Gateway to the Classics: Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages by George Hodges
Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages by  George Hodges



The great abbey of Cluny was rich enough to entertain a king. All the nobles, all the knights and squires, all the men-at-arms of a royal retinue could sleep beneath its hospitable roof, feast in its noble halls, and pray in its lofty chapel. Next to Monte Cassino, which Benedict had founded, it was the most magnificent religious house in Europe.

There were men, however, to whom this splendor of the abbey was its shame. They compared the architecture of Monte Cassino with that cave in the cliff where Benedict had begun to live his holy life. The remembered that Cluny had been established by devout monks who disliked the luxury of the Benedictines, and wished to return to the simplicity and severity of the ancient rule. They determined to repeat that good endeavor, and do it better. One of them retreated, accordingly, to a solitary place in a forest whose Latin name was Cistercium, and there entered into the hardships which his soul desired. He lived like a soldier between battles. He kept watch as one who expects an enemy. He maintained a daily drill of the spirit. He contended against the devil.

But for a long time only a few went with him. When he died, his little monastery was the humblest and poorest in France. His successor grew discouraged. It seemed as if the good days of the strict life were passed, and as if there were no longer any who cared to keep the rule which, to the saints, had been a way to heaven, steep but sure. At last, one day, there came in through the forest a company of twenty-five or thirty men. They stopped at the door of Cistercium, and asked to be admitted. They desired to be Cistercians.

The leader of this group was a tall youth, with yellow hair and reddish beard, whose name was Bernard. In the company were his four brothers, and the rest of the number were his relatives and friends. He had persuaded them to leave the world, and to undertake the monastic life in earnest. He had inspired them with his own ideals. To these recruits, Bernard added others. He had the persuasive eloquence of one who has found the supreme joy of life and wishes to impart it to his neighbors. Nobody ever lived who took more real delight in going without food and sleep that he might say his prayers and strengthen his soul; and such was the enthusiasm with which he described the charm of the monastic life that mothers hid their sons when Bernard came into their neighborhood, to keep them from hearing his convincing words. He appealed to the best hopes of high-minded young men, who were looking for a life of romance and adventure. They would find it, he said, in the abbey of Cistercium.

Pretty soon the little monastery was so crowded that they began to send out colonies. One colony, of which Bernard was the leader, went through the forests a hundred miles to a wild valley which a knight had given to the monks out of his estate. The valley was filled with thick woods, through which ran a little river. The hills came near together at the west, and there they settled, building a rude house. Before them to the east lay the widening valley, eight miles long. Year by year, cutting down trees, draining marshes, clearing land for gardens and pastures, planting vines on the hills on one side and orchards on the hills on the other side, digging a pond for fish, building, not only a chapel, but a mill, they civilized the place, and made Clairvaux,—for that was the name of it,—one of the fairest habitations in the world. Nobody left it without longing to return.

This was not done, however, without great labor and privation. There was a "starving time" at Clairvaux, as there was afterwards at Jamestown and Plymouth. It is a part of the adventures of colonists. Depending wholly on themselves, and beginning too late in the season to get food out of the earth, they lived during the first winter on beechnuts. But they liked it. Bernard delighted in it. Even when better times came, and they had good crops and good fruits, he kept to a fare so simple that he was in danger of starvation. He lost all sense of taste, and perceived no difference between wine and oil. Happily, a good doctor took him in charge, and saved his life, though he was too late to save his health.

Bernard was absolutely unselfish. He had no plans for personal advantage. He desired nothing, neither money, nor comfort, nor power, nor reputation. Nobody could rob him. Nobody could influence his thought or act by any threat or promise. In those days when every knight was fighting to increase his possessions, and almost every abbot,—as at Monte Cassino and Cluny,—was trying to widen his lands and erect new buildings and was in search of more money for these purposes, the appearance of Bernard was an extraordinary fact. He was the most independent man of his time; and he became the most influential. Selfish as men were, they were still able to appreciate unselfishness. They saw the value of the opinion and judgment of a man whose mind was not affected by any consideration other than the will of God, as he understood it.

The result was that during the lifetime of Bernard the spiritual capital of Europe was at Clairvaux. Of course, the monastery grew tremendously. Bernard saw sixty-five colonies go out to found new abbeys. But the glory and the might of it all was the personality of this humble, modest, and self-sacrificing man. That which Hildebrand at Rome, and Anselm at Canterbury, had claimed by right of office, came to Bernard without office and without claim, because of the righteousness of his life and the purity of his soul. He was called to kings' courts, and was given the final decision of questions on which the peace of Europe depended. But he declined all offers of high position, and went back from these great errands to take his place again at Clairvaux, working in the fields like Columba, feeding the pigs, greasing his own boots.

One time, a French duke, grandfather of Richard-of-the-Lion-Heart, rich as a great king, vicious in life and uncontrolled in temper, took his part in the continual fight between the Church and the world, by removing certain good bishops and putting bad ones in their places. To the demand of the pope that he should restore the faithful bishops, he returned a stout defiance. Nobody could do anything with him. Everybody was afraid of him. Bernard came from Clairvaux, weak in body, unattended by any physical force, and met the duke at a church door, and scared him into a fit. The man fell upon the ground and foamed at the mouth. "Here," said Bernard, "is one of the bishops whom you have deposed. Take him back to his place; and do the same with all the others." And the duke obeyed.



