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

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

Bernard’s criticisms of the worldly tendencies of the schoolmen cannot be viewed in isolation. Just as not all schoolmen were vain, neither were all monks free from vice. Throughout his life, Bernard (as well as warning schoolmen of the dangers of vanities) constantly petitioned lapsed monks to forsake the material things of the world and return to their cloisters. In writing to the brother of William, a faithful monk of Clairvaux, Bernard warned of how materialism will stop him ‘scale the very heights of splendour’ that can be found in the monastic life:

Now I want you to consider without any self-deception how material things are keeping you from all this. Alas, it is but smoke, here now and then gone, which blocks your way to everlasting joy.

This demonstrates that Bernard recognised materialism was a real issue to those who had also taken monastic vows to forsake the world. To another monk, Adam, Bernard expressed sympathy for him having left his monastery after having been involved in a scandal led by his previous abbot. In so doing, not only did Bernard acknowledge the sin of some monasteries in need of reform, but he also displayed his disapproval of monks returning to the world. For he stated: ‘I did not think they were wrong in leaving their monasteries, if [due to scandal] they could not observe there the vows their lips have uttered,’ nevertheless, ‘You hold in your hand the fates of yourself and, unless I am deceived, of those who are with you… “Who return shall live, who refuse shall die”.’ Bernard’s concerns here are similar to the ones he offered to the schoolmen of the Parisian schools; by not taking heed to these warnings, salvation was at stake. Furthermore, the concerns Bernard expressed were more universal than to individual monks, as he demonstrated a concern for the need (when scandal presented itself) to reform entire monasteries.

As well as writing to those he knew well, Bernard also went to the pains of addressing those less familiar to him, as was evident in his letters to monks such as Fulk. What is interesting to note within the correspondence to the lapsed monk Fulk (although we know little else about him), is that Bernard identified him as ‘a citizen of towns and a student.’ Although Bernard made this assertion, it is nowhere elaborated in his rebuke. Nevertheless, what did feature most prominently was the foolishness of Fulk for pursuing superfluous and worldly things. In a lengthy rebuke, Bernard ridiculed Fulk’s rich uncle for persuading him to do this, stating: ‘You have deprived your nephew of the heritage of Christ so that you may have an heir to your sins!’ Again, salvation is at stake for Fulk – he must forsake the world and return to the monastic way of life if he hopes for peace in the life hereafter. In a statement comparable to the condemnation of men of the schools, Bernard emphasises this point again: ‘Come out from their midst, so that you need not live in a manner to cause remark in towns or lose your soul by following the example of others.’ Bernard’s concern for those who were part, or once were part, of a monastic order suggest his rebukes to worldly men of the schools were not exclusive to them alone.

Considering the many examples of this correspondence throughout his life, it can be said that there is a substantial amount of evidence to convince one that Bernard was just as concerned with worldly monks as he was worldly schoolmen. However, there is an example perhaps more comparable to the condemnations Bernard accorded to men of the schools. And this is found in his correspondence with Peter the Venerable. In a rebuke to him concerning the possessions and worldliness of monasteries Bernard wrote:

In this respect you differ from [secular persons] in no way. For [your involvement with] villas, serfs, servants, and handmaidens, and, what is worse, the gain arising from toll duties… [you have] retain[ed] illegally, and guard in every way against those who would strive against your practice.

An explicit concern here is expressed for the possessions and operations which exist within the entire monastery. Bernard’s concerns, to the same, are again expressed concerning, this time, the worldliness of the monastery of St Bertin, which he rebukes: ‘I could wish that you would act with greater moderation than you have done’ showing Bernard’s acknowledgement and disapproval of worldly practice that existed in the cloisters. This demonstrates that Bernard was well aware of entire active monasteries that were deeply submerged in vanities and materialism. It should not be assumed, therefore, that Bernard thought favourably of all monks; nor with disregard to all schoolmen. It seems that he was just as concerned about the vanity and vice of the monasteries, as he was of the schools, and was at all times ready to voice his opinions to both, regardless of the position of the recipients. The consideration of this evidence provides depth to Bernard’s response to the schools: he voiced a growing concern for worldliness, whether it affected school or cloister.

