The Saint vs. the Scholar

Posted by Jon M. Sweeney on 6/8/17 7:00 AM

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux engaged in an intellectual crusade with Peter Abelard.The story of the siege and “liberation” of Jerusalem at the hands of the soldiers of the First Crusade is foundational for understanding the era of Bernard of Clairvaux (the saint) and Peter Abelard (the scholar). Why? Their generation felt a sense of destiny. Before their fathers marched to Jerusalem, it had been centuries since the average Norman, Sicilian, or Saxon had felt that he would make a mark on the world or discover anything new. Now, they were intimately formed and deeply affected by this massive undertaking and bitter endeavor, preached as holy by the Church, enacted the generation before them.

The known world then spread from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, fishing villages in England, Brittany, and the Iberian Peninsula, to the more mysterious larger and hotter cities of Arabia. It was an area that included parts of three continents, from the Upper Nile of Africa to Baghdad on the Asian subcontinent.

There was a sense even then of the more ancient lying in the
East, not because they understood the evolution of our species
but because in the East were the sites of the events of the biblical
people of Israel, the earliest history they understood. Great
cities, familiar cities, had been lost to Christendom for centuries
and caliphates ruled where Roman Caesars once stood. Until,
that is, the First Crusade in 1095–1099.

Important was the fact that, of the cities that had been home to the five Christian patriarchs, only two remained: Rome and Constantinople. The other three had become part of Muslim empires by the seventh century.

Crusading would become essential in the centralizing of power that took place in the papacy in the figure of the Bishop of Rome. When Pope Urban II asked Christians to take up arms and fight for the faith, what had been a Church that mostly adhered to teachings of peace was suddenly and forever transformed. The pope made killing the infidel into an actual indulgence, or special penance for the remission of sins. He promised heavenly rewards. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem had long been an indulgence, but now, if the way was blocked for that pilgrimage, an indulgence would be granted to all those who helped to unblock it.

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As a result of the Christian military victory, what became the twelfth- and thirteenth-century feudal Crusader States were at their greatest extent in the decades before Bernard and Peter met in Sens. Christians controlled more of the Holy Land than they ever had before, and ever would again, each area overseen by appointed counts, governors, and generals.

This swath of the Middle East extended from north to south from the County of Edessa in modern-day Turkey, to the Principality of Antioch (Syria), into the County of Tripoli (Lebanon), as well as the Kingdom of Jerusalem in most of what is Israel and Palestine, and some of Jordan and Egypt, today.


Men of Their Time

Bernard was born in 1090, Peter in 1079. They were just five and sixteen years old when the crusaders left for the East. They were ten and twenty-one when they returned. They thus inherited a Church forged in battle, a Church that took a proprietary, combative approach to defining itself, an era dominated by the Crusades—when Christians, motivated by greed, adventure, and occasionally God, set out on violent campaigns, declaring combat as God’s desire. Their century would witness popes, cardinals, and everyday Catholics who were schooled by fighting. Their armies committed atrocities, all while believing they had a divine mandate to do it.

Robert the Monk and Peter the Hermit were a breed apart from monastics of previous generations content to live like angels in cloisters, singing praises to God. Monks, bishops, cardinals, and popes were among the most violent perpetrators in these wars, leading armies themselves as generals and fellow combatants, following in the ghost-like footsteps of Canaanites, Amorites, and Hittites who had fought over the same land many centuries earlier. Some of the vowed religious, when it was all over, were even declared saints.

This was a time, to quote the twentieth-century Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton, “when the Christians began to look at Christ as Prometheus”—like a warrior, one who loves to fight, more of a Greek god than a suffering servant.

With a backdrop such as this, any story that centers around two men arguing about ideas seems tame by comparison, and for good reason. But, it wasn’t just that Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard held differing opinions when they met. Their dispute wasn’t, in fact, primarily about ideas.

The saint and the scholar represented two divergent ways of approaching a life of faith. Both were, in their separate ways, however, filled with that crusading spirit, and, in their fighting, both of them were wrong. Bernard and Peter never met in actual combat, but crusading formed them. The ways that a medieval monk soon-to-be-saint and scholar-intellectual fought each other haven’t been entirely unlearned, even today.


An Ongoing Argument

Times have changed in some important ways. Christians, including the Catholic Church, no longer hold sway as they once did in the nations, cultures, and societies in which they live. However, the ways we argue with each other over matters of faith are often just as blind and insensitive as they were when the saint and the scholar were fighting. Why? We lost that sway, that hegemony, mostly against our will, and we haven’t actually thrown off the qualities that once accompanied it. This is what our fathers taught us. We cannot understand who we are today, or how we balance what we believe with what we say, without shining a light on what might otherwise pass completely unnoticed: this small but significant episode in our history.

The conflict between Bernard and Peter looms large, even though when it happened it was an afterthought on the world stage. For many, this episode is unfamiliar, as generally we weren’t taught much about the century of Bernard and Peter in school. Ask the average history buff to name something that happened during what we know as the late Middle Ages (1100–1400 AD), and you’ll likely hear mentioned the Viking invasions or King Henry VIII executing his wives.

In other words, we pass over the era completely. But the arguments that Bernard and Peter had with each other, the presumptions that they entertained about each other, and some of the conclusions they reached, are still with us.

The Saint vs. the Scholar

Topics: Saints