'Our order is abjection; it is humility; it is voluntary poverty, obedience, peace, joy in the Holy Spirit', wrote the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (10901153) to the monks of St Jean d'Aulps who had affiliated with Citeaux. Bernard further explained in a sermon that voluntary poverty, like the fortified city into which Jesus entered (Luke 10.38), defends its inhabitants from envy, within themselves and from others. Advising Atto, bishop of Troyes, Bernard asserted that, 'The reward for poverty is the kingdom of heaven'.1 The search for the kingdom of heaven through the embrace of voluntary poverty animated not only the great abbot of Clairvaux, but many Christians from the regular and secular clergy as well as the laity throughout the twelfth century.
Poverty implied renunciation of the will as much as rejection of worldy goods. The Guta-Sintram codex depicts St Augustine under a banner reading, 'Let poverty be sweet, the mind chaste, and the will one'. The same codex, the collaborative production of the canonesses of Schwartzenthann in Alsace and the canons of nearby Marbach, contains a sermon on Matt. 5.3, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit', composed by Peter Abelard for the nuns at the Abbey of the Paraclete. He admonishes them that, 'those who imitate the apostolic life, renouncing the world utterly, are more authentically poor and closer to God'.2 In her visionary treatise Scivias, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) depicts Poverty in Spirit receiving an outpouring of golden divine light, so glorious that one cannot look at her face.3 That brilliant light inspired the gold-filigreed
1 Sancti Bernardi Opera, ed. J. Leclercq, H. M. Rochais and C. H. Talbot (8 vols.; Rome: Editiones Cistercienses, 1957-77), vol. 7, Ep. 142,340; The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, trans. B. S. James, new introduction by B. M. Kienzle (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998), Letter 151, 220. Translations by B. Kienzle.
2 Fiona Griffiths, 'Brides and Dominae: Abelard's Cura monialium at the Augustinian Monastery of Marbach', Viator 34 (2003), 28.
3 Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop; introduction, Barbara J. Newman; preface, Caroline Walker Bynum (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), Vision I.i, 68; Scivias, ed. A. Fuhrkotter and A. Carlevaris (CCCM 43; Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), 9-10.
feast-day garments of the virgins at Rupertsberg, whose attire incurred the reproaches of Tenxwind, superior of the women at Andernach. Tenxwind disagreed with Hildegard over the interpretation of poverty and criticised her contemporary for rejecting women of low social rank and wealth.4
Beyond the religious houses of established orders, lay people and dissident groups also venerated and debated the apostolic ideal of poverty. Wandering preachers advocated evangelical austerity and relied on donations for their living, much as the mendicants would a century later. Norbert of Xanten (1082-1134) sold his worldly goods and was authorized by Pope Gelasius II as an itinerant preacher before establishing the new community at Prémontré in north-eastern France in 1120. Hermit preachers Robert of Arbrissel, Bernard of Tiron and Vitalis of Savigny all founded monastic houses. Robert of Arbrissel, who preached across the countryside barefoot, dressed in animal skins and a raggedy cloak, gathered followers at Fontevraud in 1101 and influenced many, including the Countess Ermengarde of Brittany (c. 1070-1147), whom he counseled: 'Love voluntary poverty. Amidst positions and honors.sighing along with the prophet say: I am a needy woman and poor.'5
Not all preachers who called for conversion to the apostolic life received approval from ecclesiastical authority. Evervin of Steinfeld, in an 1143 letter to Bernard of Clairvaux, decried a 'new' heresy whose followers claimed apostolic descent, called themselves the 'Poor of Christ' and held no property of their own. Around twenty years later Ekbert of Schönau (d. 1184) wrote thirteen sermons against the heretics whom he termed 'Cathars'. He joined his sister Elisabeth (1129-1164) and Hildegard of Bingen to deplore the dissidents' undeniably austere way of life, attempting to discredit it as false and deceptive. A decade later, the desire for apostolic poverty roused the merchant Valdes of Lyon to renounce all his wealth and evangelise. He and his followers, called Waldensians, advocated a life devoted to strict poverty, public preaching and obedience to God alone (Acts 5.29). Similarly, amidst the urban prosperity and religious dissent of northern Italy, the Humiliati sought to live in community and to dedicate themselves to common manual labour, drawing charges of heresy before being reconciled to the church in 1201.
4 Letters 52 and 52r, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. J. L. Baird and R. K. Ehrman (3 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994,1998, 2004), vol. 1, 127-30. Epistolarium I, ed. L. Van Acker (CCCM 91; Turnhout: Brepols, 1991), 125-30.
5 B. L. Venarde, ed. and trans., Robert of Arbrissel: A Medieval Religious Life (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 78.
Poverty, whether spiritual or material through renunciation of wealth, lay at the core of the twelfth century's search for religious perfection and its embrace of apostolic ideals. Monks, nuns, canons, canonesses, lay people and dissidents espoused the same scripture-based ideals. The ascetic spirit that animated the foundation of new religious orders permeated society inside and outside the cloisters as preachers advocated the apostolic life grounded in poverty, penance, and for some, public evangelising.
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