Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology – Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages

Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests
Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire
Hildebrand : The Papal Empire
Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions
Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology
Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy
Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power
The Feudal System
The Crusades
William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture
John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages
John Lord

Topics Covered
Birth and early life of Anselm
The Abbey of Bec
Scholarly life of Anselm
Visits of Anselm to England
Compared with Becket
Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury
Privileges of the Archbishop
Unwillingness of Anselm to be elevated
Lanfranc succeeded by Anselm
Quarrel between Anselm and William Rufus
Despotic character of William
Disputed claims of Popes Urban and Clement
Council of Rockingham
Royal efforts to depose Anselm
Firmness and heroism of Anselm
Duplicity of the king
His intrigues with the Pope
Pretended reconciliation with Anselm
Appeals to Rome
Inordinate claims of the Pope
Allegiance of Anselm to the Pope
Anselm at Rome
Death of William and Accession of Henry I.
Royal encroachments
Henry quarrels with Anselm
Results of the quarrel
Anselm as a theologian
Theology of the Middle Ages
Monks become philosophers
Gotschalk and predestination
John Scotus Erigena
Revived spirit of inquiry
Services of Anselm to theology
He brings philosophy to support theology
Combats Nominalism
His philosophical deductions
His devout Christian spirit

Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology

A. D. 1033-1109.

The Middle Ages produced no more interesting man than Anselm, Abbot of Bec and Archbishop of Canterbury,–not merely a great prelate, but a great theologian, resplendent in the virtues of monastic life and in devotion to the interests of the Church. He was one of the first to create an intellectual movement in Europe, and to stimulate theological inquiries.

Anselm was born at Aosta, in Italy, 1033, and he died in 1109, at the age of 76. He was therefore the contemporary of Hildebrand, of Lanfranc, of Bérenger, of Roscelin, of Henry IV. of Germany, of William the Conqueror, of the Countess Matilda, and of Urban II. He saw the first Crusade, the great quarrel about investitures and the establishment of the Normans in England. Aosta was on the confines of Lombardy and Burgundy, in a mountainous district, amid rich cornfields and fruitful vines and dark, waving chestnuts, in sight of lofty peaks with their everlasting snow. Anselm belonged to a noble but impoverished family; his father was violent and unthrifty, but his mother was religious and prudent. He was by nature a student, and early was destined to monastic life,–the only life favorable to the development of the intellect in a rude and turbulent age. I have already alluded to the general ignorance of the clergy in those times. There were no schools of any note at this period, and no convents where learning was cultivated beyond the rudiments of grammar and arithmetic and the writings of the Fathers. The monks could read and talk in Latin, of a barbarous sort,–which was the common language of the learned, so far as any in that age could be called learned.

The most famous place in Europe, at that time, where learning was cultivated, was the newly-founded abbey of Bec in Normandy, under the superintendence of the Archbishop of Rouen, of which Lanfranc of Pavia was the prior. It was the first abbey in Normandy to open the door of learning to the young and inquiring minds of Western Europe. It was a Benedictine abbey, as severe in its rules as that of Clairvaux. It would seem that the fame of this convent, and of Lanfranc its presiding genius (afterwards the great Archbishop of Canterbury), reached the ears of Anselm; so that on the death of his parents he wandered over the Alps, through Burgundy, to this famous school, where the best teaching of the day was to be had. Lanfranc cordially welcomed his fellow-countryman, then at the age of twenty-six, to his retreat; and on his removal three years afterwards to the more princely abbey of St. Stephen in Caen, Anselm succeeded him as prior. Fifteen years later he became abbot, and ruled the abbey for fifteen years, during which time Lanfranc–the mutual friend of William the Conqueror and the great Hildebrand–became Archbishop of Canterbury.

During this seclusion of thirty years in the abbey of Bec, Anselm gave himself up to theological and philosophical studies, and became known both as a profound and original thinker and a powerful supporter of ecclesiastical authority. The scholastic age,–that is, the age of dialectics, when theology invoked the aid of philosophy to establish the truths of Christianity,–had not yet begun; but Anselm may be regarded as a pioneer, the precursor of Thomas Aquinas, since he was led into important theological controversies to establish the creed of Saint Augustine. It was not till several centuries after his death, however, that his remarkable originality of genius was fully appreciated. He anticipated Descartes in his argument to prove the existence of God. He is generally regarded as the profoundest intellect among the early schoolmen, and the most original that appeared in the Church after Saint Augustine. He was not a popular preacher like Saint Bernard, but he taught theology with marvellous lucidity to the monks who sought the genial quiet of his convent. As an abbot he was cheerful and humane, almost to light-heartedness, frank and kind to everybody,–an exception to most of the abbots of his day, who were either austere and rigid, or convivial and worldly. He was a man whom everybody loved and trusted, yet one not unmindful of his duties as the supreme ruler of his abbey, enforcing discipline, while favoring relaxation. No monk ever led a life of higher meditation than he; absorbed not in a dreamy and visionary piety, but in intelligent inquiries as to the grounds of religious belief. He was a true scholar of the Platonic and Augustinian school; not a dialectician like Albertus Magnus and Abélard, but a man who went beyond words to things, and seized on realities rather than forms; not given to disputations and the sports of logical tournaments, but to solid inquiries after truth. The universities had not then arisen, but a hundred years later he would have been their ornament, like Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura.

Like other Norman abbeys, the abbey of Bec had after the Conquest received lands in England, and it became one of the duties of the abbot to look after its temporal interests. Hence Anselm was obliged to make frequent visits to England, where his friendship with Lanfranc was renewed, and where he made the acquaintance of distinguished prelates and abbots and churchmen, among others of Eadmer, his future biographer. It seems that he also won the hearts of the English nobility by his gentleness and affability, so that they rendered to him uncommon attentions, not only as a great ecclesiastic who had no equal in learning, but as a man whom they could not help loving.

