Bernard of Clairvaux: The French abbot who incited Western Europe to commit to the Second Crusade

Many described him as the voice of justice with the authority of an oracle. Meek but not weak by any account, his profound contributions to 12th century Christianity and Catholicism in particular made him seem almost divine and timeless.

Bernard of Clairvaux, or Saint Bernard as he was called after his veneration, is mostly remembered for his gift of eloquence in both writing and speech. The roles the French abbot played in the expansion of the Cistercian Order across Europe and in the Second Crusade especially are still a subject of religious debates.

It has been over eight centuries since the death of the smooth-speaking abbot, yet his light continues to beam on the horizon of modern-day Christianity. The multifaceted legacy of Bernard of Clairvaux continues to live timelessly in the hearts of Catholics and Protestants alike.

Early Life

St. Bernard of Clairvaux would always be a name that beams its light on the horizon of the Cistercian Order and on major events that rocked the 12th century such as the First and Second Crusades. In order to understand the inspirations that spawned the legacy of this Cistercian priest, a peak into the early chapters of his life is of the utmost necessity.

Bernard was one of seven children born to aristocratic parents on the outskirts of Dijon in Burgundy, France. Many historians claim he was born in the castle of Fontaines near Dijon.

Though both his parents exemplified Christian virtues in his upbringing, his mother, Alèthe de Montbard, daughter of the Comte de Montbard in Burgundy, played a more instrumental role in instilling in him a sense of piety.

On the other hand, his father, Tescelin de Fontaine, was a knight of higher nobility in Burgundy and was often away in the service of the Duke of Burgundy.

Long before he reached his teens, Bernard studied at a school at Châtillon-sur-Seine, a commune of the Côte-d’Or department in Eastern France. Around this time, a fascination and love for the Virgin Mary trickled through him, leading him to write a number of works about the mother of Jesus.

In 1107, at age nineteen, Bernard lost his mother. This chapter of his life was characterized by two major incidents: A plunge into depression and a burning desire to discover his divine purpose. The latter was what drove him to enroll in Cîteaux Abbey in 1113. Cîteaux was a French Catholic monastery founded by a group of monks and located in the heart of Burgundy. It’s often said that his decision to enroll in Cîteaux was in line with his desire to live a reformed life of austerity and holiness.

Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard had a deep appreciation of the Benedictine culture, which evolved around taking solemn pledge to God to remain chaste and pious. He was certainly a big admirer of the detailed code of conduct that governed every aspect of the daily lives of Benedictine monks, from their clothes to food and to their social ties. Image: San Bernardo by Spanish painter Juan Correa de Vivar, held in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain

Cîteaux Abbey

Life in Cîteaux followed the pattern of the Benedictine Rule. The Rule of St. Benedict, a book written by St. Benedict of Nursia, promoted the notion that all things, including eating, drinking, working and even praying should be done in moderation. The Benedictines also took an oath of faithfulness to the monastic way of life and rigorous obedience to the abbot.

Bernard did not enroll in Cîteaux alone. His own passion for the moralistic life was so inspiring that he was able to recruit about thirty people, including five of his brothers and two uncles, into the monastery with him. This move helped revive the forlorn Cîteaux Abbey. His time in the abbey saw him succeed in building a community based on the suggestion that one could live in a community and still dedicate oneself to the service of God.

Monastery of Clairvaux (1115 – 28)

Three years later, Bernard’s zealousness and admirable pursuit of purity made him the logical choice as abbot of a new monastery in the Valley of Wormwoods. The Monastery of Clairvaux, as it came to be named by Bernard (in June 1115), was established by Bernard with twelve other monks.

  • As Abbot

Identical to the self-denying culture of Citeaux, Clairvaux adhered to the stringent Benedictine Rules. In fact, Clairvaux took the St. Benedict rule a notch higher. This new community of monks could not afford even the least amount of laxity and was characterized by practices of severe self-discipline and self denial.

The level of austerity that marked the early stages at Clairvaux was so extreme that it resulted in permanent health complications for Bernard. He suffered both gastric and digestion problems. However, Bernard was not the only one whose frail humanity showed during this period. His monks, after a while, could not handle the very challenging practices of the monastery. He therefore to take things a notch down and loosen his grip on the reins.

