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Medieval Sourcebook:
Two Accounts of the Early Career of St. Bernard, c. 1150

William of St. Thierry: Life of St. Bernard, c. 1140

The Acta Sanctorum of Arnold of Bonneval & Geoffrey of Clairvaux, c. 1153

From William of St. Thierry, Life of St. Bernard, c. 1140

Saint Bernard was born at Fontaines in Burgundy [near Dijon], at the castle of his father. His parents were famed among the famous of that age, most of all because of their piety. His father, Tescelin, was a member of an ancient and knightly family, fearing God and scrupulously just. Even when engaged in holy war he plundered and destroyed no one; he contented himself with his worldly possessions, of which he had an abundance, and used them in all manner of good works. With both his counsel and his arms he served temporal lords, but so as never to neglect to render to the sovereign Lord that which was due him. Bernard's mother, Alith, of the castle Montbar, mindful of holy law, was submissive to her husband and, with him, governed the household in the fear of God, devoting herself to deeds of mercy and rearing her children in strict discipline. She bore seven children, six boys and one girl, not so much for the glory of her husband as for that of God; for all the sons became monks and the daughter a nun.

As soon as Bernard was of sufficient age his mother intrusted his education to the teachers in the church at Châtillon and did everything in her power to enable him to make rapid progress. The young boy, abounding in pleasing qualities and endowed with natural genius, fulfilled his mother's every expectation; for he advanced in his study of letters at a speed beyond his age and that of other children of the same age. But in secular matters he began already, and very naturally, to humble himself in the interest of his future perfection, for he exhibited the greatest simplicity, loved to be in solitude, fled from people, was extraordinarily thoughtful, submitted himself implicitly to his parents, had little desire to converse, was devoted to God, and applied himself to his studies as the means by which he should be able to learn of God through the Scriptures....

Determined that it would be best for him to abandon the world, he began to inquire where his soul, under the yoke of Christ, would be able to find the most complete and sure repose. The recent establishment of the order of Cîteaux [in 1098] suggested itself to his thought. The harvest was abundant, but the laborers were few, for hardly any one had sought happiness by taking up residence there, because of the excessive austerity of life and the poverty which there prevailed, but which had no terrors for the soul truly seeking God. Without hesitation or misgivings, he turned his steps to that place, thinking that there he would be able to find seclusion and, in the secret of the presence of God, escape the importunities of men; wishing particularly there to gain a refuge from the vainglory of the noble's life, and to win purity of soul, and perhaps the name of saint.

When his brothers, who loved him according to the flesh, discovered that he intended to become a monk, they employed every means to turn him to the pursuit of letters and to attach him to the secular life by the love of worldly knowledge. Without doubt, as he has himself declared, he was not a little moved by their arguments. But the memory of his devout mother urged him importunately to take the step. It often seemed to him that she appeared before him, reproaching him and reminding him that she had not reared him for frivolous things of that sort, and that she had brought him up in quite another hope. Finally, one day when he was returning from the siege of a château called Grancey, and was coming to his brothers, who were with the duke of Burgundy, he began to be violently tormented by these thoughts. Finding by the roadside a church, he went in and there prayed, with flooded eyes, lifting his hands toward Heaven and pouring out his heart like water before the Lord. That day fixed his resolution irrevocably. From that hour, even as the fire consumes the forests and the flame ravages the mountains, seizing everything, devouring first that which is nearest but advancing to objects farther removed, so did the fire which God had kindled in the heart of his servant, desiring that it should consume it, lay hold first of his brothers (of whom only the youngest, incapable yet of becoming a monk, was left to console his old father), then his parents, his companions, and his friends, from whom no one had ever expected such a step.....

The number of those who decided to take upon themselves monastic vows increased and, as one reads of the earliest sons of the Church, "all the multitude of those who believed were of one mind and one heart" [Acts 32]. They lived together and no one else dared mingle with them. They had at Châtillon a house which they possessed in common and in which they held meetings, dwelt together, and held converse with one another. No one was so bold as to enter it, unless he were a member of the congregation. If anyone entered there, seeing and hearing what was done and said (as the Apostle declared of the Christians of Corinth), he was convinced by their prophecies and, adoring the Lord and perceiving that God was truly among them, he either joined himself to the brotherhood or, going away, wept at his own plight and their happy state....

At that time, the young and feeble establishment at Cîteaux, under the venerable abbot Stephen, began to be seriously weakened by its paucity of numbers and to lose all hope of having successors to perpetuate the heritage of holy poverty, for everybody revered the life of these monks for its sanctity but held aloof from it because of its austerity. But the monastery was suddenly visited and made glad by the Lord in a happy and unhoped-for manner. In 1113, fifteen years after the foundation of the monastery, the servant of God, Bernard, then about twenty-three years of age, entered the establishment under the abbot Stephen, with his companions to the number of more than thirty, and submitted himself to the blessed yoke of Christ. From that day God prospered the house, and that vine of the Lord bore fruit, putting forth its branches from sea to sea.

