William of SAINT-THIERRY, Arnold of Bonneval, Geoffrey of Auxerre. The First Life of Bernard of Clairvaux. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Hillary Costello, OCSO. Cistercian Fathers vol. 76. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2016. Pp. xlii + 286. $29.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-87907-176-9. Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541.


The earliest and most valuable of the three twelfth-century biographies of St. Bernard (its two successors having little original material to add), the Vita Prima is now available in a welcome though not definitive English version by the veteran Cistercian translator Hillary Costello of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leistershire, UK, who also provides an extensive introduction not only to the contents of the text and the purpose and circumstances of its composition, but to the manuscript providing its text that is one of the treasured possessions of his monastery.

By far the best known of the five books that make up this work is the first, written by Bernard’s close friend, the Benedictine abbot turned simple Cistercian monk William of Saint-Thierry, a mystical theologian and spiritual writer of Bernard’s caliber in his own right. William presents the early life of Bernard from his birth to noble, religiously dedicated Burgundian parents; his early studies; his entrance with thirty companions – brothers, friends, other relatives – into the struggling new monastery of Cîteaux, founded some fifteen years earlier, in 1098; his appointment as abbot of the new monastery of Clairvaux shortly after his own monastic foundation; and early instances both of his gift of healing and of his influence beyond the cloister. While including many of the conventions of medieval hagiography – for example his mother’s dream before Bernard’s birth predicting his future role as a powerful preacher, his victorious rejection of several seductive temptresses, and various manifestations of the supernatural from early in life – there is also clear evidence of William’s deep personal affection for his friend, as well as a willingness to point out instances of shortcomings and excesses that go some way to humanize the portrait. He notes Bernard’s initial failure to take his monks intellectual and moral limitations into account, holding them to his own exacting standards, with the result that the “men who were under his authority and with whom he lived were all almost estranged from him” (31). To his credit, Bernard was able to make adjustments: having “learned to some degree to take part in ordinary conversation and act in a more humane fashion, he began to enjoy the fruits of their common conversation and living among them on their own level” (33-34). William even shows Bernard making “a good-natured joke” about having “no teachers besides the oaks and beeches” amidst which he would regularly meditate (27). He is particularly critical of Bernard’s extreme ascetical practices during his early monastic life that would permanently damage his health and require him to live apart from the community for extensive periods: “If only he had kept to those basic principles of his early way of life and afterward grown accustomed to live as a man among men and, having learned how to understand the needy and the poor, to have compassion on the weakness of men; if only he had shown these same qualities toward himself as he had toward others: kindness, discretion, concern!” (43). William’s own concern for his friend’s welfare is evident from this willingness to critique this “indiscreet fervor” (47), despite which Bernard’s mental and spiritual gifts and his extraordinary will power enable him to become the most influential figure of his age, both within and beyond the cloister.

Already in his preface, William foresees the probability that his own death would prevent him from completing the task of composing his friend’s life story, but trusts that others “will take it up again after me and after his death, do better and more worthily what I myself have attempted, invest the worthy material with another style” (3). William does in fact precede Bernard in death by five years, and if not “better and more worthily,” his two successors in presenting the abbot’s life do so “with another style.” The second book is written by Arnold of Bonneval, a Benedictine abbot acquainted with Bernard though not a close friend like William. But the focus of this book requires less personal detail, as it principally considers Bernard’s definitive entry into public life through his tireless advocacy of the legitimacy of Pope Innocent II during the papal schism of 1130-37. According to Arnold, Bernard’s unique authority and influence is due not only to the power of his personality and his preaching but to the signs and wonders that accompanied his travels on behalf of Innocent. Arnold also weaves into his account details about Bernard’s reluctant expansion of Clairvaux, made necessary by the huge influx of recruits, and his celebrated series of sermons on the Song of Songs, along with his De Consideratione, a book of advice to Innocent’s successor Eugene III, the former monk of Clairvaux who becomes the first Cistercian pope.

