How did Bernard of Clairvaux Respond to the Growth of the Schools in the Twelfth Century? (Part 1, by Timothy Farrant)

How did Bernard of Clairvaux Respond to the Growth of the Schools in the Twelfth Century? (Part 1, by Timothy Farrant)

In his work, The Origins of the University, Ferruolo described Bernard of Clairvaux as a bitter opponent of the schools of Northern France. Even though the vast majority of his argument focused on Bernard’s conflict with schoolmen such as Peter Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers, Ferruolo maintained that: ‘For the remainder of his life Bernard of Clairvaux waged a… battle against the growing influence of the schools.’ The works of historians such as Evans, Murray and Wei have also notably identified the conflict that transpired between Bernard and his somewhat controversial contemporaries; however, whether or not this can be taken as Bernard’s general attitude to the schools is an issue in need of deeper investigation. Wei stated that apart from the personality differences of Bernard and Abelard, ‘differences between the monasteries and the schools must not… be overstated’ as Bernard actually ‘accorded some value to the work of the schools.’ Evans also stated (rather cautiously) that, in this respect, ‘One must not push the perception of a ‘trend’ too far.’

Despite these acknowledgements, however, little evidence has been brought forward to show that conflict existed outside the individual disputes between Bernard, Abelard and Gilbert. The general intention of this paper, therefore, is to provide more depth to Bernard’s response to the schools, than by simply suggesting he felt animosity toward them comparable to his individual conflicts. In order to achieve this I will explore the nature of Bernard’s condemnations of schoolmen, leaving, for the most part, his individual disputes with Abelard and Gilbert aside. I then intend to explore mostly sermons and letters of Bernard where these condemnations occur in order to establish whether these views can be applied generally toward the schools. Finally, through a wider exploration of Bernard’s advice and guidance to monks, I hope to suggest that Bernard condemned lapsed or corrupt monks similar to the way he condemned schoolmen in need of reform. This, it is hoped, will suggest that Bernard’s general concerns were not directed specifically toward the men of the schools, and, therefore, too much significance has been placed upon conflict between monks and schoolmen in the work of historians.

The first aim of this paper is to establish the way in which Bernard condemned men of the schools in the twelfth century. As has been shown by historians of the schools, the monastic and scholastic methods of learning were distinctly different from each other. However, this does not necessarily mean that philosophy, as practised in the schools, was explicitly the subject of condemnation. Even through the eyes of the conflict that existed between Bernard and Ablelard it is difficult to determine Bernard’s exact response to philosophy. The method Bernard used to have Abelard condemned at the Council of Sens may indicate this as, when meeting with Bishops the evening before, he read out a series of statements coercing them to concur one-by-one to their heretical nature. Bernard must have altered some of these supposed quotations of Abelard, or presented them out of context, while others cannot be proved to have existed in Abelard’s work at all. This, indeed, begs the question of whether Bernard, himself, would have only considered his warped presentation of philosophy to be heretical, rather than the way it actually existed.

Furthermore, some of Bernard’s most condemning letters concerning Abelard’s love of dialectic were not necessarily condemnations of dialectic itself, but the neglect of faith. To place the significance of Bernard’s tolerance for philosophy (when practiced in accordance with faith) into perspective, it should be noted that Bernard – as was the case in his letter to the Bishop of Rochester – actually advised masters to spend time in the schools of Paris ‘for the sake of the sound doctrine which is known to be taught there.’ In addition to this, it should be noted that at times Bernard attempted to use the work of philosophers to help illustrate his points. For, when writing to encourage Pope Eugene III c.1145, one of Bernard’s former students and a Cistercian monk, Bernard uses the notion that man, as defined under the genus of rational animal, is mortal, which may not ‘oppose your dignity… [but] it can benefit your salvation.’ We see from this that Bernard may have attributed some use to the work of philosophers in his own work (although this may not have been common). Therefore, pairing these examples with the favourable relationships Bernard maintained with schoolmen such as William of Champeaux, Bernard’s response to the philosophy of the schools cannot clearly be identified as Bernard’s conflicting response to the schools themselves.

