, king of France. From the fifteenth-century manuscript Les Passages d’OutreMer. MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Fr. 5594. (Snark/Art Resource)
Bernard’s opinions on the use of force against heretics contained ambiguities. His Sermons 65 and 66 (1143/1144) on Song of Songs 2:15, regarding little foxes ravaging the Lord’s vineyard, constituted a reply to the Premonstratensian prior Evervin of Steinfeld, who had written in alarm over heresy in the Rhineland. Bernard urged that arguments, not arms, be used to trap the foxes, that is, the heretics; and he asserted that faith was a matter for persuasion and not force. Nonetheless, in Sermon 66, Bernard reproached a mob’s violent reprisal against heretics but still commended its fervor, alluding to Romans 13:4. The call for the crusade against the Wends resounded more harshly, as Bernard ordered that no truce should be made with them “until such a time as, by God’s help, they shall be either converted or wiped out” [The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, p. 467].
In spite of what may seem unlimited support of crusading, Bernard articulated and enforced boundaries on clerical participation in crusading activities. Monks required authorization to preach in any context, and violations of that restriction resulted in disciplinary action. Bernard himself pursued the disobedient monk Ralph, whose crusade sermons provoked violence against Jews in Germany. Monks who joined the Second Crusade were reprimanded and threatened with excommunication. When Bernard called strongly for another crusade, he firmly rejected the nomination from the Council of Chartres (1150) to lead the expedition himself. He died at Clairvaux on 20 August 1153 and was canonized in 1174.
Bernard’s advocacy of force leaves him a problematic figure. Brian Patrick McGuire calls him the “difficult saint,” referring to the seemingly opposite characters of abbot and church politician. Bernard described himself as a chimera, “neither cleric nor layman,” who kept “the habit of a monk” but “long ago abandoned the life” [The Letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux, p. 402]. Thus Bernard of Clairvaux demonstrated some degree of awareness of the contradictions in his public role, a microcosm of the Cistercian Order and the church’s involvement in crusading.