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Bernard of Clairvaux's blasphemous Military Theology

Bernard's War


This is part of a document (1) which was written by Bernard to his friend Hugh de Payens (2), the Grand Master and co-founder of the Knights Templar. Bernard and de Payens also wrote the Latin Rule to govern the Knights. Bernard condemns secular war and knighthood, while praising "Christian" war and knighthood.

This document from Bernard of Clairvaux was quoted (accurately, as it turns out) in a dreadful 2006 novel, The Templar Legacy, by Steve Barry. Here is an on-line translation of the key parts.

Paragraph separation and highlights by The M+G+R Foundation.

Bernard of Clairvaux


To the Knights Templar - In Praise of the New Militia


To Hugh, Christ's knight and master of Christ's knighthood, Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux in name only, sends his greeting: fight the good fight.

Once, twice and now a third time, unless I am quite wrong, you have asked me, dear Hugh, to write an exhortation for you and your knightly companions and to fling my pen, since I am not allowed a lance, against your tyrannical enemy; you maintain that it would be of some help to you if I were to fortify with my writing men whom I cannot with arms.

I know I have been putting you off for some time now, not because your request seems improper but for fear that assent to it on my part would prove to be careless and imprudent, if in my ignorance I were to take on something that a better man would do a better job of; the job would still remain to be done, and I would perhaps have made it less easy for someone else to do.

Finally, I realized that I was only wasting a great deal of time with such speculations, and in order not to seem more unwilling than incapable, I have done what little I could: it is for the reader to judge whether or not I have done satisfactorily. Even if some should find inadequacy in it or little pleasure, it matters not to me, who have not failed to make your desire my own.

1. Exhortation for the Knights Templar

1. We hear that a new kind of chivalry has risen on earth, and that it has risen on the very region of it which the rising Son Himself, present in flesh, once visited from on high; as He then, by the strength of His mighty hand, threw down the princes of darkness, so now He exterminates their followers, those sons of misplaced faith, put to flight-by a band of His mighty ones, bringing about even now His people's redemption and raising again the cup of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.

A new kind of chivalry, one ignorant of the ways of the ages, which fights a double fight equally and tirelessly, both against flesh and blood and against the spiritual forces of iniquity in the heavens. When a man mightily resists a bodily foe by strength of his body alone, I no more think it a wonder than I believe it to be a rare occurrence; nor is it marvelous, though I might call it praiseworthy, when a man declares war on vice or demons with the power of his soul, since the world is full of monks.

But when both of these kinds of men are girded with their own particular powerful sword and distinguished with their own particular noble belt in a single man, who would not judge this, which is as yet an unfamiliar thing, to be most worthy of all admiration? He indeed is a fearless knight, and one secure from any quarter, since his soul is dressed in an armor of faith just as his body is dressed in an armor of steel. Since he is well protected by both kinds of arms, he fears neither the demon nor man. Nor is he afraid of death, since he longs to die.

Why should he fear whether he lives or dies, since for him life is Christ and death is a reward? Faithfully and freely does he go forth on Christ's behalf, but he would rather be dissolved and be with Christ: such is the obviously better thing. So go forth in safety, knights, and drive out the enemies of the cross of Christ with fearless intention, certain that neither death nor life can separate you from God's love, which Jesus Christ embodies; in every moment of danger, fulfill through your own actions the principle: 'Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.'

How glorious the victors returned from battle! How blessed those martyrs who died in battle! Rejoice, brave fighter, if you live and conquer in the Lord; but rather exult and glory, if you die and are joined to the Lord. Life can be fruitful and victory can be glorious; but sacred death is properly to be preferred to either, for if 'they are blessed who die in the Lord,' are they not much more so who die on the Lord's behalf?

2. Doubtless the death of His holy ones will be valuable in the sight of the Lord, whether they die in bed or in battle. On the other hand, death in battle is surely the more valuable inasmuch as it is the more glorious.

