This book is a comprehensive, technical yet readable, survey of 1000 years of monastic history, arranged broadly chronologically. Melville introduces and assesses the different forms of religious from the late antique Desert Fathers and Mothers to the varied communities of mendicants and hermits of the later Middle Ages.
As the book progresses, the focus becomes increasingly on the structural systems of the orders, from the first limping towards an order by Cluny, to the first real order of the Cistercians, to the complex systems created by the Dominicans. This aspect of the story is not always highlighted well, but Melville brings it out and discusses why certain types of structure proved more successful as well as considering how institutions evolved over the centuries.
The primary goal of all of these forms of religious life was a total commitment to Christ and a full abandonment to living by the Gospel, whether we are thinking of a hermit alone in the wilderness, a Benedictine with his brothers in a dormitory, a Franciscan preaching in a market, or a Dominican teaching in a university.
How they represented challenges and opportunities to those in positions of power — secular nobles, bishops, popes — is also a part of this story, and Melville carefully brings this to the fore, helping dismantle along the way some ideas that ‘secular interference’ was necessarily detrimental to the achievement of a community’s original goal. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.
Moreover, Melville refers to the primary and secondary literature throughout. Since this is translated out of German, the secondary lit is often German, so that will not be helpful to the non-German-reading reader, but the primary sources are also often referred both to the Latin and to an available English translation.
My own disappoints are small and do not detract from the qualilty of the book — eastern monasticism disappears in the High Middle Ages. Some of my favourite figures — Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich, for example — do not appear. But the focus of the book is mostly western, as one has come to expect, and not every interesting person from the history of monasticism could expect to be covered.
If you want to get your mind around the history of monasticism and situate the various strands, this book is for you. And if you are a Christian, you will find your own commitment to Christ and the ways you live that commitment challenged along the way — and that’s a good thing at any time.
Here are my first offerings on this blog for this Lent, coming from these prayers, ‘collects’ in form, from the Gelasian Sacramentary, a seventh- or eighth-century sacramentary (sacrament book) of the Roman rite, traditionally attributed to the fifth-century Pope Gelasius I (r. 492-492) and one of Cranmer’s sources for the Book of Common Prayer. First:
Concede nobis, omnipotens Deus, ut per annua quadragesimalis exercitia sacramenti et ad intelligendum Christi proficiamus arcanum, et affectus eius digna conversatione sectemur. Per.
Grant to us, Almighty God, that through the annual exercises of the Lenten sacrament we may both make progress to understanding the mystery of Christ and follow after his compassion with a worthy conversion. Through our Lord Jesus who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
I felt this collect more suited to my Protestant readership than the following:
Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui nobis in observatione ieiunii et eleemosynarum semine posuisti nostrorum remedia peccatorum, concede nos opere mentis et corporis semper tibi esse devotos. Per …
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast placed the curatives for our sins for us in the observance of fasting and the seed of almsgiving, grant that we may be always devoted to you by the work of mind and body. Through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Either way, the emphasis of these prayers, despite the second one calling fasts and almsgiving ‘nostrorum remedia peccatorum’*, is on the effect and purpose of Lenten discipline. Amongst the Orthodox communions and traditional Roman Catholics, as well as the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Christians represented in these prayers, the Lenten discipline is/was the abstinence from certain foods — animal products and olive oil — in the forty-day period before Easter.
Today, many of us have some other Lenten discipline instead: abstaining from chocolate/sweets, coffee, alcohol, Facebook, blogs that annoy us; or perhaps taking on something: fasting once a week, studying a book of the Bible in depth, reading a particular spiritual book (perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book), or maybe going to a midweek service at our local church.
The purpose of these disciplines, whether traditional or modern, is to draw us to Christ. The first prayer above is for greater understanding of the mystery of Christ — a mystical and theological request — and for a greater conversion into his likeness (equally mystical and theological, frankly). The second prayer is for endless devotion to God. Sound requests, if you ask me.
Let us keep them in mind on this Lenten journey to Easter.
*For which there is, I believe, a disturbing (to us Prots) biblical precedent discussed by Pope Leo I in his sermons on fasting.
So says, “Third Knight,” Baron William de Traci, in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935/38, Faber & Faber), following the murder of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Becket, who died on this day in 1170. In the first part of the play, St. Thomas returns to Canterbury after a seven-year exile in France. Shortly after his arrival, four Tempters come to Becket, the fourth tempting him to becoming a martyr for the advancement of his own political and ecclesiastical causes. In the midst of the temptation, this Tempter, the most alluring, looks ahead into the future, into the Reformation and the Modern Period. The Tempter says, after mentioning the glory and power of a martyr:
You have also thought . . . of further scorning.