Finding clear and direct responses to schoolmen, in the work of Bernard, is no easy task. However, there is a significant instance where Bernard directly addresses men of the Parisian schools, condemning them for their worldly preoccupations:

Don’t you realise that your chastity is imperilled by delights, your humility by riches, your piety by mundane affairs, your truth by excessive chatter, your charity by your worldly life? Flee from the middle of Babylon! Flee and save your souls!

The language used here is important. What Bernard was essentially saying is that, due to the vanities and vices of some of the schoolmen, their chastity, humility, piety, truth and charity were at stake. What this implies is that the identity of the men of the schools may have been built around these qualities and virtues, but these are now threatened by worldliness. Also, way to salvation and the regaining of these divine assets can be achieved by simply fleeing the Babylon of vanity and vice, with no precise mention of the need to forsake philosophical method. Therefore, the worldliness of the schoolmen, in the mind of Bernard, was an obvious concern in need of addressing. The wider relevance of this issue of Bernard’s desire to reform the worldliness of the schoolmen shall be explored later in this paper. However, whether the condemnation of worldly schoolmen was a prominent feature of Bernard’s work shall now be explored.

The writings of Bernard to fellow monks are particularly useful sources in which to pursue this theme of the worldly schoolmen. On the question of audience, however, Sermons on the Song of Songs stimulates disagreement among historians. When trying to interpret the messages they portray, this issue is of importance. Robertson has asserted that, being a literary composition, Sermons on the Song of Songs is not limited to space and time and, therefore, the audience Bernard intended to reach was ‘the world beyond the walls of Clairvaux.’ While it is agreed that it is unlikely that these sermons would have been preached to monks of Clairvaux exactly as they appear in their current literary format, it seems odd to assert, as Robertson does, the crucial elements of them were not delivered at all, especially as it was customary for Cistercian abbots to give regular instruction in the Chapter house. Moreover, at the beginning of the sermons Bernard stated: ‘The instructions that I address to you, my brothers, will differ from those I should deliver to the world [my emphasis].’ Anna Harrison noted the battle between securing salvation and the danger of succumbing to temptation for those embarking on the saintly life was an issue of real importance to Bernard. Therefore, since an objective of Sermons on the Song of Songs was practicing ’the avoidance of evil and the doing of good’ by shunning ‘all human pursuits and worldly desires,’ it seems inconceivable that these were not intended for monks striving for the contemplative ideal. What is more, Bernard also sent these sermons to fellow monks, also striving under monastic rule, as was the case with Bernard, monk of the Chartreuse-des-Portes-en-Bugey: ‘I [have] copied a few sermons I wrote recently on the first verses of the Song of Solomon, and as soon as they are ready I will send them to you.’ Therefore, it seems most convincing that Bernard, if not exclusively for monks at Clairvaux, wrote these sermons for a monastic audience all the same.

With a monastic audience in mind, it can be more confidently asserted that the distinction between philosophical and spiritual approaches to teaching and learning that appears early in the sermon is of particular significance. In quoting Paul, Bernard recounted: ‘We teach… not in the way philosophy is taught, but in the way that the Spirit teaches us: we teach spiritual things spiritually.’ This distinction is the first place we can draw a parallel to the schools, as the schools provided the alternative approach to learning; namely, the philosophical. And the distinction between the philosophical and the monastic/spiritual becomes more visible as the sermon moves on. For example, Bernard later noted:

Only the touch of the Spirit can inspire a song like this, and only personal experience can unfold its meaning. Let those who are versed in the mystery revel in it; let all others burn with desire rather to attain to this experience than merely to learn about it [my emphasis].

