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Bernard of Cluny

Benedictine (twelfth century)

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Bernard of Cluny (or of MORLAIX), a Benedictine monk of the first half of the twelfth century, poet, satirist, and hymn-writer, author of the famous verses “On the Contempt of the World”. His parentage, native land, and education are hidden in obscurity. The sixteenth-century writer John Pits (Scriptores Angliae, Saec. XII) says that he was of English birth. He is frequently called Morlanensis, which title most writers have interpreted to mean that he was a native of Morlaix in Brittany, though some credit him to Murlas near Puy in Beam. A writer in the “Journal of Theological Studies” (1907), VIII, 354-359 contends that he belonged to the family of the Seigneurs of Montpellier in Languedoc, and was born at Murles, a possession of that distinguished family; also that he was at first a monk of St. Sauveur d’Aniane, whence he entered Cluny under Abbot Pons (1109-22). It is certain that he was a monk at Cluny in the time of Peter the Venerable (1122-56), for his famous poem is dedicated to that abbot. It may have been written about 1140. He left some sermons and is said to be the author of certain monastic regulations known as the “Consuetudines Cluniacenses” (Hergott, Vetus Discipl. Monast., Paris, 1726; Albers, Consuet. Cluniac. antiquiores, Monte Cassino, 1906), also of a dialogue (Colloquium) on the Trinity. The “De Contemptu Mundi” contains about 3,000 verses, and is for the most part a very bitter satire against the moral disorders of the monastic poet’s time. He spares no one; priests, nuns, bishops, monks, and even Rome itself are mercilessly scourged for their shortcomings. For this reason it was first printed by Matthias Flaccus as one of his testes veritatis, or witnesses of the deep-seated corruption of the medieval Church (Varia poemata de corrupto ecclesiae statu, Basle, 1557), and was often reprinted by Protestants in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its complete Latin text is found in Thomas Wright (Anglo-Latin Satirical Poets of the Twelfth Century, London, 1872). This Christian Juvenal does not proceed in an orderly manner against the vices and follies of his age. It has been well said that he seems to eddy about two main points: the transitory character of all material pleasures and the permanency of spiritual joys. Bernard of Cluny is indeed a lyrical writer, swept from one theme to another by the intense force of ascetic meditation and by the majestic power of his own verse, in which there lingers yet a certain fierce intoxication of poetic wrath. His highly wrought pictures of heaven and hell were probably known to Dante; the roasting cold, the freezing fire, the devouring worm, the fiery floods, and again the glorious idyl of the Golden Age and the splendors of the Heavenly Kingdom are couched in a diction that rises at times to the height of Dante’s genius. The enormity of sin, the charm of virtue, the torture of an evil conscience, the sweetness of a God-fearing life alternate with heaven and hell as the themes of his majestic dithyramb. Nor does he dwell in generalities; he returns again and again to the wickedness of woman (one of the fiercest arraignments of the sex), the evils of wine, money, learning, per-jury, soothsaying, etc.; this master of an elegant, forceful, and abundant latinity cannot find words strong enough to convey his prophetic rage at the moral apostasy of his generation, in almost none of whom does he find spiritual soundness. Youthful and simoniacal bishops, oppressive agents of ecclesiastical corporations, the officers of the Curia, papal legates, and the pope himself are treated with no less severity than in Dante or in the sculptures of medieval cathedrals. Only those who do not know the utter frankness of certain medieval moralists could borrow scandal from his verses. It may be added that in medieval times “the more pious the chronicler the blacker his colors”. The early half of the twelfth century saw the appearance of several new factors of secularism unknown to an earlier and more simply religious time: the increase of commerce and industry resultant from the Crusades, the growing independence of medieval cities, the secularization of Benedictine life, the development of pageantry and luxury in a hitherto rude feudal world, the reaction from the terrific conflict of State and Church in the latter half of the eleventh century. ‘The song of the Cluniac is a great cry of pain wrung from a deeply religious and even mystical soul at the first dawning consciousness of a new order of human ideals and aspirations. The turbid and irregular flow of his denunciation is halted occasionally in a dramatic way by glimpses of a Divine order of things, either in the faraway past or in the near future. This poet-preacher is also a prophet; Antichrist, he says, is born in Spain; Elijah has come to life again in the Orient. The last days are at hand, and it behoves the true Christian to awake and be ready for the dissolution of an order now grown intolerable, in which religion itself is henceforth represented by cant and hypocrisy.

The metre of this poem is no less unique than its diction; it is a dactylic hexameter in three sections, devoid of caesura, with tailed rhymes and a feminine leonine rhyme between the two first sections; the verses are technically known as leonini cristati trilices dactylici, and are so difficult to construct in great numbers that the writer claims Divine inspiration (the impulse and inflow of the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding) as the chief agency in the execution of so long an effort of this kind. To Archbishop (then Dean) Trench, who first translated about one hundred lines (Sacred Latin Poetry, London, 1849, 1864), the metre seemed repulsive and awkward; to the famous liturgiologist Dr. Neale (The Rhythm of Bernard of Morlaix, 8th ed., London, 1868) it seems “one of the loveliest of mediaeval measures”. It is, indeed, a solemn and stately verse, rich and sonorous, not meant, however, to be read at one sitting, at the risk of surfeiting the appetite. Bernard of Cluny is an erudite writer, and his poem leaves an excellent impression of the Latin culture of the Benedictine monasteries of France and England in the first half of the twelfth century (Bishop Stubbs, Seventeen Lectures on Medieval History, London, 1893). The modern interest of English-speaking circles in this semi-obscure poet centers in the lovely hymns of exceptional piety, warmth, and delicacy of sentiment dispersed through his lurid satire; one of them, in particular, “Jerusalem the Golden”, has been made universally famous in the translation of the above-mentioned Dr. Neale, first printed in his “Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences” (London, 1851). Other translations of the brief portion made known in English by the aforesaid writers are owing to S. G. Duffeld (1867) and Charles Lawrence Ford (1898). A complete English translation (in prose) appeared from the pen of Henry Preble, in the “American Journal of Theology” (1906, 72-101, 286-308, 495-516), with a biographical note by Samuel Macauley Jackson.


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