That nothing lasts, but the wheel turns,
The nest is rifled, and the bird mourns;
That the shrine shall be pillaged, and the gold spent,
The jewels gone for light ladies’ ornament,
The sanctuary broken, and its stores
Swept into the laps of parasites and whores.
When miracles cease, and the faithful desert you.
And men shall only do their best to forget you.
And later is worse, when men will not hate you
Enough to defame or to execrate you,
But pondering the qualities that you lacked
Will only try to find the historical fact.
When men shall declare that there was no mystery
About this man who played a certain part in history. (pp. 40-41)
And the Fourth Tempter is broadly right about how we treat the saints of the past. We reduce them to bare history. We reduce them to “facts” — cold, hard, lifeless. We reduce them to selfish causes. We seek out their flaws. We make them into mere products of their times, men who are merely the result of their social, economic, political, educational environment.
Today, let’s take a step to reverse the trend of Modernity to make men into things of study rather than mysteries to be delighted in. And let’s take a step to undo Thomas Cromwell’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and relearn how to venerate the saints without worshipping them. But first:
The Bare History
An exciting truth about Christianity is that it is real. It is about real people who have done real things in actual history. The Bible, the cornerstone of our faith, is the record of God’s action in history with humanity, a fact that is quite exciting and exhilarating. This means that, for the Christian, historical questions are not irreverent — neither are they the sum total of our enquiry into any event of spiritual significance. So, first, the bare history surrounding St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop, Martyr, Saint of the Church:
Henry II (r. 1154-1189), King of England, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, Maine, Brittany, was a powerful man who had the princes of Wales swear fealty to him, subjugated large portions of Ireland, and had the King of Scotland as his vassal. He is famous also for having a famous wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and famous sons, King Richard I, Lionheart, and King John. If you have a taste for theatre besides Murder in the Cathedral, there is another play about his rule called The Lion in Winter, which I have seen and quite liked.
He became king after that civil war that more literary, monkish, mysterious readers who are fans of Derek Jacobi may know from Brother Cadfael. The major thing this king did was unify, standardise, and strengthen his own control over English Common Law. This was, by and large, a Good Thing, since after civil war and whatnot English law was what is commonly called a Mess.
King Henry, though, tried reaching further than he really could. He tried to impose his own Royal Courts over the clergy. If you know a thing or two about mediaeval society, one of them is this: Leave the Church alone. The Church had always and ever enjoyed its own courts. Clergy were subject to ecclesiastical courts, not the courts of the kingdom. And crimes committed on church property, such as assassinations of archbishops, were also within the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts.
In order to try and get the Church on his side, King Henry appointed his Chancellor and chum, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately for Henry, Thomas took his role as priest of the church more seriously than his role as “buddy of the King.” Thus, they settled into vicious conflict, each seeking to impose his will over the other, and each ultimately appealing to the Pope in Rome.
Things got so bad, what with the good Archbishop excommunicating a few bishops and other suchlike people, that Becket was forced to flee to France and live in exile. He was in exile for seven years. In December of 1170, Becket returned to England, things having been patched up a little bit by the Pope.
Also in December of 1170, King Henry got himself drunk (unwise) and declared, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four barons took it upon themselves to see to it that they would be the ones to do the ridding.
On December 29, they went to Canterbury and had audience with Becket, trying to sway him to the King’s position. Finding him unmoved, they left — only to return later, break into the cathedral, and kill poor Thomas Becket who was found praying. They cut open his head, and got blood and brains everywhere. Highly unpleasant.
Henry thus underwent penance for his role, although he never condoned the action of the four barons.
St. Thomas Becket had a shrine established at Canterbury Cathedral that was to become one of the chief pilgrim places in England. It is, indeed, on the road to Canterbury (a road I have stood upon myself, but not walked the length), that Chaucer’s pilgrims tell their tales. This shrine stood until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when in the overzealous, iconoclastic frenzy of the Reformation, it was destroyed.
Is There a Lesson?
Undoubtedly, many have said that Becket was simply serving his own ends and those of the power of the Church. They will have declared that, although assassinated, Becket’s story is still the story of the “winners.” Essentially, this story will be wiped clear of meaning by the modernists and of existence by the postmodernists.
