Imagining “Childhood” in Cistercian Hagiography

Jacob W. Doss, PhD Candidate, University of Texas at Austin (

In my research on twelfth-century Cistercian understandings of masculinity, Cistercian notions of childhood and youth constantly appeared alongside both articulations of femininity and masculinity. Authors like Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167), and the eventual Cistercian, William of Saint-Thierry (d. 1148), to name just a few, consistently imagined childhood and youth as a foil against which they articulated their understanding of mature monastic masculinity. Childhood and adulthood operated as mutually constitutive categories of identity. When it came to Cistercian hagiographical sources, I was forced to look at the various ways that childhood and youth operated within the often-short treatments of a saints’ younger years. Hagiographers often distinguished sanctity using the age-related notions of maturity and immaturity. The young, disciplined, masculine male saint stood over and against his feminized and worldly, and often elder, peers. Childhood and youth appear entangled with conceptions of ethnicity, gender, and class as essential elements in the ways hagiographers constructed an “other” which threw the sanctity of their subject into relief.

In his vita of the twelfth-century Irish saint, Malachy of Armagh (d. 1148), Bernard asserts that Malachy arose from a “barbarous people.” Yet, he overcame his “barbarous birth” to “show himself a citizen of the saints and the house of God.” As we might expect, Bernard presents Malachy’s childhood and youth in ways that foreshadow his sanctity. However, he also deploys age in various reversals to define others in ways that highlight Malachy’s sanctity according to continental conventions of holiness. Bernard’s presentation of youth becomes a foil that reveals the nature of sanctity in comparison to others in the narrative. That is, the way age is signified becomes, in the words of Corinne Field and Nicholas Syrett, a “vector of power” that says something, not only about the saint, but also about those around the saint.

It was through this intersection of age and ethnicity that Bernard explained what made Malachy a saint. Bernard, unsurprisingly, presents Malachy as more learned, virtuous, and disciplined than his peers and more mature than his Irish teachers, despite his youth. This set the stage for his conversion to an ascetic lifestyle. When Malachy became a disciple of the hermit Imar, according to Bernard those in the city of Armagh lamented the loss of such a “beloved and delicate adolescent.” This was because, as Bernard had just rationalized before, such a “feral people” found this type of life unusual. Those of Armagh thought Malachy acted rashly and would not persevere on account of his young age. Malachy, of course, proved the citizens of Armagh wrong, and in the logic of Bernard, overcame his “barbarous birth,” showing that his Irish naysayers’ notions of age and maturity were not the same as God’s. All of this served as a precursor to Malachy’s promotion of continental reform movements in Ireland, both among its lay Christians and its monastic and episcopal institutions. Importantly, Bernard does not portray Malachy as throwing off a vice-ridden worldliness, but rather, Bernard stressed that Malachy had matured beyond what Bernard thought to be an “uncivilized” culture. The problem, for Bernard, was not necessarily always vice in this instance, but Irishness.

By looking to age, I noticed how hagiographers used notions of childhood and youth in conjunction with other identities to conceptualize their understanding of sanctity and non-sanctity. Scholars have long looked at the role of gender in constructions of sanctity and studied the various ways child-saints have been portrayed in hagiography, often to implicate their elders’ behavior. My interest, though, has not been on Malachy himself, or necessarily on uncovering actual attitudes toward children, but rather the ways childhood and youth operate within a web of various markers of identity. In this case Bernard wielded childhood and youth in a process of othering that reveals both his notion of sanctity and also his prejudices that implicate his reforming project. Bernard makes childhood and youth essential expressions of power relationships in conjunction with gender and ethnicity.

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