Bernard of Clairvaux: Preacher of the Second Crusade

This is a guest article by Kathryn Helstrom.

Bernard was born into a prominent noble family of Dijon in the year 1090. In school, the boy showed great promise in literature and poetry. He received the call from God to enter the Benedictine order in his early 20s. His testimony was so powerful that 30 of his relatives and friends followed him into the monastic life. Less than three years later, he established the abbey at Clairvaux. From there, Bernard founded the Cistercian order, which soon eclipsed the Cluniacs, causing much jealousy and strife among the clergy.

His piety and intellect were immensely respected throughout Christendom, he wrote profusely, and he was called to many councils and synods. Bernardhad written treatises explaining how physical violence was not necessarily a violation of Christian doctrine. Hewas therefore asked to createthe rules for the new military order of monks, The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, commonly known as the Templars.

On Christmas Eve 1144, a Turkish lord,Imad al-Din Zengi, captured Edessa, one of the oldest Christian cities. Shock waves reverberated throughout Christendom.In the spring of 1145, Pope Eugene III received emissaries from Jerusalem, Antioch, and Armeniapleading for aid to recover the Christian lands. Eugene and Bernard had long been friends and allies, so the pope personally asked his fellow Cistercian to recruit an army from the kings of France and Germany.

Eugene officially launched the Second Crusade when he issuedthe bull Quantum praedecessoreson December 1, 1145 atVetrella, just north of Rome. The bull was specifically addressed to the King of France, Louis VII, wherein the pope reminded him of the valor of the first crusaders, deplored the loss of Christian lands, and promised remission of sins for anyone who went to recover them.

Louis quickly announced his intention to march to Holy War at his Christmas Court. However, the French nobility were not convinced.It wasn’t until Bernardpassionately preached from a hillside in Vezelay the following spring that they embraced the summons. Here is an excerpt from Bernard’s sermon:

Oh, ye who listen to me, hasten then to appease the anger of Heaven, but no longer implore His goodness by vain complaints; clothe not yourselves in sackcloth, but cover yourselves with your impenetrable bucklers; the din of arms, the dangers, the labors, the fatigues of war are the penances that God now imposes upon you. Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the infidels, and let the deliverance of holy places be the reward of your repentance.

Fly then to arms; let a holy rage animate you in the fight, and let the Christian world resound with these words of the prophet, “Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood!”

The crowd was so enraptured that many tore their clothes and rejected all material life until the victory was won. Priests pinned white linen crosses to anyone who vowed to go. Miracles, signs, and wonders followed Bernard’s preaching. “Cities and castles are emptied,” he wrote to the pope, “There is not left one man to seven women, and everywhere there are widows to still living husbands.”

Bernard carried the message extensively throughout France and Flanders for the next several months. In November of 1146, he met with Conrad III, King of the Germans, in Frankfurt. Conrad had many disputesamong his nobles to resolve before he could commit to gathering an army and taking it to the other side of the world. Bernard was instrumental in negotiating with the various dukes and counts to bring them to heel. As part of the agreements, some noblemen were authorized to conduct a Holy War against the pagan Wends in the northeast, and others against the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula.

Conrad and Bernard arrived in Speyer for Christmas, and Bernard preached to the Germans from the steps of the cathedral on December 28. Bernard pinned the white cross on Conrad himself. Again, thousands took up the cross in religious fervor and ecstasy.

The following spring Bernard was burdened with more protracted travel and negotiating, and finally, between April and May of 1147, Conrad collected his army at Nuremburg and Ratisbon and set out for Constantinople. Louis followedbehind in July.

The conduct of the Second Crusade was a disaster, ruined by the kings of France, Germany, and Jerusalem being unable to agree on anything. After several crippling defeats they assembled what few men were left and laid siege to Damascus, but Conrad pulled out after only two weeks. The Holy War collapsed. By spring of 1149 Louis and Conrad were on their way home.

Afterward, Bernard, in his Apologetica, compared the crusade to Moses leading his people out of Egypt, and absolved the pope and himself of any fault.

The sad and unexpected outcome, however, cannot be laid to the rashness of the leader, for he did everything at the Lord’s command, with “the Lord aiding them and attesting his word by the miracles that went with them.” [Mark 16:20] But, you may say, they were a stiff-necked race forever contending against the Lord and Moses his servant. Very well, they were rebellious and unbelieving; but what about these other people? [i.e. The Crusaders] Ask them. Why should it be my task to speak of what they have done?

Kathryn is a fellow writer and historian who’s focus is on Medieval Germany. To learn more about the 12thcentury, check out her blog Medieval Germany at https://kathrynhelstrom.com/.

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