But the Church and orthodoxy are older than modern and older than postmodern, and they shall stand unto ages of ages. And there is a lesson here. There is a lesson in the life of every saint. They are more than mere history, more than mere events, more than dates and figures, more than relics, more than dead flesh rotting in the grave — for they live and shall shine with glory on Resurrection Day!
Saint Thomas Becket was acting in the interests of the Church. Indeed, he lived at a time when the Church had political interests, and he was operating in favour of the enshrinement of certain rights that the Church enjoyed within the mediaeval judiciary organism. Nevertheless, he was doing his job as a Bishop of the Church. As well, he was working for the curtailment of the overreaching power of the king, power that was seeking to shift the balance of the established order — an order that operated in like fashion throughout Western Europe.
The mediaeval world thrived on order. The universe has order, and this means that certain people have certain roles to play. There is room for individual flourishing and movement and expression within those roles, within the order, but the established order helped keep things from falling apart. Life was hard: winters could be cold, crops could fail, children could be stillborn, mothers could die in childbirth, enemies could attack, raiders could lay waste your home, thieves could steal your wealth. By operating within the order of things, one helps maintain balance and helps to perform a necessary function in the movement of society, civilisation, and culture, helping the task of survival. Everyone is dependent upon everyone else — the villeins upon the knights for protection, the knights upon the villeins for food and help in maintaining the land, the king upon the barons for counsel and battle, the barons upon the knights for the same, all upon the clergy for prayers, instruction, and the preservation of knowledge and the arts, the clergy upon everyone else for food and protection.
If one upsets this order, this balance, this delicate preservation of society, life, beauty, and culture, then one endangers everything. So, in opposing a king who would put the Church under his law in judiciary matters, Becket was protecting the Church from an overproud and overpowerful monarch, and thereby protecting everyone who would seek the protection of the Church. In the Middle Ages, there is no dichotomy between Church and State, yet they co-existed and worked with and through each other, each balancing the power and privileges of the other. Becket preserved this balance.
But Becket died.
He is, therefore, a reminder that when secular authorities seek to curtail the power of the Church, when they seek to interfere in the Church’s business, to stand up and fight does not mean one will make it through unscathed. However, he reminds us that we are to stand nevertheless, even if it means the crown that comes through martyrdom.
In this way, he is a little bit a type of Christ. To quote Philip Yancey:
the only time Jesus met with powerful political leaders, his hands were tied and his back was clotted with blood. Church and state have had an uneasy relationship ever since. (The Jesus I Never Knew)
How to Honour a Saint
If you have the time and money, make a pilgrimage to Canterbury! His shrine is gone, but the cathedral is there.
Or do as I did today. Read Murder in the Cathedral. Plays are short. If you have no stamina for reading, watch the movie. I also received Eucharist today. If there’s a saint you particularly like, go to church on his or her feast day! Honour these people with the worship of Christ. Honour them with the receiving of the gift that God has to offer us in the sacraments. Honour them as they would prefer it, therefore.
Read up on him. The information I gave you in “The Bare History” came from my brain (if I could cite the places I learned it all, I would); what I heard from a reading at church this morning out of For All the Saints, a book of readings and whatnot for saints in the Anglican calendar; and A Short History of the Middle Ages by Barbara H. Rosenwein. You could undoubtedly find St. Thomas Becket at The Catholic Encyclopedia, in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, or Butler’s Lives of the Saints.
And then try and emulate the saint! Speak out against the injustices wrought by institutions and authorities. Give the church a voice in a secularist society that seeks to stifle us and muffle us and keep us passively quiet. Faith is always personal but never private (Jim Wallis, I think). Seek to see an order in our society that affirms the truths of Christ and seeks the embracing of all and the exclusion of none. Seek truth, justice, and piety in the order of this nation of Canada. We have a rich Christian heritage. Christians built this country. Let us become visible once more.
My first Sunday in Paris, I visited the spectacular Musée Rodin, then walked over to the Eiffel Tower, a walk which continued across the Seine twice, and brought me within sight of two spires. I do enjoy a good spire-hunt – it brought me to some lovely churches and neighbourhoods in Milan, after all. So I wandered over to the spires and found a Gothic construction, the Basilique Ste-Clotilde.
I looked at this name and thought, ‘That name looks Frankish!’ A week or so later, my guess was confirmed as I did research for a piece of expression écrite for French class, my chosen topic being Clovis I (r. 481-511). In my recherches, I discovered that Clotilda (Clotilde, en français) was Clovis’s wife.
