The son of Tescelin, Lord of Fontaines, and Aleth of Montbard, both members of the upper nobility in Burgundy, Bernard (b. 1090, Fontaine-les-Dijon, France; d. 1153, Clairvaux, France) was an abbot and a key figure in reforming the Cistercian monastic order. As a thinker and a writer he sought to transform the communal emphases of sacrament-centered Christianity into a more personal faith that sought to emulate the life of Christ, and he opposed the emphasis on rationalism championed by the Scholastics. This placed him most famously in a battle with Peter Abelard, in which Bernard accused Peter of heresy at the Council of Sens (1140), but is also reflected in works devoted to the Queen of Heaven and a magnificent series of sermons focused on the biblical Song of Songs that evince a mystical approach to these texts. More broadly, St. Bernard may be seen to have been centrally involved in key issues that had repeatedly occupied the church in the centuries since its rise to hegemony in the fourth century.

Early Monastic Vocation.

The third of seven children, the young Bernard had a penchant for literature and in particular poetry but early on was drawn to the study of the Bible and to focus on the figure of the Virgin Mary. At age 19, with the death of his mother, he sought a life of quiet prayer. Four years later, together with some 30 other young Burgundian noblemen, he sought admission into the Cistercian order. A mere two-and-half years later he was sent, accompanied by 12 fellow monks, to establish a new house at Vallee d’Absinthe. Bernard named the new site Claire Vallée—Clairvaux.

The austerity of the regimen established early on by Bernard led to his becoming ill, but only through pressure from his friend, the Bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne, William of Champeaux, did he agree to limit his austere fervor somewhat. The monastery expanded rapidly—soon enrolling, among many newcomers, Bernard’s own father and all five of his brothers. (Even his sister eventually joined the Benedictine nunnery of Jully-les-Nonnains.) The extraordinary growth required a branching out: new houses were founded in 1118 at Trois-Fontaines; in 1119 at Fontenay; and in 1121 at Foigny. Interestingly, competition and jealousy were clearly felt from the great monastic complex at Cluny, whose Grand Prior at one point, while Bernard was traveling away from Clairvaux, induced Bernard’s cousin, Robert of Châtillon, to resettle at Cluny. Letters from Bernard attest to the pain this caused him.

On the other hand, at barely age 30 he was instrumental in articulating the series of reforms, intended to restore to monasticism its early simplicity and fervor, that were embraced as the Charter of Charity growing out of a council organized by Stephen of Citeaux and confirmed on 23 December 1119 by Pope Callixtus II. In the following year, Bernard authored his first works. His growing prominence and that of the Cistercian order brought him into conflict with the Benedictines of Cluny, but ultimately he and Cluny’s abbot, Peter the Venerable, were reconciled, and Bernard’s Apologia written against the Cluniac attacks upon him led to strong support from Abbot Suger, personal spiritual adviser to King Louis VI.

Key Events in Bernard’s Middle Career.

Four events in particular mark the middle period of St. Bernard’s life in spite of his avowed desire, expressed after the conflict with Cluny, to disconnect from the everyday world in order to devote himself to his monastic community and to an intense relationship with God. These four events also reflect key traumas endured by the church through the by-then more than 600 years of its triumphant spread throughout Europe. The first was the 1128 Council of Troyes, convoked by Pope Honorius II. The council focused on disputes within the leadership structure of the church in France; Bernard participated, was made secretary of the council, and in that context wrote out the regula for the Knights Templar, paving the way for their assuming a position as the ideal model of Christian nobility. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bernard’s role brought jealous criticism upon him as dealing with matters outside his area of expertise, but he eloquently defended himself, in part reminding his critics that he had only reluctantly become involved at the council.

The inevitable snowballing of St. Bernard’s influence continued to pull him into the world, where he was engaged in defending the church’s position in its ongoing struggles with secular leaders. He played a key role—the second major extramonastic event in this period of his life—in resolving the schism that followed the death of Honorius II in February 1130, and with it the election of two popes: Innocent II and Anacletus II. King Louis VI convened a council of bishops to which Bernard was invited and at which he was asked to decide between the two popes. He decided in favor of Innocent II, who was therefore recognized by most of the European states; Bernard followed this with trips to dissenting powers, whom he convinced to abandon Anacletus in favor of Innocent. Overall, the issue of schism and Bernard’s efforts to resolve it took eight years—and only fully ended with Anacletus’s death in 1138.

