At the end of the eleventh century, simultaneously with the purification of the papacy and the fervor of the First Crusade, a movement of self-reform swept through Christendom, immensely improved the secular clergy, and founded new monastic orders dedicated to the full rigor of the Augustinian or Benedictine rule. At an unknown date before 1039 St. John Gualbertus19 established the order of Vallombrosa in the “shady valley” of that name in Italy, and inaugurated in it the institution of lay brothers later developed by the mendicant orders. The Roman Synod of 1059 exhorted canons—clergymen sharing the labors and revenues of a cathedral—to live in community and hold all their property in common, like the apostles. Some were reluctant, and remained “secular canons”; many responded, adopted a monastic rule that they ascribed to St. Augustine, and formed semimonastic communities collectively known as Augustinian or Austin Canons.* In 1084 St. Bruno of Cologne, having declined the archbishopric of Reims, founded the Carthusian order by establishing a monastery at a desolate spot named Chartreuse, in the Alps near Grenoble; other pious men, sick of worldly strife and clerical laxity, formed similar Carthusian units in secluded places. Each monk worked, ate, and slept in his own separate cell, lived on bread and milk, wore garments of horsehair, and practiced almost perpetual silence. Three times a week they came together for Mass, vespers, and midnight prayers; and on Sundays and holydays they indulged themselves in conversation and a common meal. Of all the monastic orders this was the most austere, and has kept most faithfully, through eight centuries, to its original rule.
In 1098 Robert of Molesmes, tired of trying to reform the various Benedictine monasteries of which he had been prior, built a new monastic house at a wild point called Cîteaux near Dijon; and as Chartreuse named the Carthusians, so Cîteaux named the Cistercian monks. The third abbot of Cîteaux, Stephen Harding of Dorsetshire, reorganized and expanded the monastery, opened branches of it, and drew up the Carta caritatis, or Charter of Love, to insure the peaceful federal co-operation of the Cistercian houses with Cîteaux. The Benedictine rule was restored in full severity: absolute poverty was essential, all flesh food was to be avoided, learning was to be discouraged, verse-making was forbidden, and all splendor of religious vestment, vessel, or building was to be shunned. Every physically able monk was to join in manual labor in gardens and workshops that would make the monastery independent of the outside world, and give no excuse for any monk to leave the grounds. The Cistercians outshone all other groups, monastic or secular, in agricultural energy and skill; they set up new centers of their order in unsettled regions, subdued marshes, jungles, and forests to cultivation, and played a leading part in colonizing eastern Germany, and in repairing the damage that William the Conqueror had done in northern England. In this magnificent labor of civilization the Cistercian monks were aided by lay brothers—conversi—vowed to celibacy, silence, and illiteracy,20 and working as farmers or servants in return for shelter, clothing, and food.21
These austerities frightened potential novices; the little band grew slowly, and the new order might have died in infancy had not fresh ardor come to it in the person of St. Bernard. Born near Dijon (1091) of a knightly family, he became a shy and pious youth, loving solitude. Finding the secular world an uncomfortable place, he determined to enter a monastery. But, as if desiring companionship in solitude, he made effective propaganda among his relatives and friends to enter Cîteaux with him; mothers and nubile girls, we are told, trembled at his approach, fearing that he would lure their sons or lovers into chastity. Despite their tears and charms he succeeded; and when he was admitted to Cîteaux (1113) he brought with him a band of twenty-nine candidates, including brothers, an uncle, and friends. Later he persuaded his mother and sister to become nuns, and his father a monk, on the promise that “unless thou do penance thou shalt burn forever … and send forth smoke and stench.”22