The life of Anselm very nearly corresponded with that of the Conqueror, who died in 1087, being five years older; and he was Abbot of Bec during the whole reign of William as King of England. There was nothing particularly memorable in his life as abbot aside from his theological studies. It was not until he was elevated to the See of Canterbury, on the death of Lanfranc, that his memorable career became historical. He anticipated Thomas Becket in his contest to secure the liberties of the Church against the encroachments of the Norman kings. The cause of the one was the cause of the other; only, Anselm was trained in monastic seclusion, and Becket amid the tumults and intrigues of a court. The one was essentially an ecclesiastic and theologian; the other a courtier and statesman. The former was religious, and the latter secular in his habits and duties. Yet both fought the same great battle, the essential principle of which was the object of contention between the popes and the emperors of Germany,–that pertaining to the right of investiture, which may be regarded, next to the Crusades, as the great outward event of the twelfth century. That memorable struggle for supremacy was not brought to a close until Innocent III made the kings of the earth his vassals, and reigned without a rival in Christendom. Gregory VII had fought heroically, but he died in exile, leaving to future popes the fruit of his transcendent labors.

Lanfranc died in 1089,–the ablest churchman of the century next to the great Hildebrand, his master. It was through his influence that England was more closely allied with Rome, and that those fetters were imposed by the popes which the ablest of the Norman kings were unable to break. The Pope had sanctioned the atrocious conquest of England by the Normans–beneficially as it afterwards turned out–only on the condition that extraordinary powers should be conferred on the Archbishop of Canterbury, his representative in enforcing the papal claims, who thus became virtually independent of the king,–a spiritual monarch of such dignity that he was almost equal to his sovereign in authority. There was no such See in Germany and France as that of Canterbury. Its mighty and lordly metropolitan had the exclusive right of crowning the king. To him the Archbishop of York, once his equal, had succumbed. He was not merely primate, but had the supreme control of the Church in England. He could depose prelates and excommunicate the greatest personages; he enjoyed enormous revenues; he was vicegerent of the Pope.

Loth was William to concede such great powers to the Pope, but he could not be King of England without making a king of Canterbury. So he made choice of Lanfranc–then Abbot of St. Stephen, the most princely of the Norman convents–for the highest ecclesiastical dignity in his realm, and perhaps in Europe after the papacy itself. Lanfranc was his friend, and also the friend of Hildebrand; and no collision took place between them, for neither could do without the other. William was willing to waive some of his prerogatives as a sovereign for such a kingdom as England, which made him the most powerful monarch in Western Europe, since he ruled the fairest part of France and the whole British realm, the united possession of both Saxons and Danes, with more absolute authority than any feudal sovereign at that time possessed. His victorious knights were virtually a standing army, bound to him with more than feudal loyalty, since he divided among them the lands of the conquered Saxons, and gave to their relatives the richest benefices of the Church. With the aid of an Italian prelate, bound in allegiance to the Pope, he hoped to cement his conquest. Lanfranc did as he wished,–removed the Saxon bishops, and gave their sees to Normans. Since Dunstan, no great Saxon bishop had arisen. The Saxon bishops were feeble and indolent, and were not capable of making an effective resistance. But Lanfranc was even more able than Dunstan,–a great statesman as well as prelate. He ruled England as grand justiciary in the absence of the monarch, and was thus viceregent of the kingdom. But while he despoiled the Saxon prelates, he would suffer no royal spoliation of the Norman bishops. He even wrested away from Odo, half-brother of the Conqueror, the manors he held as Count of Kent, which originally belonged to the See of Canterbury. Thus was William, with all his greed and ambition, kept in check by the spiritual monarch he had himself made so powerful.

On the death of this great prelate, all eyes were turned to Anselm as his successor, who was then Abbot of Bec, absorbed in his studies. But William Rufus, who had in the mean time succeeded to the throne of the Conqueror, did not at once appoint any one to the vacant See, since he had seized and used its revenues to the scandal of the nation and the indignation of the Church. For five years there was no primate in England and no Archbishop of Canterbury. At last, what seemed to be a mortal sickness seized the King, and in the near prospect of death he summoned Anselm to his chamber and conferred upon him the exalted dignity,–which Anselm refused to accept, dreading the burdens of the office, and preferring the quiet life of a scholar in his Norman abbey. Like Thomas Aquinas, in the next century, who refused the archbishopric of Naples to pursue his philosophical studies in Paris, Anselm declined the primacy of the Church in England, with its cares and labors and responsibilities, that he might be unmolested in his theological inquiries. He understood the position in which he should be placed, and foresaw that he should be brought in collision with his sovereign if he would faithfully guard the liberties and interests of the Church. He was a man of peace and meditation, and hated conflict, turmoil, and active life. He knew that one of the requirements of a great prelate is to have business talents, more necessary perhaps than eloquence or learning. At last, however, on the pressing solicitation of the Pope, the King, and the clergy, he consented to mount the throne of Lanfranc, on condition that the temporalities, privileges, and powers of the See of Canterbury should not be attacked. The crafty and rapacious, but now penitent monarch, thinking he was about to die, and wishing to make his peace with Heaven, made all the concessions required; and the quiet monk and doctor, whom everybody loved and revered, was enthroned and consecrated as the spiritual monarch of England.

Anselm’s memorable career as bishop began in peace, but was soon clouded by a desperate quarrel with his sovereign, as he had anticipated. This learned and peace-loving theologian was forced into a contest which stands out in history like the warfare between Hildebrand and Henry IV. It was the beginning of that fierce contest in England which was made memorable by the martyrdom of Becket. Anselm, when consecrated, was sixty years of age,–a period of life when men are naturally timid, cautious, and averse to innovations, quarrels, and physical discomforts.