Life is safe when conscience is pure. Life is indeed safe, when death is looked forward to fearlessly, when death is even longed for with savour and received with devotion. That chivalry is truly holy and safe, and is moreover free from the double danger by which another type of knight is habitually and regularly endangered, when Christ is not the sole cause of chivalrous doings.

Every time you who live in the ways of worldly chivalry gather to fight among yourselves, you need fear killing your adversary in body and yourself in soul; even more, you need fear finding yourself killed by him, both in body as well as soul. The heart's disposition, not the fortunes of war, determine defeat or victory for the Christian.

If the reason for fighting is good, the outcome of the fight cannot be bad, in the same way that any end cannot seem good when good cause and righteous intention do not precede it. If you get yourself killed while trying to kill someone else, you will die a murderer. But if you prevail and in trying to win or do well you have occasion to kill a man, you will live a murderer. Being a murderer benefits no one, the dead, the living, the victor or the vanquished.

It is a joyless victory when you overcome a man but surrender to vice, and you vainly glory in having overcome a man when wrath or pride has mastered you. I know there are those who kill not out of a lust for revenge, nor a fever for conquest, but simply in self defense; but I would not call even this a good victory, since dying in the flesh is a lesser evil than dying in soul. The soul does not die because the body is killed; rather, 'it is the soul that sins that will surely die.'

II. Secular Chivalry

3. What then is the end or issue of this secular chivalry, which I should probably just call wickedness outright, if its murderers sin mortally and its victims perish forever? To use the words of the Apostle, 'he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes should thresh in hope of gain of some fruit.'

What error, knights, so incredible, what madness so unbearable draws you to chivalrous deeds at such expense and labor, all for no return but death or crime? You cover your horses in silks and dress your armor with swatches of flowing cloth; you figure your lances, shields and saddles; your bridles and your spurs you adorn with gold and silver and jewels; and with all this display, you rush only towards death, in shameful madness and shameless idiocy.

Are these the tokens of chivalry or the trappings of women? Perhaps you imagine that your adversary's sword will reverence the gold, be gentle with you because of your jewels, be unable to pierce your silks? For the fighter, as you yourselves know well from your well-known experience, three things are essential: the knight who would accomplish much and well needs be careful in shielding himself, unencumbered for movement on the field, and quick to strike his adversary; you, on the contrary, wear your hair after the fashion of women, impeding your vision; trip up your own feet with your long hanging overgarments; bury your delicate, tender hands in sleeves cut long and flowing.

A greater danger than all of this, a thing that endangers the conscience of the armed man more, is the fact that the reasons for espousing such a culpable kind of chivalry are so very inconsequential and frivolous. What engenders such war and raises such strife among you is nothing more than unreasoned anger, or lust for profitless glory, or want of some trifling worldly good. Surely it is not prudent either to kill or die for such causes as these.

III. A New Chivalry

4. But Christ's knights can fight their Lord's fight in safety, fearless of sin in slaughter of their adversaries and fearless of danger at their own deaths, since death suffered or dealt out on Christ's behalf holds no crime and merits great glory. Hence one gains for Christ, and then gains Christ Himself, who most willingly accepts the death of an adversary for the ends of vengeance and then even more willingly offers Himself to a knight for the end of consolation.

Christ's knight deals out death in safety, as I said, and suffers death in even greater safety. He benefits himself when he suffers death, and benefits Christ when he deals out death. 'He does not wear a sword without cause; he is God's agent for punishment of evil-doers and for glorification of the good.'

Clearly, when he kills an evil-doer, he is not a homicide, but, if you will allow me the term, a malicide, and is plainly Christ's vengeance on those who work evil and the defense Christ provides for Christians. When such a knight is himself killed, we know that he has not simply perished but has won through to the end of this life. The death he inflicts accrues to Christ's profit; the death he receives accrues to his own.

