A General View of the Life of Bernard.
A GREAT luminary strikes our attention at the entrance of this century—the famous Bernard, abbot of Clairval. As the general scene of our history still continues dark and gloomy, let us stick close to the splendid object. At least I would wish to exhibit a just estimate of the life, character, and writings of this renowned saint. For the subject may not only throw a considerable light on the religion and manners of this century, but will also illustrate that connexion between christian doctrine and practice, which it is the principal design of this work to explore from age to age.
There was a time when Bernard was idolized: his word was a law, while he lived, throughout Europe; and, for ages after his death, he was scarce thought to have been capable either of fault or mistake. But the public taste has long since deviated into the other extreme, and it will behoove me to say a few words, with a view to combat that power of prejudice, by which most minds are apt to be carried down the torrent of fashion.
Bernard was doubtless a very ardent champion of the popes of Rome; I mean, of their office, not of their personal characters. He inveighed against the vices of the men, and the various evils of their ecclesiastical administration. But he supported their pretensions to the chair of St. Peter, and opposed with vehemence all who withstood those pretensions. Forgive Him This Wrong: it was common to him with the christian world; and the German monk, who, jbur hundred years after, could see at length, though by slow degress, the wickedness and folly of the whole established system, under which he had been strictly educated, has ever been looked on as a prodigy.
In superstition also, Bernard was unhappily involved all his days; it was the evil of the times. His austerities have, with nauseous punctuality, been recited by his panegyrists.* They might have spared their accounts, as they themselves confess that he afterwards owned, he was in an error, both in injuring his own health, and in exacting too much of labour and sufferings from his disciples. Nor is the sincerity of Bernard to be doubted, either in his juvenile zeal, or in his candid and frank confession of his faults.f He even accused himself of sacrilege, because, by his indiscreet excesses, he had rendered himself almost unfit to serve God and the church. And though the weakness of his frame continued till death, as the consequence of the injuries, which his body had received by his austerities, he seems to have taken some care of health in the latter part of his life.
But the strongest prejudices, which we are inclined to admit against him in our times, are derived from his supposed miracles, and from his real attachment to the cause of the crusades.
In truth, I was disgusted with the tedious perusal of his miracles, with not one of which do I mean to trouble the reader. But Bernard was canonized: it was therefore necessary, by the etiquette of the Roman see, that a saint should work miracles; and no wonder, when the interests of all parties concerned were favourable to fraud, and when credulity was a general evil, that miracles should be feigned, be circumstantially related, and be implicitly believed. Thus Ignatius, the father of the Jesuits, was said, sixty years after his death, to have wrought miracles; though in
* These are several; the lives of Bernard, which they wrote, are at the close of the 2d vol. of his works; which are two folios. I use the Parisian edition of Mabillon. f Vol. ii. p. 109*
Vol. III. 41
his life, published fifteen years after that event, no mention is made of any. Our king Henry III. was reported to have wrought a miracle after his death, at his tomb. He, also, might have been added to the Iioman calendar, if the imposture had not been detected and exposed by the vigour and sagacity of his son Edward I.* Let Bernard, then, be acquitted of all blame on this head, though his panegyrists, it must be owned, have written as absurdly concerning him, as if they had intended to disgrace his character.
Of the crusades, the question concerning their policy, is not the same thing as concerning their justice. In the beginning of this century, prodigious armies marched out of Europe, to take possession of the holy land; and, notwithstanding the repeated calamities which attended their progress, the princes of the west still persevered in the attempt. That they should single out Palestine as the scene of their military exploits was fanatical and superstitious. The great inconveniences to which they were inevitably exposed, on account of the immense distances from their respective countries, and the want of all political and prudential wisdom in their plans, are evident; and, in the event, Europe suffered the punishment of their temerity and folly. Add to this, that the improvident waste of so much human blood on so fantastic an object, and the mixture of profane wickedness with absurd superstition in the crusaders, render their characters, on the whole, as reprehensible as they were ridiculous. But when the precise question is asked, whether they had a just cause against the mahometans, I cannot decide, with the generality of modern historians, against them. Perhaps we have too hastily admitted the truth of the accounts, which infidel writers, of no very accurate information, have given of the virtues of the Arabians. It is very evident, that in the wars between them and the christians, the rules of justice and humanity were more frequently and more
• Fox. B. of Martyrs, vol. i. 399.
