The Other Saint Bernard: The ‘Troubled and Varied Career’ of Bernard of Abbeville, Abbot of Tiron

The Other Saint Bernard: The ‘Troubled and Varied Career’ of Bernard of Abbeville, Abbot of Tiron

By Kathleen Thompson

Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol.60:4 (2009)

Abstract: Geoffrey Grossus’ lengthy life of Bernard of Abbeville leaves unanswered many questions. Comparison with contemporary sources suggests that Bernard was a career churchman with an interest in ascetism and the apostolic life, who left his original house in Poitiers because of resistance to reforms that he had introduced as abbot. A successful search for a patron enabled him to establish an entirely new community at Tiron in the Perche, where he was able to implement his ideas, although the community did not remain at the forefront of monastic thinking after the death of its charismatic founder in 1116.

Introduction:‘A troubled and varied career’.  Such is David Knowles’s assessment of Bernard of Abbeville, founder of the abbey of Tiron, which lies in the wooded landscape of the Perche region between Alençon and Chartres in western France. Bernard’s career is conventionally coupled with those of Robert of Arbrissel and Vitalis of Mortain, all of them important figures in the ascetic revival in monasticism which gripped western Europe in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Yet while the Fontevraudine and Savignac affiliations that derived from Robert and Vitalis’s activities have been much discussed, there is no major history of the abbey of Tiron. The rigour of Bernard’s approach to monastic life, however, was much admired by contemporaries, including Henry I of England, David I of Scotland and Louis VI of France. His abbey was the source for more than a hundred communities throughout France and, perhaps surprisingly, in Scotland, Wales and England. The speed with which these daughter houses were established over such a broad area was remarkable, but the impetus was not sustained, and the so-called ‘Order of Tiron’ had ceased to be an influential force within the western monastic tradition by the beginning of the thirteenth century.

The sources for the early history of the abbey of Tiron are fuller than for many other contemporary foundations. There is a cartulary or register of titles to property, compiled, according to its nineteenth-century editor, in the 1160s and several references in near-contemporary sources, the earliest of which dates from the 1120s. Above all, however, there is a Life of Bernard of Abbeville, apparently written at Tiron, by Geoffrey, who describes himself as the least of monks, ‘monachorum omnium infimus’, probably within twenty-five years of Bernard’s death in April 1116. The Vita Bernardi lies in a tradition of hagiographical writing that stretches back to Athanasius’ life of St Anthony. By the eleventh century collections of founders’ miracle stories had evolved into a powerful tool that could serve a political purpose in defending communities from lay interference, and it was not not uncommon for houses to commission Lives of their founders. Marbod, bishop of Rennes, was commissioned, for example, to write a life of Abbot Robert of Chaise-Dieu and in the twelfth century Baudri of Bourgeuil would write a Life of Robert of Arbrissel at the request of Abbess Petronilla of Fontevraud. The Vita Bernardi returns to the older approach, however, in which members of a community recorded the traditions of their houses.

It is a lengthy and repetitious work, which, at the turn of the twentieth century, was the subject of detailed scrutiny by the German scholar, Johannes von Walter. He concluded that it was an amalgam of two earlier works: a Life of Bernard that emphasised his links with his local aristocratic patrons, the Rotrou family, and another that described his connection with the cathedral at Chartres. Further investigation is required to nuance von Walter’s work, but his suggestion is important for highlighting the erratic quality of the vita. Bernard’s life before the foundation of Tiron is portrayed as a restless round of wanderings, interspersed with a series of incidents bearing remarkable similarities to one another, which prompted David Knowles to remark that Bernard’s ‘biographer gives us glimpses without supplying the links of causality that might join the disconnected episodes’. A re-examination of Bernard’s career in the context of those of his contemporaries and in the light of recent work on the twelfth-century Reformation may, however, begin to recover those links of causality.

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