Atonement, Ecclesiology (Church), History Facts, Medieval History, Theology

Anselm & Abelard pt 1 – History Fact Friday


I decided to take a little break from writing about medieval politics to focus on a couple characters who deserve our attention. One crafted a theological argument that continues to reverberate in our theological treatises today. The other was possibly the best theological and philosophical mind that Europe ever produced. The first is so well-known that there is a college in my area named after him. The other is mentioned, when he is mentioned, only in brief passing in a few medieval history books.

Today, I will focus on the first – Anselm of Canterbury. We will get a brief biographic sketch. Next week, I will present his counterpart and oft adversary – Peter of Abelard. The following week, I will show the core issues of their disagreements and the reasons that Anselm is known while Abelard is nothing more than obscure footnote.

The Life of Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm was born into a noble family in 1033. His family lived in Aosta  – a region of the Kingdom of Burgundy in what is now northern Italy.

Candia and Norman Blood

His father’s family was from the House of Candia. Originally a line of Lombard nobles, they came under the Normans around the time of Anselm’s birth. This was less than a century after the Normans arrived in Europe, and they were in the process of conquering Italy and Sicily.

Led by the sons of Tancred of Hauteville, the Normans had conquered Greece, much of Italy and eventually Sicily; waged a war against the Byzantines; and served as soldiers of fortune in various other campaigns. Tancred’s fourth son, Robert d’Guisgard, was particularly influential in Italy, but he spent most of his time in the southern part of the peninsula.

The House of Savoy

While Anselm’s father had Norman ties, his mother’s family was related to the House of Savoy – a landed, Frankish noble family. The founder of the house, Humbert I, had gained control of a semi-autonomous, secluded county within the Kingdom of Burgundy centered in Aosta. Although the relationship is not clear from the record, Anselm’s mother was related to Humbert and possibly a cousin to his son and successor, Otto.

In response to the Norman conquests, Burgundy had been incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire as the Kingdom of Arles (or Arelat). Although it was autonomous, it had been ruled by the titular emperor since 993 but this shift meant a change in allegiances and fealty which doubtless would have influenced young Anselm as he was growing up.

Anselm as a Noble

I recount all of this to demonstrated that Anselm was born into the landed nobility, even if it was in a secluded area. What’s more, he was part of a family that was ruling but now under the influence of the burgeoning Holy Roman Empire. He also knew of the Normans and their own form of nobility, including the precursors of the code of chivalry.

Every man is a product of his age. Anselm was no different. His childhood years were spent in the circle of nobles who were trying to make sense of 11th century Italy and France, which is to say that he was living at the end of what is known as “The Dark Age” and the High Middle Ages.

His Career Path

At the age of fifteen, Anselm asked his father to allow him to take monastic orders. His father refused, probably because Anselm already demonstrated the acumen and skill necessary to take over the family’s holdings. But Anselm was heartbroken and fell into some kind of psychosomatic illness for years.

While Anselm was ill, his mother died. Rebelling against his father, Anselm fled to France. Somehow, he wound up in Normandy where,  in 1059, he took his orders. Sometime thereafter, he became abbot of Bec.

Twenty years later, Anselm is still in Normandy, but we find him embroiled in a land dispute with the Duke of Normandy. In 1079, he was consecrated as bishop of Bec, which had not previously been a diocese.

The reason for this move is significant. The archdiocese of Rouen was vacate, and had been for quite some time. One churchman, the bishop of Évreux, wanted the seat but knew that others were angling to install Anselm at Rouen.This would have meant that Évreux would have had to swear fealty to Anselm as archbishop.

The bishop of Évreux installed Anselm as bishop of Bec, thus disallowing him from becoming archbishop. He then was able to bypass Anselm and become archbishop himself.

This kind of political move happened often in Norman France. Anselm was not oblivious to it or naive. It was simply the way things worked.

Archbishop of Canterbury

As most people who had Western Civ during high school know, in 1066 the armies of William the Conqueror landed in England and made William the King of England. William set about putting England in order, but in 1070 he had the current archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand.

William then summoned a Lombard-Norman bishop, Lanfranc, from Normandy to take over as archbishop. It took a couple of years for Lanfranc to stabilize his hold on the English church, but by 1073, he was firmly ensconced.

