Bernard of Clairvaux is worthy of the title “a man for all seasons.” His life was dogged by controversy and he fought for some issues that few today would wish to defend. Yet despite this he has in every generation had his admirers. As Jean Leclercq put it, “today, as in his own time, he enchants more readers than he exasperates.”

In the 16th century he was a widely quoted figure, and both Catholics and Protestants were keen to claim his support. John Calvin saw him as the major witness to the truth in the Medieval Church between Gregory the Great (died 604) and the 16th century. Calvin was not alone in his admiration of Bernard. In the early years of the Reformation dozens of anthologies of writings of early Church fathers and medieval masters were published, by Catholics and Protestants alike. In these works the two most popular medieval authors, who appear in almost all of them, are Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux. The great monk of the 12th century, the theologian of love, the “honey-tongued doctor,” has been admired by all manner of Christians now for almost 800 years.

Bernard was born in 1090 at the chateau of Fontaines, on the outskirts of Dijon in Burgundy (today, France). The chateau survives today and part of it has been converted into a chapel commemorating Bernard. His family belonged to the lesser nobility and Bernard would have received the upbringing proper to a young nobleman, training him for a life in the world. But this was not to be.

In 1112* [* Some recent scholarship has redated Bernards entry to Citeaux to the year 1113.] he entered the recently founded Abbey of Citeaux, the first abbey of the new Cistercian order. This was not one of the well-established and prestigious monasteries, but was a strict reforming monastery which had been founded in 1098 by one Robert of Molesme. By 1112 the abbot was an Englishman by the name of Stephen Harding, whose beautifully illustrated Bible is today in the municipal library at Dijon. Bernard did not arrive empty-handed but managed to bring with him a party of 30 recruits, including his two uncles and most of his brothers. In time, more of his family were to join the order.

Citeaux, Clairvaux, and Controversy

Three years later, Bernard was appointed abbot of a new monastery, the third offshoot from Citeaux. He set out with 12 monks to a remote valley where they founded the Monastery of Clairvaux. (The abbey at Clairvaux still survives, but was converted into a prison after the French Revolution. The cells once inhabited by monks are now inhabited by prisoners.)

Citeaux had been founded in opposition to what was felt to be the laxity of the Benedictine order, and Clairvaux was founded in the same spirit. The aim was to return to a strict observance of the Rule of Benedict, including poverty and hard work. There was to be a stricter form of asceticism than that being practiced by the Benedictines.

At Clairvaux Bernard carried his reforming ideas to extremes, and in his early years this had unfortunate consequences. His high standards proved to be too severe for the frail humanity of his monks. After a time they were unable to cope and Bernard had to slacken the reins. Furthermore, Bernard was stricter with himself than with others, with the result that his health was permanently damaged. In particular, he suffered from severe gastric problems and had ongoing problems with digestion. A place had to be provided for him to be sick during monastery services. Despite his poor health, however, Bernard achieved more in his lifetime than has been achieved by most other great men.

Citeaux was founded in protest to Benedictine compromise, and this brought controversy. Into this controversy Bernard entered wholeheartedly. One of his first works, written around 1124–1125, was his Apology, addressed to Abbot William of St. Thierry, concerning the dispute between the Cistercians and the monks of Cluny. (The great monastery at Cluny was the center of the Benedictine community in that day.)

The Cistercians were accusing the Cluniacs of infringing the Rule; the Cluniacs responded by accusing the Cistercians of unfair criticism. Bernard addressed the second charge first, admitting that there is the danger of spiritual pride. “There are people who go clad in tunics and have nothing to do with furs, who nevertheless are lacking in humility. Surely humility in furs is better than pride in tunics” (Apology 6:12). He then launches into a brilliant satirical attack on Cluniac luxury. In a famous passage he caricatures the lavish meals served at certain monasteries:

Meanwhile course after course is brought in. Only meat is lacking and to compensate for this two huge servings of fish are given. You might have thought that the first was sufficient, but even the recollection of it vanishes once you have set to on the second. The cooks prepare everything with such skill and cunning that the four or five dishes already consumed are no hindrance to what is to follow and the appetite is not checked by satiety… The selection of dishes is so exciting that the stomach does not realize that it is being over-taxed. (9:20)

This was not his last writing concerning the Benedictines and the Rule of Benedict. Some years later (1141–1144) he wrote another work, On Precept and Dispensation, concerning the nature of obedience to the Rule. This began as a response to some queries from two Benedictine monks and is, therefore, less polemical in tone. It concerns the status of the Rule of Benedict and the question of whether it may ever be broken.

