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Following the Rule(s): Authority and Originality in Medieval Monastic Thought

By Lieke Smits

Until the middle of the twentieth century, scholars assumed that in medieval culture authority (auctoritas) was deemed more important than originality.[1] The often-quoted expression attributed to Bernard of Chartres (d. after 1124), master in the cathedral school, that his fellow scholars were like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants has certainly contributed to this view. While this statement contains at least some notion of going beyond the authorities – the dwarfs can see more than the giants –, medieval thinkers belonging to the monastic culture still have the reputation of being slavishly tied to the writings of their predecessors.[2]

One of the most important authoritative texts for medieval monks, perhaps only second to Scripture, was the Benedictine Rule. Especially monks belonging to the Cistercian order are known for advocating a literal interpretation of the Rule; they were dissatisfied with the lifestyle of the traditional Benedictines, who, for example, no longer followed the instruction in the Rule to performing manual labor. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153), who is seen as the primary builder of the Cistercian order and was one of the most prominent thinkers of his time, most ardently stressed the importance observing the Rule strictly. Therefore, it struck me that after reading his De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae (‘The Steps of Humility and Pride’) I got the impression that Bernard uses the authority of the Rule more freely than would be expected. I think that a closer examination of this text will show that the modern opposition between authority and originality might not be the best way to look at medieval monastic texts.

The medieval term auctoritas

The word auctoritas could have various meanings during the medieval period. The auctoritates were, initially, the frequently cited authors, but the term changed its meaning to the texts themselves – or extracts from the texts – that conferred authority.[3] It is this later usage which I denote with the term authority.

Auctoritas was closely connected with truth and examples that had to be followed. Therefore, fables and other kinds of fictional narrative possessed little authority; they consisted of lies and were generally distrusted.[4] On the opposite end of the spectrum was Scripture. As it contained only true words, it was the book with the highest degree of authority .

The authority of the Rule

For medieval monks who lived their lives according to the Rule of St. Benedict, this authoritative text had a special status. First of all, it was not a mere theoretical work, but it had practical implications as well, just like Scripture. A correct interpretation of the Rule was very important, because it provided the instructions for a good monastic life. However, the Rule did not contain universal standards that were imposed on everybody. In this respect the Rule stood far below the authority of the Bible, which applied to all living men.

The interpretation of the Benedictine Rule was a topic much discussed in the twelfth century, when a great number of new monastic orders came into existence. Each order advocated its own interpretation of the Rule, which resulted in different ways of life. This led to the question whether there was only one good way to interpret the Rule. Most authors did not regard the multiformity as a problem. For example, the anonymous author who wrote the Libellus de diversis ordinibus (‘Little Book on Different Orders’) around the middle of the century thought there was nothing wrong with diversity in religious life; all orders were pleasing to God.[5] In practice, however, it was important that monks belonging to the same order understood the Rule in the same manner. Stephen Harding (d. 1134), the second abbot of Cîteaux, demanded that all Cistercian monks should understand the Rule in exactly the same way as the founders of Cîteaux had done.[6] This makes it quite a surprise to discover that the authority of the Rule was not always followed to the letter by one of the most prominent Cistercian monks of that period, Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard van Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux

In 1113 Bernard entered the first Cistercian abbey, Cîteaux, bringing no less than thirty young noblemen with him. Three years later he founded the daughter house Clairvaux, where he became abbot. He contributed to the constitutions and regulations of the order, but soon his influenced extended outside the monastic world. Bernard is known for his preaching of the Second Crusade, his dispute with Peter Abelard, his combat against heresy and his theological and mystical writings.

The general image of Bernard’s handling of the authority of the Rule is very much shaped by two of his works, namely Liber de praecepto et dispensatione ( ‘Book of Precepts and Dispensations’) and Apologia ad Guillelmum abbatem  (‘A Justification to Abbot William’), which are concerned with the interpretation and authority of the Rule. In both works Bernard stresses the opinion that the Cistercians are the only monks who observe the Rule to the letter.[7] In the following section I will show, however, that in his own work, Bernard himself did not always follow the authority of the Rule literally.

A surprisingly original interpretation of the Rule

A good example of Bernard’s original interpretation of the Rule (and therewith a good example of medieval originality) is De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae, Bernard’s first published work, which he wrote at the request of Godfrey of Langres, abbot of Fontenay. The text is generally considered to be a commentary on chapter seven of the Benedictine Rule, on humility. Surprisingly, Bernard does not, as Benedict had done and Godfrey had asked him to do, describe the twelve steps of humility.  Rather, he describes the twelve steps of pride. In the Retractatio, which he wrote later to defend this treatise (and which is often placed at its head), Bernard defends this decision as follows:

[T]he heading itself, which is entitled “the steps of humility”, will perhaps suffer a false accusation because of this that the steps not of humility but rather of pride seem to be distinguished and described here. But this [is said] by those who either understand less or observe less the reason for the title, which I have, however, cared to make known at the end of the work.[8]

Indeed, at the end of the treatise Bernard explains to Godfrey that he can only describe the path with which he himself is familiar, and that is the downward road to pride. If, however, the reader reverses the order, he will find the way up toward humility.

