Karl Steel's Reviews > Cistercians and Cluniacs: St Bernard's Apologia to Abbot William

Cistercians and Cluniacs by Michael Casey
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Apr 05, 09

bookshelves: medieval
Read in April, 2009

Bernard faced two mutually incompatible tasks: to calm the squabbling of (reformist) Cistercian and (presumptively sybaritic) Cluniacs, to maintain his good relations with Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, and, in a larger sense, to prevent scandal to the church. The first chunk of the treatise moves along nicely: he accuses his fellow Cistercians of being moralizing hypocrites who have done no better than find an uncomfortable road to Hell (35). He spins out an allegory on Joseph's multicolored coat as a symbol of the various orders of the church, all coexisting harmoniously in their difference, and thus forming a "manifold unity" (44), and then assails those who, scorning others, have "the long, large log of pride" (46) in their eyes, while forgetting that "humility in furs is better than pride in tunics" (48). So far, so good: Bernard sounds like the Augustine of Confessions and Against the Manicheans in his insistence on the spirit, not the letter, of the law, and on abstinence as a moral, rather than physical, thing.

However, after writing "You [Cistercian:] keep [the Rule:] more strictly; he, perhaps, keeps it more reasonably" (51), Bernard turns to a satiric assault on Cluniac excess. But the excess may be primarily in Bernard's rhetoric--and, for that matter, his logic; given what he argued in the opening, how can he insist that "any vice that shows up on the surface must have its source in the heart" (61)?

A minor point: he batters the Cluniacs because of their inadequate taming of the flesh; but then he sneers at them for their elaborate dishes, helpfully offering that such dishes oppress more than repress the stomach (56). The point may well be that excessive pleasure leads to its opposite, but, given the context, we can't help but think of the Cluniac egg-eaters as punishing their flesh in their own peculiar way, by (over)filling instead of emptying the stomach.

While Jean Leclercq's introduction wisely reminds us of the textuality of Bernard's treatise, warning us of its imperfect utility for social history, nevertheless, Bernard--and Leclercq's introduction for that matter--contain some interesting material: on eating (Peters Damian and Venerable warn that the seas and land will be denuded of animals to feed monastic appetites, although both are worried, not about animals, but about the bad effects on human abstinents (17-18)); on clothing and textiles (apparently catskins, especially imported (!) catskins, were a la mode for monastic bedspreads (60)); warfare (contra Le Goff on Yvain, Bernard speaks of arrows and spears flying in warfare(58)--also note that Bernard speaks of soldier's cloaks as suitable for kings (61),which says something about the changing status of the milites); disability ("sick" brothers, as a sign of their sickness, staggered around on with walking-sticks, so "earning" themselves better food (58)); on architecture (the beauty of a church inspires richer donations (65), a point not lost on university endowment officers!); and, most famously, interior decoration. Here we find Bernard's assault on the "ridiculous monstrosities in the cloisters":
Here is one head with many bodies, there is one body with many heads. Over there is a beast with a serpent for its tail, a fish with an animal's head, and a creature that is horse in front and goat behind, and a second beast with horns and the rear of a horse. (66, and also see Aelred's Mirror of Charity, where he characterizes such decorations as "the amusements of women" (qtd 67 n169), and, of course, the opening bits of Horace's Art of Poetry)
My only complaint, apart from Bernard's logic, is the shortness of this volume. Given that (at least) two Cluniac responses to Bernard survive, and given that this book is only 60 or so pages long, there's no reason the responses couldn't have been translated with this, except, of course, that this is a product of Cistercian publishers. Thanks, whited sepulchers!

Note that this work also translated in The Cistercian World. It would be nicely paired on a syllabus with the Libellus de diversis ordinibus.
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