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Peter the Venerable vs. St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
On the Keeping of Serfs, c. 1120

St. Bernard of Clairvaux attacked the worldly practices of the monasteries, their secular possessions, and the retention of serfs on those possessions. Prompting a reply from Peter the Venerable, he raised the question of whether or not the Benedictine rule was violated in this way.

Letter of St. Bernard:

But what will you [i.e., Peter the Venerable] have to say about secular possessions which are held by you after the manner of secular persons, since in this respect you seem to differ from them in no way? For towns, villas, serfs, servants, and handmaidens, and, what is worse, the gain arising from toll duties, and practically all of this gain you accept without distinction, retain illegally, and guard in every way against those who would strive against your practice.

Letter of Peter the Venerable:

Since one of the objections urged against us is that we receive immovable property, we now reply to that. In the first place we set forth the Rule itself. Dealing with the reception of novices it says, "If he has any possessions, let him give them beforehand to the poor, or, making a solemn donation, let him bestow them on the monastery." By saying therefore "if he has anything" it excepted nothing. But if it excepted nothing it did not except any farm, villa, serfs, servants, or handmaidens, nor anything of this kind. It is clear that nothing was excepted. It is clear, therefore, that those things we have mentioned were not excepted.

With this decree of the Rule the words of the Blessed Gregory, related above, also agree. He forbade any bishop or secular to presume to curtail in any way the income, property, or charters of the monasteries, or to presume to make any grants of liberty on any pretext.... He would by no means have forbidden them to be molested in such matters if he had recognized that they possessed them unjustly. And since the returns from the soil are manifold, and a wide variety is evident in different things, and since villas cannot exist without inhabitants, namely men and women, of different conditions, and since the writings of the Blessed Gregory contain no exceptions with regard to these things, monks are shown to be able to possess incomes, possessions, villas, and likewise, inhabitants of varied status, that is, free or servile.


J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, (Paris, 1854), Vol. CLXXXIX, p. 116; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 299-301.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, October 1998


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