And what makes a Late Antique/Early Medieval Frankish queen a saint? Read on …
Clotilda (475-545) was the daughter of the Burgundian King Chilperic II. According to Gregory of Tours, in 493, her Uncle Gundobad killed her father and mother, sent her sister Chrona to a nunnery, and Clotilda herself into exile. Ah, the joys of early European royal families…
Around the time she was heading into exile, the dashing young Merovingian (descendant of Merovingius, himself a descendant of a horse or something) Clovis, king of a growing realm of Salian Franks, was interested in taking her hand in marriage. This got Gundobad out of an awkward situation, so the marriage was arranged on the grounds that Clotilda would be able to continue practising her Catholic Christianity.
According to Wikipedia, Clovis was at this time an Arian. This is an assumption based on the fact that Germanic barbarians are famously Arian. However, my other research says that he was an unbaptised pagan, raised in the cultural mélange of traditional Frankish religion and Roman customs – his father had taken some of the land and responsibilities of the vestiges of Roman rule in Gaul, and he assumed more of these roles himself throughout his reign.
So Clotilda joined the ranks of not a few Catholic/Christian princesses to marry pagan kings/princes in this era, which is part of her interest.
Eventually, as young royal couples do, Clovis and Clotilda bore a son. Clotilda insisted on him going through with the Christian rite of baptism and encouraged her husband to do likewise. Clovis said no. The child died soon thereafer, only adding fuel to Clovis’ argument that baptism was useless.
Their second son, Chlodomer (495-524) fell ill soon after his baptism, but through the prayers of his mother was healed. Clovis remained unconvinced.
Clotilda was very concerned about her beloved husband. He was a warrior of great worth, a good king, and all such things. But he rejected the truth of Christ and remained living in pagan falsehood. She wished him to gain the great riches of the life in Christ, so she would nag him about religion frequently.
When this did not seem to be working, she got (St) Remigius (Rémy) of Reims to get involved. Remigius had sent Clovis a letter of congratulation back in 481 when the young King ascended the throne; the Catholic Church had received a certain amount of protection under Clovis, and he and the bishop of Reims had met on several occasions (see the story of the vase at Soissons from Gregory of Tours). Although Clovis was a pagan, this protection of the Church represents the way in which early Frankish kings adopted much of the culture and administration of the Roman Empire they were occupying.
Remigius was also unable to persuade Clovis. However, through a combination of wifely and episcopal persuasion and a deal with God, Clovis’ conversion in 496 was as follows, according to Gregory of Tours, History of the Frankish Kings II.30-31:
 The queen did not cease to urge him to recognize the true God and cease worshipping idols. But he could not be influenced in any way to this belief, until at last a war arose with the Alamanni, in which he was driven by necessity to confess what before he had of his free will denied. It came about that as the two armies were fighting fiercely, there was much slaughter, and Clovis’s army began to be in danger of destruction.
He saw it and raised his eyes to heaven, and with remorse in his heart he burst into tears and cried: “Jesus Christ, whom Clotilda asserts to be the son of the living God, who art said to give aid to those in distress, and to bestow victory on those who hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid, with the vow that if thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, and I shall know that power which she says that people dedicated in thy name have had from thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have invoked my own gods but, as I find, they have withdrawn from aiding me; and therefore I believe that they possess no power, since they do not help those who obey them. I now call upon thee, I desire to believe thee only let me be rescued from my adversaries.”
And when he said thus, the Alamanni turned their backs, and began to disperse in flight. And when they saw that their king was killed, they submitted to the dominion of Clovis, saying: “Let not the people perish further, we pray; we are yours now.” And he stopped the fighting, and after encouraging his men, retired in peace and told the queen how he had had merit to win the victory by calling on the name of Christ. This happened in the fifteenth year of his reign.
 Then the queen asked saint Remi, bishop of Rheims, to summon Clovis secretly, urging him to introduce the king to the word of salvation. And the bishop sent for him secretly and began to urge him to believe in the true God, maker of heaven and earth, and to cease worshipping idols, which could help neither themselves nor any one else.
But the king said: “I gladly hear you, most holy father; but there remains one thing: the people who follow me cannot endure to abandon their gods; but I shall go and speak to them according to your words.”
He met with his followers, but before he could speak the power of God anticipated him, and all the people cried out together: “O pious king, we reject our mortal gods, and we are ready to follow the immortal God whom Remi preaches.”
