Bernard of Clairvaux

He called himself the chimera of his age. He was a mass of contradictions. Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, was a monk who spent most of his time out of the cloister, a spiritual man who seemed always embroiled in politics and a man of peace who convinced thousands to fight and die for their faith. There are many who believe that it was his championship of the Templars that made their survival possible.

Bernard enters history in 1113 when he appears at the gates of the monastery of Citeaux demanding to become a monk. This is a common theme in stories of medieval saints. But Bernard’s story is slightly different. Instead of fleeing the world, he seems to have brought it along. Bernard had convinced thirty of his friends and relatives to enter the monastery with him.1

Bernard was born in 1090, the third son of Tecelin de Trois Fontaines and his wife, Aleth de Montbard. They were of the lower nobility of the area around Dijon. Bernard’s brothers were all trained warriors who fought for their lords, usually the duke of Burgundy.2 His childhood seems to have been happy. He was devoted to both parents, particularly his mother, who died when he was in his teens.3

It was common in the early twelfth century for at least one child in a large family to enter the Church. Bernard was the one appointed for this. And yet, when he arrived at Citeaux, his brothers Guy, Gerard, Bartholomew, Andrew, and Nivard and his uncle Gaudry also became monks. Guy was already married and had small daughters and yet Bernard had convinced him to leave his family and join him. Not only that, he also convinced Guy’s wife to agree to this and enter a convent. 4

Such enthusiasm couldn’t be contained in one place. Within three years, Bernard had left Citeaux to found a Cistercian abbey of his own at Clairvaux, just north of Dijon.

It’s clear that from an early age, Bernard had incredible powers of persuasion.

But how did this devout monk become involved with the Templars? At first glance, it seems an unlikely pairing.

However, when we look a bit closer, the distance between Bernard of Clairvaux and the Knights of the Temple isn’t so far. The founder of the Templars, Hugh de Payns, came from an area near that of Bernard’s family. They may even have known each other before Bernard left for Citeaux. Bernard certainly knew Count Hugh of Champagne, who had abandoned his lordship to join the Templars in Jerusalem.5In a letter to Hugh, written about 1125, Bernard laments that the count has decided to travel so far away to devote himself to God, and, even though he is certain that it is the will of the Most High, he still will miss the count, who has been so generous to the Cistercian order.6

The strongest connection is that the first Templars came from the same world that Bernard was born into. They were generally from the lower nobility, men trained for war in the service of greater lords. They were not well educated, perhaps learning to read French but not Latin. Yet many of them felt uneasy about the role they were asked to play in society. They received mixed signals from the Church, which forbade the killing of other Christians, but honored knights as protectors of the weak and the literature of the time, which praised valiant and successful warriors. The knights knew that success in battle was the key to advancing their position.

That was all very well for this life, but what about the next?

Even though Bernard would have preferred that every man become a monk, he knew that wasn’t likely to happen. An order of knights who fought for Christ was the next best thing. Perhaps it was Count Hugh who suggested to Baldwin II, king of Jerusalem, that the Templars ask Bernard to use his influence to convince the pope, Innocent II, and the great lords of Europe, to support the new order.7

As one might guess, Bernard never did anything halfway. He was present at the Council of Troyes in 1129 to see the official recognition of the Templars. Even before that, he may have written his passionate defense of the order, On the New Knighthood.

On the New Knighthood was written in the form of a letter to Hugh de Payns, in response to his request for a “sermon of exhortation” to the brothers of the Temple. Scholars have puzzled over this open letter for centuries. In it, Bernard writes like a Roman general sending the centurions off to battle the barbarians.

He begins by comparing the Knights of the Temple to secular knights. The secular knight fights and kills for his own benefit and glory. He also dresses like a dandy, with long hair, dragging sleeves, pointed shoes, and his body bedecked with gold and jewels. Bernard contrasts this with the simple and practical gear of the Templars. Both the Latin and French Rules of the order reflect this concern with extravagant clothing and may show Bernard’s influence.