The Christian glories in a pagan's death, because Christ is glorified; in the death of a Christian, the King's generosity is confirmed, by revelation of the knight's reward. Moreover, in the first case, the just will be gladdened when they see vengeance done; in the second, 'men will say, if there is indeed a reward for the just, it is God Judging men on earth.' Pagans would not even have to be slaughtered, if there were some other way to prevent them from besetting and oppressing the faithful. But now it is better that they be killed than that the rod of these sinners continue to imperil the lot of the just, preventing the just from reaching out their hands against iniquity.

5. What next? If a Christian is not allowed to strike with the sword, then why did the Saviour's precursor bid knights be content with their earnings, instead of forbidding them knighthood altogether? If on the other hand it is allowed all who are destined by God for such a role and have not professed some higher calling, which is in fact the case, to whom could it be better allowed than those by whose force and power the city of our strength, Sion, is held for our general protection, that the people of justice who keep the truth might enter it safely when those who transgress God's laws have been driven out?

Surely, then, let peoples who love war be destroyed, and let those who trouble us be cut off, and let all workers of iniquity, those who strive to carry off the invaluable treasure that the Christian people have stored up in Jerusalem, to profane the holy things and to hold God's sanctuary as their heritage, be scattered from the Lord's city. Let both swords of the faithful stretch out over the necks of their enemies, to destroy any haughtiness seeking to set itself up against that knowledge of God which is the faith of Christians, 'so that no one will have to ask, where is their God?'

6. When they have been cast out, He Himself will return to His heritage and house, over which he was angered when he spoke in the Gospel: 'See,' He said, 'your house is left empty to you'; and He lamented it thus in the words of the Prophet: 'I have left my house, I have abandoned my heritage'; and He will fulfill the terms of another prophecy: 'The Lord has ransomed His people and freed them, and they will come and exult on Mount Sion, and will rejoice in the Lord's bounty.'

Be glad, Jerusalem, and know now the time of your visitation. 'Rejoice and give praise, wastes of Jerusalem, for the Lord has consoled His people, He has ransomed them, the Lord has bared His holy arm in the sight of all peoples.' O Virgin Israel, you had fallen and there was no one to raise you up. Rise now, shake off the dust, virgin, captive daughter of Sion. Rise and stand tall, and see the pleasure which comes you from your God. 'You will no longer be called abandoned, and your lands will no more be called waste, for the Lord has taken pleasure in you and your lands will be peopled. Lift up your eyes, look around you and see: all these have gathered, they have come to you.'

This is the help sent you from the Holy One; through them, the promise made you long ago is already fulfilled: 'I will set in you the pride of the ages, the joy of generation on generation, you will suck the milk of peoples and will feed from the breast of kings'; and: 'just as a mother consoles her children, so I will console you and in Jerusalem you will give consolation,' Do you not see how many attestations of the ancients the new chivalry makes true? And that 'just as we have heard of it, so do we see it in the city of the Lord of forces'?

Only let not such literal interpretation preclude spiritual understanding, for whatever we usurp from the words of the Prophets for making sense of the present day diminishes what we can hope for in eternity; let not what we believe vanish because of what we have seen; let not the poverty of reality diminish the riches of hope; let not the witness of the present void our future. The earthly city's temporal glory has not destroyed heavenly goods, but augmented them, if only we do not falter in our assertion that the one is but a figure of another, which is our mother in heaven.

IV. The Way of Life of the Knights Templar

7. Now, for edification or disparagement of our chivalry, which clearly does its chivalrous deeds not for God but for the devil, a brief account of the life and ways of Christ's knights, of how they conduct themselves in battle and at home, of how they behave in public, and how greatly Christ's chivalry and the usual sort differ from one another.

First, Christ's knights have discipline and never disdain obedience, for as Scripture attests, the undisciplined son will perish, 'restiveness is as the sin of witchcraft and refusal to acquiesce is like the crime of idolatry.' They come and go at the will of their superior, wear what he has given them, and take clothing and nourishment from nowhere else.

