The churches are without priests; priests no longer receive proper respect; Christians deny Christ, and their temples pass for synagogues. They belittle the holiness of the sanctuary of God, and the Sacraments are no longer regarded as sacred. Feast Days pass without any solemnity; men die in their sins, and their souls are borne before the awe-inspiring tribunal without having been reconciled with God through the Sacrament of Penance, and without being fortified by Holy Viaticum. Children of Christians no longer know Christ, and are not able anymore to walk in the way of salvation.

St. Bernard, Letter 221, Les Cathars: documents et articles. Editors: R. Nelli, F. Neil, D. Roche, and J. Duvernoy (Paris: Delphes, 1964)


Bernard wrote to queens and princesses: he never applies to Mary the idea he had of their power, which was, in fact, very limited, except in instances of regency or of a queen with a strong personality exercising personal influence over the king. The image of the queen-mother is more unusual, and also more original and expressive. It too suggests personal influence, but respects the unique transcendence of the person in power. The queen-mother does not wield this power herself; she merely intervenes with the one who possesses it. From a doctrinal point of view this is more exact. It is also more in keeping with Bernard’s greater insistence on Mary’s motherhood than on her virginity. Virginity is a privilege linked to the part she has in the work of salvation, but she plays this role as a mother. All this argues a very consistent theology.

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

It is in this specific sense that Bernard calls the Virgin Mary our advocate. The title suits her in the first place because we are exiles here below: ‘We have no lasting city but we are searching for that place where blessed Mary arrived today’ by her assumption into heaven. If we are ‘enrolled as citizens [conscripti cives] of this city [notice the juridical precision of the term] it is very fitting that even in our exile, even by the waters of Babylon, we should remember her’. Here Bernard uses the vocabulary of exile. In this, our miserable state, Mary can act as our advocate because she is the queen-mother, consequently the mother of Mercy – Advocatam praemisit peregrinatio nostra. Peregrinatio means exile. We are far from God, but our humanity is already in the homeland, near God; it is preceded by our advocate who is none other than the mother of the Judge. She is used to intervening, by right, on our behalf, as ‘mother of mercy’’; as mater misericordiae she is filled with mercy. Thus she is empowered to deal with the matter and negotiate our salvation: suppliciter et efficaciter salutis nostrae negotia pertractabit.

Finally, she is the mother of God’s only Son. Bernard loved word plays, opposing misery (miseria) to mercy (misericordia), and so contrasting our state as wretched, miserable serfs (miseri, servuli, miseria nostra) with Mary’s condition, misericordiae: ‘may our misery have recourse to her mercy’.

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

OUR MEDIATRIX: Mary has a double right to this title. First because she is the means, the path, by which Christ was given and born to us. Bernard used a phrase which is difficult to translate because it contains an allusion to the biblical and patristic theme of the royal road, (the king’s highway in the Revised Standard Version): Virgo regia ipsa est via per quam Salvator advenit. The Virgin is the road by which the Savior came to us, but she is also the means, the path, by which we are to go to Christ. Here again Bernard uses a scriptural reminiscence: ‘Through you we have access to the Son, who through you came down to our misery’.

Mary is also mediatrix because she is the intermediary who powerfully intervenes on our behalf before her Son: potens est enim. The mediator’s role is to conciliate and reconcile. In the language of ancient roman law the mediator is the ‘go-between’ who tries to settle a dispute and bring about a reconciliation between two parties. In medieval law the word applied to someone who negotiated peace, or to the arbitrator in a lawsuit, or again, the man who stands as warrant, the privileged witness.

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

The theme of the necessity of the feminine in the work of salvation recurs in one of the final sermons on the Song of Songs. Throughout his earthly life Jesus took pleasure in the company of Martha and Mary. In their presence his heart and mind found rest, and he was comforted by these women’s virtues. How wonderful that he, in all his majesty, loved the familiarity of these pure souls and chaste bodies, even though they were only earthly beings, members of the weaker sex. He gave courage to their shyness, joy to their humility, nourishment to their devotion. The pleasure that Jesus took in the feminine sex was a sign of his own humility and his ability to forgive. Thenceforth the Son of God has never ceased coming into this world. Yet he manifests himself, not with power, as the one who is to judge the world, but as he once appeared, ‘like a little child, born for us of this feminine, this weaker, sex’. That he should be born of a woman is a sign of his goodness, of his will to forgive, of the gentleness he will show on the day of his wrath. These qualities are not found only in women, but. According to Bernard, it is in women that they are more frequently seen. Even the weakness of their sex is a natural fact which, though not recognized as a positive value by literary and philosophical tradition, is transformed in Mary, and changed into a symbol of salvation.

His insistence on the presence of feminine qualities, through Mary, in the mystery of Christ and our relations with him, is probably the only really original contribution Saint Bernard made to mariology. Not that he invented Mary’s role in the birth of Christ, but he presented it and its consequences in a way which seems to have been largely unique to him and to have expressed his reaction to the culture around him. It is as though in a violent society where men exercised physical and material force, he saw a need for a compensating non-violence, something he attributed to women, and particularly to Mary. The two kinds of equality he saw in her were the opposites of the failings for which women were generally reproached. On the one hand, women were supposed to lack courage because they were weak; that was why Bernard was fond of quoting Solomon’s ‘valiant woman’. On the other hand, traditional misogyny reproached women with being arrogant, moody, and shrewish, talkative and fond of spicy gossip. Bernard believed that women – Martha, Mary her sister, and the Virgin Mary – were capable of calmness and kindness and holding their tongues: he praised the Virgin’s silence. She is not the only woman to have these qualities; they are found in others as well. But in her, the Mother of God, they are present perfectly and symbolically.