atrociously violated by the former than by the latter. Even the very degenerate christianity, which had then for ages obtained, produced a degree of social virtue unknown to the followers of Mahomet. A savage pride, a sanguinary malice, and a shameless perfidy marked, with very few exceptions, the general conduct of men, whom Voltaire, with insidious candor, prefers to their christian adversaries. It should be remembered, that the mahometans from the first publication of the koran, asserted a divine claim to universal empire; and, in their creed, unbelieving nations are continually threatened with the loss of their religion, their lives, or at least their liberties. In the eleventh century the Turks, the successors of the Arabians, both in regard to their empire and their religion, had, in less than thirty years, subdued Asia, as far as the Hellespont.* Yet the same author, who gives us this information, says, the charge alleged against the mahometans, of looking on it as a duty to extirpate all religions by the sword, is confuted by the koran, by the history of the mussulman conquerors, and by the toleration of christian worship. This observation seems scarce consistent with the former. To live in slavery, under the mahometan yoke, was all the indulgence granted to the christians, who sunk beneath their arms; and as they realized this doctrine at one time, even to the straits of Gibraltar; as the pilgrims to the holy land were exposed to many insults, robberies, and extortions; as both Saracens and Turks acted, from age to age, on the maxims of original mahometanism; and as, at length, for want of a proper union of the European princes, in stemming the torrent, they desolated a great part of Europe itself, it seems agreeable to the law of nations, to conclude, that the christian powers had a right to resist their ambitious pretensions. If this state of the case be just, it is sufficient to vindicate Bernard from the charge of • iniquity, in encouraging and promoting the crusades.
This is enough for my purpose: lie might, and he, doubtless, did mean well in his exhortations on this head; and, it is only to be wished that the enterprizes • of the christian princes had been conducted on the plan of defensive prudence, father than of offensive military enthusiasm. I am not, however, called on to vindicate Bernard as a politician, but as a christian.
Bernard was born at Fontaine, a village of Burgundy, in the year 1091; and was the son of Tecelinus,* a military nobleman, renowned for piety, at least according to the ideas of religion prevalent at that time. The same character is given of his mother Aleth. She had seven children by her husband, of whom Bernard was the third. From his infancy he was devoted to religion and study, and made a rapid proficiency in the learning of the times. He took an early resolution to retire from the world, and engaged all his brothers and several of his friends in the same monastic views with himself. The most rigid rules were agreeable to his inclination: and, hence, he became a cistertian, the strictest of the orders in France. The cistertians were at that time but few in number: men were discouraged from uniting with them on account of their excessive austerities. Bernard, however, by his superior genius, his eminent piety, and his ardent zeal, gave to this order a lustre and a celebrity, which their institution by no means deserved. At the age of twenty-three, with more than thirty companions, he entered into the monastery. Other houses of the order arose soon after, and he himself was appointed abbot of Clairval.f To those novitiates, who desired admission, he used to say, " Jf ye hasten to those things, which are within, dismiss your bodies, which ye brought from the world; let the spirits alone enter; the flesh profiteth nothing." Strange advice this may seem, and very different from the meekness and facility, which our Saviour exhibited "toward young disciples- j Nor would it be worth while
* Life of Bernard by Gulielmus, 1077.
t Life of Bernard, 1085. J Matthew, tir. ft
to have mentioned it at all, but that it evinces the extreme disadvantages, which then attended the pursuit of religious knowledge, and the cultivation of piety. Yet, amidst all these disagreeable austerities, the soul of Bernard was inwardly taught of God; and, as he -grew in the divine life, he gradually learned to correct the harshness and asperity of his sentiments. Finding the novitiates to be terrified at his severe declarations, he used to preach to them the mortification of carnal concupiscence, and lead them on with a mildness and clemency, which, however, he did not exercise toward himself. He injured his health exceedingly by austerities, and, as he afterwards confessed, threw a stumbling block in the way of the weak, by exacting of them a degree of perfection, which he-himself had not attained. He had induced all his brethren to follow his example of retirement. They were five in number; and his only sister still remained in the world, who, coming to visit the brethren in the monastery, in the dress and with the attendance of a lady of quality, found herself treated with such neglect, that bursting into tears, she said, " though I am a sinner, nevertheless, for such Christ died." Bernard, moved with an expression so truly evangelical, remitted his severity, gave her directions suited to the taste of the age, and, probably, still better advice. But of that the miserable writer, whom I follow, says nothing. External austerities are, as it were, the whole of his theology, and having told us, that Bernard's sister became a nun, and resembled her brothers in piety, he dismisses her from his narrative.*
Bernard, however, having reduced himself to the greatest weakness, by his absurd excesses, and being' obliged to take more care of his health, was humbled under a sense of his folly, and frankly confessed it, in the strongest terms.f He recovered his strength, and began to exert himself, by preaching, and travelling from place to place, for the real good of mankind. It
is wonderful to observe, with what authority he reigned in the hearts of men of all ranks, and how his word became a law to princes and nobles. His eloquence, indeed, was very great: but that alone could never have given him so extensive a dominion. His sincerity and humility were eminent, and his Constant refusal of the highest ecclesiastical dignities, for which he was, doubtless, as well qualified as any person of his time, gave, in his circumstances, an unequivocal testimony to the uprightness of his character: I say, in his circumstances, for I would by no means insinuate, that the acceptance of the highest ecclesiastical dignities manifests, in all cases, a spirit of avarice or ambition. The bishoprics of Genoa, Milan, and Rheims, were among those which he refused to accept.