This distinction is useful, primarily, for two reasons. The first is that it reinforces the way in which Bernard thinks monks should approach divine learning; that the advancement to ‘a higher and holier state’ may be the ‘experience of only a few of the more perfect.’ The second is that this distinction provides, according to Bernard, an understanding of some of the limits of philosophy and solely acquiring knowledge – that, although it may have uses, it cannot be compared with the contemplative ideal (hence those who merely learn.) Contemporary men of the schools held comparable (although arguably not the same) opinions as John of Salisbury states that although application of scientific knowledge is what makes a man good, ‘At the same time, it is grace alone which makes a man good’ also. At other locations in the sermons Bernard continues his discourse, this time on the dangers of knowledge. Bernard’s opinion regarding those who acquired knowledge was: ‘that knowledge puffs up, and “the more the knowledge, the more the sorrow”.’ More specifically, he associates men (such as the primitive apostles, Peter and Andrew) of ‘faith and meekness’ with not having been ‘chosen from a school of rhetoric or philosophy [my emphasis].’ In such cases Bernard associated knowledge with vanity, and warned against such ‘love of the world and an excessive love of self.’ He also openly asserts that worldliness and vain motives caused God to hide ‘things from the learned and the clever,’ affirming that:

Before the flesh has been tamed and the spirit set free by zeal for truth, before the world’s glamour and entanglements have been firmly repudiated, it is a rash enterprise on any man’s part to presume to study spiritual doctrines. Just as a light is flashed in vain on closed or sightless eyes, so “an unspiritual person cannot accept anything of the spirit of God”.

Bernard’s opinion of Abelard on such issues possesses some similarities to the statements we have already considered: ‘Master Peter Abelard is a monk without rule, a prelate without responsibility. He is neither in order nor of an Order.’ It is obvious here that Bernard’s main concern for the schoolmen, as noted earlier in his open discourse to the Parisian schoolmen, was of vanity, vice and lack of order. It was the motives behind the acquisition of knowledge that caused Bernard to respond this way in these passages, which would cause one to assume (from a study of these passages alone) that individual conflict may, indeed, be reflective of Bernard’s general attitude toward the schools.

However, in order to represent Bernard’s responses accurately it is important not to stop here. It seems Bernard was aware that his apparent criticisms towards the schoolmen may be taken out of context (presumably by his monastic audience.) Indeed, Bernard accepts that some may have mistakenly assumed that his response suggested that vanity was always a part of gaining knowledge in the schools as he made the effort to explicitly explain:

Perhaps you think I have sullied too much the good name of knowledge, that I have cast aspirations on the learned and proscribed the study of letters. God forbid! I am not unmindful of the benefits its scholars conferred, and still confer, on the Church, both by refuting her opponents and instructing the simple. And I have read the text: “As you have rejected knowledge, so do I reject you from my priesthood;” read that the learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven, and those who have instructed many in virtue as bright as the stars for all eternity [my emphasis].

Here Bernard places a huge importance on knowledge, asserting that he who rejects it is rejected by Christ. It is important, therefore, not to accept a few of Bernard’s statements concerning worldly vice and vanity as indicative of his general opinion of the schools (without regard for further comparison). Bernard’s main concerns regarding knowledge lay in intentions; for as long as knowledge was not sought with the intentions of vanity or worldly ambition, there was no explicit condemnation. Furthermore, Abelard made clear in his Historia calamitatum that many masters of the cathedral schools were trusted as men of piety. Therefore, for the most part, it is not controversial to assume that Bernard may have also held this view. A further example of this is found in the letter that Bernard sent to Master Geoffrey of Loreto, in which he praises him for his life and learning: ‘You have found favour with God and men, you have learning, the spirit of liberty, and a gift for living, effective, and pointed eloquence… a friend of the Bridegroom.’ From this we see a difference in Bernard’s response to the schools. Not only does he speak favourably of the importance of knowledge, but also praises a Master (in direct correspondence) for attaining learning. Furruolo has also noted similar examples in his work, albeit more briefly, yet still maintained that, ultimately, Bernard was in opposition to the schools. However, seeing that Bernard actually spoke favourably of knowledge and of schoolmen, as well as anxiously preaching of their potential to be caught up in vanity and vice, it would not be sufficient to proceed to conclude without investigating possible explanations.

End of Part 1


2 thoughts on “How did Bernard of Clairvaux Respond to the Growth of the Schools in the Twelfth Century? (Part 1, by Timothy Farrant)

  1. I enjoyed the first part of your paper. It was relevant to my own post yesterday, so I posted a link to it in the comments.

    Thanks for posting the paper. I look forward to reading the rest of it.

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