Article abstract: Combining a tenacious attachment to principle with a penetrating mind, Anselm maintained the independence of the English church while making major contributions to the inductive argument for the existence of God.
Saint Anselm was born about 1033 in Aosta, an Alpine town in Burgundy, today the Piedmont section of Italy, near the St. Bernard Pass. His parents were wealthy; Gundulf, his father, was a Lombard who assumed the extensive property of his wife, Ermenberger of Aosta, who may have been related to German royalty. They had one other child, a daughter, Richera, younger than Anselm. Ermenberger’s piety was the most important influence on the young Anselm. Placed under the tutelage of a strict disciplinarian, the young boy nearly lost his mind until his mother restored him to normality with kindness.
At age fifteen Anselm decided to become a Benedictine monk, but the abbot of Aosta refused to accept the underage boy for fear of offending Gundulf. Anselm responded by pursuing worldly amusements, only to be recovered again by his pious mother. When Ermenberger died, Anselm resumed worldly pursuits and had repeated conflicts with the censorious Gundulf. At the age of twenty-three, around the year 1056, he left home with a clerical companion. Anselm made his way to the monastery at Becin Normandy, taking up studies with the celebrated teacher, Prior Lanfranc. Anselm was determined now to become a scholar and a monk and avidly pursued literary studies. When his father died, he briefly considered returning to Burgundy to administer the family estates but instead chose the religious life in 1060. Hence, at age twenty-seven he was accepted into the monastery at Bec by Abbot Herlwin. Three years later, as a result of his scholarship and exemplary commitment to monastic duties, Anselm succeeded Lanfranc as prior when the teacher left to become abbot of St. Stephen’s Monastery in Caen. Anselm was then but thirty years old.
As prior, Anselm set aside time each day to render advice in person, and in writing to persons even of high position (and to his own nephew, also named Anselm). At night he corrected the books of the monastic library or wrote devotional literature. Rejecting the prevailing instructional methods for the education of young boys, which included severe constraints and physical beatings, Anselm, recalling his own unhappy experience at the hands of the tutor in Aosta, stressed a blend of kindness and punishment, freedom and discipline. While still at Bec, he wrote his Monologion (1077) and in the next year, the Proslogion.
Fifteen years after becoming prior, Herlwin died. Anselm was elected abbot in 1078, and in the following year he was consecrated. That year he journeyed to England to examine the English properties of the monastery but also to visit with his old teacher, Lanfranc, now the Archbishop of Canterbury. At Lanfranc’s request, Anselm addressed the religious at Canterbury on sundry theological and monastic topics. It was there that Anselm met his future biographer and lifelong friend, Eadmer.
When William the Conqueror lay dying from a wound at Rouen, he sent for Abbot Anselm to hear his confession. Anselm’s own illness prevented his arrival, and the king died in 1087. After Lanfranc died in May, 1089, King William Rufus (William II) seized the opportunity to tax the clergy and acquire the revenues of the English churches and monasteries. No new archbishop was allowed to be appointed; the king sought to use his added revenues for a military campaign in Normandy. English nobles invited Anselm to come and intercede with the king on behalf of the oppressed churchmen. His visit with the king in September, 1092, was, however, unsuccessful. When King William became seriously ill the following year, he was frightened into naming Anselm as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm demanded that all the former lands of the see be restored to church control, that additional properties long claimed by the see be recognized, and that the king take him as his personal counselor. William accepted the first demand but not the other two. With considerable reluctance Anselm consented and was consecrated archbishop on December 4, 1093, by Thomas of Bayeux, Archbishop of York. Anselm was sixty years of age. Although there may have been the customary election of the archbishop, the records do not reveal one.
As an administrator of church affairs, Anselm is best remembered for his protection of ecclesiastical independence and properties from the depredations of English royalty. Shortly after his consecration as archbishop, King William Rufus demanded a gift of one thousand pounds. Anselm refused for fear that the public would perceive such a large gift as simony. When the king refused his offer of five hundred pounds, Anselm ordered the sum given to the poor. King and primate also quarreled over the former’s insistence on possessing the revenues of the abbeys.
Anselm wished to go to Rome in 1095 to receive the symbol of papal approval, the archiepiscopal pallium (a woolen shoulder vestment that was a sign of investiture) from Pope Urban II. King William refused to recognize Urban as pope and so denied Anselm’s request for a safe-conduct document. The papal election was disputed between Urban and Clement III, and England had not yet decided whom to recognize. Anselm did not deny the king’s right to withhold support for a pope whose...
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