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

That is it necessary for a woman to share in the work of salvation was one of Bernard’s firm convictions. We come across it again in his Sermon for the Sunday within the Octave of the Assumption. The equality between man and woman, and their complementarity in diversity, is such that the first sin was committed by both, though more gravely by man than by woman. Reparation needs, then, to be made by both man and woman and, here again, it is man who has the major part to play. Everything could have been done by Christ alone: ‘He sufficed’. But it was good for us that, side by side with this new Adam, there should be a new Eve. Both sexes had to be represented in the work of salvation. And what particular aspect of human nature was the new Eve to stress?

Here we notice a progression in Bernard’s thought. Since Christ is ‘majesty’, wielding the power to judge, we might well have feared him had he been alone. Woman acts as the intermediary between him and us. Two pithy, assonant, sentences, express the exact parallel between ‘cruel Eve’ and ‘faithful Mary’. Through the first the ancient enemy poured a plague virus into man; by the second both man and woman received the antidote. But in each case woman was the servant, ministra. Yet her very presence and her intervention are enough to allay all fear. In her we see, not something terrible, but gentleness, a capacity for self-giving and universal oblation: omnibus offerens…All that we may hope to receive from her comes from her nature and her qualities as a woman.

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

The ultimate responsibility for having called the crusade rests with the reigning Roman Pontiff. Whatever may have been the motives of the feudal nobles in joining, opposing, or merely using the crusade it is to Rome that one just look for the reasons why the knights of northern France were summoned to ride south. As we have seen, the papacy had labored for almost a half century to instruct the faithful more adequately in the truths of their faith, to protect them from the contagion of false doctrine, and to reconcile dissidents to the Roman Church. It had utilized all its traditional methods: preaching missions, papal legates making their rounds, local and provincial synods, special efforts by St. Bernard and other Cistercians and by St. Dominic. All this had been tried over and over again with but a modicum of success. Repeated appeals for the cooperation of the secular rulers had for one reason or another all come to naught. It was only when Innocent III became convinced of the paralysis of the public powers and of the local churches that he resorted to a crusade. The imminence of complete domination by the Albigensians, the inertia of the king, the impotence and bad will of the princes, the complicity of a great number of local nobles who had permitted the Cathars to flourish, the exposed position of the laity, the repulse of the papal missions, the lost prestige of the religious leaders, the ineffectiveness of spiritual methods swamped by the unrestrained devastation of brigands and mercenaries – and now the murder of the papal legate, Peter of Castelnau – all combined to force the conclusion on the mind of the pope that military constraint alone could restore public order and thus permit the peaceful pursuit of the people’s welfare.

Albert Shannon, The Medieval Inquisition (1991)

Like every other writer from Antiquity onward, Bernard was acquainted with the theme of the ‘weaker sex’. He did not overuse it, and in the only three cases where he did use it, he retained the original meaning – a lesser physical strength, somewhat akin to the weaker strength of youth as compared with that of adulthood: he says so clearly in a letter in which he congratulates a young nun on overcoming the double weakness of ‘a fragile sex and age’. The formula he used comes from the liturgy, where it is used in praise of women who show courage in the face of martyrdom and in other circumstances. Elsewhere, in addressing men, Bernard used the comparative and spoke of the ‘more fragile sex’, or the ‘weaker sex’. Only once, with the intention of humiliating prelates who dressed like women, did he mention the sex and ‘order’ or social category which is, by comparison, ‘baser’. But to speak like that in those times was the accepted thing.

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

If, having now gone through some of the antifeminist texts of the twelfth century – and there are others besides those cited here -, we attempt to highlight the major features we find there, several things stand out about the number of these works, their literary genre, their purpose and content.

First of all, can we rightly say that these texts are ‘legion’? Certainly there is no dearth of them. But as in antiquity, so in the Middle Ages: when these texts are set among all the literary works produced on subjects other than women and against women, they are in the minority. Furthermore, examination of the manuscript tradition of most of them would show that they had a limited diffusion: many have been preserved in merely a few, sometimes later, manuscripts, or even in a single manuscript.

In the case of the Polycraticus of John of Salisbury, we have on this point a well documented study whose author, A. Linder, shows that the work, completed in 1159 (that is to say, a few years after Saint Bernard’s death) circulated far less than did Bernard’s works during his own lifetime and immediately after his death in 1153. There were hundreds of bernardine manuscripts, many of them monastic, copied throughout the twelfth century and up to about the middle of the thirteenth. But circulation of John of Salisbury’s treatise ‘remained rather limited’, to about a dozen manuscripts before 1180.

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

Bernard never wrote to Eleanor [of Aquitaine], but he sent six letters to her husband, Louis VII. In not one of these letters does he so much as mention her. We might think he did not dare attack her directly. Yet he never hesitated to address the king in harsh words, reproaching him, for example, from one end to the other of the long letter 221. Surely, if he had had anything to say to the queen, he would not have fallen back on doing it anonymously by means of a message to some unknown maiden in letter 113. Similarly, Bernard vehemently denounced the king’s misdeeds in a long letter to cardinal Stephen, without the slightest allusion to his queen. In the last paragraph of this letter he mentions, among other instances of marriages marred by consanguinity, the union between Louis and Eleanor. But he lay no particular stress on it. And, again, whenever Bernard wrote to Suger about the king, he mentioned only him.

It has often been said that the presence of Eleanor and other ‘amazons’ on the second crusade was one of the causes of its failure. At the beginning of Book II of the De consideratione, where Bernard indulged in a retrospective examination of conscience about this disaster, he attributed it, not to the presence of women, of whom there is no mention, but to division between christian princes.

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