Page 6, 9th May 1997

9th May 1997
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Page 6, 9th May 1997 — The wonder-worker

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The wonder-worker

BRIAN BRINDLEY on a scholarly life of St Bernard

SAINT BERNARD (10911153) is one of the most significant saints of the Middle Ages; he is also one of the best known, or so we like to think. The image of a large, soft dog, with a little barrel round his neck labelled ***, is instantly recognisable; more seriously, the Monastery of Great Saint Bernard captured the romantic Victorian imagination: it forms a claustrophobic setting for the beginning of Part II of Little Dorrit; parlour singers would break into plangent harmonies as they recalled the scene

At break of day, as heaven-ward The pious monks of San Bernard Uttered an oftrepeated prayer in Balfe's setting of Longfellow's words.

Bernard was from the beginning one of those people, like Noel Coward or Winston Churchill, who seem to attract anecdotes and attributed quotations to themselves to such an extent in his case that his contemporary Bernard of Cluny (author of Hora Novissima) has had to be rescued from oblivion and absorption. (Christians have been doing this sort of thing from the very early times, as witness the confusion over Mary Magdalene.) There is of course nothing of this sort of nonsense in the present book, which is a successful attempt to strip away accretions and get at the reality of Bernard of Clairvaux. This is made more difficult by the nature of the source material: the subtitle, contrasting "cult" and "history" epitomises the problem. St Bernard was one of those, like Mother Teresa in our own time, or St John Vianney or St BenedictJoseph Labre in recent centuries, who were generally regarded as "saints" in their own lifetime, whose formal canonisation is only a matter of waiting in Bernard's case for a mere 21 years. In the meantime, and even while he lived, the Vita Prima was being prepared, not exactly as a biography as we would understand it. but as a preparation for that canonisation. It has been Professor Bredero's selfappointed task to disentangle the material.

This is for him evidently a labour of love: he has devoted his life to the study of the saint, and his book represents the summary of his conclusions. It was written in Dutch, and has been translated by his friend Dr Reinder Bruinsma. Dr Bredero has overseen the translation, so we may presume that it is authentic; it strikes me as perfectly idiomatic and readable, if at times a trifle ponderous. The book is very handsomely printed in the United States; spelling and usage are American throughout, though not irritatingly


The picture of St Bernard that emerges leaves one in no doubt that he is one of the greatest saints of the west. Revered in his lifetime as a wonder-worker, he was also an attractive writer and an important reformer whose advice on crucial questions of organisation helped the church make the transition from the Dark Ages to the Middle Ages.

That said, this is not really a book for the general reader; it might be easy to get carried away by the author's enthusiasm for his subject, and to end up feeling that one has learned rather more about Bernard than one needs to know. To future historians and hagiographers it will be an invaluable aid.

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