Medieval Studies Bernard of Clairvaux
Brian Patrick McGuire
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0088


Bernard of Clairvaux (b. 1090–d. 1153) was one of the most influential figures in western Europe in the second quarter of the 12th century. He did not found the Order of Cistercians (Cistercian Order), but his writings and travels are largely responsible for its phenomenal spread in his lifetime. His works can be read today as guides to the life and thought of medieval Christianity and its spirituality. Born into a family of the lower nobility near Dijon in Burgundy, Bernard in 1112 or 1113 showed up with a number of friends and relations outside the newly established monastery of Cîteaux. Already in 1115 its abbot, Stephen Harding, sent the twenty-five-year-old to found a daughter house at Clairvaux in Champagne. Bernard remained abbot here for the rest of his life, even though, on several occasions, he was encouraged to accept election as bishop or archbishop. From the later 1120s Bernard began to involve himself in some of the major issues of his day, notably in criticizing the way of life of Cluniac monks. Bernard’s voice was decisive in 1130 when two rivals claimed the papal office. Bernard’s choice, Innocent II, eventually won the day. From this time onward, Bernard remained at the center of the medieval church and society. In spite of his protest that he wanted to remain home at Clairvaux, he spent months traveling in France and Italy, and, in 1147, he preached the Second Crusade. At Clairvaux, Bernard initiated a series of chapter talks that became Sermones in Cantica, his eighty-six Sermons on the Song of Songs, which make up his finest work. Bernard is perhaps best known for his dispute with Peter Abelard, who was summoned to a synod at Sens, where some of Abelard’s teachings on the Trinity and the Redemption were condemned. Recent research has shown that Bernard had read Abelard and knew his theology firsthand. The abbot did not always get his way. One of Bernard’s former monks became Pope Eugenius III (r. 1145–1153), but the papal head demurred from granting Bernard’s many requests. Bernard’s letters to Eugenius and to other leading figures of the day provide insights into how he used his unique position. Both in his own day and ever since, Bernard has been either loved or hated. It is impossible to be indifferent to his achievements and to the impact that he made on his surroundings as well as to the spiritual and institutional heritage that he left.

Modern Biographies

No satisfying modern biography of Bernard of Clairvaux is available. One has to turn to Vacandard 1902 for a full account of the saint, politician, writer, and mystic. Vacandard was a Catholic priest and his work at times verges on hagiography. Similarly, Luddy, an Irish Cistercian monk, provides a comprehensive review of Bernard’s writings (Luddy and Cist 1937), but, at times, he does no more than summarize them. A full account of Bernard’s life and times is found in Williams 1952, but this historian at times overwhelms the reader with the amount of information he provides, much of it poorly arranged. Far more satisfying, but unfortunately little noticed, is James 1957. Bruno Scott James in the late 1940s translated almost all of Bernard’s letters and so was able to draw on a firsthand knowledge of the man and his many modes of expression. Perhaps most accessible to the nonexpert, and mercifully brief, is Leclercq 1976. Jean Leclercq, a Benedictine monk, devoted himself to monastic theology, focusing on Bernard, and he became the most celebrated monastic scholar of his day, based especially on his edition of Bernard’s writings undertaken with Henri Rochais. Much more detailed and innovative, but less well-known, is Leclercq 1948. Among recent non–English language attempts to capture the contents of Bernard’s life are Dinzelbacher 1998 and Aubé 2003. Peter Dinzelbacher provides a thorough review of research results but his insight into Bernard the person is limited, while Pierre Aubé tells a good story but does not really grasp Cistercian life and spirituality.

  • Aubé, Pierre. Saint Bernard de Clairvaux. Paris: Fayard, 2003.

    An ambitious attempt to cover the life and times of Bernard of Clairvaux. The biography at times turns into a general history of the period in northwestern Europe, especially France.

  • Dinzelbacher, Peter. Bernhard von Clairvaux: Leben und Werk des berühmten Zisterziensers. Darmstadt: Primus, 1998.

    Published in conjunction with the nine hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Cîteaux, this biography makes excellent use of recent research in German, French, Italian, and English but fails to provide a convincing portrait of Bernard.

  • James, Bruno Scott. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: An Essay in Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1957.

    An insightful and attractive introduction to Bernard, especially as seen through his letters.

  • Leclercq, Jean. Saint Bernard mystique. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1948.

    An overlooked but absolutely central evaluation of Bernard as theologian and central ecclesiastical figure of his day.

  • Leclercq, Jean. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercian Spirit. Translated by Claire Lavoie. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1976.

    Originally published in French in 1966 as Saint Bernard et l’esprit cistercien (Paris: Éditions du Seuil). This is an introduction not only to Bernard but also to the monastic culture of the High Middle Ages. Leclercq writes simply and provides apt examples of Bernard’s style. Sometimes he oversimplifies complex matters, but the book is a delight to read.

  • Luddy, Ailbe J., and O. Cist. Life and Teaching of St. Bernard. Dublin, UK: M. H. Gill, 1937.

    Generations of Trappist-Cistercian monks and nuns have been brought up on Luddy’s readings and interpretation of Bernard of Clairvaux. His approach (no footnotes and much praise for the saint) seems dated today, but the book is still useful in integrating Bernard’s writings with what is known of his life.

  • Vacandard, Elphège, l’Abbé de. Vie de Saint Bernard, abbé de Clairvaux. 2 vols. Paris: Librairie Victor Lecoffre, 1902.

    Vacandard is a necessary point of departure for understanding Bernard. However dated his treatment, he had great insight into monastic life and mentality. Vacandard’s achievement needs to be seen in the context of the bitter dispute between Catholics and secularists in France around the year 1900. Vacandard used Bernard in order to argue for the value of medieval Christian culture. First published in 1895.

  • Williams, Watkin. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Westminster, MD: Newman, 1952.

    Williams was a professor at the University of Manchester in England and was one of the first English scholars in the 20th century to do serious research on Bernard. This volume first appeared in 1935 and every page has marginal footnotes that show how he carefully sifted the primary sources. The book is a mine of information but is too crammed with facts to be read from cover to cover.

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