Bernard of Clairvaux, 1091-1153

Notes from Julian's Hymnology:

Saint, abbot and doctor, he fills one of the most conspicuous positions in the history of the Middle Ages. His father, Tecelin or Tesselin, a knight of great bravery, was the friend and vassal of the Duke of Burgundy. Bernard was born at his father's castle on the eminence of Les Fontaines near Dijon in Burgundy, in 1091. He was educated at Chantillon, where he was distinguished for his studious and meditative habits. The world, it would be thought, would have had overpowering attraction for a youth, who, like Bernard, had all the advantages that high birth, great personal beauty, graceful manners and irresistable influence could give, but, strengthened in his resolve by night visions of his mother (who had died in 1105), he chose a life of asceticism, and became a monk.

In company with an uncle and two of his brothers, who had been won over by his entreaties, he entered the monastery of Citaux, the first Cistercian foundation in 1113. Two years later he was sent forth at the head of twelve monks from the rapidly increasing and over-crowded abbey, to found a daughter institution which, in spite of difficulties and privations which would have daunted less determined men, they succeeded in doing in the valley of Wormwood, about four miles from the Abbey of La Feste — itself an earlier swarm from the same parent hive — on the Aube.

On the death of Pope Honorius II in 1130, the Sacred College was rent by factions, one of which elected Gregory of St. Angelo who took the title of Innocent II, while another elected Peter Leonis under the title of Anacletus II. Innocent II fled to France, and the question as to whom the allegiance of the King, Louis VI and the French bishops was due was left by them for Bernard to decide. At a council held at Etampes, Bernard gave judgement in favour of Innocent. Throwing himself into the question with all the ardour of a vehement partisan, he won over both Henry I, the English king, and Lothair, the German Emperor, to support the same cause and then in 1133 accompanied Innocent II who was supported by Lothair and his army, to Italy and Rome. When Lothair withdrew, Innocent retired to Pisa, and Bernard for a while to the Abbey of Clairvaux. It was not until after the death of Anacletus, the anti-pope in January 1138, and the resignation of his successor, the cardinal priest Gregory, Victor II, that Innocent II who had returned to Rome with Bernard, was universally acknowledged Pope, a result to which no one had so greatly contributed as the Abbot of Clairvaux.

The influence of the latter now became paramount in the Church, as was proved at the Lateran Council of 1139, the largest council ever collected together, where the decrees in every line displayed the mark of his master-hand. After having devoted four years to the service of the pope, Bernard, early in 1135, returned to Clairvaux. In 1137, he was again at Rome, impetuous and determined as ever, denouncing the election of a Cluniac instead of a Clairvaux monk to the see of Langres in France, and in high controversy in consequence with Peter, the gentle Abbott of Cluny, and the Archibishop of Lyons. The question was settled by the deposition by the Pope of the Cluniac and the elevation of the Clairvaux monk (Godfrey, a kinsman of Bernard) into his place. In 1143 Bernard raised an almost similar question as to the election of William to the see of York, which was settled much after the same fashion, the deposition after a time, if only for a time, of William, and the intrusion of another Clairvaux monk, Henry Murdac, or Murdoch, into the archiespiscopal see. Meantime, between these two dates — in 1140 — the condemnation of Peter Abelard and his tenets in which matter Bernard appeared personally as prosecutor, took place at a council held at Sens. Abelard, condemned at Sens, appealed to Rome, and resting a while on his way there at Cluny, where Peter still presided as Abbot, died there in 1142.

Bernard was next called upon to exercise his unrivalled powers of persuasion in a very different cause. Controversy over, he preached a crusade. The summer of 1146 was spent by him in traversing France to rouse the people to engage in the second crusade; the autumn with a like object in Germany. In both countries the effect of his appearance and eloquence was marvellous. The population seemed to rise en masse and "take up the cross". In 1147 the expedition started, a vast horde of which probably not a tenth ever reached Palestine. It proved a complete failure and a miserable remnant shared the flight of their leaders, the Emperor Conrad and Louis, King of France, and returned home defeated and disgraced. The blame was thrown on Bernard, and his apology for his part in the matter is extant. He was not, however, for long to bear up against reproach; he died in the 63rd year of his age, in 1153, weary of the world and glad to be at rest.

Bernard's hymn in 'Spiritual Songs' (translated by E. Carswell) is no. 414, "Jesus, the very thought of Thee, With sweetness fills the breast". A very popular hymn and often sung with reverence towards the Lord Jesus.

"O joy of all the meek" sounds very incongruous with the brief notes of Bernard's life given by Dr. Julian above.

Hymns by Bernard of Clairvaux