The friendly relations between William Rufus and Anselm were disturbed when the former sought to exact large sums of money from his subjects to carry on war against his brother Robert. Among those who were expected to make heavy contributions, in the shape of presents, was the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose revenues were enormous,–perhaps the largest in the realm next to those of the King. Anselm offered as his contribution five hundred marks, what would now be equal to £10,000,–a large sum in those days, but not as much as the Norman sovereign expected. In indignation he refused the present, which seemed to him meagre, especially since it was accompanied with words of seeming reproof; for Anselm had said that “a free gift, which he meant this to be, was better than a forced and servile contribution.” The King then angrily bade him begone; “that he wanted neither his money nor his scolding.” The courtiers tried to prevail on the prelate to double the amount of his present, and thus regain the royal favor; but he firmly refused to do this, since it looked to him like a corrupt bargain. Anselm, having distributed among the poor the money which the King had refused, left the court as soon as the Christmas festival was over and retired to his diocese, preserving his independence and dignity.

A breach had not been made, but the irritation was followed by coolness; and this was increased when Anselm desired to have the religious posts filled the revenues of which the King had too long enjoyed, and when, in addition, he demanded a council of bishops to remedy the disorders and growing evils of the kingdom. This council the angry King refused with a sneer, saying, “he would call the council when he himself pleased, not when Anselm pleased.” As to the filling the vacancies of the abbeys, he further replied: “What are abbeys to you? Are they not mine? Go and do what you like with your farms, and I will do what I please with my abbeys.” So they parted, these two potentates, the King saying to his companions, “I hated him yesterday; I hate him more to-day; and I shall hate him still more to-morrow. I refuse alike his blessings and his prayers.” His chief desire now was to get rid of the man he had elevated to the throne of Canterbury. It may be observed that it was not the Pope who made this appointment, but the King of England. Yet, by the rules long established by the popes and accepted by Christendom, it was necessary that an archbishop, before he could fully exercise his spiritual powers, should go to Rome and receive at the hands of the Pope his pallium, or white woollen stole, as the badge of his office and dignity. Lanfranc had himself gone to Rome for this purpose,–and a journey from Canterbury to Rome in the eleventh century was no small undertaking, being expensive and fatiguing. But there were now at Rome two rival popes. Which one should Anselm recognize? France and Normandy acknowledged Urban. England was undecided whether it should be Urban or Clement. William would probably recognize the one that Anselm did not, for a rupture was certain, and the King sought for a pretext.

So when the Archbishop asked leave of the King to go to Rome, according to custom, William demanded to know to which of these two popes he would apply for his pallium. “To Pope Urban,” was the reply. “But,” said the King, “him I have not acknowledged; and no man in England may acknowledge a pope without my leave.” At first view the matter was a small one comparatively, whether Urban was or was not the true pope. The real point was whether the King of England should accept as pope the man whom the Archbishop recognized, or whether the Archbishop should acknowledge him whom the King had accepted. This could be settled only by a grand council of the nation, to whom the matter should be submitted,–virtually a parliament. This council, demanded by Anselm, met in the royal castle of Rockingham, 1095, composed of nobles, bishops, and abbots. A large majority of the council were in the interests of the King, and the subject at issue was virtually whether the King or the prelate was supreme in spiritual matters,–a point which the Conqueror had ceded to Lanfranc and Hildebrand. This council insulted and worried the primate, and sought to frighten him into submission. But submission was to yield up the liberties of the Church. The intrepid prelate was not prepared for this, and he appealed from the council to the Pope, thereby putting himself in antagonism to the King and a majority of the peers of the realm. The King was exasperated, but foiled, while the council was perplexed. The Bishop of Durham saw no solution but in violence; but violence to the metropolitan was too bold a measure to be seriously entertained. The King hoped that Anselm would resign, as his situation was very unpleasant.

But resignation would be an act of cowardice, and would result in the appointment of an archbishop favorable to the encroachments of the King, who doubtless aimed at the subversion of the liberties of the Church and greater independence. Five centuries later the sympathies of England would have been on his side. But the English nation felt differently in the eleventh century. All Christendom sympathized with the Pope; for this resistance of Anselm to the King was the cause of the popes themselves against the monarchs of Europe. Anselm simply acted as the vicegerent of the Pope. To submit to the dictation of the King in a spiritual matter was to undermine the authority of Rome. I do not attempt to settle the merits of the question, but only to describe the contest. To settle the merits of such a question is to settle the question whether the papal power in its plenitude was good or evil for society in the Middle Ages.

One thing seems certain, that the King was thus far foiled by the firmness of a churchman,–the man who had passed the greater part of his life in a convent, studying and teaching theology; one of the mildest and meekest men ever elevated to high ecclesiastical office. Anselm was sustained by the power of conscience, by an imperative sense of duty, by allegiance to his spiritual head. He indeed owed fealty to the King, but only for the temporalities of his See. His paramount obligations as an archbishop were, according to all the ideas of his age, to the supreme pontiff of Christendom. Doubtless his life would have been easier and more pleasant had he been more submissive to the King. He could have brought all the bishops, as well as barons, to acknowledge the King’s supremacy; but on his shoulders was laid the burden of sustaining ecclesiastical authority in England. He had anticipated this burden, and would have joyfully been exempted from its weight. But having assumed it, perhaps against his will, he had only one course to pursue, according to the ideas of the age; and this was to maintain the supreme authority of the Pope in England in all spiritual matters. It was remarkable that at this stage of the contest the barons took his side, and the bishops took the side of the King. The barons feared for their own privileges should the monarch be successful; for they knew his unscrupulous and tyrannical character,–that he would encroach on these and make himself as absolute as possible. The bishops were weak and worldly men, and either did not realize the gravity of the case or wished to gain the royal favor. They were nearly all Norman nobles, who had been under obligations to the crown.

