Cornell University Press

Bernard of Clairvaux: A Difficult Saint for Our Time

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In 1975, when I was first asked to write a biography of Bernard of Clairvaux, my immediate response was: ”I can’t do so, for I hate the man.” I was not alone in my view, but this has changed over the years. The abbot of Clairvaux from 1115 to his death in 1153, Bernard was in his own time a controversial figure. He remains so today. My biography is not about a plaster saint. It tells the story of a real human being. As a saint, he is a difficult one.

A Dark Figure?

In standard treatments, Bernard of Clairvaux is looked upon as a representative of the dark Middle Ages, who opposed the insights of progressive theologians like Peter Abelard. Bernard is remembered for preaching the Second Crusade, which turned into a terrible fiasco with great human loss. Bernard is also thought to have been a vicious opponent of anyone he considered to be a heretic.

A New Biography

A lifetime of reading Bernard’s writings and thinking about his world convinced me that Bernard deserved a new biography, especially because the last good one was published more than a century ago. I set out not to tell ”one thing after another”, as the writing of history often becomes in chronological order. My purpose and method are to seek Bernard’s ”inner life”. He loved learning and searched for God, in the words of the greatest Bernard scholar of the twentieth century, Jean Leclercq. I found that Leclercq to some extent idealized Bernard. I set out to find a believable and human Bernard, but with attention to his pursuit of the divine.

My Cistercian Friends

I have been helped by visiting almost yearly since 1986 contemporary Trappist-Cistercian monasteries on three continents and speaking and praying with men and women who follow the way of life that Bernard outlined. Some of them do not like Bernard and admit it, but all of them are influenced by Bernard the monk who sought God.

A Defender of Jewish People

The result is a portrait of a man who loved his monks and his monastery and did everything possible to look after them. He set limitations in his pursuit of heretics and even made up with Abelard before his rival’s death. As for his relations with Jewish people at a time when Christian fanatics were killing them, Bernard insisted that they had a right to exist and should be protected.

A Unifying Figure in World History

At a time in history when anger, polarization, and divisive politics have taken over the public scene, I think it useful to look back and consider Bernard’s twelfth century, when Christian Europe was growing. Wherever Bernard went, he left behind new monasteries. His letters and treatises tell of a man with multiple health issues but who continued almost to his dying day to preach and write. He remains for me a ”difficult saint”, quite unlike the more popular Francis of Assisi. Bernard is a foundation of modern culture, for better and worse, and my biography seeks to make him believable and relevant for the twenty-first century.

*The featured picture shows Bernard being embraced by Christ bending down from the cross to him, known as the ”Amplexus”. It is found in an altar from 1494 given to the abbey of Esrum in Denmark by its abbot, Peder Andersen. Now at the National Museum, in Denmark.



Brian Patrick McGuire is Professor Emeritus at Roskilde University. He is the author or editor of twenty-five books, including Friendship and Community. Find out more about the author at brianmcguire.dk.

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