What certainly did not decrease was Bernard’s speaking abilities. The abbot’s gift of eloquence made him a very persuasive speaker. In 1122, when he was invited by the Archbishop of Paris to speak to the candidates for Holy Orders, some of them were so moved by his words that they followed him back to Clairvaux.

As an abbot, Bernard was also charismatic and had a natural vivacity about him that drew people to him. He took full advantage of those traits of his, as he was always happy to welcome new monks from other monasteries.

  • As Mediator

In spite of the Bernard’s health problems, he flourished as a Cistercian monk, and over time, he built an excellent reputation as a peacemaker and counselor. In addition to this, his personality, eloquence as well as his beautiful writings in Latin won him fame and admiration throughout Europe.

One of Bernard’s early writings, “Apologia”, was an apology to Abbot William of St. Thierry. The apology, which acknowledged the tensions between the Cistercians and the monks of the great Clunny monastery, sought for ways to unite Christian monks.

Bernard’s role as a mediator saw him deviate a little from his normal monastery duties. He would often leave the monastery to go and resolve long-standing conflicts around and beyond his community. News of his skillful arbitration spread so wide that princes summoned him to help settle their discords, and bishops leaned on his views regarding church-related conflicts.

In the course of his peacemaking mission, he received a cautionary letter from the See of Rome (the jurisdiction of the Pope) asking him to toe the “more important” line of his priestly duties. To this, Bernard responded in same manner, assuring the fathers in Rome all was well.

Doctor of the Church & Writer

In Roman Catholicism, the title, “Doctor of the Church,” is an honor bestowed on any saint whose works are outstanding for their influence in the universal church. Bernard of Clairvaux showed himself worthy of that honor.

First of all, he established numerous monasteries and wrote several works, one of which, titled “De Consideratione”, he dedicated to his disciple, Pope Eugene III. In Bernard’s most famous book, “On Loving God,” he discussed the motivations for loving God while laying a solid foundation for his works on grace. His other popular book, “Sermons on the Song of Songs,” is a mythical text featuring over 86 sermons on spiritual life and on Jesus’ love for us.

Bernard’s lasting contributions to the Catholic Church attracted several titles, but he rejected them all. His virtuous life and his reputation for sound counsel earned him a seat in the decision-making room where matters outside the confines of the Order were discussed.

In 1128, for example, Bernard attended the Council of Troyes, organized by Pope Honorius II, head of the Catholic Church. At the meeting, he helped the Cardinal of Albano to address internal conflicts among the bishops of Paris. At the same meeting, Bernard served as secretary and helped draw up a set of prescriptions and regulations to govern priestly duties. This set of regulations became the synovial statutes.

Another significant role Bernard played at the council was to draft the Rule of the Knights Templar and obtain approval for its establishment.

It’s often said that Bernard always had the greater good of the Church at heart. An anonymous ancient author described the highly influential abbot as “…consolation for the afflicted, help for the oppressed, council help for the oppressed council the troubled, resource for every necessity, a balm for every sickness….” Image: Stained glass representing Bernard. Upper Rhine, c. 1450

Endorsement of the Knights Templar

The Knights Templar was a group of warrior-monks and one of the wealthiest Catholic Military orders in the West. Originally committed to protecting Europeans traveling to the Holy Land, the order quickly expanded their duties to include fighting “infidels” who were seen as a threat to Christianity as well as managing the financial transactions of virtually all of Europe.

When asked to write about the newly founded Knights Templar, Bernard in his writing heavily criticized the normal nightly duties and praised the ideal of waging war for the love of God and Christendom in general. Bernard believed that the duties of the Knights Templar was more honorable than the evils associated with ordinary military life. He reiterated that being recruited as a Templar was a way of saving one’s soul from eternal damnation. In this light, Bernard endorsed the Templar Order and helped with its establishment.

