Bernard of Clairvaux was first and last a monk. Whatever else he did or contributed to Christendom must be relegated to a secondary role. The call to monasticism was for over a thousand years preeminent in Christendom, and Bernard faithfully answered the call. For yet a longer time many people considered the call to seclusion, prayer, contemplation, and a life of rigor and service as the choice will of God—though this vocation was for a select group. Bernard was a leader in this select group. He desired above all to draw near to the heart of God, and to lead others in that way.

During the European Middle Ages (about 500–1500) monasticism was a dominant feature of the church and religious life in general. To be a monk was to respond to the call of God to the life of special devotion and withdrawal from secular concerns. It was to work out one’s own religious quest, to live close to God, and to emulate as closely as possible the instructions of Scripture for living the Holy Life.

Such a life was not possible, it was believed, when there were other concerns and temptations ever present: family, secular responsibilities, lust, the desire for power. Whether it be Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus, or Paul, the record of Holy Writ provided examples for those who would undertake to follow a stricter and more limited interpretation of God’s will for living.

The Benedictine Way

Benedict of Nursia (480–543) left an indelible mark on Western monasticism through the influence of the rule that he drew up for those also affiliated with him in his monastic vocation at Monte Casino, Italy, in 528. Although he began as a hermit and lived alone for several years, he soon attracted a number of other people who wanted to adopt his lifestyle and gain the spiritual well-being that was Benedict’s. Lest this get out of hand Benedict put down a pattern for monastic living that eventually came to be the basic pattern for all Western monasticism.

While Benedict drew from a long tradition of monastic and ascetic experience, and his was but one of many, he gave distinctive emphasis to his Rule. Monks were to engage in manual labor, recite the canonical hours (Psalms and prayers)—the work of God, profess obedience to the abbot, the father of the family of monks, adopt a life of poverty and chastity, and remain with and serve with his adopted family for the rest of his life. Benedict called it a “school for the service of God.”

The Rule of Benedict did not receive universal acceptance, nor was it intended to. There was no papal decree that made it a requirement. The Rule however did have widespread acceptance in many monasteries. It was to be nearly three centuries before there was an approximation of uniform monastic observance in the Western church.

In the meantime, the Benedictine observance was only one of the several traditions found in Italy, Gaul, and most notably Ireland. In Ireland since the fourth century the rule of abbot-bishop, which was very closely linked to the socio-political structure of the people, had developed. The vows, tonsure (hair cut), dress, and practices were also different from those in Rome. It was in Ireland that the penitential and private confessional were initiated. Later they became integral to continental ecclesiastical practices in and out of the monastery. The mingling of Celtic and Benedictine monasticism in sixth and seventh-century Gaul was the dynamic of a renewed Gallic monasticism. This began most significantly at Luxeuil (originally a Gallic foundation) from whence the fervor spread to a number of the major monasteries of France.

A Shift in Priorities

The center of Western Christendom shifted to Gaul during the Carolingian era. The pinnacle of this period was the reign of Charlemagne (768–814). Included in the concerns of the Carolingian rulers was the extension and reform of monasteries. (Reform at this time meant increased uniformity of practice.) The most influential person in the area of monastic reform was another Benedict, Benedict of Aniane (750–821).

Although the monastic life was a life of separation for laypersons, and was to be a life set apart for repeated celebration of the Eucharist as well as the traditional prayers, the use of private masses increasingly confirmed a tendency towards monastic ordination. Monastic life ceased to be that of a lay person’s and became the higher calling of ordained priests.

The shifts that this illustrates are reflected by the changes in ecclesiastical architecture. The monastic church emphasized the altars, extended the number of choir stalls, and placed the laity in a relatively remote position. Abbeys became very wealthy in lands and movable wealth as they were richly endowed by royal and noble benefactors. It became common, for political reasons, to appoint abbots to monasteries because of their prominence and wealth, instead of because of spiritual qualifications. While this did not necessarily always interfere with the spiritual matters—for the man might be pious—it did denote a shift in priorities.

Monastic Fall and Rise

Although in one sense the Carolingian Age was a high point of monasticism, it was also a time for concern. Challenges to old ideals arose due to mistaken priorities, encumbrances of administration, and lay demands. Most significantly, however, these concerns were exacerbated by the general turmoil of the later ninth century, which saw the collapse of political leadership in Western Europe and the onslaught of Vikings, Saracens, and Magyars.

The Vikings were most severe upon the monasteries, pillaging, looting, burning, and murdering on numerous occasions. Many monasteries ceased to exist, others were not used for decades, and all suffered from the disruption of order during these times. The monastic reforms—spiritual, fiscal, and political—availed little to stem the tide of the disintegration that marked the late ninth and early tenth centuries.