The King, however, understood and appreciated his position. He could not afford to quarrel with the Pope; he dared not do violence to the primate of the realm. So he dissembled his designs and restrained his wrath, and sought to gain by cunning what he could not openly effect by the exercise of royal power. He sent messengers and costly gifts to Rome, such as the needy and greedy servants of the servants of God rarely disdained. He sought to conciliate the Pope, and begged, as a favor, that the pallium should be sent to him as monarch, and given by him, with the papal sanction, to the Archbishop,–the name of Anselm being suppressed. This favor, being bought by potent arguments, was granted unwisely, and the pallium was sent to William with the greatest secrecy. In return, the King acknowledged the claims of Urban as pope. So Anselm did not go to Rome for the emblem of his power.

The King, having succeeded thus far, then demanded of the Pope the deposition of Anselm. He could not himself depose the archbishop. He could elevate him, but not remove him; he could make, but not unmake. Only he who held the keys of Saint Peter, who was armed with spiritual omnipotence, could reverse his own decrees and rule arbitrarily. But for any king to expect that the Pope would part with the ablest defender of the liberties of the Church, and disgrace him for being faithful to papal interests, was absurd. The Pope may have used smooth words, but was firm in the uniform policy of all his predecessors.

Meanwhile political troubles came so thick and heavy on the King, some of his powerful nobles being in open rebellion, that he felt it necessary to dissemble and defer the gratification of his vengeance on the man he hated more than any personage in England. He pretended to restore Anselm to favor. “Bygones should be bygones.” The King and the Archbishop sat at dinner at Windsor with friends and nobles, while an ironical courtier pleasantly quoted the Psalmist, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”

The King now supposed that Anselm would receive the pallium at his royal hands, which the prelate warily refused to accept. The subject was carefully dropped, but as the pallium was Saint Peter’s gift, it was brought to Canterbury and placed upon the altar, and the Archbishop condescended, amid much pomp and ceremony, to take it thence and put it on,–a sort of puerile concession for the sake of peace. The King, too, wishing conciliation for the present, until he had gained the possession of Normandy from his brother Robert, who had embarked in the Crusades, and feeling that he could ill afford to quarrel with the highest dignitary of his kingdom until his political ambition was gratified, treated Anselm with affected kindness, until his ill success with the Celtic Welsh put him in a bad humor and led to renewed hostility. He complained that Anselm had not furnished his proper contingent of forces for the conquest of Wales, and summoned him to his court. In a secular matter like this, Anselm as a subject had no remedy. Refusal to appear would be regarded as treason and rebellion. Yet he neglected to obey the summons, perhaps fearing violence, and sought counsel from the Pope. He asked permission to go to Rome. The request was angrily refused. Again he renewed his request, and again it was denied him, with threats if he departed without leave. The barons, now against him, thought he had no right to leave his post; the bishops even urged him not to go. To all of whom he replied: “You wish me to swear that I will not appeal to Saint Peter. To swear this is to forswear Saint Peter; to forswear Saint Peter is to forswear Christ.” At last it seems that the King gave a reluctant consent, but with messages that were insulting; and Anselm, with a pilgrim’s staff, took leave of his monks, for the chapter of Canterbury was composed of monks, set out for Dover, and reached the continent in safety.

“Thus began,” says Church, “the system of appeals to Rome, and of inviting foreign interference in the home affairs of England; and Anselm was the beginning of it.” But however unfortunate it ultimately proved, it was in accordance with the ideas and customs of the Middle Ages, without which the papal power could not have been so successfully established. And I take the ground that the Papacy was an institution of which very much may be said in its favor in the dark ages of European society, especially in restraining the tyranny of kings and the turbulence of nobles. Governments are based on expediencies and changing circumstances, not on immutable principles or divine rights. If this be not true, we are driven to accept as the true form of government that which was recognized by Christ and his disciples. The feudal kings of Europe claimed a “divine right,” and professed to reign by the “grace of God.” Whence was this right derived? If it can be substantiated, on what claim rests the sovereignty of the people? Are not popes and kings and bishops alike the creation of circumstances, good or evil inventions, as they meet the wants of society?

Anselm felt himself to be the subject of the Pope as well as of the King, but that, as a priest, his supreme allegiance should be given to the Pope, as the spiritual head of the Church and vicegerent of Christ upon the earth. We differ from him in his view of the claims of the Pope, which he regarded as based on immutable truth and the fiat of Almighty power,–even as Richelieu looked upon the imbecile king whom he served as reigning by divine right. The Protestant Reformation demolished the claims of the spiritual potentate, as the French Revolution swept away the claims of the temporal monarch. The “logic of events” is the only logic which substantiates the claims of rulers; and this logic means, in our day, constitutional government in politics and private judgment in religion,–the free choice of such public servants, whatever their titles of honor, in State and Church, as the exigencies and circumstances of society require. The haughtiest of the popes, in the proudest period of their absolute ascendancy, never rejected their early title,–“servant of the servants of God.” Wherever there is real liberty among the people, whose sovereignty is acknowledged as the source of power, the ruler is a servant of the people and not their tyrant, however great the authority which they delegate to him, which they alone may continue or take away. Absolute authority, delegated to kings or popes by God, was the belief of the Middle Ages; limited authority, delegated to rulers by the people, is the idea of our times. What the next invention in government may be no one can tell; but whatever it be, it will be in accordance with the ideas and altered circumstances of progressive ages. No one can anticipate or foresee the revolutions in human thought, and therefore in human governments, “till He shall come whose right it is to reign.”

Taking it, then, to be the established idea of the Middle Ages that all ecclesiastics owed supreme allegiance to the visible head of the Church, no one can blame Anselm for siding with the Pope, rather than with his sovereign, in spiritual matters. He would have been disloyal to his conscience if he had not been true to his clerical vows of obedience. Conscience may be unenlightened, yet take away the power of conscience and what would become of our world? What is a man without a conscience? He is a usurper, a tyrant, a libertine, a spendthrift, a robber, a miser, an idler, a trifler,–whatever he is tempted to be; a supreme egotist, who says in his heart, “There is no God.” The Almighty Creator placed this instinct in the soul of man to prevent the total eclipse of faith, and to preserve some allegiance to Him, some guidance in the trials and temptations of life. We lament a perverted conscience; yet better this than no conscience at all, a voice silenced by the combined forces of evil. A man must obey this voice. It is the wisdom of the ages to make it harmonious with eternal right; it is the power of God to remove or weaken the assailing forces which pervert or silence it.