They are wary of all excesses in food and dress; they concern themselves only with necessities. They have a joyous and sober life in their community, without women and without children. That they might lack no evangelical perfection, they live without private property, in one house, in one way, eager to safeguard spiritual oneness within the bounds of their peace. You could say that all their multitude has but one heart and one spirit, to such an extent does each of them strive, not to fulfill his private desires, but rather to obey his master.

At no time do they sit at leisure or wander adventurously; rather on those rare occasions when they are not engaged, they repair the wear and tear that their clothes and armor have suffered, bring things to order, and generally see to whatever their master's will and communal necessity dictate, in order to earn their keep.

Rank is not recognized among them at all; pride of place is allotted better, not nobler men. They rival one another in honor; they bear one another's burdens, so fulfilling Christ's injunction. The insolent word, the profitless deed, improvident laughter, even the least murmur or whisper does not go unrepaired when perceived properly.

They swear off dice and gaming; they detest hunting, and take no pleasure in the absurd cruelty of falconry, as it is practiced. They renounce and abominate mimes and magicians and romanciers, bawdy songs and the spectacle of the joust as vanity and dangerous folly.

They keep their hair short, having learned from the Apostle that it is shameful for a man to wear his hair like a woman. Never do they set and rarely do they wash their hair, preferring to go about disheveled and unkempt, covered in dust and blackened by the sun and their armor.

8. When battle is at hand, they arm themselves with faith within and steel without, rather than with gold, so that when armed, rather than prettified, they instill fear in their adversaries rather than incite their greed.

They choose to have horses that are strong and quick, rather than showy or well-dressed. They attend to battle rather than display, to victory rather than glory, and concern themselves to inspire fear rather than wonder.

They are not unstable or impetuous, and do not behave as if driven headlong by heedlessness; rather, they order themselves and dispose their forces for battle considerately and with every caution and provision, as we read that the Fathers did. True Israelites go forth to war at peace.

But when they have come to the point of battle, it is as if they say: 'Should I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and be disgusted with your enemies?'; they fling themselves against their foes and treat their adversaries like sheep, ever fearless alike, however few in number they may be, of barbarous savagery and the numberless horde.

Moreover, they know better than to presume upon their own strength, and prefer to hope for victory through the virtue of the Lord of Sabaoth, for whom they believe it to be a simple thing, as the sentence of Maccabees states: 'Many can be closed in the hands of a few, and in the sight of heaven's God there is no difference between bringing freedom by means of many and few, for victory in battle comes not of a multitude of armies, and might is cue gift of heaven.' They have in fact experienced this quite often, that a single one of them can hunt down practically a thousand and two can put ten thousand to flight.

Finally, then, they are both gentler than lambs and fiercer than lions, in such a wonderful and peculiar way that I am very nearly incapable of deciding what I think they should rather be called, monks or knights, unless I should perhaps more appropriately name them both, since they apparently lack neither, neither the monk's gentle disposition nor the knight's fierce strength.

What can be said, but that this is the Lord's work and a miracle in our eyes. God has elected such men to Himself and gathered them together from the ends of the earth, from among the mightiest of Israel, His agents for keeping the tomb which is the resting place of the true Solomon, all bearing swords and well taught in the ways of war.

Translated by David Carbon from: J. Leclercq and H. M. Rochais, eds., "Liber ad milites Templi de laude novae militiae," in S. Bernardi Opera, vol. 3 (Rome, 1963), 206-239. An English translation of the entire treatise is available: trans. Conrad Greenia, "In Praise of the New Knighthood," in Treatises III, The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux vol. 7, Cistercian Fathers Series 19 (Kalamazoo, 1977), 127-167.

(1) Document Source (Visited in 2011; No longer available in 2022).
(2) About Hugues (or Hugh) de Payens

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