Bernard has reversed the twelve steps of humility given by Benedict, according to the following scheme:[9]

Twelve steps

For example, when writing about the second step of pride, Bernard contrasts Benedict’s gravitas with levitas mentis. Benedict’s step could be taken as an attitude of withdrawal, but Bernard corrects this view by explaining that his second step of pride is a lighthearted attitude, which comes with jealousy and envy, competing for recognition, speaking frequently and emphasizing one’s own good qualities. Likewise, Benedict’s tenth step might be understood as meaning that a sense of humor is a form of pride. However, Bernard explains that what is to be avoided are arrogant jokes. In some cases, Bernard goes a little bit further in giving his own twist to the steps. Step nine for example, the hypocritical confession, is not the logical opposite of Benedict’s fourth step. Denis Farkasfalvy suggests that this step is based on Bernard’s personal experience.[10]

One could argue that the choice for describing the steps of pride can be seen within the spirit of the Rule. The reason for this reversal given by Bernard himself is, as we have seen, that he is more familiar with the steps of pride than with those of humility. This statement is, of course, a way of showing his own humility, one of the most important virtues according to the Rule. It is clear from this that Bernard, though describing the steps of pride, is at the same time concerned with climbing the ladder toward humility.

At the same time, if Bernard had described the steps of humility, he would have been obliged to stay very close to the text of the Rule. The reversion gave him the possibility to interpret the steps of the Rule more freely, and to blend them with his own ideas and experiences. This solution offered him the possibility to let his authority, the Rule, remain unaltered, while at the same time being able to diverge from it when he saw fit.

To conclude: on the one hand, in the twelfth century work De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae, the prominent Cistercian monk Bernard de Clairvaux took the liberty to comment very freely on the Rule and sometimes even diverge from it. This shows that medieval scholars were much more original in their interpretation of important texts than is often assumed. At the same time, however, by describing the steps of pride instead of humility Bernard has made sure that there is no direct confrontation with the authority of the Rule. This goes to show that originality and the following of authority, nowadays often regarded as opposites, were not mutually exclusive in the twelfth century.

o-o-o

Lieke Smits is a student at Utrecht University in the Research Master Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance studies (track Medieval). Her main interests are monastic and intellectual culture and the role of art and imagery in spirituality during the High Middle Ages.


[1] Cf. B. Duignan, Medieval Philosophy from 500 to 1500 CE (New York 2011) 10.

[2] The opposition between the flowering of the schools and the lack of creativity in the monasteries perhaps has its origin in Charles Homer Haskins´s influential The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, first published in the 1920s but still used by students studying the Middle Ages.

[3] J. Ziolkowski, ‘Cultures of Authority in the Long Twelfth Century’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 108 (2009) 421-448.

[4] A.J. Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (London 1984) 11.

[5] G. Constable and B. Smith (eds.), Libellus de diversis ordinibus (Oxford 1972).

[6] Charta charitatis 1:I: ‘Ut uno modo ab omnibus intelligatur regula et teneatur. Nunc vero volumus, illisque praecipimus, ut regulam beati Benedicti per omnia observent, sicuti in novo monasterio observatur. Non alium inducant sensum. in lectione sanctae Regulae; sicut antecessores nostri sancti patres, monachi scilicet novi monasterii, intellexerunt et tenuerunt, et nos hodie intelligimus, et tenemus, ita et isti intelligant et teneant.’ Text according to C. Waddell, Narrative and Legislative Texts from Early Cîteaux (Cîteaux 1999) 276).

[7] Bernard of Clairvaux, Liber de praecepto et dispensatione II.49: ‘Exceptis proinde Cisterciensibus, et qui illorum forte ritu non tam vivere secundum Regulam, quam ipsam ex integro pure ad litteram (uti se sane professos esse putant) tenere curant.’ Text according to the edition by J.P. Migne, Patrologia Latina 182, col. 0887B.

[8] Bernard of Clairvaux, De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae, in: B.R.V. Millis (ed.), Select Treatises of S. Bernard of Clairvaux (Cambridge 1926) 76.

[9] Ibid., 77-78.

[10] D. Farkasfalvy, ‘St. Bernard’s Spirituality and the Benedictine Rule in “The Steps of Humility”‘, Analecta Cisterciensia 36 (1980) 255.

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