Stephen Harding came presently to such admiration for Bernard’s piety and energy that he sent him forth (1115) as abbot, with twelve other monks, to found a new Cistercian house. Bernard chose a heavily wooded spot, ninety miles from Cîteaux, known asClara vallis, Bright Valley, Clairvaux. There was no habitation there, and no human life. The initial task of the fraternal band was to build with their own hands their first “monastery”—a wooden building containing under one roof a chapel, a refectory, and a dormitory loft reached by a ladder; the beds were bins strewn with leaves; the windows were no larger than a man’s head; the floor was the earth. Diet was vegetarian except for an occasional fish; no white bread, no spices, little wine; these monks eager for heaven ate like philosophers courting longevity. The monks prepared their own meals, each serving as cook in turn. By the rule that Bernard drew up, the monastery could not buy property; it could own only what was given it; he hoped that it would never have more land than could be worked by the monks’ own hands and simple tools. In that quiet valley Bernard and his growing fellowship labored in silence and content, free from the “storm of the world,” clearing the forest, planting and reaping, making their own furniture, and coming together at the canonical hours to sing, without an organ, the psalms and hymns of the day. “The more attentively I watch them,” said William of St. Thierry, “the more I believe that they are perfect followers of Christ… a little less than angels, but much more than men.”23 The news of this Christian peace and self-containment spread, and before Bernard’s death there were 700 monks at Clairvaux. They must have been happy there, for nearly all who were sent from that communistic enclave to serve as abbots, bishops, and councilors longed to return; and Bernard himself, offered the highest dignities in the Church, and going to many lands at her bidding, always yearned to get back to his cell at Clairvaux, “that my eyes may be closed by the hands of my children, and that my body may be laid at Clairvaux side by side with the bodies of the poor.”24
He was a man of moderate intellect, of strong conviction, of immense force and unity of character. He cared nothing for science or philosophy. The mind of man, he felt, was too infinitesimal a portion of the universe to sit in judgment upon it or pretend to understand it. He marveled at the silly pride of philosophers prating about the nature, origin, and destiny of the cosmos. He was shocked by Abélard’s proposal to submit faith to reason, and he fought that rationalism as a blasphemous impudence. Instead of trying to understand the universe he preferred to walk unquestioning and grateful in the miracle of revelation. He accepted the Bible as God’s word, for otherwise, it seemed to him, life would be a desert of dark uncertainty. The more he preached that childlike faith the more surely he felt it to be the Way. When one of his monks, in terror, confessed to him that he could not believe in the power of the priest to change the bread of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ, Bernard did not reprove him; he bade him receive the sacrament nevertheless; “go and communicate with my faith”; and we are assured that Bernard’s faith overflowed into the doubter and saved his soul.25 Bernard could hate and pursue, almost to the death, heretics like Abélard or Arnold of Brescia, who weakened a Church which, with all her faults, seemed to him the very vehicle of Christ; and he could love with almost the tenderness of the Virgin whom he worshiped so fervently. Seeing a thief on the way to the gallows, he begged the count of Champagne for him, promising that he would subject the man to a harder penance than a moment’s death.26 He preached to kings and popes, but more contentedly to the peasants and shepherds of his valley; he was lenient with their faults, converted them by his example, and earned their mute love for the faith and love he gave them. He carried his piety to an exhausting asceticism; he fasted so much that his superior at Cîteaux had to command him to eat; and for thirty-eight years he lived in one cramped cell at Clairvaux, with a bed of straw and no seat but a cut in the wall.27 All the comforts and goods of the world seemed to him as nothing compared with the thought and promise of Christ. He wrote in this mood several hymns of unassuming simplicity and touching tenderness:
Iesu dulcis memoria,
dans vera cordi gaudia,
sed super mel et omnia
eius dulcis praesentia.
Nil canitur suavius,
auditur nil iocundius,
nil cogitatur dulcius
quam Iesu Dei filius.
Iesu spes poenitentibus,
quam pius es petentibus,
quam bonus es quaerentibus,
sed quid invenientibus?28
Jesus sweet in memory,
Giving the heart true joy,
Yea, beyond honey and all things,
Sweet is His presence.
Nothing sung is lovelier,
Nothing heard is pleasanter,
Nothing thought is sweeter
Than Jesus the Son of God.
Jesus hope of the penitent,
How gentle Thou art to suppliants!
How good to those seeking Thee!
What must Thou be to those finding Thee?