But Bernard is just warming up. He soon goes beyond even the crusading idea that it is meritorious to fight for God. He states several times that killing the enemy of God is a good thing and dying while doing so means instant admission to heaven. “For death for Christ is no sin, whether one kills or is killed, but merits great glory.”8Again he says, “If he kills an evildoer, it is not homicide but, if I might put it so, evilcide.”9

This is not only a classic case of making the enemy something inhuman, it also implies that dying while doing so means a straight shot to heaven. “If those who die in the Lord are blessed, how much greater are those who die for the Lord?”10 Even those who have committed terrible crimes can find redemption—“impious wretches, sacrilegious plunderers and rapists, murderers, perjurers and adulterers.” He adds that it’s a win-win deal. Europe is glad to be rid of these men and the defenders of the Holy Land glad to receive them.11

Of course, that doesn’t say much for the pool the Templars have to recruit from.

After praising the lifestyle and mission of the knights, Bernard then takes the reader on a tour of the main pilgrimage sites: the Temple of Solomon, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Mount of Olives and the Valley of Josaphat, the Jordan River, Calvary, the Holy Sepulcher, Bethpage, and Bethany.

What is going on here? Why is this monk telling these men that it’s not only all right to kill non-Christians, it’s actually a good thing? Bernard does rein in a bit at one point, saying that the infidels shouldn’t be destroyed if there is some other way to keep them from attacking the pilgrims, but better infidels die than us.12

Certainly, the “letter” to the Templars fits in with the crusading tradition. Three hundred years before the First Crusade, Charlemagne invaded and conquered the Saxons several times, under the excuse of “converting” them. But Bernard doesn’t mention persuasion when dealing with theSaracens. He seems determined to glorify slaughtering them.

Was this letter really written to stiffen the backbones of the Templars? Did they doubt the righteousness of their cause? Or was this for the rest of Christendom, including those who were uneasy about these knight-monks? Bernard says that he wrote the letter at the insistence of Hugh de Payns. But who was the real intended audience?

It seems clear that this was Bernard’s attempt to make sure that the Order of the Templars would be accepted in Europe. It’s possible that he even wrote his exhortation before the official recognition of the order at the Council of Troyes.13 Everything about it sounds like a recruiting speech. First Bernard points out how much more noble the Knights Templar are than the fops hanging around castles at home and causing trouble. Then he tells the listener that the Order of the Temple could make even the worst criminal shape up—and do it far, far away. Finally, he winds up with a tour of the pilgrim sites, places he had never seen but the Templars knew well. This was likely meant as a reminder of why the Templars were so much needed. Did Christendom want the sites of the Bible to remain in the hands of unbelievers?

Finally, why was it so important that this abbot get the word out? Why not a letter by the pope or at least an archbishop?

One answer is that from about 1120 through 1147, Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, was probably the most influential man in Christendom. The same intense passion that convinced most of his friends and family to give up a worldly life for a strict monastic one had been let loose upon the rest of Europe. Bernard was a tireless writer and he never minced words. He gave advice to most of the rulers of the day, chided other abbots for laxity, and lured the rowdy students of Paris away from the brothel and into the cloister.

I have been trying to get a handle on Bernard for more than thirty years now and he still slips away. The man was obviously immensely charismatic. He had a way with words that no translation can completely evoke. It’s worth learning Latin just to watch Bernard play with the language. His personal life seems to have been above reproach.

On the other hand, he was a terrible nag. Some of his letters are so critical that people must have cringed when they saw his seal on them. He also tended to go overboard for causes he believed in. The exhortation to the Templars is one example. Another thing that I haven’t quite forgiven him for is his determination to see that the work of the teacher and philosopher Peter Abelard was condemned.

His enthusiasm finally backfired on him with the failure of the Second Crusade, in 1149, which he had preached. The first sign that things were unraveling was when he learned that a monk named Radulf was encouraging the crusaders to massacre the Jews in the Rhineland. Bernard was horrified and he immediately raced there to stop the murders, with much success. Ephraim, a Jew from Bonn, who was a child at the time, later wrote, “The Lord heard our outcry, and He turned to us and had mercy upon us . . . He sent a decent priest, one honored and respected by all the clergy in France, named Abbé Bernard of Clairvaux, to deal with this evil person. Bernard . . . said to them: ‘It is good that you go against the Ishmaelites. But whosoever touches a Jew to take his life, is like one who harms Jesus himself.’ ”14

What are we to make of this man? In his own life, he was considered a saint by some and an opinionated busybody by others. He was canonized shortly after his death and, even before he died, at least one of his friends started writing his biography with an eye to sainthood.

