Ratramnus Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Ratramnus was one of the leading theological writers of the first Eucharistic controversy, and his treatise on the subject has been cited in every subsequent occurrence of that debate.

Early Life

Little is known concerning the life of Ratramnus except that he entered the Benedictine abbey of Corbie in about 825, was ordained a priest, involved himself in the doctrinal controversies of his time through his writings, and died about 868. All that is known of him comes from his own writings.

The abbey of Corbie, where Ratramnus spent his entire adult life, was located near Amiens in northern France. It had been founded in the seventh century by the Frankish king Chlothar III and his mother Bathilda and was set up under the Benedictine rule by a monk of Luxeil. By the ninth century, Corbie was held in high regard by scholars because of its scriptoria, library, and school. As a center for the study of the liberal arts, Corbie, like a number of other Carolingian monasteries, served as a bridge between the learning of the ancient world and the modern period in European history. Some of the earliest documents written in the Carolingian script were prepared there by monks assigned the task of copying Roman and patristic manuscripts.

The writings of Ratramnus indicate that he was an extremely well-read scholar, one who was held in high regard by his contemporaries, such as the bishops Hildegard of Meaux and Odo of Beauvais and the theologians Gottschalk of Orbais and Lupus of Ferrara. Pope Nicholas the Great called upon him to write a treatise in defense of the primacy of the bishop of Rome. In addition, the Frankish king Charles the Bald on two occasions petitioned him to write tracts on doctrinal matters. Yet, were it not for his first treatise, De corpore et sanguine Domini (Concerning the Body and Blood of the Lord, 1549), written sometime between 844 and 850, Ratramnus would probably not be remembered, since he left no disciple to keep his memory alive.

Life’s Work

Ratramnus was drawn into the first Eucharistic controversy in the history of the Church when he was called upon sometime between 844 and 850 by Charles the Bald to prepare a treatise on Eucharistic doctrine. Charles had already received a book on that subject written by Saint Paschasius Radbertus, Abbot of Corbie, but since Charles disliked the abbot—grave political differences existed between them—it is likely that the king desired a treatise on the subject that would be significantly different. The choice of Ratramnus for this task indicates that he already had a reputation as a scholar and that his view on the Eucharist was known to be at variance with that held by his abbot.

Paschasius, a pupil of the former abbots of Corbie Saint Adalhard and Saint Wala, claimed that his treatise De corpore et sanguine Domini (831; concerning the Body and Blood of the Lord) was based on the writings of many of the Greek and Roman church fathers, including Saint Ambrose, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and Gregory the Great. In his work, Paschasius considered two questions concerning the Eucharist: First, does the sacrament contain something hidden, which can be known only by faith, or is the whole reality present? Second, is the body of Christ that was born of the Virgin Mary and suffered and died on the Cross the same body which is received in the Eucharist by the faithful? According to Paschasius, there is a strict identity between the historical body and the Eucharistic body of Christ:

And therefore, O man, whenever you drink this cup or eat this bread, you should keep in mind that you are not drinking any other blood than the one that was poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins, and that this is no other flesh than the one that was given up for you and for all and that hung on the Cross.

Paschasius believed that the substance of the bread and wine was changed into the actual body and blood of Christ although the elements retained the outward appearance as bread and wine. The presence of the historical body of Christ at many places at the same time in the Eucharist is explained by a creative act on the part of God on each occasion. The presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist is an objective reality; thus, even someone who received them in an unworthy manner would still receive the true body and blood of the Lord.

Ratramnus, in his treatise of the same title as that of Paschasius, attacked the latter’s position by making a distinction between the words figura...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)