The third, arguably most renowned event within this middle period was the conflict that arose with Peter Abelard (1079–1142). Abelard, by consensus the most brilliant Christian theologian of his era, sought, as the Scholastics typically did, to arrive at an understanding of Christian faith with an emphasis on reason (rather than an emphasis on faith itself). Abelard’s Sic et Non—a vast assortment of quotations from scripture and patristic writings in which he demonstrated consistent patterns of contradiction—was designed not to assault Christian faith as much as to demonstrate how important logic is for it, by suggesting that a single Truth, Christian revelation, could in fact be discerned by the astute logician beneath the surface of these apparent contradictions. For Bernard and his followers, however, faith is simply protected and illumined by the majesty of the church, and Abelard’s arguments endangered the church, posing the danger of relativizing the Truth.

On the one hand, it is likely that lesser intellects in Abelard’s train helped provoke and increase the concern through their muddle-headed promotion of their master’s arguments. On the other, Bernard and his followers were increasingly obsessed with the issue of heresy—Abelard’s treatise on the Trinity had been condemned as heretical in 1121—and a personal meeting between the two figures did not, in the end, lead Abelard to discontinue his controversial teaching and writing; he challenged Bernard to a public debate, which challenge was met with refusal; instead Bernard pushed for a council convened by the Bishop of Sens in 1141 where each could state his case. In the end, Bernard lobbied against Abelard to members of the council the evening before, made his opening statement (from which it seems that he did not read the material that he was condemning), after which Abelard chose, under the circumstances, not to respond. He was condemned by the council, the verdict was upheld by the pope, and Abelard retired from public life—to Cluny, where the powerful Peter the Venerable (who called Abelard “Christ’s philosopher”) offered protection for the remainder of Abelard’s life.

Within a few years of this time the Cistercian order had spread into Germany, Italy, Sweden, England, Ireland, Portugal, and Switzerland, and with the 1143 rise to the papacy of Eugenius III, one of Bernard’s former disciples, Bernard found himself in the vanguard of the ongoing struggle against heresy, in particular the Henrician successors to the Petrobrusians and the Cathars. Moreover—and this is the fourth major event of this period in Bernard’s life—the siege and defeat of the Christian army at Edessa by the Seljuks and the threat to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem led to a declaration of a second Crusade by Eugenius. Bernard became the primary mouthpiece for articulating this need and encouraging enlistment. His powerful sermons resulted in enthusiastic joining up of nobility and royalty alike. The Crusader enthusiasm also led to massacres of Jews in the Rhineland, and, at the behest of the Archbishop of Mainz, Bernard traveled to Germany to quell them personally. Moreover, the Second Crusade was a disaster, for which Bernard felt an enormous responsibility that darkened his remaining years.

Biblical and Related Writings.

Among St. Bernard’s interesting minor texts is the apology written to Pope Eugenius and inserted in Bernard’s Book of Consideration, in which he asserts that the sins of the Crusaders led to their defeat. Many of his works bear an oblique but distinct relationship to the Christian Bible, such as his Sermons on the Nativity, Sermons on the Blessed Virgin Mary, and On the Steps to Humility and Pride. These works and others share an important feature with his single work directly devoted to a biblical work: his extended series of Sermons on the Song of Songs, written beginning in 1135, in the midst of wrestling with the problem of the papal schism. That shared feature is an emphasis on prayer, contemplation, and lectio divina as a means of drawing closer to God.

His vocation for monasticism and his willingness to step out of the cloister to battle heresy and both his struggle with Peter Abelard and his promotion of the Second Crusade stemmed from his conviction that the purpose of Christian theology and life is to achieve an intense, profound, and personal experience of God. In treatises like the Liber de diligendo Deo, he writes about the importance of loving God and describes the steps that lead to the intoxication of the believer’s soul with a love beyond description. In that condition, the soul, as a bride, experiences perfect, sweet serenity in union with the Divine Bridegroom.

There was an obvious logic, then, for his following in the footsteps of key patristic predecessors in devoting so much energy to the Song of Songs. At his death, the work was unfinished; he had completed 86 sermons, concerning which scholars have argued as to whether they were actually delivered or designed to be read and studied, because of their formal perfection. This lush series of biblical poems, traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, only squeaked its way into the canon; because of its somewhat graphic imagery—“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! … My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts. … Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves. … How beautiful you are my love … your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle … ”—rabbinic authorities questioned its legitimacy as divine writ. Rabbi Akiva convinced his fellow rabbis, however, that the Song of Songs is an extended allegory of the love relationship between God and the People Israel.

Christian leaders, like Origen and St. Augustine, would follow suit. Moreover, like St. Bernard, these early patristic writers saw the allegory in mystical terms. In Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the word for soul is grammatically feminine, as both the terms for God and the human incarnation of God are masculine. Thus the love-union that resides beneath the surface of the text can be—and for Bernard in his sermons certainly was understood to be—a hidden reference to the mystic’s goal: to be one with the One, to experience the indescribably sweet perfection for the soul reunited with the God who is its source.