This was reported to the bishop, who was greatly rejoiced, and bade them get ready the baptismal font. The squares were shaded with tapestried canopies, the churches adorned with white curtains, the baptistery set in order, the aroma of incense spread, candles of fragrant odor burned brightly, and the whole shrine of the baptistery was filled with a divine fragrance: and the Lord gave such grace to those who stood by that they thought they were placed amid the odors of paradise. And the king was the first to ask to be baptized by the bishop. (From the Internet History Sourcebook)
Clotilda, then, was instrumental in the conversion of Clovis to Christianity. And he followed her version of Catholic Christianity, the form of Christian belief held by the majority of the populace under his rule in Gaul. This is a significant moment in the history of the western Church – the Roman Empire in Gaul has been replaced by a Catholic Kingdom. Clovis and his Franks will become more acceptable rulers aided by this religious assimilation, as well as their having taken up a variety of other Roman practices. They will also drive the Arian Visigoths out of southern Gaul under Clovis, uniting not only all the Franks (as Clovis did) but all Gaul again as well.
I doubt the Merovingian Franks knew it, but they were part of a wider trajectory that would lead to Charlemagne and the attempt to unite the realms of western Europe as a single empire once more in the eighth and ninth centuries. We stand with Clovis and Clotilda at one of those moments of history, one of those points of the birthing of the Middle Ages where the players had no idea that the long-term significance of the religious act.
If Clovis had died a pagan, would he have united Gaul? Would the Basilica St-Denis in the north of Paris, where his remains were last accounted for, have been built?
Clotilda is part of a wider paradigm during the age of the barbarian conversions. We see other Christian princesses, in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, for example, marrying pagan kings and being instrumental in their conversion. Thus King Edwin, for example.
This path of sanctity is one recommended by St Paul, who urges believing wives not to leave unbelieving husbands to remain and convert them to Christ through the example of their holy lives and the witness of the words of the Gospel.
Clotilda and Clovis had four children who survived infancy, the aforementioned Chlodomer as well as Childebert, Clothar, and Clotilda. As was the custom amongst the Franks, Clovis divided his kingdom among the three sons upon his death in 511, each of them continuing the Merovingian line. Clotilda the younger married Amalaric, (Arian) King of the Visigoths.
In 511, upon the death of her husband at Paris, at the end of a long public career in the world alongside a man who had waged wars and sought to maintain a system of order in the Frankish realms both in Gaul and beyond, Clotilda joined the Abbey of St. Martin at Tours.
Not that being a nun would keep a late-ancient Queen Mother out of action permanently. In 523, Clotilda incited her sons to wage war against her cousin Sigismund in revenge for the assassination of her parents. Sadly for Clotilda, although this unsaintly action resulted in the death of her cousin, it also resulted in the death of her eldest son Chlodomer, which was followed swiftly by the assassination of two of Chlodomer’s sons by their uncles; the third joined the clergy and was thus safely out of the way.*
Having determined that politics was perhaps no longer her milieu, Clotilda devoted the rest of her life to the cloister, not simply by living in one, but by founding many. It is this pious, cloistered life and the conversion of her husband that have contributed to her sainthood.
Clotilda, a real woman in a man’s world, living her life for God’s Kingdom, who made some mistakes on the way, but who is revered to this day for her overall saintliness. The kind of saint I like.
*While this is particularly bloody, it is nothing compared to what happened upon the death of Constantine in 337. Read R W Burgess, ‘The Summer of Blood,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers 62 (2008), 5-51 (appeared in 2010), for an analysis of the events surrounding that succession.
Tomorrow, Saturday 11 February, is the commemoration of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon monk by the name of Caedmon. He made his claim to fame by being a poet in the monastery of St. Hilda (a post about whom will soon be reblogged here). As we learn from the Venerable Bede (Saint of the Week here), Caedmon had no natural poetic ability but, rather, a supernatural ability:
He himself learned the art of singing, instructed ‘not by men nor through man’ (Gal 1:1), but he freely received the gift of singing from divine aid. The he could never put anything frivolous or needless in his poems, but only those things which pertained to religion were fitting for his religious tongue.
Since, indeed, he remained in the secular way of life up to the time of a more advanced age, at which time he had learned no songs. And so, sometimes at banquets because it was decreed for the sake of delight that everyone ought to sing in turm, when he saw the cithara draw near, he rose up from the middle of the dinner, left, and went home.
