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Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090-1153)

St Bernard with abbot's staff and book © Walters Arts MuseumSt Bernard with abbot's staff and book © Walters Arts Museum
St Bernard of Clairvaux, with abbot's staff and book © Walters Arts Museum
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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. Bernard’s 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 Cîteaux’s ‘elder daughters’ at Clairvaux (Valley of Light), in the diocese of Langres. Bernard’s 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 Bernard’s 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 God’s mysteries, and claimed that knowledge of God was attained through prayer and charity rather than ‘scandalous curiosity’. Bernard’s 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 lifetime.