That religion vocations were plentiful in the “age of faith” is a matter of common understanding. The first half of the twelfth century stands out, even in the Middle Ages, as a unique era of devotional enthusiasm, when monasticism turned into a mass movement of unparalleled proportions. As in the case of similar other phenomena, such as the Crusades, no rational explanation can fully account for the countless thousands who were willing to leave the “world” and seek God behind the walls of institutions where everything was geared to giving ample opportunity to practice a life of heroic austerities.
Contemporaries, too, were well aware of what was happening, although, searching for reasons, they were just as baffled as we are. As the often quoted Ordericus Vitalis observed: “Though evil abounds in the world the devotion of the faithful in cloisters grows more abundant and bears fruit a hundredfold in the Lord’s field. Monasteries are founded everywhere in mountain valleys and plains, observing new rites and wearing different habits; the swarms of cowled monks spreads all over the world.” A source of equal amazement to the same author was the fact that it was the most austere order, the Cistercian, which fared best; the White Monk’s appeal seemed to break through all social and intellectual barriers: “Many noble warriors and profound philosophers have flocked to them on account of the novelty of their practices, and have willingly embraced the unaccustomed rigor of their life, gladly singing hymns of joy to Christ as they journey along the right road.” A somewhat older contemporary, Bishop Otto of Bamberg (d 1139), who watched and promoted monastic growth, tried to rationalize it by a strangely familiar, though somewhat premature, argument: “At the beginning of the world, when there were few men, the propagation of men was necessary, and therefore they were not chaste . . . . Now, however, at the end of the world, when men have multiplied beyond measure, is the time of chastity; this was my reason, my intention in multiplying monasteries.”
There is no doubt that in the circumstances [the monastery at] Citeaux was bound to succeed. Its ascetic program was the epitome of everything contemporaries were looking for; it was organized under an inspiriting and capable leadership and its constitution insured the cohesion of the movement in the event that it spread beyond the confines of Burgundy. Grandmont, Savigny, Grand Chartreuse and many similar reforms prospered with fewer potential assets than those of Citeaux. The amazing fact that the Cistercian Order virtually exploded and by the middle of the twelfth century possessed nearly 350 houses in every country of Europe, can be explained, however, only by the dynamic character and activity of the “man of the century,” Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. The often voiced notion that he was the true founder of the Order is a pardonable exaggeration, but the fact that for centuries Cistercians were widely known as “Bernadine’s” was not without justification.
Bernard was born in 1090, of noble Burgundian stock at Fontaines, near Dijon. After his education in the midst of his deeply religious family he was sent to Chatillon for formal studies at the school of the canons of Saint Vorles. Returning home, he lived the life of contemporary youth with his older brothers, but the silent and reserved boy soon decided that his place was at Citeaux, already well known in the neighborhood. As soon as he became certain of his own vocation, he set about convincing all his brothers, his closest relatives and his friends to join him in his holy endeavor. This was the first occasion which proved him to be a born leader with an unwavering will and irresistible personal appeal. In the spring of 1113 he, together with his companions, asked for admission at Citeaux. The austere religious training in the abbey did not change his character; on the contrary, Bernard found in Citeaux the most congenial surrounding for his own spiritual temperament, and in turn, Bernard proved to be the most effective and eloquent interpreter of Citeaux’s message to the world. Abbot Stephen recognized in him a God-sent genius, and in 1115 the young man of twenty-five became the founder and abbot of Clairvaux. The trials and hardships of the founders of Citeaux were relived during the first years of Clairvaux, but Bernard’s faith and determination remained unbroken. The heroic spirit of the Abbot attracted so many recruits that in only three years Clairvaux was able to found her first daughter house at Trois-Fontaines.