See, then, this gentle, lovable, and meditative scholar–not haughty like Dunstan, not arrogant like Becket, not sacerdotal like Ambrose, not passionate like Chrysostom, but meek as Moses is said to have been before Pharaoh (although I never could see this distinguishing trait in the Hebrew leader)–yet firmly and heroically braving the wrath of the sovereign who had elevated him, and pursuing his toilsome journey to Rome to appeal to justice against injustice, to law against violence. He reached the old capital of the world in midwinter, after having spent Christmas in that hospitable convent where Hildebrand had reigned, and which was to shield the persecuted Abélard from the wrath of his ecclesiastical tormentors. He was most honorably received by the Pope, and lodged in the Lateran, as the great champion of papal authority. Vainly did he beseech the Pope to relieve him from his dignities and burdens; for such a man could not be spared from the exalted post in which he had been placed. Peace-loving as he was, his destiny was to fight battles.

In the following year Pope Urban died; and in the following year William Rufus himself was accidentally killed in the New Forest. His death was not much lamented, he having proved hard, unscrupulous, cunning, and tyrannical. At this period the kings of England reigned with almost despotic power, independent of barons and oppressive to the people. William had but little regard for the interests of the kingdom. He built neither churches nor convents, but Westminster Hall was the memorial of his iron reign.

Much was expected of Henry I., who immediately recalled Anselm from Lyons, where he was living in voluntary exile. He returned to Canterbury, with the firm intention of reforming the morals of the clergy and resisting royal encroachments. Henry was equally resolved on making bishops as well as nobles subservient to him. Of course harmony and concord could not long exist between such men, with such opposite views. Even at the first interview of the King with the Archbishop at Salisbury, he demanded a renewal of homage by a new act of investiture, which was virtually a continuance of the quarrel. It was, however, mutually agreed that the matter should be referred to the new pope. Anselm, on his part, knew that the appeal was hopeless; while the King wished to gain time. It was not long before the answer of Pope Pascal came. He was willing that Henry should have many favors, but not this. Only the head of the Church could bestow the emblems of spiritual authority. On receiving the papal reply the King summoned his nobles and bishops to his court, and required that Anselm should acknowledge the right of the King to invest prelates with the badges of spiritual authority. The result was a second embassy to the Pope, of more distinguished persons,–the Archbishop of York and two other prelates. The Pope, of course, remained inflexible. On the return of the envoys a great council was assembled in London, and Anselm again was required to submit to the King’s will. It seems that the Pope, from motives of policy (for all the popes were reluctant to quarrel with princes), had given the envoys assurance that, so long as Henry was a good king, he should not be disturbed, and that oral declarations were contrary to his written documents.

This contradiction and double dealing required a new embassy to Rome; but in the mean time the King gave the See of Salisbury to his chancellor, and that of Hereford to the superintendent of his larder. When the answer of the Pope was finally received, it was found that he indignantly disavowed the verbal message, and excommunicated the three prelates as liars. But the King was not disconcerted. He suddenly appeared at Canterbury, and told Anselm that further opposition would be followed by the royal enmity; yet, mollifying his wrath, requested Anselm himself to go to Rome and do what he could with the Pope. Anselm assured him that he could do nothing to the prejudice of the Church. He departed, however, the King obviously wishing him out of the way.

Canterbury Cathedral From a photograph

Canterbury Cathedral From a photograph

The second journey of Anselm to Rome was a perpetual ovation, but was of course barren of results. The Pope remained inflexible, and Anselm prepared to return to England; but, from the friendly hints of the prelates who accompanied him, he sojourned again at Lyons with his friend the archbishop. Both the Pope and the King had compromised; Anselm alone was straightforward and fearless. As a consequence his revenues were seized, and he remained in exile. He had been willing to do the Pope’s bidding, had he made an exception to the canons; but so long as the law remained in force he had nothing to do but conform to it. He remained in Lyons a year and a half, while Henry continued his negotiations with Pascal; but finding that nothing was accomplished, Anselm resolved to excommunicate his sovereign. The report of this intention alarmed Henry, then preparing for a decisive conflict with his brother Robert. The excommunication would at least be inconvenient; it might cost him his crown. So he sought an interview with Anselm at the castle of l’Aigle, and became outwardly reconciled, and restored to him his revenues.

“The end of the dreary contest came at last, in 1107, after vexatious delays and intrigues.” It was settled by compromise,–as most quarrels are settled, as most institutions are established. Outwardly the King yielded. He agreed, in an assembly of nobles, bishops, and abbots at London, that henceforth no one should be invested with bishopric or abbacy, either by king or layman, by the customary badges of ring and crosier. Anselm, on his part, agreed that no prelate should be refused consecration who was nominated by the King. The appointment of bishops remained with the King; but the consecration could be withheld by the primate, since he alone had the right to give the badges of office, without which spiritual functions could not be lawfully performed. It was a moral victory to the Church, but the victory of an unpopular cause. It cemented the power of the Pope, while freedom from papal interference has ever been dear to the English nation.

When Anselm had fought this great fight he died, 1109, in the sixteenth year of his reign as primate of the Church in England, and was buried, next to Lanfranc, in his abbey church. His career outwardly is memorable only for this contest, which was afterwards renewed by Thomas Becket with a greater king than either William Rufus or Henry I. It is interesting, since it was a part of the great struggle between the spiritual and temporal powers for two hundred years,–from Hildebrand to Innocent III. This was only one of the phases of the quarrel,–one of the battles of a long war,–not between popes and emperors, as in Germany and Italy, but between a king and the vicegerent of a pope; a king and his subject, the one armed with secular, the other with spiritual, weapons. It was only brought to an end by an appeal to the fears of men,–the dread of excommunication and consequent torments in hell, which was the great governing idea of the Middle Ages, the means by which the clergy controlled the laity. Abused and perverted as this idea was, it indicates and presupposes a general belief in the personality of God, in rewards and punishments in a future state, and the necessity of conforming to the divine laws as expounded and enforced by the Christian Church. Hence the dark ages have been called “Ages of Faith.”

