Monday, February 12, 2024

Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm of Canterbury has been referred to in this blog a few times by one of his other names, Anselm of Bec. He was born 1033/34 in the Upper Burgundy (Italy) region. His parents were both from noble families. His father was a Lombard noble, Gundulph; his mother, Ermenberge, was the granddaughter of Conrad the Peaceful, one-time King of Burgundy. Unfortunately, wars in Burgundy caused partitioning and transferring of territory, and Anselm's parents lost many of their estates.

The loss of political power in the family did not matter to Anselm, who at the age of 15 decided to pursue a religious life. His father opposed this, and Anselm fell ill for a time, perhaps psychosomatically, after which he gave up on education and acted the carefree youth. When Ermenberge passed away, possibly when giving birth to Anselm's sister, Gundulph became obsessively religious himself and entered a monastery when Anselm was 23. Anselm left home with a single attendant and spent the next three years wandering through Burgundy and France.

His wandering drew him to the Benedictine Abbey of Bec, whose abbot was the renowned and learned Lanfranc. When Anselm's father died, the young man asked Lanfranc's advice: return home and use the wealth of the family's remaining estates to provide alms for the poor, or give them up altogether and become a monk? Lanfranc, feeling his advice would be a conflict of interest, sent Anselm to Archbishop Maurilius of Rouen. Maurilius told Anselm to become a novice at Bec. Anselm was 27.

Anselm threw himself into his studies at Bec, and in his first year produced his first of many writings, a fictional discussion of grammar that resolves some of the inconsistencies and paradoxes that arise from Latin nouns and adjectives. It begins:

Student. Concerning (an) expert-in-grammar I ask that you make me certain whether it is a substance or a quality, so that once I know this I will know what I ought to think about other things which in a similar way are spoken of paronymously.
Teacher. First tell me why you are in doubt.
S. Because, apparently, both alternatives—viz., that it is and is not [the one or the other]—can be proved by compelling reasons.
T. Prove them, then.
S. Do not be quick to contradict what I am going to say; but allow me to bring my speech to its conclusion, and then either approve it or improve it.
T. As you wish.
S. The premises
(i) Every/Everything expert-in-grammar is a man,
(ii) Every man is a substance,

It is heavily influenced by Boethius and his writings on Aristotle.  It is not casual reading for anyone today.

In 1063, when Anselm was 30, William the Conqueror asked Lanfranc to become abbot of a new abbey William built at Caen in Normandy. The monks at Bec elected Anselm to become prior, a lesser role but the person in charge in the absence of an abbot. He maintained a strict Benedictine Rule; after 15 years he was finally named abbot.

Bec attracted students from all over due to its reputation for learning during Anselm's time in charge. He continued to write, and he fought for the abbey's independence from secular influence, as well as from religious influence from people such as the archbishop of Rouen. Bec was enhanced by being granted lands in England after 1066. Anselm would sometimes visit England to check on the abbey's estates, to appear before his secular lord, William, and to visit Lanfranc, who by now was Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm impressed William, and he was probably by then on a "short list" of candidates for Archbishop of Canterbury to succeed Lanfranc.

When Lanfranc died in 1089, however, William was gone and the throne was held by his son, William II "Rufus." Rufus had other plans. I'll tell you about Anselm's rocky path to archbishop next time.

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