Saturday, May 18, 2013

THE TOIL OF WORMS - A LETTER OF BERNARD OF CLAIRVEAUX


Today's research snippet.
Items from the Chalcis hoard - 14th/15thC
Bernard of Clairveaux 1090-1153 was a great letter writer.  His epistles were frequently full of good advice as he saw it,  pep talks and admonishments.  Sometimes there were dark hints about the doings of others in society.

Here are extracts from his letter to 'The Virgin Sophia, that she may keep the title of virginity and attain its reward.'  His remarks on the state of high born royal women are often taken to be jibes aimed at Eleanor of Aquitaine, although no names are named and there is no outright proof.

"For if among men, virtue is rare – a rare bird on earth – how much rarer is it in the case of a weak woman of high birth?  Who can find a virtuous woman? Much more a virtuous woman of high birth?"

"Let other women, then, who have not any other hope, contend for the cheap, fleeting and paltry glory of things that vanish and deceive.  Do you cling to the hope that confounds not. Do you keep yourself, I say, for that far more exceeding weight of glory, which our light affliction which is but for a moment, worketh for you on high.  And if the daughters of Belial reproach you, those who walk with stretched forth necks, mincing as they go, decked out and adorned like the Temple, answer them:  My Kingdom is not of this world; answer them: My time is not yet come…"

"Silk and purple and rouge and paint have beauty, but impart it not.  Every such thing that you apply to the body exhibits its own loveliness, but leaves it’s not behind.  It takes the beauty was it, when the thing itself is taken away.  For the beauty that is put on with the garment and put off with the garment, belongs without doubt to the garment, and not to wearer of it. 
Do not you therefore, emulate those evil disposed persons who, as mendicants, seek an extraneous beauty when they have lost their own.  They only betray how destitute they are of an  proper and native beauty, when at such great labour and cost of a study to furnish themselves outside with the many and various graces of the fashion of the world which passeth away, just that they may appear graceful in the eyes of fools.  Deem it a thing unworthy of you to borrow your attractiveness from the furs of animals and the toils of worms; let your own suffice you.  For that is the true and proper beauty of anything, which it has in itself without the aid of any substance besides.  Oh!  How lovely the flush with which the jewel of inborn modesty colours a virgin’s cheeks!  Can have the earrings of queen’s be compared to this?  And self discipline confers a mark of equal beauty.  Household discipline calms the hall aspect of a maiden’s bearing, her whole temper of mind.  It bows the neck, smooths the proud browsd, composes the countenance, restrains the eyes, repressive laughter, checks, the tongue, tempers the appetite, assuages wrath, and guides the deportment.  With such pearls of modesty should your robe be decked. When virginity is girt with divers colours such as these, is there any glory to which it is not rightly preferred?...."

"You see women of the world burdened, rather than adorned with gold, silver, precious stones; in short, with all the raiment of a palace.  You see how they draw  long trains behind them, and those of the most costly materials, and raise thick clouds of dust into the air.  Let not such things disturb you.  They must lay them aside when they come to die; but the holiness which is your possession will not forsake you.  The things which they wear are really not their own.  When they die they can take nothing with them, nor will this their glory go down with them.  The world,  whose such things are, will keep them and dismissed the wearers naked; and will beguile with them others equally vain."

4 comments:

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Fascinating! I have never read Bernard's letters before (except for a few snippets in books on Eleanor and the Angevins). I would love to read more- Bernard's style is very flowery- where should I look for?

Oh, and, since today we're celebrating Eleanor and Henry's wedding anniversary, the timing is perfect ;-)

Sue at historicaldilettante@gmail.com said...

I love Suger but am fascinated by Bernard's thinking. Suger recognized that earthly kingdoms were but temporary and that preparing oneself for the heavenly Kingdom was the goal, but he was savvy enough to recognize that there was political/PR advantage to adorning the earthly kingdoms (whether with lovely liturgical pieces, glorious architecture, or make-up and pretty dresses on a queen). Bernard scorned all that most sincerely. While my modern sensibilities embrace Suger's philosophy, I can't help but respect Bernard's integrity of belief.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Sue, I agree re your comments. I think also that Suger got a personal buzz out of it too. It was part of the way he connected with God - in adorning God. I agree too re Bernard of Clairveaux. Integrity was core to who he was - but if you weren't following his path, I imagine he could be insufferable!
Kasia - I don't have the exact reference because my Kindle is elsewhere at the moment, but translations of his letters are available on Amazon.

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Thank you for the recommendation :-)