[N]owhere do we find long pages of tedious tirades against women. Yet, as we know, Bernard [of Clairvaux] excelled in the art of satire – he proved it in the Apologia  – and in caricature, which we find in the treatise On the Steps of Humility, and elsewhere. But never do we find him doing this when writing about women.

In particular we find no description of the ridiculous way women dressed. He twice mentions the feminine fashions of his day but, in one case, it is in order to criticize men – prelates and knights -, and in the other, it occurs in one of the two texts where he considers the ornaments with which women deck themselves as a means of showing and deepening their marital affection, and this justifies it…

In Bernard’s works we find no lists of all those vices and shortcomings of which some supposed women uniquely capable. The notion of the ‘weaker sex’ is taken for granted, and sometimes mentioned in passing, but without the stress given it by other writers. Nor do we find any reminders of the evil attributed to women frequently in mythology and ancient greek and latin literature, in which Jerome found his inspiration, so eagerly echoed by the misogynists of the twelfth century.

Again, of the various biblical themes which shower abuse upon women, we find not a single one in Bernard. Eve is never, as we have seen, accused of being the only, nor even the principal, cause of the first sin. On the contrary, she is excused and the major responsibility for this first fault is laid on Adam. Likewise, Solomon’s fall is attributed, not to his wives and concubines, but to luxury (1 K 11:1-3), and it is David, not Uriah’s wife, who was guilty of adultery.

Finally, in Bernard’s works we find never a warning against women in general, but merely a few practical cautions addressed to clerics and monks about keeping company with women. The lesson given clerics in the treatise On Conversion has a very general character and is part of a very much broader ascetical teaching: the feminine danger is only one, and not the most important factor.

Jean Leclercq, Women and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1989)


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