At a certain time when he had done this, leaving the house of the banquet, he went out to the stable of the livestock since their guardianship had been delegated to him that night. There he gave his limbs to sleep at a suitable hour. Someone came to him through a dream, greeting him and calling him by name, ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’
But he responded, ‘I don’t know how to sing; for I withdrew hither, leaving the banquet for that reason, since I could not sing.’
The one with him answered and said, ‘But, come, you can sing for me.’
‘What,’ he said, ‘ought I to sing?’
And the person said, ‘Sing of the beginning of the creatures.’
When this answer was accepted, immediately he began to sing verses in praise of the creator God which he had never heard, whose sense was:
Now we ought to praise the maker of the heavenly kingdom,
the power of the Creator and his intent, the deeds of the Father of glory:
how he, since he is the eternal God,
has been the author of all miracles
who in the first for the sons of men
created the sky like the top of a roof, and then the almighty preserver of human race
created the earth.
This is the sense, but not the precise order of the words, which he sang whilst asleep; for songs, although composed extremely well, cannot be translated from one language to another word-for-word without damage to their beauty and worthiness. And then, rising from sleep, he remembered all the things which he had sung whilst asleep and soon he joined many words of a song worthy of God into the same measure. (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum 4.22.1-2 [SC 490, pub. 2005] or 4.24 [all previous edd], my trans.)
Caedmon is promptly sent to St. Hilda where, in front of ‘many learned men’, he sings the song. They test him by preaching a lengthy sermon which he is committed to put to verse. He succeeds, and Hilda convinces him to leave the secular life and join the monastery at Whitby. So he does.
Caedmon spent the rest of his life composing verse based upon the Scriptures and the salvation story as well as songs written to stir people up to shun vice and love virtue. He submitted himself to the discipline of the monastery’s rule and was harsh towards those who tried to live by their own rule.
Aware of his own impending death of a prolonged weakness, he moved into the house of the sick at the monastery and shared a few laughs with the men there. Then he received the Eucharist for the last time, made sure he and his monastic brothers were at peace, laid his head on his pillow, and died.
You can read my translation of the whole of Bede’s account of Caedmon’s life here. One of the things that is notable about Caedmon is the fact that he seems to have had an entirely oral/aural skill. Bede, throughout the account, refers to the things that Caedmon has heard being turned into songs. Caedmon was a Christian scop, an Anglo-Saxon poet who used the techniques of traditional oral poetry to compose songs about Christian themes.
We see here the fostering of the arts by St. Hilda; this is a recurring theme throughout the Middle Ages. The monasteries were in favour of the arts and of putting them to use of God’s glory. A reminder for us all.
And, since Bede laments the futility of translating verse, here is Caedmon’s hymn in Anglo-Saxon (found here):
Nu scilun herga hefenricæs uard
metudæs mehti and his modgithanc uerc
uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuæs eci
dryctin or astelidæ he ærist scop aeldu
barnum hefen to hrofæ halig sceppend tha
middingard moncynnæs uard eci dryctin
æfter tiadæ firum foldu frea allmehtig.
Further Explorations (in anti-alphabetical order)
Cavill, Paul. Anglo-Saxon Christianity. A readable introduction to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon lands in the Early Middle Ages.
Bradley, S.A.J. trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman’s Library. A selection of a very broad swath of Anglo-Saxon verse translated into modern English.
First of all, I would like to say that I am quite pleased to see TV history documentaries being made by scholars, rather than by professional documentarists (??) who interview scholars here and there and have no background in the subject at hand. This makes me feel that I can, by and large, trust Dr. Thomas Asbridge, given that he is, in fact, a scholar of the Crusades with scholarly books and articles on the subject under his belt.
This new series claims that it is going to give us a fuller picture of the Crusades by investigating evidence beyond the usual western chronicles. We got our first taste of this in the discussion of the siege of Antioch.
If you don’t know the story, the Crusaders besieged the city for eight months and were reduced to terrible circumstances such as the eating of rodents and the bone marrow of their dead horses. When they heard that a fearsome Iraqi general with a huge army was on the move, they took the city by treachery (an Armenian Christian within betrayed it). Then the tables were turned, and the Frankish army found itself besieged in turn.
Then a peasant religious … fanatic? visionary? … named Peter Bartholomew said that St. Andrew had come to him in a vision and shown him where the Iron Lance which pierced Our Lord’s side was hid. They dug it up, made an assault, and drove off the besieging army.