But a spark smoldered in the ashes of despair and destruction. Like the phoenix, monasticism arose again in a new wave of reform. Duke William of Aquitaine desired to endow a new monastic foundation that would be dedicated solely to things spiritual. He sought out an exemplary monk, Berno of Baume, to provide the spiritual leadership. This new foundation would be subject only to the papacy, would have no interference from lay princes or local bishops and would be richly endowed so as to reduce the problems that economic necessity might bring.

Through outstanding and long-lived leadership, widespread support, and active recruitment the monastery at Cluny became a source of inspiration for monastic life for nearly 200 years. The best of the Carolingian tradition in the reforms of Benedict of Aniane continued, and to this was added a new spirit of separation from lay authority and the local hierarchy. New monastic houses were springing, and older establishments were undergoing reform.

Many of these new foundations were priories and accountable to the mother house at Cluny. This was an innovation in monastic organizations, and the extension of the family ideal of Benedict of Nursia. The heightened spirituality, the frugal and careful management, the discipline, and the elevated sense of liturgy of the Cluniac houses attracted new members and rich endowments. Along with the new Liturgy, massive buildings, richly ornamented with sculpture and decoration, gave display to the wealth of Cluny’s benefactors. In many respects the age of Cluny was both a concluding chapter of Carolingian opulence and a prologue to the new age of reform to come.

Reform from Cluny

It was the spirit of the men of Cluny and her daughter houses that strongly influenced the new papacy and the new hierarchy of the 11th century. The thrust for a hierarchy independent of lay influences, a centralized papal authority, a celibate clergy, and a growing monastic influence throughout society were themes of renewal and reform that reached their pinnacle in the papacy of Gregory VII (1073–1085) and his successors. Gregory VII was himself a cleric and a former monk of Cluny.

Although reform was not an easy task and was not finished by Gregory, his power and vision set the goals for the next 200 years of the medieval church. The character of these reformers was clearly seen in the zeal and enthusiasm of Pope Urban II (1088–1099), who first called for a crusade as an expression of a vital, militant, and aggressive church. This attitude carries along to Bernard, who preached the second crusade (1147) and supported a reformed and militant Christian expression.

It was the Cluniac monk, Robert of Molesme, a man critical of the excesses that riches had brought to Cluniac monasticism, and desirous of a more stringent lifestyle in the pattern of the original Benedict, who sought fulfillment at the remote monastery of Molesme in 1075. In 1098 he was not completely satisfied with his attempts, and was still under the sway of Cluny. He felt called, therefore, to move with a few monks to found his own monastery in a remote and desolate location of swamps and hills: Citeaux.

Although Robert returned to Molesme, his settlement of Citeaux was continued by Alberic, one of his original companions, and Stephen Harding, his secretary from England who had been strongly influenced by monastic reform in his own land.

Robert, Stephen, and their followers called for a return to Benedict of Nursia, and beyond Benedict to the fathers of the desert. Although Benedict was the approved hallmark for the monastic life, how his rules were interpreted was the key. Had not Benedict, in Chapter 73 of his Rule, pointed his followers to yet other standards? The Rule of Benedict was not the ultimate monastic attainment. It was only minimal. Higher standards were possible and must be sought.

The founders of Citeaux were not alone in this regard. The last half of the 11th century had seen a renewal of the appeal for the solitary life, especially in Italy where there were self-appointed evangelists calling people to the lifestyle of the apostolic models. There were others, such as Bruno of Cologne, who already had created a new model of solitary monasticism by founding the Carthusian order at Grenoble.

As Cluny had inspired the Gregorian reforms, their outworking now gave rise to a call for the reformation of Cluny itself, and a return to a life of self-denial, simple community, work, poverty, and prayer. This is what the new Cistercian rule provided. They were to be entirely self-supporting in simple agricultural activity. There were stricter dietary regulations. A simplified liturgy and chant were identified for use in plain, austere, undecorated churches. A simple undyed wool garment sufficed for clothing. Contact with others was limited. Theirs was a vocation of silence, of contemplation, and of prayer. The Cistercians might be regarded as the Puritans of their era.

From Citeaux to Clairvaux

In 1112* [* Or in 1113, according to some recent scholarship.] young Bernard came to join the monastery of Citeaux. In 1115 he was sent, along with several companions, including members of his own family, to begin a new monastery at Clairvaux, the third of four daughter houses of Citeaux. Bernard became its first abbot and so remained throughout his life.

As a recruiter for the Cistercians he was exceptional. In the face of its sharper demands, the Cistercians became the most popular. The Order grew until it had over 10,000 adherents. With over 350 houses spread throughout all of Europe by the mid-12th century, the Age of Cluny, the first true international order, had been supplanted by the Age of Citeaux.

Monasticism reigned supreme in European society at both the elite and popular levels. Ironically, but inevitably, with the success of the Cistercians came problems similar to those that Bernard had criticized in the practices of Cluny. Yet Citeaux and Clairvaux were to provide the High Middle Ages with dynamic, spiritually motivated leadership for two centuries in popes, bishops, scholars, preachers, crusades, and kings.

Thomas Kay is Professor of History at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.