Five years later (1078), William died and Lanfranc was instrumental in having William’s son, William Rufus, crowned as William II. In 1089, Lanfranc contracted a fever and died.

Choosing Anselm

William II was in a difficult position. Lanfranc had done much to consolidate the Norman control of the English church. William needed to appoint a Norman successor who would continue to move this agenda forward.

In 1093, William II the Norman king of England needed to replace Lanfranc. He looked around for a supporter of the Norman cause who was not necessarily a Norman. He also needed someone who was qualified for an archbishop’s mitre. He found his man in Anselm.

Anselm, however, was no man’s fool. What’s more, he had been cheated out of the archdiocese of Rouen. Pope Gregory VII had made sweeping reforms to European catholicism after becoming pope in 1073, and Anselm had embraced these reforms at Bec. So, Anselm made hefty demands of William before he would take the archdiocese of Canterbury.

He boldly demanded that William recognize the authority of Pope Urban II (there was a papal schism at the time). He required William to return any lands he or his father had seized from the see of Canterbury. And perhaps most bold of his demands, Anselm demanded that William would acceptance Anselm’s spiritual advise at a level that almost amounted to an Old Testament prophet.

William and Anselm compromised, with William only returning the lands and taking the other demands under advisement. On December 4, 1093, Anselm swore fealty to William and was enthroned. Almost immediately, the two began to tussle.

English Kings and Papal Authority

Anselm was a papist, and he wanted to unite the English church more closely with Rome. What’s more, he supported the Gregorian reforms which included a ban on secular investiture (kings appointing priests and bishops) and clerical marriage. Anselm was himself a celibate monk with an absolute devotion to Rome.

Under Landfranc, the English clergy had been encouraged in their independence. They had no desire to come under papal authority. In 1095, they called for William to depose Anselm; but the Anglo-Norman nobles sided with Anselm, so William did not.

Anselm continued to call for reform. He demanded that William allow him to go to Rome to seek papal confirmation of his see and to ask the pope to resolve the conflicts. William flatly told Anselm that if he left, it would be to exile. Anselm left anyway.

Archbishop in Exile

As soon as Anselm left, William seized the see’s property. Anselm wound up in Lyon, in France. He then traveled to Rome where Pope Urban II affirmed the Gregorian reforms, including a ban on secular investiture – denying king’s the right to appoint bishops. Although Urban confirmed Anselm’s enthronement, he chose to stay out of the dispute.

In 1100, William II died and his successor Henry I invited Anselm back to England. Henry was unwilling to return the see’s land, and found himself at odds with Anselm as his brother had been. Their argument was taken again to the Pope, and Urban’s successor Paschal II confirmed Anselm’s place while still denying secular investiture.

Henry refused to accept Paschal’s ruling and continued to ordain bishops in England. Furious, Anselm then went into exile again over the dispute. At one point, he threatened to excommunicate Henry I over the issue. Finally, in 1106, Paschal mediated a compromise.

Anselm refused to return, staying this time at his former abbey in Bec. It was not until Henry journeyed to Bec and met Anselm personally that the two signed the Concordat of London and Anselm returned. He spent his final two years working with Henry to consolidate the Church of England and bring the churches more and more under the pope’s authority. He died in 1109.

This is the world of Anselm’s Theology

This should clue us in as to the nature of Anselm’s world. Medieval Europe, Normandy and England especially, was a place where vassalage and land rights were a big deal. The abbots of monasteries were often vassals of secular lords.

Land and vassalage were more than economic niceties. They were cultural sin quo non. You simply could not have had any kind of society or culture without them. The European feudal system had been developed in the wake of the fall of central government in Italy and had become so integrated into their thinking that medieval people could not think outside of it. (That’s not to say they didn’t try.)

Thus, whenever we read Anselm, we have to remember that this is his world. Particularly, there are three points I want the readers to note:

  1. Anselm was born into landed nobility.
  2. Anselm had no romantic or intimate involvement with women that we know of.
  3. Anselm worked toward a church unified under Rome’s primacy.

These three factors will come into play in a BIG WAY when we discuss Anselm’s theology in a later post.

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