Such were the holy beginnings of the monastic life of that man of God. It is impossible to any one who has not been imbued as he with the spirit of God to recount the illustrious deeds of his career, and his angelic conduct, during his life on earth. He entered the monastery poor in spirit, still obscure and of no fame, with the intention of there perishing in the heart and memory of men, and hoping to be forgotten and ignored like a lost vessel. But God ordered it otherwise, and prepared him as a chosen vessel, not only to strengthen and extend the monastic order, but also to bear His name before kings and peoples to the ends of the earth....

At the time of harvest the brothers were occupied, with the fervor and joy of the Holy Spirit, in reaping the grain. Since he [Bernard] was not able to have part in the labor, they bade him sit by them and take his ease. Greatly troubled, he had recourse to prayer and, with much weeping, implored the Lord to grant him the strength to become a reaper. The simplicity of his faith did not deceive him, for that which he asked he obtained. Indeed from that day he prided himself in being more skillful than the others at that task; and he was the more given over to devotion during that labor because he realized that the ability to perform it was a direct gift from God. Refreshed by his employments of this kind, he prayed, read, or meditated continuously. If an opportunity for prayer in solitude offered itself, he seized it; but in any case, whether by himself or with companions, he preserved a solitude in his heart, and thus was everywhere alone. He read gladly, and always with faith and thoughtfulness, the Holy Scriptures, saying that they never seemed to him so clear as when read in the text alone, and he declared his ability to discern their truth and divine virtue much more readily in the source itself than in the commentaries which were derived from it. Nevertheless, he read humbly the saints and orthodox commentators and made no pretense of rivaling their knowledge; but, submitting his to theirs, and tracing it faithfully to its sources, he drank often at the fountain whence they had drawn. It is thus that, full of the spirit which has divinely inspired all Holy Scripture, he has served God to this day, as the Apostle says, with so great confidence, and such ability to instruct, convert, and sway. And when he preaches the word of God, he renders so clear and agreeable that which he takes from Scripture to insert in his discourse, and he has such power to move men, that everybody, both those clever in worldly matters and those who possess spiritual knowledge, marvel at the eloquent words which fall from his lips.

From The Acta Sanctorum of Arnold of Bonneval & Geoffrey of Clairvaux, c. 1153

Twelve monks and their abbot, representing our Lord and His apostles, were assembled in the church. Stephen placed a cross in Bernard's hands, who solemnly, at the head of his small band, walked forth from Cîteaux....Bernard struck away to the northward. For a distance of nearly ninety miles he kept this course, passing up by the source of the Seine, by Châtillon, of school-day memories, until he arrived at La Ferté, about equally distant between Troyes and Chaumont, in the diocese of Langres, and situated on the river Aube. About four miles beyond La Ferté was a deep valley opening to the east. Thick umbrageous forests gave it a character of gloom and wildness; but a gushing stream of limpid water which ran through it was sufficient to redeem every disadvantage.

In June, 1115, Bernard took up his abode in the "Valley of Wormwood," as it was called, and began to look for means of shelter and sustenance against the approaching winter. The rude fabric which he and his monks raised with their own hands was long preserved by the pious veneration of the Cistercians. It consisted of a building covered by a single roof, under which chapel, dormitory, and refectory were all included. Neither stone nor wood hid the bare earth, which served for a floor. Windows scarcely wider than a man's head admitted a feeble light. In this room the monks took their frugal meals of herbs and water. Immediately above the refectory was the sleeping apartment. It was reached by a ladder, and was, in truth, a sort of loft. Here were the monks' beds, which were peculiar. They were made in the form of boxes, or bins, of wooden planks, long and wide enough for a man to lie down in. A small space, hewn out with an axe, allowed room for the sleeper to get in or out. The inside was strewn with chaff, or dried leaves, which, with the woodwork, seem to have been the only covering permitted.

The monks had thus got a house over their heads; but they had very little else. They had left Cîteaux in June. Their journey had probably occupied them a fortnight; their clearing, preparations, and building, perhaps two months; and thus they were near September when this portion of their labor was accomplished. Autumn and winter were approaching, and they had no store laid by. Their food during the summer had been a compound of leaves intermixed with coarse grain. Beech nuts and roots were to be their main support during the winter. And now to the privations of insufficient food was added the wearing out of their shoes and clothes. Their necessities grew with the severity of the season, until at last even salt failed them; and presently Bernard heard murmurs. He argued and exhorted; he spoke to them of the fear and love of God, and strove to rouse their drooping spirits by dwelling on the hopes of eternal life and Divine recompense. Their sufferings made them deaf and indifferent to their abbot's words. They would not remain in this valley of bitterness; they would return to Cîteaux. Bernard, seeing they had lost their trust in God, reproved them no more; but himself sought in earnest prayer for release from their difficulties. Presently a voice from heaven said, "Arise, Bernard, your prayer is granted you." Upon which the monks said, "What did you ask of the Lord?" "Wait, and you shall see, ye of little faith," was the reply; and presently came a stranger who gave the abbot ten livres.



From: Frederic Austin Ogg, ed., A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the German Invasions to the Renaissance, (New York, 1907, reprinted by Cooper Square Publishers (New York), 1972), pp. 251-258.

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

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

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