In particular, what should the monk do if there arises a conflict between the Rule and the obedience which he has promised to his abbot? Bernard stresses that the authority of the abbot is derived from and dependent upon the Rule and also that the monk should obey his abbot. Bernard, despite his polemical attacks on the Benedictines, came to have an influence upon the order. Suger, abbot of the prestigious monastery of St. Denis in Paris, was touched by Bernard’s words about luxury and adopted a more austere lifestyle for both himself and his monks.

Knights and Other Orders

Bernard also enjoyed a close and warm relationship with other religious orders, such as the Carthusians and the Premonstratensians. In particular he created the Rule for the new order of Knights Templar, and also, at some time between 1128 and 1136, wrote for them a devotional work In Praise of the New Knighthood. The Templars were a religious order of knights sworn to defend the Holy Land, and to Christian devotion and morality—unlike that of most plundering crusaders.

After Bernard discusses this new order of knights in In Praise of the New Knighthood, he considers the allegorical significance of various sites in the Holy Land that the Templars would be defending, such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. Most of the discussion is devoted to one site—the holy sepulchre where Christ was buried. Bernard asks:

“How do we know that Christ has really overcome death? Precisely in that he, who did not deserve it, underwent it. How could we be expected to pay a debt which he has already satisfied in our stead? He who has assumed the guilt of our sins while bestowing his justice upon us had himself paid our debt of death and restored us to life... But what kind of justice is this, you may say, that the innocent should die for the guilty? It is not justice, but mercy.” (11.22ff)

Cistercian Growth

Under Bernard the monastery of Clairvaux grew rapidly and before long began to found its own daughter houses. The first of these, in 1118, was at Trois Fontaines. The second, in 1119, was at Fontenay. (Only the ruins of the chapel and a few other buildings survive at Trois Fontaines, but at Fontenay the buildings have fared better. They have now been lovingly restored, and Fontenay is the best preserved monastery of that period in the world today.)

In due course Bernard himself founded some 70 Cistercian monasteries. If one adds the further offshoots from these monasteries, there were by the time of Bernard’s death almost 170 daughter, grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter abbeys of Clairvaux. It was thanks in large measure to Bernard that the order grew rapidly during the 12th century.

This rapid growth shows the success of the Cistercian order in its first century; however, this was also the cause of its decline. Citeaux had been founded as a rigorist protest against the laxity of contemporary Benedictine monasticism. But the outcome of such rapid growth was a new large and powerful order, and it proved impossible to maintain strict standards for long. In due course, the Cistercians became as lax as the Benedictines. Already in the year of Bernard’s death decisions were made which weakened the commitment to poverty.

The Affairs of the World

Bernard went to Citeaux to flee the world, but here we encounter one of the profound contradictions in his life. He believed that the monk had left the world and turned his back on it, and also that the monk should stay put in his monastery. But in time Bernard became one of the most traveled and active leaders of the 12th-century Church. In 1130 Pope Honorius II died and was succeeded by two rival popes: Innocent II and Anacletus II. Europe divided over the issue.

Bernard came to the conclusion that the former was the better candidate and more committed to reform. He therefore threw his weight behind Innocent and fought hard for him, both by writing letters and by appearing in person to win over Anacletus’s supporters.

Innocent’s eventual victory was due in no small part to Bernard’s support. This served to increase Bernard’s influence at Rome and must have also helped to increase his appetite for this sort of involvement in the affairs of Europe.