It now remains to us to contemplate Anselm as a theologian and philosopher,–a more interesting view, for in this aspect his character is more genial, and his influence more extended and permanent. He is one of the first who revived theological studies in Europe. He did not teach in the universities as a scholastic doctor, but he was one who prepared the way for universities by the stimulus he gave to philosophy. It was in his abbey of Bec that he laid the foundation of a new school of theological inquiry. In original genius he was surpassed by no scholastic in the Middle Ages, although both Abélard and Thomas Aquinas enjoyed a greater fame. It was for his learning and sanctity that he was canonized,–and singularly enough by Alexander VI., the worst pope who ever reigned. Still more singular is it that the last of his successors, as abbot of Bec, was the diplomatist Talleyrand,–one of the most worldly and secular of all the ecclesiastical dignitaries of an infidel age.

The theology of the Middle Ages, of which Anselm was one of the greatest expounders, certainly the most profound, was that which was systematized by Saint Augustine from the writings of Paul. Augustine was the oracle of the Latin Church until the Council of Trent, and nominally his authority has never been repudiated by the Catholic Church. But he was no more the father of the Catholic theology than he was of the Protestant, as taught by John Calvin: these two great theologians were in harmony in all essential doctrines as completely as were Augustine and Anselm, or Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. The doctrines of theology, as formulated by Augustine, were subjects of contemplation and study in all the convents of the Middle Ages. In spite of the prevailing ignorance, it was impossible that inquiring men, “secluded in gloomy monasteries, should find food for their minds in the dreary and monotonous duties to which monks were doomed,–a life devoted to alternate manual labor and mechanical religious services.” There would be some of them who would speculate on the lofty subjects which were the constant themes of their meditations. Bishops were absorbed in their practical duties as executive rulers. Village priests were too ignorant to do much beyond looking after the wants of hinds and peasants. The only scholarly men were the monks. And although the number of these was small, they have the honor of creating the first intellectual movement since the fall of the Roman Empire. They alone combined leisure with brain-work. These intellectual and inquiring monks, as far back as the ninth century speculated on the great subjects of Christian faith with singular boldness, considering the general ignorance which veiled Europe in melancholy darkness. Some of them were logically led “to a secret mutiny and insurrection” against the doctrines which were universally received. This insurrection of human intelligence gave great alarm to the orthodox leaders of the Church; and to suppress it the Church raised up conservative dialecticians as acute and able as those who strove for emancipation. At first they used the weapons of natural reason, but afterwards employed the logic and method of Aristotle, as translated into Latin from the Arabic, to assist them in their intellectual combats. Gradually the movement centred in the scholastic philosophy, as a bulwark to Catholic theology. But this was nearly a hundred years after the time of Anselm, who himself was not enslaved by the technicalities of a complicated system of dialectics.

Naturally the first subject which was suggested to the minds of inquiring monks was the being and attributes of God. He was the beginning and end of their meditations. It was to meditate upon God that the Oriental recluse sought the deserts of Asia Minor and Egypt. Like the Eastern monk of the fourth century, he sought to know the essence and nature of the Deity he worshipped. There arose before his mind the great doctrines of the trinity, the incarnation, and redemption. Closely connected with these were predestination and grace, and then “fixed fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute.” On these mysteries he could not help meditating; and with meditation came speculation on unfathomable subjects pertaining to God and his relations with man, to the nature of sin and its penalty, to the freedom of the will, and eternal decrees.

The monk became first a theologian and then a philosopher, whether of the school of Plato or of Aristotle he did not know. He began to speculate on questions which had agitated the Grecian schools,–the origin of evil and of matter; whether the world was created or uncreated; whether there is a distinction between things visible and invisible; whether we derive our knowledge from sensation or reflection; whether the soul is necessarily immortal; how free-will is to be reconciled with God’s eternal decrees, or what the Greeks called Fate; whether ideas are eternal, or are the creation of our own minds. These, and other more subtile questions–like the nature of angels–began to agitate the convent in the ninth century.

It was then that the monk Gottschalk revived the question of predestination, which had slumbered since the time of Saint Augustine. Although the Bishop of Hippo was the oracle of the Church, and no one disputed his authority, it would seem that his characteristic doctrine,–that of grace; the essential doctrine of Luther also,–was never a favorite one with the great churchmen of the Middle Ages. They did not dispute Saint Augustine, but they adhered to penances and expiations, which entered so largely into the piety of the Middle Ages. The idea of penances and expiations, pushed to their utmost logical sequence, was salvation by works and not by faith. Grace, as understood by the Fathers, was closely allied to predestination; it disdained the elaborate and cumbrous machinery of ecclesiastical discipline, on which the power of the clergy was based. Grace was opposed to penance, while penance was the form which religion took; and as predestination was a theological sequence of grace, it was distasteful to the Mediaeval Church. Both grace and predestination tended to undermine the system of penance then universally accepted. The great churchmen of the Middle Ages were plainly at war with their great oracle in this matter, without being fully aware of their real antagonism. So they made an onslaught on Gottschalk, as opposed to those ideas on which sacerdotal power rested,–especially did Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims, the greatest prelate of that age. Persecuted, Gottschalk appealed to reason rather than authority, thus anticipating Luther by five hundred years,–an immense heresy in the Middle Ages. Hincmar, not being able to grapple with the monk in argument, summoned to his aid the brightest intellect of that century,–the first man who really gave an impulse to philosophical inquiries in the Middle Ages, the true founder of scholasticism.

