Bernard of Clairvaux

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

It is impossible to understand the history of the church in the Middle Ages without having some idea of monasticism. Monasticism was so common, so much a part of medieval life, so influential in the history of the church in this period, that every aspect of the church’s life was shaped and formed in the monasteries. 

Although monasticism began very early in the history of the church (it was already present in the third century), it really reached the height of its influence in the Middle Ages. It was through the establishment of monasteries that the gospel was spread throughout barbarian Europe: small groups of monks would enter the thick forests of Europe, establish a small monastic community, and make that community the center of missionary enterprise. 

Monasteries were found by the hundreds throughout the continent. As the dreary ages of medieval history ran their course, these monasteries became centers of the life of the church. Thousands were attracted to them and entered them to find a true spiritual life. People from all classes of society took monastic vows—from the very poor to the rich and powerful; from the weak and insignificant to Europe’s princes and rulers. Those who themselves did not join monasteries were often so influenced by them that enormous donations of land, money, gold, silver, and books were donated. It is estimated that at one time monasteries owned one-fifth of the landed property in Europe. 

Because monasteries were so popular, they soon became extremely wealthy. It was inevitable that this vast accumulation of wealth also led to spiritual and moral depravity. The result was that the monastic movement went through periods of decay and reformation, which reformation was often brought about by the establishment of new monastic orders. Each new order grew rapidly until it often numbered hundreds of individual monasteries, some composed of men, others of women. 

Each monastery had its own order or rule, although all were agreed that the vows of poverty, chastity, and celibacy were the principal vows which initiates had to take to become a part of the monastery. 

In these monasteries was to be found the best and the worst of all that characterized the medieval church. 

Monasteries represented the worst of all ecclesiastical life when they declined spiritually and the inmates became guilty of every gross sin under heaven. They were sometimes cesspools of iniquity, filled with gluttony and drunkenness, with gross immorality¹ of every kind, and with almost total ignorance and superstition. The monasteries produced a kind of quasi-clergy, men who were neither priests nor laity, but who often interfered with the ecclesiastical labors of members of the clergy. They were vagabonds who wandered Europe, preaching and administering the sacraments as they saw fit, mesmerizing the people with supposed miracles and filling the people with every sort of superstition. They were wealthy and indolent, influencing affairs in the church by the power of their wealth. Monks were also a sort of standing army of the papacy, for they were invariably loyal to the bishop of Rome and served him with fervor and extreme zeal. Evil popes could use these monks to impose their will upon recalcitrant clerics, kings, nations, and bishoprics. And, of course, monasticism was built upon a totally unbiblical basis, i.e., that true holiness could be attained only in world flight. 

Yet, at the same time, monasticism represented what was also the best in the church. Monasteries were places of quietness and spiritual retreat in the confusion and turmoil of Europe as wild barbarians dominated throughout the continent. They were places where men and women gave themselves over to the cultivation of true godliness through prayer, meditation on Scripture, and the discipline of a life of self-denial. Monasteries were islands of safety and peace in the stormy seas of Europe’s life. They provided shelter for the homeless, hospitals for the sick, schools for the uneducated, inns for travelers, places of safety from marauding bands of brigands and warriors. They produced Europe’s great universities and cathedrals. They developed the sciences of husbandry and agriculture. They produced many of the arts and crafts which were later to become industries. In them books were preserved and copied, especially the Scriptures. It is due to the painstaking work of scribal monks that we have today correct manuscripts of the original, inspired Scriptures. Their reformatory movements often served as dams against the tidal waves of corruption which all but engulfed the church.

Into this situation Bernard was born. He was born in a castle of Fontaines-les-Dijon in Burgundy, France, in 1090, into a family which belonged to the lesser nobility in France, a family characterized by an unpretentious life-style and what we would probably call an old-fashioned piety. His father, Tescelin, went on the first crusade and was one of the small minority which returned. His mother was to Bernard what Monica was to Augustine, for Alethea was a woman of rare piety. 

Trained as a nobleman, he soon left this life and entered the newly organized Cistercian monastery at the age of 22. He entered the monastery with zest, taking with him his five brothers and 30 other men whom he persuaded to enter with him. He was a fanatic monk who gave himself so completely over to self-denial that he permanently ruined his health, something which, in later life, he came to regret. At the age of 25 he was sent by his superior to organize a new monastery in Clairvaux,² which became the center of his activities till his death in 1153 at the age of 63. 

Devoting his life to the monastic ideal, he organized 70 additional monasteries and governed 90 more. His monasteries were not places of idleness, for all the monks under him were required to work hard from dawn till dark, all the while maintaining their monastic vows. His new movement became an instrument to reform monastic life in general and revitalize an institution which had fallen into disrepute. 