Throughout his life Bernard protested his desire to turn his back on the world and his reluctance to be involved in worldly affairs. However, the frequency with which he intervened in such affairs, even when not invited to do so, shows that at least a part of him felt no such reluctance. The extent of his involvement can be seen from the recent critical edition of his Letters, which contains no less than 547 letters addressed to many different people all over Europe.

Monasticism Versus Scholasticism

Another ambivalent aspect of Bernard’s character can be seen in his relation to scholastic theology. In the so-called “dark ages” (c 500–1000), when western Europe was overrun by successive waves of barbarian invasions, theology was confined almost entirely to the monasteries, which offered an environment of relative stability. This monastic theology was produced in an atmosphere of commitment and devotion, within the framework of a life lived according to the monastic rule. It was a theology that fit the needs of everyday life. The goal was not the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but wisdom—personal growth in spirituality.

The approach taken by the monastics was one of contemplation and adoration. This was especially a theology by and for monks. But with the growing stability of western Europe from the 11th century, scholarship in general and theology in particular spread beyond the confines of the monastery to the cathedral school, and then to the university. This placed theology in a different context and endowed it with a different set of priorities. What emerged, the scholastic theology, was based in the schools and took place, therefore, in a more “secular” environment, with a commitment to scholarship rather than to devotion. The goal was objective intellectual knowledge. The approach was one of questioning, disputation, and logical analysis, rather than prayer and meditation.

When did the scholastic approach begin? The first steps can be seen in Anselm of Canterbury, who died in 1109. He was a monk and in many ways remained in the monastic tradition, but he pioneered a more philosophical approach to theology. These beginnings were further developed by others, especially by Peter Abelard (1079–1142), the influential and controversial teacher of theology who lived in Paris in Bernard’s day.

Abelard was possibly the most brilliant thinker of the 12th century, and was responsible for introducing a new approach to theology. Augustine, and Anselm after him, operated on the principle that the purpose of knowledge was to strengthen faith, not to question it; the pursuit of knowledge was “faith seeking understanding.” Belief came first: “I believe in order to understand.” Abelard turned this on its head, proposing instead the method of doubt. “It is by doubting that we come to enquire and by enquiring that we reach truth.”

This was a dramatic reversal of the traditional approach, added to which Abelard also showed a fundamental lack of respect towards established authorities. This led him at least to question the traditional explanations of the death of Christ in terms of a ransom paid to either God or the devil. (Christ’s death as a ransom to the devil was a popular medieval concept.) Instead, Abelard suggested that Christ died not to pay a penalty, but in order to show us God’s love, and to win our affection.

Bernard Versus Abelard

How did Bernard react to scholastic theology? He has not inaptly been described as the last great representative of the earlier tradition of monastic theology. He is also well known as the opponent of Abelard who secured his condemnation. This is true, but it is not the whole story. One of Bernard’s first works, On Grace and Free Will, written about 1128, is a tightly argued discussion of the relationship between grace and free will, which could hold its own in the debates of the schools, and was indeed often quoted by 13th-century scholastic theologians, especially Franciscans. It exhibits a spirit somewhat different from Bernard’s other works, and Luther was not totally wide of the mark when he drew a sharp contrast between the Bernard of this treatise and the Bernard of the sermons.

However, when it came to Abelard’s teaching Bernard’s position was clear. He saw it as a serious threat to the integrity of the gospel. In 1139 he wrote a lengthy letter to the pope (sometimes reckoned as one of his treatises) refuting Abelard. In it he combats much of Abelard’s teaching, including his apparent reduction of the atonement to a mere demonstration of God’s love.

I was made a sinner by deriving my being from Adam; I am made just by being washed in the blood of Christ. Shall generation by a sinner be sufficient to condemn me and shall not the blood of Christ be sufficient to justify me? … Such is the justice which man has obtained through the blood of the Redeemer. But this ‘son of perdition’ [Abelard] disdains and scoffs at it… [Abelard believes that Christ lived and died] for no other purpose than that he might teach men how to live by his words and example and point them by his passion and death to what limits their love should go. (6:16–7:17)

Bernard arranged for Abelard to be summoned to appear at a council at Sens in 1140, where his teaching was condemned. Abelard appealed to Rome, but the pope was Innocent II, who owed his very position in part to Bernard! The sentence was confirmed, and Abelard retired to the monastery of Cluny, where he died the following year.