On the wings of his early writings the fame of Bernard’s holiness and wisdom soon spread all over France, an, although he never cared for publicity, he soon found himself in the spotlight of an era desperately searching for able and competent leadership. It was a time of political turmoil throughout Western and Central Europe. In Germany, the powerful Emperor Henry V, the last member of the Salian house, died without heir (1125) and the country was torn between the partisans of the two contesting families, the Welfs (Guelphs) and Chibellines. Similar disturbances broke out in England after the reign of King Henry I, while the boy king of France, Louis VII, was still too young and inexperienced to take over his father’s role. Meanwhile in Italy, the powerful cities and the most influential families, utilizing the impotency of their northern neighbors, started anew their bloody rivalries. When, in Rome, the papacy again fell victim to the fighting parties, a perilous schism in the Church resulted. After the death of Pope Honorius II in 1130, two opposing parties elected on the same day two popes, Innocent II and Anacletus II. The befuddled Christian world was at that moment utterly incapable of dealing with the problem; the only power able to restore order in Rome would have been the Emperor Roger II of Sicily, who was, however, using the occasion to extend the territory of his new kingdom.
A convention of French clergy and nobility at Etampes committed the decision of this crucial question to Saint Bernard, who declared in favor of Innocent II. Much more difficult to solve were the political ramifications of the dual election; namely, the task of convincing the contending powers to acknowledge Innocent unanimously and driving the usurper out of his Roman stronghold. It took eight years of tedious traveling’s, conferences, personal meetings, and hundreds of letters to achieve the goal. During these years Saint Bernard stood literally in the center of European politics, yet he never acted merely as a diplomat. He never yielded nor used threat of force, nor did he compromise. The secret of his success was his moral superiority, his unselfish good will, and the magic of his personality. On the other hand, the fact that the whole European world obeyed the poor and humble Abbot of Clairvaux indicates an era when moral ideals still prevailed over brutal violence.
The zenith of Saint Bernard’s earthly career was reached the moment when his pupil, a former monk of Clairvaux, was elected pope as Eugenius III (1145–1153). On this Pope’s order, the Saint launched the Second Crusade in 1147. By his preaching, he moved hundreds of thousands of people even when they could not understand his language. His powerful words and irresistible personality worked wonders in another field of his activity, among the Manichean heretics of Germany and France. The South of France was at the edge of an open belief that “faith is a matter of persuasion, not of compulsion,” refused to advocate violent measures against them. Though his mission had only temporary effects, his sermons and miracles left a deep impression. Not so much of his eloquence as by his penetrating mind and deep erudition, he fought victoriously against doctrinal aberrations, most notably those of Abeland, and later, Gilbert de la Prree [twelfth century intellectuals].
Saint Bernard’s public activity was not limited to these issues of political and ecclesiastical importance. For about thirty years, he and his letters, written in a masterful Latin, were present every time peace, justice, or the interest of the Church demanded his intervention. The Cistercian Order grew and expanded with his own expanding fame and popularity. His biographers remarked that the power of his eloquence was such that “mothers hid their sons and wives their husbands” in order to keep them safe from the Saint’s recruiting efforts, which brought a constantly overflowing population to his beloved Clairvaux. This abbey alone established sixty-five daughter houses during the lifetime of Bernard. Several other abbeys were almost as successful as Clairvaux, and France was soon dotted with some two hundred Cistercian establishments. Not all of these abbeys, however, were entirely new foundations. The seemingly irresistible trend drove many already existing monasteries into the Cistercian camp. Thus, for example, in 1147, of fifty-one new houses recorded, twenty-nine belonged to the reform congregation of Savigny, while some others had been members of smaller organizations under the monasteries of Obazine and Cadouin. By this time the White Monks were well on their way in stepping across the borders of France and establishing themselves permanently in other countries of Christian Europe. Former monastic reforms, including Cluny, had largely been restricted to the countries of their origin, either because their programs were lacking universal appeal, or they were unable to control effectively a great number of distant, affiliated houses. Citeaux, for the first time, broke through these barriers successfully, becoming the first truly international religious order in Church history.