Originally, people regarded the knights as thugs committed to misdeeds. However, Bernard’s endorsement of the Templars reshaped the public’s opinion about the order. Together with a knight called Hugues de Payens, the First Grand Master of the Order, Bernard helped with the creation of the Templars rulebook, which was basically inspired by the Benedictine rules that monks were already adhering to at the time.

Bernard wrote the Latin Rule of the Knights Templar. Also called the “Specific Behavior for the Templar Order”, the Latin Rule was a list of the acceptable behaviors of a Templar, from clothing to social relationships.

Papal Schism & Conflict Resolution

In 1130, papal division reared its ugly head in the church when Pope Honorius died. Antipope Anacletus III was elected pope by the majority of the cardinals. Pope Innocent II, on the contrary, was the minority’s choice for pope. Bernard defended the legitimacy of Pope Innocent II’s election at a council for French bishops held in Étampes in Paris. Thanks again to Bernard’s persuasive skills, Pope Innocent won the favor of the Council and became the new leader of the Catholic Church.

Two years after the papal schism, Bernard accompanied Pope Innocent II to Italy and assisted him in resolving a disagreement between the archdioceses of Pisa and Genoa. Eventually both archdioceses buried the hatchet.

In the late 1130s, the abbot helped judge a matter involving the surviving supporters of the schism at the Second Council of the Lateran. The meeting was convened by Pope innocent II and was well attended by about 1000 clerics. The main goal of the meeting was to lay to rest the events that followed the schism in the wake of Pope Honorius II’s death.

Pope Innocent often turned to Bernard for advice, especially in matters concerning peace and unity in the church. In the late 1140s, Bernard’s reputation soared as he was described as the “greatest preacher of all time.”

Clash with Peter Abelard

In the early 12th century, Peter Abelard was an important controversial philosopher and theologian. In fact, he is described by the New Advent Catholic as “the most eloquent and learned man of the age after Bernard.” Bernard believed Abelard was a heretic and fought against what he considered misleading writings of Abelard.  Bernard also addressed a letter to Pope Innocent II and to other cardinals, cautioning them about Abelard’s the erroneous teachings of the philosopher.

Like Bernard, many of Abelard’s opponents was of the view that the philosopher’s use of dialectic against some religious doctrines and beliefs was dangerous to Christianity. For example, Abelard claimed that the death of Jesus did not pay a penalty but was only an indication of God’s love.

In 1141, at a debate between Bernard and Abelard, the former made reference to some Abelard’s writings and showed why he thought Abelard’s philosophy deviated from the faith. Eventually when Abelard was asked to renounce the “erroneous” claims he made in his writing, he refused to do it and abandoned the debate altogether. The teachings of Abelard were declared reprehensible by Pope Innocent who also forced the controversial philosopher to retire to a monastery.

Bernard of Clairvaux’s role in the Second Crusade

The crusades were therefore a series of religious wars fought between Christians and Muslims. For centuries, these wars were waged in various forms.

The Middle Ages is best known for a number of military crusades that served as the Church’s responses to Muslim wars of expansion and capture of some holy sites in the Middle East.

It was however in the Second Crusade (1147-1149) that Bernard’s role as God’s “mouth piece” was most highlighted.

In essence, the Second Crusade was the Christians’ response to the loss of the Edessa in 1144. One of the major Crusader cities established after the First Crusade, Edessa, located in northeastern Syria, was recaptured by a very powerful Turkmen atabeg named Imad ad-Din Zengi of Mosul.

At the time of Edessa’s siege, Bernard was one of most influential figures in both the spiritual and political life in the West. Many saw him as the “moral compass” of the era. It therefore came as no surprise when Pope Eugene III (the then leader of the Catholic Church) commissioned him to preach the Second Crusade.

Similar to the role Bernard had played in spurring on the First Crusade, he incited the Knights of Christendom that they had been chosen by God to protect the holy lands from the Muslims.

He further encouraged the knights that fighting a religious war for the sake of the Christendom was a proof of their love and reverence for God.

Armed with the Quantum prædecessores nostri (an 1145 papal bull calling for the crusade), Bernard assured the would-be crusaders they would receive a reward of salvation for their souls and eternal glory in paradise even if they lost their lives in the cause.