This man was John Scotus Erigena,–or John the Erin-born,–who was also a monk, and whose early days had been spent in some secluded monastery in Ireland, or the Scottish islands. Somehow he attracted the attention of Charles the Bald, A.D. 843, and became his guest and chosen companion. And yet, while he lived in the court, he spent the most of his time in intellectual seclusion. As a guest of the king he may have become acquainted with Hincmar, or his acquaintance with Hincmar may have led to his friendship with Charles. He was witty, bright, and learned, like Abélard, a favorite with the great. In his treatise on Predestination, in which he combated the views of Gotschalk, he probably went further than Hincmar desired or expected: he boldly asserted the supremacy of reason, and threw off the shackles of authority. He combated Saint Augustine as well as Gottschalk. He even aspired to reconcile free-will with the divine sovereignty,–the great mistake of theologians in every age, the most hopeless and the most ambitious effort of human genius,–a problem which cannot be solved. He went even further than this: he attempted to harmonize philosophy with religion, as Abélard did afterwards. He brought all theological questions to the test of dialectical reasoning. Thus the ninth century saw a rationalist and a pantheist at the court of a Christian king. Like Democritus, he maintained the eternity of matter. Like a Buddhist, he believed that God is all things and all things are God. Such doctrines were not to be tolerated, even in an age when theological speculations did not usually provoke persecution. Religious persecution for opinions was the fruit of subsequent inquiries, and did not reach its height until the Dominicans arose in the thirteenth century. But Erigena was generally denounced; he fell under the censure of the Pope, and was obliged to fly, taking refuge about the year 882 in England,–it is said at Oxford, where there was probably a cathedral school, but not as yet a university, with its professors’ chairs and scholastic honors. Others suppose that he died in Paris, 891.

A spirit of inquiry having been thus awakened among a few intellectual monks, they began to speculate about those questions which had agitated the Grecian schools: whether genera and species–called “universals,” or ideas–have a substantial and independent existence, or whether they are the creation of our own minds; whether, if they have a real existence, they are material or immaterial essences; whether they exist apart from objects perceptible by the senses. It is singular that such questions should have been discussed in the ninth century, since neither Plato nor Aristotle were studied. That age was totally ignorant of Greek. It may be doubted whether there was a Greek scholar in Western Europe,–or even in Rome.

No very remarkable man arose with a rationalizing spirit, after Erigena, until Berengar of Tours in the eleventh century, who maintained that in the Sacrament the presence of the body of Christ involves no change in the nature and essence of the bread and wine. He was opposed by Lanfranc. But the doctrine of transubstantiation was too deeply grounded in the faith of Christendom to be easily shaken. Controversies seemed to centre around the doctrine of the real existence of ideas,–what are called “universals,”–which doctrine was generally accepted. The monks, in this matter, followed Saint Augustine, who was a realist, as were also the orthodox leaders of the Church generally from his time to that of Saint Bernard. It was a sequence of the belief in the doctrine of the Trinity.

No one of mark opposed the Realism which had now become one of the accepted philosophical opinions of the age, until Roscelin, in the latter part of the eleventh century, denied that universals have a real existence. It was Plato’s doctrine that universals have an independent existence apart from individual objects, and that they exist before the latter (universalia ANTE rem,–the thought before the thing); while Aristotle maintained that universals, though possessing a real existence, exist only in individual objects (universalia IN re, –the thought in the thing). Nominalism is the doctrine that individuals only have real existence (universalia POST rem,–the thought after the thing).

It is not probable that this profound question about universals would have excited much interest among the intellectual monks of the eleventh century, had it not been applied to theological subjects, in which chiefly they were absorbed. Now Roscelin advanced the doctrine, that, if the three persons in the Trinity were one thing, it would follow that the Father and the Holy Ghost must have entered into the flesh together with the Son; and as he believed that only individuals exist in reality, it would follow that the three persons of the Godhead are three substances, in fact three Gods. Thus Nominalism logically led to an assault on the received doctrine of the Trinity–the central point in the theology of the Church. This was heresy. The foundations of Christian belief were attacked, and no one in that age was strong enough to come to the rescue but Anselm, then Abbot of Bec.

His great service to the cause of Christian theology, and therefore to the Church universal, was his exposition of the logical results of the Nominalism of Roscelin,–to whom universals, or ideas, were merely creations of the mind, or conventional phrases, having no real existence. Hence such things as love, friendship, beauty, justice, were only conceptions. Plato and Augustine maintained that they are eternal verities, not to be explained by definitions, appealing to consciousness, in the firm belief in which the soul sustains itself; that there can be no certain knowledge without a recognition of these; that from these only sound deductions of moral truth can be drawn; that without a firm belief in these eternal certitudes there can be no repose and no lofty faith. These ideas are independent of us. They do not vary with our changing sensations; they have nothing to do with sensation. They are not creations of the brain; they inherently exist, from all eternity. The substance of these ideas is God; without these we could not conceive of God. Augustine especially, in the true spirit of Platonism, abhorred doctrines which made the existence of God depend upon our own abstractions. To him there was a reality in love, in friendship, in justice, in beauty; and he repelled scepticism as to their eternal existence, as life repels death.

Roscelin took away the platform from whose lofty heights Socrates and Plato would survey the universe. He attacked the citadel in which Augustine intrenched himself amid the desolations of a dissolving world; he laid the axe at the root of the tree which sheltered all those who would fly from uncertainty and despair.

But if these ideas were not true, what was true; on what were the hopes of the world to be based; where was consolation for the miseries of life to be found? “There are many goods,” says Anselm, “which we desire,–some for utility, and others for beauty; but all these goods are relative,–more or less good,–and imply something absolutely good. This absolute good–the summum bonum–is God. In like manner all that is great and high are only relatively great and high; and hence there must be something absolutely great and high, and this is God. There must exist at least one being than which no other is higher; hence there must be but one such being,–and this is God.”

