bernard of clairvaux 1147

Letter of Bernard of Clairvaux 1147 : Primary Document Analysis

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Crusades, Edyssa, Bernard, ClairvouxThe primary document, “The Letter of Bernard of Clairvaux”, was written by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1147. The letter was written after the loss of Edessa in order to promote a new crusade to gain back western losses. During this time, Bernard was a very prominent and influential clergy member who was deeply involved with religious and political issues. 

Bernard was known for his strong influential voice that had allowed him to gain many followers and direct the society in the way to which the church had desired. Through his newfound privileges proclaimed by Pope Eugenius III, he acted to promote the Second Crusade through letters, preaching’s, and overseeing of taking crusader vows.[1]

The primary document “The Letter of Bernard of Clairvaux” is a typical address that would have been made by Bernard and his followers towards the people in order to mobilize support for the crusade. Through power granted to him by the church, Bernard acts to promote the crusade under the guise of it being Gods will. This devotion to the cause has made people label Bernard as “the spiritual heart and soul[2] of the crusades. 

READ: THOMAS HOBBES, THE STATE OF NATURE, AND THE STATE OF WAR

Originally, the document was written in Latin. This was the prominent language spoken by scholars and members of the Christian church during the medieval age. The primary purpose of Bernard’s letter was to mobilize support for the crusades by appealing to people’s morality and faith. Thus, the ecclesiastically written piece was a form of propaganda asking people to take up arms to protect the holy land.

Bernard of Clairvaux, Crusades, Medieval writing, Bernard, 1147, just war, christianity

This becomes clear when Bernard states that the holy land had fallen and it was the duty and the responsibility of the medieval people to fight against the Pagans. Bernard’s letter also entails the importance of the Jewish people in regards to Christianity, making the letter both a propaganda piece because of the sense of political manipulation involved, but also a Christian piece shaping the actions that devotees should follow.

This document gives spectacular insight into the minds of the medieval people and why they were so willing to take up arms and fight for the church during the holy wars. In medieval times people were extremely religious, easily manipulated, and were mainly motivated by fear. Bernard takes advantage of this proclaiming that by participating in the crusades was a way to gain salvation.

He goes so far to declare “for our sins, the enemies of the cross have raised blaspheming heads, ravaging with the edge of the sword the land of promise”.[3] Here, Bernard is attempting to create fear within the public by declaring that God is angry with them. However, they could both redeem themselves and gain salvation by participating in the crusades. This gives insight into the ideals of the medieval society and the motivation as to why the second crusade was able to happen.

During the medieval period, the Christian church was very prominent and its beliefs and teachings had a strong influence over societies norms and values. Bernard was considered a great leader within the church. Through his letters, he wanted to create and instill fear within the people in order to motivate them to take part in the crusades. He understood that people feared for their mortal souls and displeasing god, resulting in many joining the crusade to receive salvation.

Bernard begins his letter through a harsh criticism of the western population. He says, “O Brave Men? What are you doing, O servants of the cross? Will you give what is holy to the dogs, and cast your pearls before swine?[4]. Bernard is clearly using a very condescending tone towards the men in society, challenging their masculinity. This is important because in medieval society masculinity was held to be an utmost virtue.



Bravery, Bernard, Clarvaux, Second Crusades, 1147, Writing of BernardBernard, therefore, was challenging their honor and bravery, which was considered key elements of being a man. By Bernard attacking this conception of man’s identity, he created the notion that those who did not participate in the crusade were dishonorable. If a man was dishonorable it would fall onto his family forever ruining their reputation. Thus, through challenging the people’s manhood Bernard was able to mobilize support.

Bernard further goes on to say “How many sinners there, confessing their sins with tears, have obtained pardon after the defilement of the heathen had been purged by the swords of your fathers![5] Once again, the conception of masculinity and its importance to medieval culture is made prominent. Bernard is stating that those who do not participate in the crusades are a disgrace, unlike their fathers who were honorable and brave.

He even goes as far to declare that if the people allow for the holy land to fall, the medieval people will be forever reminded as a vast disgrace and bring everlasting shame.[6] Medieval society was based on honor principles and Bernard was clearing using this as a means to convince people to enter the crusade.

READ: TIBERIUS CLAUDIUS CAESAR AUGUSTUS GERMANICUS

After Bernard emasculates the men of the medieval society he offers them a solution. He advocates that the crusade was a way to redeem themselves as men and also as a way to gain salvation in the eyes of God. Bernard goes on to offer them “pardon of sins, and everlasting glory[7] for their participation within the crusade.  From here on Bernard changes his condensing tone into a prideful manner addressing them as “O brave knight, O warlike Hero.[8]

Political Theory, War, State of Nature, Social Contract, Thomas HobbesBernard’s letter also demonstrates the viewpoint of just war according to the Christian faith. Bernard, like Augustine of Hippo, believes in the just war theory. The just war theory is the belief that a war is just when God commands it. Unjust warfare is when a person seeks vengeance and is out for his/her own personal gain. Bernard, in fact, states that by taking “the sign of the cross, you shall gain pardon for every sin that you confess with a contrite heart.[9] Bernard declares that fighting for God will bring the individual salvation, which was a prominent concern among many medieval people.

However, if an individual is fighting out of personal gain then it is an unjust act of violence and the individuals’ soul will be condemned. Bernard writes if a man takes up arms against a fellow kin his sword will go “through his own soul also, when he thinks to have slain his enemy only.”[10] Within medieval society violence and war were an everyday occurrence. Bernard wishes for kinship battles to cease and to instead take up a fellow enemy and unite under the command of God. The church was constantly trying to adapt its teaching to the society of the time.

Star of David, Second Crusades, Jewish Populations, Bernard, Bernard of ClairvauxWithin his letter, Bernard declares that the Jewish people should not be persecuted. During this medieval period, Jewish populations were often sought out and murdered if they refused to convert to Christianity. However, Bernard offers important insight on why according to the Christian church, the Jewish people should not be persecuted, slaughtered, or driven out.[11]

The religious view is that Jewish people were already suffering for they had been dispersed around the western and eastern nations. Bernard declares them as “living signs to us, representing the Lord’s passion”.[12] The Jewish people had not only been punished, but Bernard believes that they were now needed in order to witness the Christian redemption.

Conclusion

The primary document, “The Letter of Bernard of Clairvaux”, provides insight into life within medieval society. The letter demonstrates the role of masculinity, the idea of having a just war, along with the powerful influence that religion had on every individual’s life.

The idea that salvation could be achieved through participating within the crusade was a major factor that influenced many people to join. The church manipulated the definition of masculinity in order to serve their religious interests.

Society itself became heavily influenced and centered on the Christian faith and teachings. This document truly demonstrates the absolute authority of the Christian church and its ability to manipulate public option in favor of the churches personal agenda.

Watch: A Quick 3 Minute Recap on the Second Crusades



Map of Second Crusade, Bernard, Clairvaux, 1147, Medieval Society

Endnotes

Bernard of Clairvaux “Letter of Bernard of Clairvaux” In The Crusades A Reader, 125-128,” S.J Allen and Emilie Amt, eds. (New York: University Press of Toronto, 2014), 124

[2] Ibid, 125

[3] Ibid, 126

[4] Ibid, 126

[5] Ibid, 126

[6] Ibid, 126

[7] Ibid, 127

[8] Ibid, 127

[9] Ibid, 127

[10] Ibid, 127

[11] Ibid, 127

[12] Ibid. 127

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