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Monastic Decadence by Bernard of Clairvaux

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was born into an aristocratic family from the eastern part (near Dijon) of what is now France. After receiving a basic eduation in rhetoric and grammar, he entered the monastery of Citeaux in 1122, and within three years, he became the abbot of a new monastery at Clairvaux. The members of their order practiced "harsh self-discipline and ascetic deprivation" in an effort to obtain spiritual awakening, and their monastery became famous throughout Europe for its piety.

After 1130, Bernard became involved in international affairs including intellectual disputes with Peter Abelard, the master of Paris, supported Pope Innocent II during the schism of the 1130s, and encouraged thousands to join the Second Crusade in 1147. Bernard's condemnation of other monastic orders such as Cluny, for failing to adhere to the strict behavioral standards of his own Cistercian order, made him controversial and inspired his enemies. After the Second Crusade failed, he became more reclusive.

Bernard wrote a lot, and his best-loved work concerns the way that the power of love drives men's souls to seek God. He also wrote satire, like this excerpt from "An Apologia for Abbot William" written in 1125. It criticizes the great wealth and "luxurious" lifestyle of the "black monks" of Cluny.



As we learned in the first part of this course, one of the ways that people responded to the bureaucratization of the Christian Church in the Roman empire was to cut themselves off from the distractions of the physical world so they could focus on reaching the metaphysical world through prayer and meditation. At first, people did this individually as hermits, but later they began to form communities of monks according to the "Rule" of Benedict. This way of trying to understand the metaphysical world was not unique to Christianity, nor did it end with the formation of the first monastic order, the Benedictines, in the 6th century CE.

abbey of Cluny
The abbey at Cluny (France)
Benedictine monastery at Melk in Austria
Benedictine monastery at Melk (Austria)

In 910, a Benedictine monk founded a new abbey at Cluny in eastern France. Believing that the Christian Church had become corrupted by the power struggles surrounding the Holy Roman Emperor and its separation from the Byzantine Church, and fearing that the rapid expansion of Islam provided evidence of Christianity's weakness, the members of the abbey at Cluny tried to restore spiritual purity by strictly following the rules of St. Benedict. Their effort proved popular and over the next two centuries, the abbey church at Cluny became the largest in the world. They also sent out monks to start new abbeys in other parts of Europe, creating what became the the Clunaic order of monks.

The process -- problems in the physical world leading Christians to seek new ways to obtain answers from the metaphysical -- was repeated several times throughout history. In 1098, while the First Crusade was underway, another group of Benedictine monks founded an abbey at Citeaux in France, and like Cluny before it, Citeaux became the center of a new monastic order, the Cistercians. Like the Clunaics, the Cistercians felt that the answer to corruption was to follow the rules of St. Benedict more closely.

Bernard was one such person. He joined the Cistercians in 1113 and helped to start a new abbey at Clairvaux in 1115. The Cistercian movement spread quickly and by 1153, there were about three hundred Cistercian monasteries, of which sixty were founded by monks from Clairvaux. By the end of the 12th century, the Cistercians had become the most influential monastic order in Europe, and their members were appointed as bishops, papal legates, and other positions of leadership in the Roman Catholic Church.

Other people made efforts to resist corruption in the Christian Church. At the same time that the Cistercian order expanded, some of the nobles who joined the Crusades formed military monastic orders like the Knights Templar (founded in Jerusalem about 1120), the Knights of St. John Hospitalier (Jerusalem, about 1130), and the Knights of the Hospital of St. Mary of the Teutons (Acre, in 1190). At first, each group took responsibility for the protection of a Christian institution (like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem), but they also provided assistance to pilgrims and other Crusaders, and as a result, they became very wealthy through donations. Although they were forced to withdraw when Muslim forces reconquered Jerusalem in 1187, they continued to operate in one form or another until modern times.


  1. As a Cistercian monk, Bernard was critical of the Clunaic order. What kinds of things did he criticize?
  2. Bernard wrote that the Clunaics "tempered the Rule to the weak without weakening the Rule." What does this mean and why did they do it?
  3. What does Bernard's writing suggest that he believed about the relationship between the physical and metaphysical worlds?
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