Peter the Venerable vs. St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
On the Keeping of Serfs, c. 1120
St. Bernard of Clairvaux attacked the worldly practices of the monasteries, their
secular possessions, and the retention of serfs on those possessions. Prompting a reply
from Peter the Venerable, he raised the question of whether or not the Benedictine rule
was violated in this way.
Letter of St. Bernard:
But what will you [i.e., Peter the Venerable] have to say about secular possessions
which are held by you after the manner of secular persons, since in this respect you seem
to differ from them in no way? For towns, villas, serfs, servants, and handmaidens, and,
what is worse, the gain arising from toll duties, and practically all of this gain you
accept without distinction, retain illegally, and guard in every way against those who
would strive against your practice.
Letter of Peter the Venerable:
Since one of the objections urged against us is that we receive immovable property, we
now reply to that. In the first place we set forth the Rule itself. Dealing with the
reception of novices it says, "If he has any possessions, let him give them
beforehand to the poor, or, making a solemn donation, let him bestow them on the
monastery." By saying therefore "if he has anything" it excepted nothing.
But if it excepted nothing it did not except any farm, villa, serfs, servants, or
handmaidens, nor anything of this kind. It is clear that nothing was excepted. It is
clear, therefore, that those things we have mentioned were not excepted.
With this decree of the Rule the words of the Blessed Gregory, related above, also
agree. He forbade any bishop or secular to presume to curtail in any way the income,
property, or charters of the monasteries, or to presume to make any grants of liberty on
any pretext.... He would by no means have forbidden them to be molested in such matters if
he had recognized that they possessed them unjustly. And since the returns from the soil
are manifold, and a wide variety is evident in different things, and since villas cannot
exist without inhabitants, namely men and women, of different conditions, and since the
writings of the Blessed Gregory contain no exceptions with regard to these things, monks
are shown to be able to possess incomes, possessions, villas, and likewise, inhabitants of
varied status, that is, free or servile.
J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, (Paris, 1854), Vol. CLXXXIX, p.
116; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval
Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York:
Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 299-301.
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by
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© Paul Halsall, October 1998