There were those who also vilified him for his preaching of the crusades and for his intolerance of Peter Abelard and other scholars. One of the most vicious of Bernard’s detractors was the English writer Walter Map. Map was only about thirteen years old when Bernard died in 1153, but his later association with Cistercian monks and his admiration for Abelard seems to have soured him on the abbot. He calls Bernard a Lucifer, shining brighter than the other stars of night, and tells stories of how he failed to perform miracles, including how Bernard could not raise a boy from the dead. “Master Bernard bade the body be carried into a private room, and, ‘shutting every one out he lay upon the boy, and after a prayer arose; but the boy did not arise, for he lay there dead.’ Thereupon I [Map] remarked, ‘He was surely the most unlucky of monks; for never have I heard of a monk lying down upon a boy without the boy arising immediately after the monk.’ ”15

Walter Map also despised Templars, Hospitallers, Jews, and heretics but he saved his most acid comments for the Cistercians and their revered abbot. His greatest complaint about Bernard and, by extension, the Templars, was not that they were depraved or sacrilegious but that they were proud and greedy. This view of the Templars was to continue throughout their existence.

It may be that Bernard’s fame did go to his head, although his pride was mostly in his absolute conviction that he knew best. The Cistercians who came after him may well have done their best to get and keep all the property they could, but in that they were no different from most other monastic orders.

Whatever opinion one has of Bernard, he is far too complex a person to label simply. His influence over society in the first half of the twelfth century was incredible and, to me, still hasn’t been satisfactorily explained, although many have tried. This is a pity because, in order to understand the early years and astonishing growth of the Templars, the role of Bernard of Clairvaux must be taken into account.

1William of St. Thierry, Vita Prima Bernardi, Books IV-VIII.

2Robert Fossier, “La Fondation de Clairvaux et la Famille de Saint Bernard, in Mélanges Saint Bernard (Dijon, 1953) pp. 19-27.

3Brian Patrick McGuire, The Difficult Saint.

4William of St. Thierry, Book V, Sancti Bernardi Abbatis Clarae-Vallensis, Opera Omnia Vol. I (Paris: Mabillion, 1839). Guy could not become a monk without his wife’s permission. The convent of Jully was founded for other female family members and wives of men wishing to become Cistercians.

5Thierry LeRoy, Hugues de Payns (Troyes: Maison du Boulanger, 1999) p. 71.

6Bernard of Clairvaux, “Epistola XXXI,” Sancti Bernardi Abbatis Clarae-Vallensis, Opera Omnia Vol. I (Paris: Mabillion, 1839) p. 175.

7Marquis d’Albon, Cartularie Général du l’Ordre du Temple 1119?-1150 (Paris, 1913) p. 1.

8Bernard of Clairvaux, “Exhortatio ad Milites Templi,” ibid. Caput III 4, cols. 1256-57. “Quando-quidem mors pro Christo vel ferenda, vel inferenda, et nihil habeat criminis, et pluimum gloriae mereatur.”

9Ibid. “Sane cum occidit malefactorum, non homicida sed, ut ita dixerum, malicida.”

10Ibid., Caput I 1, col. 1255. “Nam si beati qui in Domine moriuntur, num multo magis qui pro Domino moriuntur?”

11Ibid., Caput V 10, col. 1262.

12Ibid., Caput II 4, col. 1257. “Non quidem vel Pagani necandi esset, si quo modo aliter possent a nimia infestione seu oppressione fidelium cohiberi. Nunc autem melius est ut occidantur, quam carte reliquatur viga extendant justi ad iniquitatem maunus suas.” Mine is a loose translation, but that’s the gist of it.

13The work is not dated and could have been written anytime between about 1125 and 1130.

14Ephraim of Bonn, Sefer Zekira, tr. Scholmo Eidelman in The Jews and the Crusaders (University of Wisconsin Press, 1977) p. 122.

15Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium tr. Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle (London: Chatto & Windus, 1924) p. 49.

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