As we drive up and down the A26, heading to or from the sun, the snow, (or Les Deux Chevres in Gevrey Chambertin!), just after Troyes on the way south, we see a sign for the Abbey de Clairvaux. It is not far from Colombey les Deux Eglises, the birth and resting place of General de Gaulle.
Anyone who has studied Medieval European history will doubtless already have told the story of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux to the children on the back seat as they take a break from their iPads. But that may still leave a reasonable number who look at the sign and wonder.
Clairveaux was founded by Bernard, one of the most influential Europeans of the 12C.
Before we get to Bernard, a few antecedents. The Abbey of Cluny was the flagship HQ of the Benedictine Order, founded in 910 at Cluny, just north west of Mâcon. Within a short period of its foundation, it took off like Halley's Comet, producing Popes and Saints galore (well four and three to be exact), and every major and minor noble wanted at least one son to be a Benedictine. For over 400 years, the main Abbey, completed in 1120 at 187m long, was the largest building in the western world. However for some of the Order, Cluny had lost touch with the fundamental monastic principles of humility and piety. So in 1098, a group of 20 monks (and including one Stephen Harding an English monk from Dorset), broke away from Cluny, led by Robert from Molesmes. Molesmes was a small monastery just north of Dijon. Robert and his followers were given some marshy land and buildings by the Vicompte of Beaune, at a place in the wilderness about 12km to the east of Nuits St George, which became known as Citeaux. There they went back to the hard and simple life. But they too attracted support, and were obliged also to expand to accommodate the demand from new recruits (one of whom was Bernard). The monks at Citeaux were called 'the Cistercians', and they wore a white habit, in distinction to the Benedictines, who wore black.
Bernard was born near to Dijon, into a noble Burgundian family. At the age of 9, he was sent to a religious school, where he excelled in literature. In 1113, when Bernard was 23, Stephen Harding had just become the third Abbey of Citeaux. In that year Bernard, along with 30 other young noblemen of Burgundy, came to Citeaux to join the Cisterian Order. After two years, in 1115, Bernard was sent by Stephen to found a new Abbey 170 km to the north near to Bar-sur-Aube, which became known as Clairveaux. Under Bernard’s direction, Clairvaux became a monastic training centre, attracting many new disciples, with others leaving to found further Abbeys for the Order, including in 1118 at Fontenay near to Autun (one of the best preserved remaining Cistercian Abbeys - a World Heritage Site from 1981). Monks from Clairvaux travelled abroad and founded new monasteries in Germany, Sweden, England, Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. Bernard and Harding were the two main forces behind the expansion of the Cistercian Order. Burgundy, and indeed all of Europe, had developed into a Medieval monastic chess board.
Bernard was a great orator and writer. He published books which were widely read and respected, and which earned him influence in the higher echelons of the Church. The Clunisians for their part were jealous of his success, but he won them over with his carefully crafted and measured responses to their criticisms. In 1130 a major dispute broke out in the Church when two Popes were elected. King Louis VI of France convened a meeting of Bishops at Etampes, and Bernard was chosen to judge between the two candidates. Bernard supported Innocent II against the rival candidate, Anacletus II, and most of the major powers then rallied behind Pope Innocent.
In 1132 Bernard got just reward for his support, when Pope Innocent abolished the dues that Clairvaux had previously had to pay to Cluny. This caused a dispute between the Black Monks and the White Monks that would last for some 20 years.
In or about 1146 the Pope called on Bernard to garner support for a second crusade, the Christians of Jerusalem being under attack by the Turks. There was little popular enthusiasm for this crusade, but after a rousing speech to a large crowd in a field near to Vezelay, Bernard persuaded all the men present to take up arms. He then went to Germany to support the cause, again with great success. In his final years, his reputation was tarnished by the failure of the Second Crusade, although his part in it was only supportive, at the instigation of the Pope and the King of France.
Bernard died in 1153 at the age of 63, by which time the presence and influence of the Cistercian Order had spread throughout the Western world. He was cannonised on 18 January 1174 by Pope Alexander III.