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One of the most influential priests of his time, St. Bernard was personally responsible for the growth and success of the monastic movements of the Twelfth Century, as well as the popularity of the Second Crusade. He was known as the greatest preacher of the time, and his passionate sermons brought Conrad III, King of Germany, into the Second Crusade almost against his will and that of the Pope.

Bernard was born in Fontaines-les-Dijon in the year 1090. He apparently suffered from migraines as a child, and one of the first legends about him is that as a young boy, he cast out a local healer or witch that was sent to cure his headaches.

At 22, he became a monk at the local Benedictine monastery known as Citeaux, which had not been doing well at the time. Bernard brought with him some twenty to thirty other recruits, and seems to have started something of a trend for young noblemen in the area, for the order prospered and eventually began to found new houses in the area. Bernard was sent to found one of these in the Vallee d'Absinthe, which soon became better known under Bernard's new name for it, Clairvaux.

In the first few years at Clairvaux Bernard apparently brought himself and his monks to the brink of death with his policies of strict denial and self-sacrifice. However, they did survive and eventually Bernard's fame began to spread beyond his immediate surroundings. A dispute between the monks of Clairvaux and Cluny was famously resolved through Bernard's "Apology to William of St. Thierry", with the result of strict reforms being enacted in Cluny to follow Bernard's example.

Bernard was called on to arbitrate in many disputes, and was convinced to serve as Secretary of the Council of Troyes in 1128, the rulings of which irked many powerful priests. Eventually he received a sharp letter from the Pope, reminding him that "noisy and troublesome frogs" should not meddle in the affairs of the Holy See. His heartfelt reply to this letter, however, convinced the Pope of Bernard's righteousness and brought his popularity to new heights.

In 1145 the new Pope Eugenius III issued a formal crusade encyclical, Quantum praedecessores, which extolled the triumphs of the First Crusade and called for a new one, also granting indulgences beyond those granted in the First Crusade. It seems that despite the attractiveness of these indulgences, the encyclical met with little notice until the French king Louis VII, came to Bernard for advice. Bernard deferred the question to the Pope, was encouraged to preach the crusade north of the Alps, and delivered the first of his crusade sermons on March 31, 1146, to resounding success. With King Louis at his side and a cross given to him by the Pope himself, Bernard's charisma was enormously effective. So many members of his audience took the cross immediately that Bernard was forced to tear pieces of his own habit to make crosses for the people.

Later that year, Bernard found himself drawn to Germany, where he met King Conrad III. He gave another highly successful crusade sermon in Conrad's court during the Christmas Mass, and convinced Conrad to take the cross, committing a huge German army to the Crusade despite the fact that the Pope had never planned for him to do so. At the request of some of the German crusaders, Bernard proclaimed a lesser Crusade against the Wends, although he did of course allow Pope Eugenius to formally authorize the Crusade first. Bernard's decree against the Wends forbade the crusaders to make any truce with them "until such time as, with God's help, either their religion or nation shall be wiped out". This is of some import as it created the precedent of crusading against any threat perceived by the Pope as clear and immediate. This decree of doubtful theology may have changed the course of the Crusades completely.

Bernard was also partly responsible for the advanced form of indulgence found in the Second Crusade. In the First Crusade, taking the cross and all that that entailed was merely felt to be a form of extreme penance, as decreed by Pope Urban II. However, Bernard and Eugenius offered the crusaders complete remittence of their sins merely for taking the cross: "Take the sign of the cross and you will obtain in equal measure remission of all the sins which you have confessed with a contrite heart. If the cloth itself is sold it does not fetch much; if it is worn on a faithful shoulder it is certain to be worth the Kingdom of God."

Needless to say, the utter failure of the Second Crusade cast a cloud of ill repute around Bernard. He was virtually held responsible for the failure, and spent the next few years in despair. He died on August 20, 1153. With the objectivity of time, his numerous achievements began to be remembered once more, and he was canonized by Pope Alexander III twenty years later.

Writings:

  • "De Gradibus Superbiae"
  • "Homilies on the Gospel 'Missus est'" (1120)
  • "Apology to William of St. Thierry"
  • "On the Conversion of Clerics" (1122)
  • "De Laudibus Novae Militiae" (1129)
  • "De amore Dei"
  • "Book of Precepts and Dispensations" (1131)
  • "De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio"
  • "Book of Considerations"

Sources:
  • "The Crusades: A Short History", Jonathan Riley-Smith, 1987
  • http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02498d.htm
  • http://www.cin.org/saints/bernclai.html

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