Bernard’s concern for worldliness, of both monks and schoolmen, is actually consistent with his political career. He was very much involved in church reform, supporting the church through the eight years of Papal schism beginning in 1130. He also was very much involved in providing advice to Pope Eugene III through the years of his administration, guiding him through the seeming paradox of remaining faithful to the Cistercian habit, as well as fulfilling the role of Supreme Pontiff. It is no surprise, then, that the ideals Bernard promoted for church reform feature prominently within the condemnations and guidance he offered to those he came into contact with. As noted earlier, Bernard’s concern for the Parisian scholars when he preached against vanity and vice, were the lack of the virtues of chastity, humility, piety, truth and charity. It is interesting, therefore, to consider the constant emphasis on these virtues throughout his works. In his letter to Fulk, Bernard stresses the importance of charity, chastity and piety as the virtues he will regain upon a return to the monastic life. Sermons on the Song of Songs also name charity as the more excellent motive behind the attaining of knowledge compared to vanity et cetera. In letters to the Masters Geoffrey of Loreto and Robert Pullen, Bernard’s focus was fighting for unity within the church, in order to secure salvation. For, to Geoffrey he stated: ‘it is not enough to remain passive when unity is threatened. You must defend it and try with all your strength to overthrow those who are disturbing it;’ whilst to Pullen he exhorted: ‘Labour prudently and manfully with the zeal God has given you, for his honour and glory, for your own salvation, and for the benefit of the church.’This evidence reveals how Bernard envisioned church reform, and how he encouraged unity through positively encouraging those who had already proved themselves pious, including men of the schools such as Geoffrey and Robert (as well as pious monks), and condemning those who had shown signs of forsaking the faith, such as Fulk and worldly monks (as well as men of the schools). Encapsulating many of his ideas that Eugene would go on to employ as an ‘ardent reformer,’ On consideration emphasised the importance of many of these virtues , while giving a model to promote unity throughout Western Christendom. The following quotation, perhaps, sums up what Bernard hoped to achieve in monk and schoolmen alike:

Such men… do not despoil the churches but repair them… They are careful about their own reputations but do not envy another’s… The speech of such men is edifying, their lives are just… They are humble with the humble… They refute the harsh harshly, restrain the wicked, and give the proud what they deserve.

In conclusion, this paper has shown that conflict stemming from his disputes involving Abelard and Gilbert has too readily been accepted as Bernard’s general response to the schools in the work of historians, particularly Ferruolo. While it cannot be ignored that Bernard’s response was, at times, critical of the life of the schoolman, this needs to be understood alongside his criticisms to those he deemed to be lapsed or worldly monks. Although there remains more work to be done on this issue, this work has hopefully suggested that Bernard’s critiques of monks and schoolmen were less inconsistent than others have suggested; rather, they attest to Bernard’s vision of church reform – offering an explanation as to why his response may appear to have both criticised and accredited the growth of the schools in the twelfth century.

Primary Sources
Anderson, J. D. & E. T. Kennan, (trans.), Five Books On Consideration: Advice to a Pope, (Michigan, 1976).
Walsh, K. (trans.), On the Song of Songs, Vol. I, (Michigan, 1977).
Walsh, K. (trans.), On the Song of Songs, Vol. II, (Michigan, 1983).
Hall, J. B. & K. S. B. Keats-Rohan, (eds.), Joannis Saresberiensis Metalogicon, (Brepols, 1991).
James, B. S. (trans.), The Letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux, (Stroud, 1998).
Migne, J. P. (ed.), Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Vol. CLXXXIX, (Paris, 1854), 15 Nov 2012.
Radice, B. (trans.), The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, (London, 2003).

Secondary Literature
Evans, G. R., Bernard of Clairvaux, (Oxford, 2000).
Evans, G. R., Old Arts and New Theology: The Beginnings of Theology as an Academic Discipline, (Oxford, 1980).
Ferroulo, S. C., The Origins of the University: The Schools of Paris and Their Critics, 1100-1215, (Stanford, 1985).
James, B. S., Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, (London, 1957).
Kelly, J. N. D. & M. J. Walsh, (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, (Oxford, 2010).
Murray, A. V., Abelard and St Bernard: A Study in Twelfth Century ‘Modernism’, (Manchester, 1967).
Robertson, D., ‘The Experience of Reading: Bernard of Clairvaux “Sermon on the Song of Songs”’, Religion and Literature, Vol. 19, No. 1, (Spring, 1987), 1-20.
Walker-Bynum, C. (ed.), Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, (Philadelphia, 2000).
Wei, I. P., Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris: Theologians and the University c. 1100-1330, (Cambridge, 2012).


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