St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great persuader

Bernard was a younger son in a noble family of Burgundy. His normal lot would have been war training for knighthood, but Bernard was clearly a scholarly, literary child who preferred the Church, so they sent him to school. As a young adult, he joined a reforming group of monks who wanted to restore holy austerity to monastic life. The house he personally founded, Clairvaux, at first was too austere to maintain even his own health.

Bernard was idealistic to a fault. He persuaded his entire family to become monks; apparently it was difficult for anyone to resist his enthusiasm for long. One of his knightly uncles went to the Holy Land and not only chose to stay but became a founding Templar, probably reflecting his nephew’s influence.

Bernard’s enthusiasm for the monastic orders of knights, particularly the Templars, knew no bounds. He had no cynicism about their whole-hearted devotion to God. He was asked to write the Rule of their order in 1128, dictating what they could own or eat, how often they must pray, and things like that. Since he fully accepted his time’s definition of holiness as rejection of the concrete bodily world, he directed the knights to be strikingly austere. He had grown up in the knightly social class, so he knew well their points of vanity.

He directed, for example, that the Templars keep their hair short. He had seen young knights put too much time into maintaining long hair; you may recall the 1950s “Pageboy” haircut for girls, modeled on images of knights with long curls and bangs. The Templars were also supposed to wash minimally, since a dirty face showed they had been hard at work, and they should be proud of it. Nor could they doll up their horses’ bridles with spangles and jewels, as some knights were starting to do. Their barracks in the Temple (actually al-Aqsa Mosque) should also be as stark as possible, with weapons and saddles as the only decorations. Bernard’s praise of the Templar ideal contributed to its rapid growth in volunteers and donations.

He had two other major public projects in his later years. In 1130, while he was still busy promoting and shaping the Templars, Rome experienced a crisis with two papal elections. A number of cardinals believed the first hasty election at the previous Pope’s deathbed wasn’t in good order, so they held a second election. As with so many such things, the true issue appears to have been rival family factions in Italy, so both Popes had supporters and it became a contest of their relative power. The first-elected one, Innocent II, had to flee to France, while the second, Anacletus, was acting Pope until his death in 1138. Bernard was a passionate supporter of Innocent II. He went from one European capital to another, trying to persuade monarchs and cardinals to support him.

Bernard’s success at this persuasive diplomacy made him the obvious choice for preaching the Second Crusade. The Pope who called for the Crusade was one of his own Cistercian monks, too. Bernard, now an old man in his 50s, traveled again from capital to capital, preaching Crusade to the aristocrats. He was as persuasive as ever, to the point where the Crusade became his personal project. This seemed like a really good idea at the time.



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