However, the evidence from Matthew of Edessa’s Chronicle gives a vision that goes beyond this simple version of the unbreakable faith and fanatical piety of the western mediaeval Christian on Crusade. Matthew of Edessa reveals that shortly before Peter Bartholomew’s vision, the Crusading generals had tried seeking mercy from the Iraqi warlord outside the walls — they would surrender the city and he would let them go back to France in one piece. This failed, and the despetate Franks and Normans, holed up in a city surrounded by enemies in a foreign land, with nothing to lose, made an assault on the Islamic forces outside. Was it their desperation or the fanatical belief in the Lance that gave them the fierceness that brought victory? Perhaps both.
Perhaps also, and Dr. Asbridge did not mention the sources, the Muslims fled due to the fact that they didn’t trust their Iraqi general in the first place and felt that if they won, he would merely take Antioch as his own and lord it over them — for their army was an alliance between more than one Middle Eastern warlord.
All three, no doubt contributed to the ‘miraculous’ delivery of Antioch into the Crusaders’ hands.
Unfortunately, the usual dichotomy between the Latin accounts and Islamic calls for vengeance is drawn when Asbridge discusses the Fall of Jerusalem.
As a person with a growing interest in Eastern Christianity, I wish to know what the Byzantine chroniclers and historians thought when they heard about the bloodbath. I’d read somewhere that the indiscriminate slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants also included a certain number of its Christian population — Greek and otherwise. No mention was made of this, if it really occurred. (Although it seems reasonable — could a French Crusader tell a tanned, turbanned Muslim from a tanned, turbanned Christian?)
What is the view of the Crusades given by the Matthew of Edessas of the mediaeval world? What do the Byzantine chronicles have to say? Or the Nestorian Christians? What about Coptic sources? Or Monophysite Syriac writers? These people were all crossing paths in the mediaeval Middle East, watching as Frankish warlords carved out their own kingdoms and duchies in their midst. What did the Eastern Christians think about these things?
Despite real, living human beings like one old woman in Chasing Francis who declared in horror, “Isn’t Francis of Assisi a Roman Catholic Saint?” many people love St. Francis, Christian and otherwise. Among the Christians, friends of Francis are found across denominational and theological boundaries, with “Low” and “High” Anglicans loving him, “liberals” and “conservatives” being inspired by him, “evangelicals” and “progressives” chasing him.
So let’s get Francis to cut through all the barriers and labels and help us see what a real Christian looks like!
Ecologists love St. Frank because he was green. He preached to animals and rejoiced in creation, seeing it as a vehicle for the beauty and glory of the Creator. If he were to see what we do to the planet today, he would be shocked and appalled. He would call out for us to stop, to take a look at Sister Earth and her moaning, to see that the majestic trees are our fellow creatures, made by the same loving God! Yes, the earth is ours to till, to use, but not to abuse or destroy! We must be stewards of creation, not overlords.
Evangelistic evangelicals love Francis because he was a gospel preacher before he was a creation-lover. He and his friars would preach to poor that they had to repent, that the Kingdom of Heaven was nigh. They cared about and for the poor spiritually in a time when many reserved the gospel of salvation for the rich and noble. They preached a gospel of the extravagant love of God in an age of hellfire, brimstone, Crusades, and indulgences. St. Frank believed that everyone had a chance of heaven, and he wanted them to have that chance. He loved Jesus and he wanted everyone else to see why Jesus was worth loving.
Social activists love St. Frank because he bathed the lesions of lepers. Once, when the brothers gave him a cloak because it was a cold evening, he gave it to the first freezing beggar that he saw, then proceeded to thank the beggar for giving him this opportunity for generosity. The message of repentance the little brothers brought to the rich and powerful was that of mammon, of money and its grip on life. Sometimes they didn’t use words, and this was effective enough for many rich young men to sell all they had, give to the poor, and go join the little brothers. At other times, if the brothers were at prayer and a rich man rode by in his carriage, one would stand and preach about the evils and money and the deception on wealth while the others continued at prayer.
Mystics love St. Francis of Assisi because he was one. He would spend days in prayer — spontaneously. Once he was walking with some of the brothers and became overcome by an urge to pray. A friend had a place nearby, so they went there, and St. Francis spent the next three days in prayer. Another time, when he and St. Claire were deep in conversation for hours and their spirits were caught up in the heavenlies, the locals ran to the building because it looked like it was aflame. But when they went in, they saw that the light was produced by a gathering of the saints with Francis and Claire. St. Francis had visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as the stigmata. The event that started his ministry was a vision of Christ.