Bernard’s opposition to Abelard and to scholastic theology was not, however, his last word on the subject. Peter Lombard (died 1160), a disciple of Abelard, wrote Four Books of Sentences which became a standard theological textbook for the rest of the middle ages and beyond. In this he used methods similar to Abelard’s, but with a reverence for traditional authorities which had always eluded Abelard. As a result Lombard even managed to win the support of Bernard.

Bernard’s opposition was primarily directed against the abuses of scholastic theology. He felt that it was not an activity suitable for monks, but he did not deny that others might have a vocation in this area. However, Bernard was on occasions capable of giving the impression that the monastic life was the only safe way to heaven. One example of this is to be found in his passionate sermon to clerics, On Conversion, preached in Paris in 1139–40, in which he urged them to forsake the world and be converted to the monastic life.

Bernard’s opposition to heresy did not stop with Abelard. He also opposed another, but much more wily, scholastic theologian in the person of Gilbert, bishop of Poitiers. Gilbert was summoned to appear before a council at Reims in 1148, but, unlike Abelard, escaped with only a warning. Many felt that Bernard had shown an immoderate zeal against heresy and that he had attempted to exploit his close relationship with the pope in order to have Gilbert condemned.

Bernard also opposed two popular preachers, Peter de Bruys and Henry of Lausanne, who rejected the Catholic Church and formed their own “spiritual” church in the south of France. Another heretic opposed by Bernard was Arnald of Brescia, who taught that the clergy should be stripped of material wealth and that the pope had no jurisdiction outside of ecclesiastical matters.

Father to the Pope

In 1145 Bernard’s authority was further enhanced when a former monk of Clairvaux, Bernardo Pignatelli, became pope Eugenius III. With his former pupil as the Roman Pontiff it was natural that Bernard’s influence should increase. There is probably an element of self-satisfaction in Bernard’s lament to Eugenius that “they say that it is not you but I who am pope” (Letter 239).

Bernard had long been concerned about corruption in the church. Sometime during 1127–28 he had written a work On the Duties and Conduct of Bishops in which he protested against abuses. He also, in 1150–1152, portrayed the ideal bishop in his hagiographical Life of St. Malachy, the Bishop of Armagh in Ireland who died while visiting Clairvaux.

With his former pupil as pope he had the perfect excuse to turn his attention to the papacy. In the very year of Eugenius’s appointment Bernard began his work On Consideration. Addressed to Eugenius, it was not completed until 1153, the year in which they both died. In it he urges the pope to find time for reflection or meditation in the midst of his busy life. He should consider himself (his person and his office), those placed under him, those around him at Rome, and those above him in the heavenly world. Bernard had a high view of the papacy. The pope is “the unique vicar of Christ who presides over not a single people but over all” (2:8:16), and he has fullness of power. However, Bernard is equally emphatic in his opposition to papal tyranny:

We will understand ourselves better if we realize that a ministry has been imposed upon us rather than a dominion bestowed… It seems to me that you have been entrusted with stewardship over the world, not given possession of it… There is no poison more dangerous for you, no sword more deadly, than the passion to rule. Certainly you may attribute much to yourself, but unless you are greatly deceived you will not think that you have received anything more than stewardship from the great apostles. (2:6:9; 3:1:1–2)

A Great Leader of a Tragic Cause

The following year the new pope called for the Second Crusade to be launched to protect the Holy Land from Arab invasion. He appointed Bernard to promote the cause. Bernard’s father had taken part in the First Crusade (1096–1099), which had succeeded in taking Jerusalem, and Bernard was happy to accept.

He traveled around Europe calling upon rulers and ruled alike to enlist in “the cause of Christ.” Among other things he put an end to the activities of one misguided monk who was urging the crusaders to practice their military skills by massacring the Jews in Germany.