It is not clear why Arnold, who unlike William survived Bernard by some years, did not continue his narrative beyond the second book, but the three final books, totaling about 45% of the whole work, come from the pen of Bernard’s long-time secretary, Geoffrey of Auxerre, eventually Abbot of Clairvaux himself for a brief time and subsequently of other Cistercian houses. Geoffrey was almost certainly the major impetus behind the composition of the Vita Prima from the beginning and probably the one who had recruited William and Arnold. He and another of Bernard’s secretaries had assembled sets of extensive notes, still extant, that were made available to these first writers, and eventually Geoffrey decided to complete the work himself. Book III begins with an extensive, rather formal character sketch of Bernard based on long acquaintance; though not as intimate as that of Bernard’s peer William, it does include some striking anecdotes, for instance the fact that the Carthusian prior Guigo was rather disturbed by the fancy trappings of the horse Bernard rode while visiting the Grande Chartreuse, when in fact Bernard himself was totally oblivious to the gear of his borrowed horse (150). The major event discussed in this book is Bernard’s preaching, at the command of Pope Eugene, of the Second Crusade, which ended in failure despite Bernard’s charismatic appeals and the accompanying “miraculous signs” (155). Geoffrey puts the best “spin” on the events he can, writing: “But if it should please God to use such an occasion to free so many from the Western church of their sins, and if the body of the Eastern church should not have been freed from the pagan hordes, who would dare to say to him, Why have you done this?” (156), and adds, “For the sake of posterity it should be remembered that the teaching of Bernard was a great benefit for the holy church in correcting the conduct of Catholics, in suppressing the fury of the schismatics, and in refuting the errors of the heretics” (157). The book also includes details of Bernard’s doctrinal confrontations with Peter Abelard (Geoffrey’s own former teacher) and Gilbert de la Porrée, his celebrated elegy on the death of his brother and close collaborator Gerard, and a closing survey of his major writings. The following book is composed almost exclusively of stories relating, with various degrees of detail, more than two hundred instances of Bernard’s miraculous powers of healing and prophetic foresight, evidence of his sanctity assembled with a view toward his eventual canonization. The final book brings his life to its completion with the details of his final illness, death and burial, but not before leaving his sickbed for one last work of charity, travelling to Metz to reconcile warring factions there, again reinforced by miraculous events signaling divine approbation of his mission. Geoffrey concludes the work with a prayer to the “most gentle Father” Bernard, whose spirit, zeal and “kindly attention” he asks to be “delegate[d] to your coworker” along with “the love by which you are most truly and happily honored in heaven” (258); this prayer to Bernard then flows into a concluding address to God to make “this valley [Clairvaux] abound always with spiritual fruit” (258) first received through Bernard and still present through his lasting influence.

Fr. Costello’s translation is smooth and very readable, with helpful if brief notes. His introduction is in the main thorough and informative, providing necessary background on the purpose of the Vita to support efforts for Bernard’s canonization, on each of the three authors, on Geoffrey’s role in initiating and bringing the work to completion, and on the content of each of the five books that make up the text. He points out that this is “not a totally objective narrative, not history as we know it today,” and that it is necessary “to read it with discretion” (xx). He concludes that though “the Vita Prima lacks both a coherent narrative and a single perspective,” nevertheless the process of its composition “culminated in a powerful book that finally was not only concerned with . . . canonization but also introduced Bernard’s life and its meaning to generations of readers and hearers” (xxxvi).

The one rather problematic aspect of the text is that it is a translation of Recension B, a slightly abridged version of the Vita that Geoffrey is said to have made in order to assist in the canonization process that had stalled under Pope Alexander III but would shortly achieve a successful resolution. Fr. Costello notes that the original longer version had already been translated into English twice (though both times before the critical Latin edition had been established and published), whereas this is the first translation of the “final” revised text, but it is evident that the main reason for translating Recension B is that a copy of this text was readily available at the translator’s own monastery. While the missing sections, nine in all, are noted at the outset of each of the three final books, no information is provided as to the actual content of this material, nor of the reason why it would have had a negative influence on the canonization effort, so the reader is left with an aroused but unsatisfied curiosity about the missing chapters, made more acute by the comment that the briefness of Geoffrey’s term as Abbot of Clairvaux was largely due to community dissatisfaction with the final form of the Vita (xvi). Including the missing chapters in an appendix, or at least providing summaries of their content, would have provided some indication of what was excised by Geoffrey and why. Still, this material makes up a very small proportion of the total text (so small, in fact, as to raise once again the question of how its omission could have had a major effect on the work’s successful accomplishment of its purpose); thus the translation of this version does make available a thorough, engaging encounter with the life and achievement of Bernard as seen from three quite different but complementary contemporary perspectives. It is a valuable addition to the collection of translations from the first Cistercian generation, Bernard, William and their contemporaries, that Cistercian Publications, now under the aegis of the Benedictines at Liturgical Press, began to issue almost a half century ago, and that is now very close to providing a complete set of English texts from one of the most significant sources of the Christian spiritual tradition.