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Bernard beats the Devil at Praying Psalms: "Eight Verses"

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The Eight Verses of St. Bernard are an excellent example for the impoverishment historical study has suffered at the hands of overdetermined textual criticism. For art historians, the eight verses are an important example of Bernard as a dominant figure in late medieval and early modern prayer books. The legend behind them is endearing and memorable: The devil proudly proclaims that he knows exactly which psalm verses are guaranteed to save a soul from damnation, but he isn’t going to tell Bernard. The abbot responds masterfully by saying that he doesn’t need the devil’s secrets, since he prays the entire psalter daily, anyway. Humiliated by the Cistercian’s agile answer, Satan then reveals the verses. The story is endearing because it shows a devil who prays psalms, and an abbot who prays them even better. Books of hours often made use of the legend and then included the secret tip. But since the legend is ‘only’ a legend, the eight verses are seldom mentioned in studies about St. Bernard in modernity. It is a pity, because the Cistercian and Bernardine dimensions of popular piety get lost in the neglect. 

In some ways, legends are the best proof of a saint’s importance, even if the events described never ‘really’ happened. 


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