From his monastery he had tremendous influence upon the entire life of the church. Europe’s nobility sought his advice, and the church’s prelates, from the highest to the lowest, came to him for counsel. Nor did he fear the popes, one of whom was severely reprimanded by Bernard for his dissolute life.

Although he never sought high office, from his monastery he advised kings and popes and was virtually the uncrowned king of Europe. The fact that a monk who seldom left his monastery could exercise such an influence testifies to the tremendous respect in which spiritual leaders were held. The ability of one man without political office or power to change history solely by his teaching and example is without parallel until the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther would once again transform Europe from his pulpit and professor’s chair in a small town in Saxony.³

Bernard was a theologian of no little power. He not only opposed heresy wherever he saw it, but he was also an enemy of several Romish doctrines which have since been incorporated into Roman Catholic thought. He opposed the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary; he fought against justification by faith and works, against purgatory, against all works of supererogation, and against the developing doctrine of transubstantiation. 

But Bernard was above all a preacher. His 86 sermons on the Song of Solomon are extant. It was particularly his preaching which had such impact on the church. So godly a man was he that Luther said of him: “If there has ever been a pious monk who feared God, it was St. Bernard; whom alone I hold in much higher esteem than all other monks and priests throughout the globe.” And of Bernard’s preaching Luther said: “Bernard is superior to all the doctors in his sermons, even to Augustine himself, because he preaches Christ most excellently.” This is high praise indeed, coming as it did from one of the church’s greatest preachers and from one who despised monkery. “Bernard,” says Luther in another place, “loved Jesus as much as any one can.” 

That the Song of Solomon appealed to him is not surprising, for Bernard loved God’s creation. “Thou wilt find,” he wrote, “something greater in the woods than in books. The trees and rocks will teach thee what thou canst not hear from human teachers. And dost thou not think thou canst suck honey from the rocks and oil from the hardest stones!” A man who enjoys God’s world cannot be all bad. Yet, at the same time, he could be so lost in his meditations that he could travel a whole day along the shores of the beautiful lake of Geneva and be so oblivious to the scenery that at the end of the day he had to ask what his companions had seen on their journey. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of his life was his commission by the pope to preach the second crusade—those strange “holy wars,” launched by the papacy in an effort to wrest the Holy Lands from the hands of the Seljuk Turks. While the first crusade had ended in victory for the church, some years later Edessa in Syria had fallen again to the Moslems. In attempting, through his preaching, to persuade people to go on the new crusade, he influenced so many people in Vitry to join the crusade that he had to cut his own robe into pieces to make crosses for the people. ƒ His efforts in this direction were directed also towards Conrad III, Germany’s powerful king. Conrad was reluctant to go, but was finally moved to tears by Bernard’s vivid descriptions of eternal torments and by his eloquent reminders to Conrad of all God’s goodness to the king. In a passionate outburst, Conrad cried out: “I acknowledge the gifts of the divine mercy, and I will no longer remain ungrateful for them. I am ready for the service which He Himself hath exhorted me.” 

Bernard felt keenly the humiliation of the failure of this crusade, but ascribed it to the sins of the Crusaders and of the Christian world. “The judgments of the Lord are just,” he wrote, “but this one is an abyss so deep that I dare to pronounce him blessed who is not scandalized by it.” 

Bernard was also a gifted hymn writer. The well-known hymn, “Oh, Sacred Head Now Wounded,” is an adaptation of Bernard’s original hymn. And one of his better known hymns has this beautiful stanza:

Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts, 

Thou Fount of life, 

Thou Light of men, 

From the best bliss which earth imparts 

We turn unfilled to Thee again.

Although Bernard’s fanaticism for the monastic life led him to approve of the persecution of those who opposed the church, he represented, on the whole, the best in monasticism and is evidence of the fact that God sometimes preserved His church during these troubled times behind the walls of Europe’s monasteries. He did not think it was possible to live a life pleasing to God in any other place than in the cold grayness of a monastic cell; but perhaps, in his times, this may have been close to the truth.


1. It was discovered, e.g., at the time of the beginning of the Reformation in Geneva prior to Calvin’s arrival that the male and female monasteries were connected by a secret tunnel through which inhabitants passed for purposes of fornication. Cf. Blackmun’s book, William Farel. 

2. He has since been known as Bernard of Clairvaux. 

3. John D. Woodbridge, Great Leaders of the Christian Church, p. 134. 

4. To agree to go on a crusade was “to take the cross.” This was literally done by sewing a piece of cloth in the shape of a cross on one’s clothing.