Despite his flair for graceful speech he cared little for any but spiritual beauty. He covered his eyes lest they take too sensual a delight from the lakes of Switzerland.29 His abbey was bare of all ornament except the crucified Christ. He berated Cluny for spending so much on the architecture and adornment of its abbeys. “The church,” he said, “is resplendent in its walls and wholly lacking in its poor. It gilds its stones and leaves its children naked. With the silver of the wretched it charms the eyes of the rich.”30 He complained that the great abbey of St. Denis was crowded with proud and armored knights instead of simple worshipers; he called it “a garrison, a school of Satan, a den of thieves.”31 Suger, humbly moved by these strictures, reformed the customs of his church and his monks, and lived to earn Bernard’s praise.
The monastic reform that radiated from Clairvaux, and the improvement of the hierarchy through the elevation of Bernard’s monks to bishoprics and archbishoprics, were but a part of the influence which this astonishing man, who asked nothing but bread, wielded on all ranks in his half century. Henry of France, brother of the king, came to visit him; Bernard spoke to him; on that day Henry became a monk, and washed the dishes at Clairvaux.32 Through his sermons—themselves so eloquent and sensuous as to verge on poetry—he moved all who heard him; through his letters—masterpieces of passionate pleading—he influenced councils, bishops, popes, kings; through personal contacts he molded the policies of Church and state. He refused to be more than an abbot, but he made and unmade popes, and no pontiff was heard with greater respect or reverence. He left his cell on a dozen errands of high diplomacy, usually at the call of the Church. When contending groups chose Anacletus II and Innocent II as rival popes (1130), Bernard supported Innocent; when Anacletus captured Rome Bernard entered Italy, and by the pure power of his personality and his speech roused the Lombard cities for Innocent; the crowds, drunk with his oratory and his sanctity, kissed his feet and tore his garments to pieces as sacred relics for their posterity. The sick came to him at Milan, and epileptics, paralytics, and other ailing faithful announced that they had been cured by his touch. On his return to Clairvaux from his diplomatic triumphs the peasants would come in from the fields, and the shepherds down from the hills, to ask his blessing; and receiving it they would return to their toil uplifted and content.
When Bernard died in 1153 the number of Cistercian houses had risen from 30 in 1134 (the year of Stephen Harding’s death) to 343. The fame of his sanctity and his power brought many converts to the new order; by 1300 it had 60,000 monks in 693 monasteries. Other monastic orders took form in the twelfth century. About 1100 Robert of Arbrissol founded the order of Fontevrault in Anjou; in 1120 St. Norbert gave up a rich inheritance to establish the Premonstratensian order of Canons Regular at Prémontré near Laon; in 1131 St. Gilbert constituted the English order of Sempringham—the Gilbertines—on the model of Fontevrault. About 1150 some Palestinian anchorites adopted the eremitical rule of St. Basil, and spread throughout Palestine; when the Moslems captured the Holy Land these “Carmelites” migrated to Cyprus, Sicily, France, and England. In 1198 Innocent III approved the articles of the order of Trinitarians, and dedicated it to the ransoming of Christians captured by Saracens. These new orders were a saving and uplifting leaven in the Christian Church.
The burst of monastic reform climaxed by Bernard died down as the twelfth century advanced. The younger orders kept their arduous rules with reasonable fidelity; but not many men could be found, in that dynamic period, to bear so strict a regimen. In time the Cistercians—even at Bernard’s Clairvaux—became rich through hopeful gifts; endowments for “pittances” enabled the monks to add meat to their diet, and plenty of wine;33 they delegated all manual labor to lay brothers; four years after Bernard’s death they bought a supply of Saracen slaves;34 they developed a large and profitable trade in the products of their socialistic industry, and aroused guild animosity through their exemption from transportation tolls.35 The decline of faith as the Crusades failed reduced the number of novices, and disturbed the morale of all the monastic orders. But the old ideal of living like the apostles in a propertyless communism did not die; the conviction that the true Christian must shun wealth and power, and be a man of unflinching peace, lingered in thousands of souls. At the opening of the thirteenth century a man appeared, in the Umbrian hills of Italy, who brought these old ideals to vigor again by such a life of simplicity, purity, piety, and love that men wondered had Christ been born again.