Saint Anselm

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2261

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 election was disputed; rather, he held that his support for Urban was announced before his own acceptance of the see. Normandy had accepted Urban, but a convocation of English bishops and nobles in 1095 resulted in the craven submission of the bishops to King William. The nobles, however, supported Anselm and negotiated a truce. Anselm agreed not to go to Rome. Now William sought to deal with the pope; determining that Urban was, indeed, the rightful pontiff, he asked that the pallium be delivered to himself for bestowal on someone other than Anselm. The Roman agents refused to accept his scheme, and the pallium arrived in Canterbury for Anselm only on June 10, 1095.

During the next two years, 1095-1097, church-state disputes ceased enabling Anselm to administer routine affairs of the Church, consecrating new bishops, erecting buildings, and other tasks. During these years he also began work on his famous book, Cur Deus Homo? (Why God Became Man). He even raised two hundred pounds to aid the king’s temporary acquisition of Normandy when Robert, his brother, accepted Urban’s appeal to go on the First Crusade. Still, William angered Anselm by refusing to consider other church reforms.

Hence, in 1097, Anselm again wished to travel to Rome; as before, William refused. The king feared the papal interference with his own prerogatives and, this time armed with the support of both bishops and nobles, informed Anselm that if he left for Rome, he could not return. After personally blessing the king, Anselm left for Italy in November, 1097, whereupon the king confiscated all of his properties. Anselm’s reception in Rome was unusually warm. While resting in Apulia, he finished his work, Why God Became Man. The pope did not accept his request to be relieved of his see. Anselm attended the Council of Bari in 1098, which concerned the filioque doctrine that caused such division with the Church in the East. The address which Anselm delivered at the council later formed the basis of his book, De processione spiritus sancti (On the Procession of the Holy Spirit). This gathering specifically denounced King William of England for simony and would have excommunicated the king had it not been for Anselm’s intercession. In Rome the next year, Anselm attended the Vatican Council of 1099, which declared for excommunication of laymen who invested church offices. Stopping in Lyons on his way home, Anselm wrote De conceptu virginali et originali peccato (On the Virgin Birth and Original Sin) and Meditatio redemptionis human (Meditations on Human Redemption). A number of miracles were attributed to him during these months. Before he reached England, both Pope Urban II and King William II died, the latter by an assassin’s arrow.

The new English king, Henry I, William’s brother, quarreled with Anselm on the very same issues and demanded that the archbishop be reinvested and render homage for his see. Henry secured a truce in order to send agents to Rome to beg the pope to relax the recent decrees. During this respite in the quarrel, Anselm pleased the king by allowing him to marry Mathilde of Scotland, who was charged with having entered a convent as a nun. The archbishop’s council decided otherwise, and Anselm blessed the royal marriage on November 11, 1100. Once again, he served the king’s interest by supporting his claim to Normandy vis-à-vis that of his brother, Robert, and so helped to avert a war. When Pope Paschal’s letter arrived and maintained the former decrees, however, Anselm concluded that he must obey Rome. In 1103, Anselm began his second exile, traveling to Rome to see Pope Paschal II. King and pope were deadlocked over who held the right of investiture. The archbishop had agreed to go to Rome to clarify the situation, but the pope reiterated his positions, doing so in a manner designed to soothe and compliment the English king. Anselm went to Lyons again, to study with his friend, Archbishop Hugh. After written negotiations between Anselm and Henry proved fruitless, the two parties agreed to meet in Normandy in July, 1105. There they were reconciled, and Anselm returned to Canterbury in September, 1106. The English bishops were chafing now under royal taxes and finally came to Anselm’s support. Hence, at the conference at Westminster, the king promised never again to invest bishops and abbots with the ring and crosier, while Anselm agreed to render homage to the king for the temporal possessions of the archbishopric, a formula which was approved by Pope Paschal II. This agreement was the model for the Concordat of Worms in 1122, which resolved a similar dispute within the Holy Roman Empire.

Anselm wrote a work called De concordia praescientiae et praedestinationis et gratiae Dei cum libero arbitrio (The Harmony Between God’s Foreknowledge, Predestination, Grace, and Free Choice) between 1107 and 1108. The next year he became seriously ill; he died in Canterbury on April 21, 1109. He was called Beatus by the new archbishop, Theobald; Saint Thomas Becket requested his canonization in 1163. Sometime before Becket’s martyrdom on December 29, 1170, Anselm may have been formally canonized, but no explicit record has been discovered. Others contend that his canonization was only executed by the notorious Borgia pope, Alexander VI, in 1494. Pope Clement XI declared him a doctor of the Church in 1720.


Intellectually, Saint Anselm’s contributions to philosophy and theology were pivotal in the transition from early medieval thought to the Scholasticism of the later era. Anselm always regarded belief in God as something in accordance with unaided reason, yet his approach was still Platonic rather than Aristotelian. In the Monologion he sought not only to demonstrate the reasonableness of belief in God but also to explicate His attributes. In his most remembered work, the Proslogion, Anselm argued that the very idea of perfection implied its existence. Although Thomas Aquinas later rejected Anselm’s ontological argument, it was defended by René Descartes in the seventeenth century, and it has continued to interest philosophers of religion.

Anselm’s successful defense of church prerogatives in the face of royal demands was crucial to the maintenance of limited authority which marked late feudal England and which was a lasting political legacy of English history for the modern era. Indeed, the triumph of limited government in Western history can in part be attributed to the fact that the contests between church and state in the Middle Ages were between equal forces, neither of which was able to dominate the other. The compromise of Westminster between Anselm and King Henry was just such a case.


Church, R. W. Saint Anselm. London: Macmillan, 1870. Although an older work, highly dependent upon Eadmer, this remains essentially accurate and readable.

Clanchy, M. T. England and Its Rulers, 1066-1272. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1983. A superb general history of the age that sets the political contests between Anselm and William in context.

Colleran, Joseph M. Introduction and notes to Anselm’s Why God Became Man, and The Virgin’s Conception and Original Sin. Albany, N.Y.: Magi Books, 1969.

Eadmer. The Life of Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Translated and edited with an introduction and notes by R. W. Southern. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. The principal source for Anselm’s life, this work is important not only for what it reveals about the archbishop but also for what it tells about the community of monks that shaped both author and subject.

Evans, G. R. Anselm and a New Generation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. A work that puts the thought of Anselm in the perspective of his age, treating the ideas of associates such as Albert Crispin, Eadmer, and Anselm of Laon as well as rivals such as Peter Abelard.

Hopkins, Jasper. A Companion to the Study of St. Anselm. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972. This work systematically analyzes Anselm’s philosophical themes (truth, freedom, and evil) as well as his theological concerns (trinity, incarnation, and redemption).

Southern, R. W. Saint Anselm and His Biographer. A Study of Monastic Life and Thought, 1059-1130. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966. Southern examines the life and thought of the Anglo-Norman monastic milieu by analyzing both the ideas of Anselm and those of his biographer, Eadmer. Southern considers not only the theological and devotional aspects of monasticism but also matters involving history, politics, and even economics.

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