Bernard was successful in launching the Crusade, which began in 1148, but it was a dismal failure. This was a severe blow for Bernard, whose popularity took a nosedive. He consoled himself that it was better for people to be angry with him than with God. However, Bernard’s reputation was great enough to survive such a setback. He died in 1153 and was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1174.

Master of the Spiritual Life

Bernard is remembered above all as a master of the spiritual life. In one sense all of his writings are on this theme, but three in particular may be singled out. One of his first two treatises was The Steps of Humility and Pride, written before 1125, in which Bernard expounds the 12 steps of humility described by Benedict in his Rule. This work contains some perceptive insights into human nature:

Humility is a virtue by which a man has a low opinion of himself because he knows himself well… Just as pure truth is seen only by the pure of heart, so also a brother’s miseries are truly experienced only by one who has misery in his own heart. You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your soul. When a man has been bragging that he is better than others he would feel ashamed of himself if he did not live up to his boast and show how much better than others he is… He does not so much want to be better as to be seen to be better. He is not so much concerned about leading a better life as appearing to others to do so… When a man thinks he is better than others will he not put himself before others? He must have the first place in gatherings, be the first to speak in council. He comes without being called. He interferes without being asked. He must rearrange everything, redo whatever has been done. What he himself did not do or arrange is not rightly done or properly arranged. (1:2, 3:6,14:42)

At a later stage, sometime between 1126 and 1141, Bernard wrote one of his best known works, On Loving God. Probably his most renowned work, however, is his Sermons on the Song of Songs. These 86 sermons were written between 1135 and his death. Although they have the outward appearance of sermons, they are in fact a literary work designed to be read rather than preached. Again, although they follow the text of the Song of Solomon (reaching only the beginning of chapter three), these are really a series of sermons on themes relating to the spiritual life, with only a tangential connection with the text. In these sermons we see Bernard’s approach to theology:

There are some who long to know for the sole purpose of knowing, and that is shameful curiosity; others who long to know in order to become known, and that is shameful vanity… There are others still who long for knowledge in order to sell its fruits for money or honors, and this is shameful profiteering; others again who long to know in order to be of service, and this is charity. Finally there are those who long to know in order to benefit themselves, and this is prudence. (36:3)

In these sermons Bernard also speaks of his own mystical experience:

I want to tell you of my own experience, as I promised. Not that it is of any importance… I admit that the Word has also come to me—I speak as a fool—and has come many times. But although he has come to me, I have never been conscious of the moment of his coming. I perceived his presence, I remembered afterwards that he had been with me; sometimes I had a presentiment that he would come, but I was never conscious of his coming or his going. (74:5)

Some of the sermons which Bernard actually preached are preserved. There is also a further series of ‘literary’ sermons for the various Sundays and festivals of the church year. Bernard’s exegesis of the Bible is predominantly allegorical, in line with the approach of the time. His use of this technique earned him the title “mellifluous” (sweetly flowing, as with honey) meaning that he was able to draw the honey of the spiritual meaning out of the letter of Scripture.

The allegorical approach is out of favor today. And though Bernard’s exegetical approach may be considered inadequate, this does not mean that his writings are necessarily unbiblical. The teaching which Bernard might extract from or illustrate by an unlikely text is as likely as not taught explicitly elsewhere. Furthermore, the text of Bernard’s writings is soaked in Scripture in that there are biblical allusions every few lines.

Bernard of Clairvaux is a great and fascinating figure in the history of the Church. In some ways he is remote from and alien to our age. In other ways his life is an expression of an unchanging Christian spirituality—one that transcends all the barriers of time and culture.


Parts of this article have appeared previously in Tony Lane, The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought (Lion, 1984). Extracts from the writings of Bernard are mostly taken from volumes in the Cistercian Fathers Series published by Cistercian Publications.

Tony Lane is a lecturer in historical theology at London Bible College. Among his writings are contributions to Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity, and to Great Leaders of the Christian Church (Moody Press).