Another time, Bernard met upon the road a group of men in the midst of whom was one with a halter about his neck, being led to be hanged for robbery and murder. The abbot asked for the man, led him gently to Clairvaux, dressed him in the garments of a monk, placed him in the quiet company of the brethren, and saved him, body and soul.

It happened, in Bernard's time, that the whole Church was again divided by the contention of two men, each of whom claimed to be the truly elected pope. The election had been a scene of disorder. Hildebrand had put an end to the old method whereby the pope had been elected at a Roman town-meeting, and had confined the voting to certain rectors of Roman parishes, and bishops of neighboring dioceses, called cardinals. But on this occasion some of the cardinals had elected Anacletus, and others had elected Innocent. Each claimed that the other meeting was illegal. The fine theory of Anselm that the pope is the representative of law and order was imperiled by this situation. The two claimants were fighting vigorously; Anacletus had driven Innocent out of Italy; the voice of law and order must be sought elsewhere.

The king of France called an assembly of bishops and abbots to consider this great matter. And the king and the assembly summoned Bernard. He was made arbiter of the rival claims. The whole nation, and other nations, awaited his decision. He examined the conditions of the election but, still more carefully, the character of the men. He set aside the legal details, and chose for pope the claimant who seemed to him the better man. He selected Innocent. That choice determined France, and further appeals of Bernard determined Germany and England. Innocent became pope.

The new pope visited Clairvaux and was there welcomed, so the old chronicle says, "not by banquets but by virtues." He found a church with bare walls, no pictures, no stained glass; an altar with iron candlesticks and a silver chalice; priests in linen vestments, singing the service with the utmost simplicity; and the rule so carefully kept in the refectory that beans and pease were the chief food on the table, there was no wine, and the only fish which appeared was served as a special dainty to the pope. Afterwards, when another pope, one of the old pupils of Bernard, came to visit him, they gave him the only fowl which they had in the pantry. These glimpses show at its best that Cistercian revival of the monastic life which links the name of Bernard with that of Benedict. What it came to, in its turn, appears in "Ivanhoe" in the person of the Cistercian prior Aymer.

After the settlement of the contention of the rival popes, the next event which stirred the heart of Christendom was the second Crusade.

Peter the Hermit had preached the first Crusade at the Council of Clermont, when Bernard was but four years old. He must have remembered from his childhood of the vast movement of that army in which all the strength of Europe seemed to be enlisted; and the stories of his youth must have been tales which were told by knights and palmers after that ill-fated expedition.

The first Crusade had succeeded in taking Jerusalem out of the hands of the Turks. It had established Christian garrisons in Antioch and Edessa. In the midst of horrible suffering, avenged by cruelty as horrible, and in spite of all manner of contradiction of the most important principles of Christian living, the Crusade had assisted to civilize Europe. It had called the various nations together for a common purpose; it had widened their experience of the world, and it had brought back into the still savage social life of the West some of the refinement of the East.

But now news came of the capture of Edessa. That Christian stronghold had fallen before the might of the Turks, and its loss was a prophecy of the taking of Jerusalem. The Holy City, won by the shedding of the best blood of Europe, was in peril. It was time for a second crusade. So thought Louis VIII. of France, who had just come back sick at heart and stricken in conscience from a little war in which he had burned alive a thousand people in a church. So thought the Knights Templars vowed to the defense of the Holy Sepulcher, and eager for martial exercise. So thought the pope, and Bernard.

Bernard was to the second Crusade what Peter the Hermit had been to the first. He was its preacher. Mounted on a wooden pulpit, facing a vast multitude under the open sky, slight in figure, but strong in voice, and terrible in his mighty earnestness, he called for volunteers to fight, as he said, for Christ. And again, as at the beginning, there was a tearing of red cloaks for badges, Bernard setting the example. Again, all over Europe, men were taking the Cross. Women were sending spinning-wheels to knights who were too timid or too sensible to go, suggesting that these were more to their taste than the swords of heroes. Armies were being mustered, drilled, and set to marching. Again the land was bereft of its best strength. Out of every family, a husband, father, brother, son, was on his way to Palestine. And Bernard, in city after city, was threatening the pains of hell to such as stayed at home, and promising the bliss of heaven to such as took the Cross and went.

But the second Crusade failed like the first, and worse. The Greek emperor at Constantinople resented the Latin invasion. He hated the Crusade. He gave the armies guides who led them into hopeless deserts where they died of thirst. The Turks attacked them. Finally, they took to flight and such as were fortunate made their broken way back to their homes. And the grief and indignation of the widows and children of Europe fell upon the head of the man whose sermons had sent these armies to defeat and death.

Even here, Bernard was still master. With all his self-reproach, he had the consciousness of having followed what honestly seemed to him the will of God. And this honesty was recognized. People say that he had made the great mistake for no gain of his own. He returned to his cloister, and took up again his quiet life of prayer and study. He wrote letters of great people; he answered the questions of the perplexed; he indicated what he thought to be the righteous direction of public affairs. Great and little, he interested himself in all matters in which a decision must be made for the right or the wrong. One of his last letters was addressed to a count whose vassals had stolen some of the pigs of Clairvaux. "If they had been my own," he said, "it had not greatly mattered; I was taking care of them for a neighbor. You must replace them."

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