The effect of Bernard’s smooth-speaking was so overwhelming that numerous people were encouraged to join the crusade. It’s even said that he tore his own robes to make more Crosses when the crowd ran out of cloth.

Unfortunately, Bernard’s success in garnering the crusaders did not translate into success in the military campaign. The crusaders’ planned siege against the Muslim capital of Syria, Damascus, failed, and so did the Second Crusade generally.

Saint Bernard was very influential in rallying Western Christendom to head for the Second Crusade. The military campaign was triggered by the fall of the Crusader state of Edessa into the hands of Imad ad-Din Zengi, a Turkman atabeg and the most feared Muslim warlord of the period. Image: Saint Bernard preaching the second crusade in Vézelay in 1146.

Aftermath of the Second Crusade

Bernard had initially been unwilling to get involved in the crusade. He believed it would be more beneficial if he focused his attention on the happenings at home rather than on a war against Muslims.

However, he gradually got around to believing it was one of his priestly duties to speak in favor of the crusade. He believed with all his heart that God would show the crusaders mercy and grant them victory like He had done in the First Crusade.

Unfortunately, high hopes were squashed and the failure of the crusade brought overwhelming shame to him. Worse, he was widely backlashed for everything that went wrong with the Second Crusade.

In a bid to save face, he wrote a letter to the Pope, expressing remorse for his actions. In the letter, he inserted a portion of his book “De Consideratione” as a way of explaining how the misdeeds of the Crusaders themsleves had led to their defeat.

In the final years of Bernard’s life, his hard-earned reputation became deeply blemished by the outcome of the botched crusade. That however did not stop Bernard from fiercely condemning Gilbert de la Porrée’s (a scholastic logician and Bishop of Poitiers) view that Jesus’ divinity was a human idea. Bernard described Gilbert’s teachings as heresies and advocated for his trial.


Burdened by the criticisms that followed after the disastrous Second Crusade, Bernard saw his health quickly deteriorate. The French abbot died on August 20, 1153, and was buried at Clairvaux Abbey Ville-sous-la-Ferté in north-central France. He was 63 years old.

Burdened by the criticisms that followed after the disastrous Second Crusade, Bernard saw his health quickly deteriorate. The French abbot died in 1153 and was buried at Clairvaux Abbey. He was 63. Image: Christ Embracing St. Bernard by Spanish painter Francisco Ribalta

His canonization

For his priceless contributions to the medieval era Catholic Church, Pope Alexander III canonized him about two decades after his death. In like manner, Bernard was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1830.


Many hymns have been written in honor of St. Bernard, among these are the Latin originals of “O Sacred Head, sore wounded,” wounded and “O Jesus, joy of loving hearts.” Bernard’s has appeared in prayers both in traditional and contemporary languages.

It is believed that he was one of the most widely quoted personalities in the 16th century. Even the Protestants were said to be eager to claim his support.

Famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri, in his “Divine Comedy”, portrays Bernard as the speaker’s last guide as he journeys through the empyrean. The poet also alludes to the abbot’s devotedness to the Virgin Mary and his gift of persuasiveness.


Bernard did more for the Church in his days than can be said about many priests today. He performed his duties to perfection and veered off his traditional role as a Catholic priest when duty called. He was a trusted advisor to kings and Popes, an arbitrator between Popes and between dioceses. Western Christendom at time considered him a tender-hearted friend to many.

It was a bit unfair that, in spite of his genuine sentiments for God and the Catholic Church, he was made to take the fall for the defeat of the Second Crusaders.

Many reasons led to the failed Crusade, including miscommunication between the French and German armies, which were led by Louis VII of France and Conrad III of the Holy Roman Empire, respectively. The Crusade was also marred by the selfish interests of some crusaders getting in the way of the nobility of the mission.

In all fairness, Bernard was sometimes fierce and not always fair. He was particularly defensive when it came to issues he regarded as heretic. However, one may argue that his “fierceness” was only an indication of the intense love Christians of the era had for Christ, as well as their willingness to give their lives for the cause.

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