During a schism, which happened in the church of Rome, the authority of Bernard determined both Lewis VI. king of France, and Henry I. king of England, to support the claims of Innocent II. This is one instance, among many, of his influence, which was employed, in various negotiations! for the good of the church, as he thought; but of which the detail is very foreign to the views of this history.
That which eminently marked the character of Bernard, amidst the profusion of honours heaped on his character throughout Europe, was his undissembled humility. Though no potentate, whether civil or ecclesiastical, possessed such real power as he did, in the christian world, and though he was the highest in the judgment of all men, he was nevertheless, in his own estimation, the lowest. He said, and he felt what he said; namely, that he had neither the will nor the power to perform the services, for which he was so much extolled, but was wholly indebted to the influence of divine grace. At intervals, from the employments of ecclesiastical affairs, he meditated on the subject of the book of canticles. The love of Christ toward his church, his great condescension toward it, though sullied and dishonoured by sin, the reciprocal affection also of the church toward the divine Saviour, the prelibations of his love afforded toward her, varied however with anxieties and interruptions, these subjects engaged his attention, and he wrote on them in that manner, which experience only can dictate.*
Another writer of Bernard's life tells us,f of the excellent dignitaries of the church, who had received their education in the monastery of Clairval. But as I know nothing of any of them, except one, it must suffice to mention him, pope Eugenius III. From a monk, he rose to that height of ecclesiastical dignity; and he still practised the austerities of the convent, so far as his exalted station admitted; and we have yet -extant five books, addressed to him by Bernard, written with that air of genuine piety and sincerity, which showed that the abbot was no respecter of persons. The pope himself was irreproachable in his manners, continued to reverence the abbot, was zealous toward God, and appears to have far excelled the generality of popes. For the worst thing that can be said of Eugenius was, that he seems to have had no scruples in accepting the popedom. But it is not for man to say, how great a quantity of ignorance and superstition is compatible with the existence of genuine piety. Eugenius was raised to the pontificate in the year 1145, and governed nine years, in a state of splendid misery. For feuds and factions convulsed his government; and he was obliged to fly from Rome into France, to avoid the fury of his enemies. It was probably a blessing in the disguise of afflictions, that he was never allowed to taste the sweets of power and grandeur,
Theobald, count of Blois, elder brother to Stephen king of England, was also much guided by the councils of Bernard, and he was surely a very extraordinary character. Though a powerful prince, he lived in abstemiousness, simplicity, and plainness. Nothing indecent was permitted to be saidJ or done in his presence. His care and munificence in relieving the
• Id. 112?. t 112r. Life of Bernard, by Erndd. i Id. 1129.
afflicted was wonderful: in a famine he opened his storehouses to the poor: his life, in short, was devoted to the service of mankind; and I hope it was true what Ernald tells us, that he laid up treasures above. But we must be content with details of external things from a writer who gives no account of the inward vital godliness of his heroes. Theobald also had his share of afflictions, though the account of their nature and of his relief from them at last, is beyond measure obscure.
The talents of Bernard in preaching were, doubtless, of the first order. He possessed that variety of gifts, which fitted him either to address the great or the vulgar. He knew how to improve conversation to salutary purposes, and to overrule the frivolous trifling of a company by introducing something serious, which yet was of an inviting and an agreeable nature. At the command of the pope, and at the request of other bishops, he was wont to preach in various places; and the impressions left on the congregations, who crowded from all parts to hear him, demonstrated the powers of his eloquence.*
The crusade of Lewis VII. called the younger, was supported by the eloquent voice of Bernard, who unhappily prevailed to draw numbers to join that monarch in his absurd expedition, which was in its consequences, pregnant with misery and ruin.f If we had no other apologies for Bernard, than those very absurd ones suggested by Gaufrid, it must be confessed, he would be totally inexcusable. But, in the review of his works, we shall have occasion to hear the abbot speak for himself.
• Life of Bernard, by Gaufrid. f Id. HSr.