It was thus that Anselm brought philosophy to the support of theology. He would combat the philosophical reasonings of Roscelin with still keener dialectics. He would conquer him on his own ground and with his own weapons.

Let it not be supposed that this controversy about universals was a mere dialectical tournament, with no grand results. It goes down to the root of almost every great subject in philosophy and religion. The denial of universal ideas is rationalism and materialism in philosophy, as it is Pelagianism and Arminianism in theology. The Nominalism of Roscelin reappeared in the Rationalism of Abélard; and, carried out to its severe logical sequences, is the refusal to accept any doctrine which cannot be proved by reason. Hence nothing is to be accepted which is beyond the province of reason to explain; and hence nothing is to be received by faith alone. Christianity, in the hands of fearless and logical nominalists, would melt away,–that is, what is peculiar in its mysterious dogmas. Its mysterious dogmas were the anchors of belief in ages of faith. It was these which animated the existence of such men as Augustine, Bernard, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. Hence their terrible antagonism even to philosophical doctrines which conflicted with the orthodox belief, on which, as they thought, the salvation of mankind rested.

But Anselm did not rest with combating the Nominalism of Roscelin. In the course of his inquiries and arguments he felt it necessary to establish the belief in God–the one great thing from which all other questions radiated–by a new argument, and on firmer ground than that on which it had hitherto rested. He was profoundly devotional as well as logical, and original as he was learned. Beyond all the monks of his age he lived in the contemplation of God. God was to him the essence of all good, the end of all inquiries, the joy and repose of his soul He could not understand unless he first believed; knowledge was the fruit of faith, not its cause. The idea of God in the mind of man is the highest proof of the existence of God. That only is real which appeals to consciousness. He did not care to reason about a thing when reasoning would not strengthen his convictions, perhaps involve him in doubts and perplexities. Reason is finite and clouded and warped. But that which directly appeals to consciousness (as all that is eternal must appeal), and to that alone, like beauty and justice and love,–ultimate ideas to which reasoning and definitions add nothing,–is to be received as a final certitude. Hence, absolute certainty of the existence of God, as it appeals to consciousness,–like the “Cogito, ergo sum.” In this argument he anticipated Descartes, and proved himself the profoundest thinker of his century, perhaps of five centuries.

The deductions which Anselm made from the attributes of God and his moral government seem to have strengthened the belief of the Middle Ages in some theological aspects which are repulsive to consciousness,–his stronghold; thereby showing how one-sided any deductions are apt to be when pushed out to their utmost logical consequences; how they may even become a rebuke to human reason in those grand efforts of which reason is most proud, for theology, it must be borne in mind, is a science of deductions from acknowledged truths of revelation. Hence, from the imperfections of reason, or from disregard of other established truths, deductions may be pushed to absurdity even when logical, and may be made to conflict with the obvious meaning of primal truths from which these deductions are made, or at least with those intuitions which are hard to be distinguished from consciousness itself. There may be no flaw in the argument, but the argument may land one in absurdity and contradiction. For instance, from the acknowledged sinfulness of human nature–one of the cardinal declarations of Scripture, and confirmed by universal experience–and the equally fundamental truth that God is infinite, Anselm assumed the dogma that the guilt of men as sinners against an infinite God is infinitely great. From this premise, which few in his age were disposed to deny, for it was in accordance with Saint Augustine, it follows that infinite sin, according to eternal justice, could only be atoned for by an infinite punishment. Hence all men deserve eternal punishment, and must receive it, unless there be made an infinite satisfaction or atonement, since not otherwise can divine love be harmonized with divine justice. Hence it was necessary that the eternal Son should become man, and make, by his voluntary death on the cross, the necessary atonement for human sins. Pushed out to the severest logical consequences, it would follow, that, as an infinite satisfaction has atoned for sin, all sinners are pardoned. But the Church shrank from such a conclusion, although logical, and included in the benefits of the atonement only the believing portion of mankind. The discrepancy between the logical deductions and consciousness, and I may add Scripture, lies in assuming that human guilt is infinitely great. It is thus that theology became complicated, even gloomy, and in some points false, by metaphysical reasonings, which had such a charm both to the Fathers and the Schoolmen. The attempt to reconcile divine justice with divine love by metaphysics and abstruse reasoning proved as futile as the attempt to reconcile free-will with predestination; for divine justice was made by deduction, without reference to other attributes, to conflict with those ideas of justice which consciousness attests,–even as a fettered will, of which all are conscious (that is, a will fettered by sin), was pushed out by logical deductions into absolute slavery and impotence.

Anselm did not carry out metaphysical reasonings to such lengths as did the Schoolmen who succeeded him,–those dialecticians who lived in universities in the thirteenth century. He was a devout man, who meditated on God and on revealed truth with awe and reverence, without any desire of system-making or dialectical victories. This desire more properly marked the Scholastic doctors of the universities in a subsequent age, when, though philosophy had been invoked by Anselm to support theology, they virtually made theology subordinate to philosophy. It was his main effort to establish, on rational grounds, the existence of God, and afterwards the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. And yet with Anselm and Roscelin the Scholastic age began. They were the founders of the Realists and the Nominalists,–those two schools which divided the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and which will probably go on together, under different names, as long as men shall believe and doubt. But this subject, on which I have only entered, must be deferred to the next lecture.


Church’s Life of Saint Anselm; Neander’s Church History; Milman’s History of the Latin Church; Stockl’s History of the Philosophy of the Middle Ages; Ueberweg’s History of Philosophy; Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Biography; Trench’s Mediaeval Church History; Digby’s Ages of Faith; Fleury’s Ecclesiastical History; Dupin’s Ecclesiastical History; Biographie Universelle; M. Rousselot’s Histoire de la Philosophic du Moyen Age; Newman’s Mission of the Benedictine Order; Dugdale’s Monasticon; Hallam’s Literature of Europe; Hampden’s article on the Scholastic Philosophy, in Encyclopaedia Metropolitana.

Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages