St. Bernard of Clairvaux: Medieval Psychologist

Modern popular culture prizes the role of the therapist, whose services, we are assured, can aid a troubled marriage, heal an addicted psyche or get an unruly (almost always male) child to behave better. The saint whose feast-day falls on August 20 was the greatest Christian psychologist of the Middle Ages. In St Bernard of Clairvaux psychological insight, zeal, and eloquence produced the most important churchman of the twelfth century.

Bernard was born in 1090 of a noble Burgundian family. Intended for the religious life as a boy, he came of age during an era of great upheaval in both church and society. Church reformers, most of whom were monks, challenged the control that laymen had, since the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, exerted over priests, monks and church property. For the first time in centuries, alternative forms of Benedictinism emerged. The most influential among these were the Cistercians. These Benedictine reformers believed that over the centuries too many monks had departed too far from observance of the Rule of St Benedict. They advocated a simpler liturgy and insisted, as Benedict himself had done, that monks should do manual labor and therefore live from the produce of their labor. Since anciently settled lands normally had peasants to work them, the Cistercians founded their monasteries in the middle of great forests and wildernesses. They leveled the trees and brought the land under the plow themselves. Bernard joined the Cistercians. At the age of twenty-five, he became abbot of the monastery of Clairvaux.

Bernard was a major figure in just about every important issue in twelfth-century Christendom. In 1099 the First Crusade had restored Jerusalem to Christian control. In the 1140s, Muslim armies began their reconquest of the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. In particular, the great city of Edessa fell to Muslim forces in 1144. Pope Eugene III (who had been one of Bernard’s monks at Clairvaux) asked that Bernard preach and rally support for a campaign to relieve the pressure on the Holy Land. Bernard did indeed move many to join the Second Crusade (1146), not least of whom were the French king Louis VIII and the German emperor Conrad III. Nonetheless, the crusade failed miserably. Bernard believed that God had punished the sins of Christian people in the defeat of the crusade.

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Bernard also lived during an era of great social change. The population of Europe was growing; in particular, urban life prospered. Not only were old cities growing, but many new towns were founded. The new urbanization challenged traditional church institutions, which had grown up to minister to a mostly rural population. The deficit in pastoral care contributed to the rise of heretical doctrines, particularly in the south of France. Once again, church authorities enlisted Bernard’s preaching expertise against heresy. Bernard was convinced that the only way to bring the heretics back into the fold was through persuasion, and not force. Despite his best efforts, he had but limited success in stopping the spread of heresy in the south of France.

Bernard also figured into the career of the celebrated teacher and scholar Peter Abelard, whose teaching on the Trinity Bernard found suspicious. He was also convinced that Abelard claimed to be able to demonstrate by reason alone teachings that could only be taken on faith. At his insistence, in 1144 the council of Sens condemned some of Abelard’s teachings as heretical. Abelard accepted the condemnation, and lived two more years at the great abbey of Cluny.

A gifted writer (in Latin) and keen student of the human soul, Bernard was the most creative of a whole host of Cistercian spiritual writers. He wrote his On consideration to his protégé Pope Eugene III, wherein he warned his former monk against preoccupations with papal business. Eugene, he wrote, although a pope was yet a man, and needed time for quiet contemplation. Eugene could always return to the “busyness” commensurate with his office, but his effectiveness as universal pontiff demanded that he first attend to his own spiritual needs. He wrote a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict entitled On the Twelve Steps of Humility and Pride. Bernard wrote eighty-eight sermons on the Song of Songs, which remain one of the great spiritual classics of the Middle Ages. On Loving God is arguably Bernard’s most psychologically acute treatise, and serves as a handbook of mystical theology. Loving God, argued Bernard, required a process of self-awareness. Unity with God demanded that personal health and wholeness must first be cultivated. All human beings are self-centered, taught Bernard, but that self-centeredness need not be a source of sin. Within each human being also lies the divine image; the discovery of that divine image is the first step in loving God. That very divine image is what prompts the mind and soul to seek its source, which is God. The path to love of God thus begins within, but reaches without.

Bernard of Clairvaux died in 1153, worn out by ascetic exercises that he rarely permitted his monks. He ate very little, and preferred long night vigils to sleep. While he subjected his own body to severe discipline, he would not have his monks seriously or permanently damage their health. They loved him and knew Bernard’s one concern was the salvation of their souls. One of the best interpreters of the Rule in the long history of the Catholic church, Bernard remembered fully that Benedict demanded that an abbot be ready to give up everything for the benefit of his monks. Neither had Benedict seen any useful purpose in the ruin of a monk’s body.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “Deposed Christ hugging St. Bernard Clairvaux” painted by Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628).


  • Robert Shaffern

    Robert W. Shaffern is a Professor of Medieval History at the University of Scranton and the author of The Penitents’ Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175-1375.

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