Since St. Augustine of Canterbury was our saint last week, let us turn to another missionary saint, St. Boniface (675-754), the Apostle of Frisia and Germany (so, I guess, emphatically not of the Dutch?).
One of the notable realities of the Anglo-Saxon Church was its missionary enterprise. The English were a people who came to Christ in the 600’s, and by the end of that century they were sending out missionaries themselves. Saint Cuthbert is remembered not only as a monk and hermit but as a missionary. He engaged in the work of evangelism amongst the unsaved English. St. Boniface is amongst the body of English missionaries, but unlike Cuthbert his mission was a sending out to the pagan world on the Continent.
He was born in Devon (whence the Hoskins hail!) of free, land-owning peasants and received his education amongst the monasteries at Exeter and Nursling. He became a monk, producing England’s first Latin primer (an achievement not to be passed over) and writing poems and acrostics. When he was thirty years of age, he was ordained priest, and his knowledge of the Scriptures was used by the Spirit to bring him success in preaching and teaching. This skill at preaching and teaching made him known beyond the monastery walls, and King Ina of Wessex and his synod sent him as their envoy to Archbishop Burchard of Canterbury.
Boniface could have continued his ecclesiastical career in England. He would probably have been able to write a number of clever books and commentaries and preach to many more Christian souls if he had. He may have gotten a nice, comfortable English bishopric. He would certainly have become an abbot. Instead, he followed the call to mission and crossed over to Frisia, following the footsteps of Sts. Wilfrid and Willibrord. There he met with much opposition from militant pagans and was forced to return to Nursling in England.
In 717, he refused to accept his election as abbot of this monastery but set off the next year to Rome. There he went to Pope Gregory II for a definite mission for preaching and was given Bavaria and Hesse. On his way, hearing things were less volatile in Frisia, he spent three years with the aging Willibrord, assisting with his mission there. Only then did he go on to Hesse.
The Pope ordained him bishop and gave him a letter to Charles Martel (victor at Tours and grandfather of Charlemagne). Charles Martel gave Boniface his protection, and the English monk proceeded to evangelise Hesse. His zeal in Hesse is best remembered in the story of the sacred oak at Geismar. He took an axe to it and felled it. The pagan gods neither protected the people of Geismar and the oak nor did they avenge its felling. This demonstration, reminiscent of Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal, was instrumental in the conversion of many.
St. Boniface moved his mission on to Thuringia where he continued preaching and making disciples for Christ. As St. Boniface made disciples, he also made monasteries. These were populated by English monks and nuns and served as centres of Christianity and civilisation. This was a typical approach for the time, and it strikes me as a very clever use for the monks, incorporating them into Christ’s Kingdom-growing mission and its frontlines.
Pope Gregory III made him archbishop in 732, enabling him to consecrate bishops in that part of Germany beyond the Rhine. In 738, a new mission field opened amongst the Saxons of Westphalia when Charles Martel defeated them. Boniface tried to recruit prayers and support from the Anglo-Saxons in England, given their common ancestry; but this mission field soon became closed when the Franks lost it, remaining closed to Christian missionaries until Charlemagne conquered it and forced the locals to convert by the sword.
During his career as archbishop, St. Boniface recruited more missionaries to join him, held synods and councils amongst the newly-converted German Christians, and sought reform in the Church in France following Charles Martel’s death in 741, curtailing such abuses as simony and vacant bishoprics, and establishing the Benedictine Rule as the standard for all Carolingian monasteries.
Many of Boniface’s decrees regarding the Frankish church went unenforced, especially following the accession of Pippin the Short, who engaged in many of the same bad practices as Charles Martel. Boniface was getting on in years and left these matters to younger minds, retiring instead to Frisia where his missionary efforts had begun. In these last years, he not only re-evangelised parts where paganism had had a resurgence, but pushed the Christian mission into new places.
One day, while awaiting some converts to come for their confirmation at the River Borne, a band of angry pagans attacked at killed Bishop Boniface and his companions. So ended his activity in the evangelism of the Frisians and the workings of the Church in the Early Middle Ages. His feast day is today.
May his example of missionary zeal and reform spur all of us onward to bring more disciples into the Kingdom of God regardless of the cost, for such will cost our whole lives, whether bands of pagans kill us by the side of a river or not.
I owe the bulk of this information to David Hugh Farmer’s The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. The opinions and certain connections with the wider mediaeval church, however, are all mine; so is the photo.