St Bernard of Clairvaux
was one of the greatest and most dynamic figures of the Middle Ages.
He played a pivotal role in the development of the Cistercian Order,
and was an active participant in political and ecclesiastical affairs.
Bernard was born in Fontaine, Burgundy, of noble parentage. In c.
1112 he joined the community at Cîteaux.
His arrival was a decisive point in the history of the Cistercians
and he is often described as the second founder of the Order. Bernards
charisma and reforming zeal reinvigorated the community and accelerated
its remarkable expansion. Only three years after his arrival at
Cîteaux Abbot Stephen Harding sent
Bernard to found the third of Cîteauxs elder daughters
at Clairvaux (Valley of Light), in the diocese of Langres.
Bernards magnetism and fame inspired a number of recruits,
among them the future pope, Eugenius III. Bernard was said to have
such an appeal that mothers hid their sons from him and wives concealed
their husbands. Walter Map, a rather bitter commentator on Bernard
and the Cistercians, cynically remarked that the abbot of Clairvaux
had carts driven through towns and castles to carry off his converts
to the cloister.(1) Under Bernards
energetic leadership Clairvaux rose to prominence and soon dominated
the Cistercian family tree: during his abbacy sixty-five daughter-houses
were founded or absorbed, and eventually there were over 350 houses
affiliated to Clairvaux. Bernard was instrumental in bringing the
Cistercians to Yorkshire, and the Clairvaux line was by far the
strongest in the British Isles. He is sometimes depicted carrying
a model of a church, symbolic of his contribution to expansion.
Bernard overtly rejected publicity but was, nonetheless, a prominent
figure in contemporary affairs. He was a friend and advisor to rulers
and prelates, he engaged in political and theological debates, mediated
during the Papal Schism,
and his magnetic preaching incited many to join the Second
Crusade. Bernard thus described himself as the chimera of his
age, for like that mythical beast he was an incongruous mixture
a monk thrust into the roles of politician, diplomat and
preacher. Bernard was also a talented and prolific writer. He has
left a considerable corpus of writings which include over 300 letters
and sermons, mystical works and devotions to the Virgin.
Bernard vehemently denounced scholasticism, which he deemed undermined
Gods mysteries, and claimed that knowledge of God was attained
through prayer and charity rather than scandalous curiosity.
Bernards works reveal a forceful and engaging character, who
embraced controversy; one who was articulate, opinionated, and often
sharp-tongued. As such he provoked criticism, as well as acclaim;
the satirist, Walter Map, complained of his dominance:
From this last (Clairvaux)
rose Bernard, and began to shine among, or rather above the rest,
like Lucifer among the stars of night.
Bernard was canonised
on 18 January 1174, but his cult began, unofficially, during his