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Peter Abelard And Bernard Of Clairvaux
PETER ABELARD AND BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX

by Jack Gray

These two were born into upper-class feudal families (Peter in Brittany in 1079, and Bernard in Champagne in 1090), and grew up in a period when, after the inconclusive ending of the so-called "Investiture Contest", both Empire and Papacy were facing severe problems—one plagued by endemic civil war, and the other by faction-fighting in Rome and the threat of rising Norman power in southern Italy. Against this background, having both shown exceptional talent during their schooldays, they went in very different directions—Peter (who as a "son-and-heir" had to abandon his inheritance in order to do so) setting off to pursue the study of logic, philosophy, and theology, while Bernard (who as a younger son had to make no such sacrifice) opted for a severely ascetic form of monastic life at Citeaux (a monastery which had been founded in protest against the "worldliness" of old-style Benedictinism, and whose monks therefore wore off-white habits instead of the traditional black ones). And as they adopted these different life-styles trouble which may have been the result of his forcible castration by Heloise's relatives, and in Bernard's case a severe bowel-disorder which was probably caused by early ascetic excesses.

Nevertheless they both stuck to, and had a remarkable impact on, their respective vocations. It was not long before Peter gained what might be called "pop-star" status in the twelfth-century "underworld" of migrant students and scholars, and his numerous written works can fairly be said to have laid the foundations of later "scholastic philosophy". On the other hand Bernard, having left Citeaux to become Abbot of one its first daughter-houses at Clairvaux, took a leading part in the transformation of the Cistercian movement into a Europe-wide Order which rivalled old-style Benedictinism in both numbers and influence by the time of his death in 1153. So it is appropriate that his last major treatise was addressed (apparently at the request of its first recipient) to Pope Eugenius III, who had begun his religious life as a novice at Clairvaux.

Yet though Bernard remained Abbot of Clairvaux until his death, the monastic theme is by no means the only one in his life-story because he also became involved in almost every aspect of the "high politics" of his time—to such an extent that he was frequently absent from Clairvaux (as, for example, when he became a leading figure on the Innocentian side during the papal schism of the 1130's, or when he almost single-handedly launched the "second crusade" in the mid-1140's). So we may well ask whether, as he pursued these activities "in the world", he turned out to be a supporter of the "Hildebrandine" doctrine of papal monarchy (both within the church and vis-a-vis the various temporal powers). But when we turn to his letters, sermons, and treatises for evidence on this point, we are confronted by ambiguities and contradictions—indeed, a collection of extracts from this material might well be given the title which Peter gave to his own collection of patristic texts: Sic et Non (or, "yes" and "no"). But does this mean that we can describe Bernard as simply a "politician"? Not if we take into account yet another theme in his life which was the most consistent of all—his passionate belief in the "revealed truths" of the Christian religion. The fact that he was a "religious fundamentalist" or "born-again" Christian explains why he hounded Peter into retreat at the monastery of Cluny (where he died, under the benevolent protection of its Abbot, in 1142), and it also explains why his final advice to Eugenius was that he should turn his attention from "the things about us" to "the things above us". Moreover, it explains too why, centuries after his death (and in spite of his typically Cistercian "Mariolatry") he came to be admired and almost revered by some of the leading figures in the Protestant "reformation".

Contents

Home Page

Reason And Authority

Peter Abelard And Bernard Of Clairvaux

Deliver Us From Evil

What's God Got To Do With It?

The Lord Thy God Is A Jealous God

In A Concluding Homage To Sextus Empiricus…

Of Prods, And Gods, And Dancing Girls; And Censorship, And Things

Coleridge And The End Of Christian Economics

Innocent's Ward—The Wonder Of The World

A Sufficiency Of Grace

Beware The Ides Of March!?

Suspensions Of Disbelief

Hugh Shapland Swinny—Nationalism And Anti-Theology In Ireland At The Start Of The Twentieth Century

The Wage The Faithful Earn

An Overview Of Slavery In The Southern United States

The Darwin Controversy

America The Beautiful?

Puritanism And The Theatre

Meet the editorial staff of the Heresiarch

Index To Past Issues

Athol Books Web

Athol Books HomePage

Aubane Historical Society

Athol Books Secure Sales

Labour & Trade Union Review