This idea is mined by Bernard, for example, in his 40th sermon, where he quotes: “Your cheeks are beautiful as the turtle dove’s,” and explains that “the bride’s modesty is a delicate thing; and I feel that at the Bridegroom’s reproof a warm flush suffused her face, so heightening her beauty that she immediately was greeted with: ‘Your cheeks are beautiful as the turtle dove’s.’ … The intention which we have referred to as the face of the soul must have two elements: matter and purpose, what you intend and why. It is from these two that we judge the beauty or deformity of the soul, and hence the person in whom they are found correct and pure may justly and truly be told: ‘Your cheeks are beautiful as the turtle dove’s.’ ”

St. Bernard identifies layers of mystical significance to the poem. He writes in his introduction: “Solomon has bread to give that is splendid and delicious, the bread of that book called ‘The Song of Songs.’ Let us bring it forth then, if you please, and break it.” We can readily recognize the Eucharistic imagery. Thus, as much as Bernard’s emphasis is on personal process, the importance of this sacramental moment, shared within the community, is implied: in which the bread and wine are transformed into the very flesh and blood of Christ and thus the partaker and God become one—an idea emphatically denied by the Cathars against whose heretical views Bernard was writing soon after writing this.

He elaborates at length, in the second sermon on the importance of the allegorical image of the kiss: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth. How shall I explain so abrupt a beginning, this sudden irruption as from a speech in mid-course? … But yet she does not say: ‘Let him kiss me with his mouth’; what she says is still more intimate: ‘with the kiss of his mouth.’ How delightful a ploy of speech this, prompted into life by the kiss, with Scripture’s own engaging countenance inspiring the reader and enticing him on. … ”

On the other, he concludes by summarizing: “This kiss is no other than the Mediator between God and man, himself a man, Christ Jesus, who with the Father and Holy Spirit lives and reigns as God forever and ever.” As he digs deeper into the meanings contained within the biblical book, exploring four different sorts of spirits (in Sermon Five), he offers the spirit of man as holding “a middle place between the extremes of bestial and angelic spirits, [that] manifestly has a twofold need of a body: without it the soul can act neither for its own advantage nor for the benefit of others,” which is ultimately the purpose of the Song of Songsto assist us in finding the innermost depths of God—and the purpose of St. Bernard’s exposition.

Late Years and Legacy.

The aftermath of the Second Crusade left a trail of deaths of individuals close to St. Bernard: Abbot Suger and the leaders of the Crusade—Conrad II, his son Henry, and Pope Eugenius II—all died in 1152–1153, within a year of one another. Bernard followed soon thereafter and was buried at Clairvaux, but his remains were transferred to the Cathedral of Troyes after the dissolving of monasteries effected by the French revolutionary government in 1792. He was named a Doctor of the Church in 1830, in large part for his Sermons on the Song of Songs. These serve as his most important contribution to the contemplative literature and the lectio divina that he was so instrumental in reintroducing at a serious level into the Cistercian order—and that are central aspects of the larger Christian mystical tradition.



Primary Works

  • Abelard, Peter. Sic et non: A Critical Edition. Edited by Blanche B. Boyer and Richard McKeon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
  • Leclercq, J., C. H. Talbot, and H. M. Rochais, eds. Sancti Bernardi Opera. 9 vols. Rome: Editiones Cistercienses, 1957–1977.
  • St. Bernard of Clairvaux. On the Song of Songs. 4 vols. Cistercian Fathers 4, 7, 31, 40. Spencer, Mass.: Cistercian, 1971–1980.
  • St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The Twelve Steps of Humility and Pride; and, On Loving God. Edited by Halcyon C. Backhouse. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985.
  • St. Bernard’s Sermons on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Translated by an anonymous priest of Mount Melleray. Chumleigh, U.K.: Augustine, 1984.
  • St. Bernard’s Sermons on the Nativity. Translated from the Latin by an anonymous priest of Mount Melleray. Chumleigh, U.K.: Augustine, 1985.

Secondary Works

  • Brower, Jeffrey E., and Kevin Guilfoy. The Cambridge Companion to Abelard. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.
  • Duffy, Eamon. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • Evans, Gillian R. Bernard of Clairvaux. Great Medieval Thinkers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Gilson, Étienne. The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard. London: Sheed and Ward, 1940.
  • Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades. Vol. 2: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East, 1100–1187. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Ori Z. Soltes