Monday, May 28, 2012

Lanfranc, Part 1 (of 2)

Scholar and Teacher, Priest and Politician

There are two reasons why I want to mention Lanfranc today. One is because today is the 923rd anniversary of his death.* The second is because I want to discuss his most famous pupil in the future, and this is nice background for that.

Lanfranc (c.1005-1089) was born in Italy, educated in the liberal arts, and moved to France to teach, finally deciding to join the abbey at Bec in Normandy in 1042. In 1045 the abbot persuaded him to open a school in the abbey. His reputation drew students from France, Flanders, Germany and Italy.

His understanding and teaching of religious doctrine produced powerful thinkers who rose high in ecclesiastical ranks. Lanfranc himself ultimately became Archbishop of Canterbury, but not before a strange political somersault.

Duke William of Normandy, also called William the Bastard (and later William the Conqueror) wished to marry Matilda of Flanders. Two items stood in his way (three, if you want to believe the legend): his bastardy (he was the son of his father's mistress), and the fact that they were too closely related to satisfy custom and law. (The third thing is that Matilda supposedly refused to marry a bastard; and I guess there's a fourth thing, if you want to assume that she didn't like the fact that he was so angry with her that he angrily dragged her off her horse by her braids and threw her to the ground.) Lanfranc publicly opposed the marriage as inappropriate. Duke William (of Normandy, and Bec Abbey is in Normandy, remember) sent Lanfranc into exile; on the point of departure, however, he was forgiven and took on the task of persuading the pope to consent to the marriage! (I would love to tell you that he was the man for the job because the pope had been a student of Lanfranc's, but Pope Alexander II, who had been a student of Lanfranc's, didn't become pope until 1061.) Lanfranc's arguments succeeded, however, William and Matilda got married, William later decided to conquer England, and the rest is (English) history.

So when an Archbishop of Canterbury was needed years later, Lanfranc was rewarded for helping out William. His first job was to straighten out Thomas of Bayeaux, the Archbishop of York, who thought that York was empowered to operate independently of Canterbury's authority. Lanfranc was having none of that, and figured Thomas owed him one, since Lanfranc had given him passing grades years ago. Thomas, however, did not give in to his former teacher, so Lanfranc turned to Pope Alexander II who was now on the throne of Peter and agreed to allow Lanfranc to get it settled by a council of the English church, which met at Winchester. Lanfranc got the primacy he wanted, agreed to by the king and queen with their "X"s on the document. Before Alexander II could ratify the ruling on the Canterbury-York dispute, however, he died and was replaced by Gregory VII, who wasn't inclined to rubber-stamp England's rulings. The argument stretched out for years.

Lanfranc was a powerful help to the king, among other things foiling a conspiracy against the king and helping to ensure the succession of the next king. But what history cares about is his contributions to theological doctrine, of which more soon.

*To be honest, that date is disputed; some say it was May 24.

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