Chapter One The Monk: Saint Anselm
I could never have been a monk. Everything about monasticism is alien to my world, including the obvious, and yet any time I have ever spent as a guest in a monastery, sharing for a few days an idealism and a rhythm of life that is thousands of years old, I have found myself wondering why anyone would choose to live in any other way. In addition to this, there are manuscripts, often hundreds of them.
Christianity has used written texts since the very beginning. European monasticism evolved in the fourth and fifth centuries and always required books, which were necessary at the very least for the daily recitation of the liturgy. Moreover, the Scriptures and the recorded experiences and wisdom of Christian witnesses were important guides to the piety of monks. Chapter 38 of the Rule of Saint Benedict (written in the sixth century) directs that books are to be read aloud during meals, and Chapter 48 ordains particular hours each day, varying with the seasons, for private study, using texts from the monastery's library. Most surviving European manuscripts from before about 1100 originated in monastic settings, and almost all, like the communities' prayers, were still in Latin. Copying a book was itself a devotional exercise for a monk and brought its own spiritual rewards. Monasteries worked in collaboration with each other: they were the earliest publishing houses, making books and distributing them to other abbeys and communities, who, in turn, transcribed texts and passed them on. From time to time, there were monks in the Middle Ages with exceptional reputations in the creation and use of libraries and in the promotion of monastic learning. One such figure was Saint Anselm (c.1033-1109), theologian, Benedictine monk, prior and then abbot of Bec Abbey in Normandy, south-west of Rouen, before becoming archbishop of Canterbury following the Norman Conquest of England.
Actual letters sent in the eleventh century generally do not survive, but people sometimes assembled anthologies of instructive correspondences. A collection of letters written by Anselm to different recipients was put together by his fellow monks at Bec Abbey, based on copies retained by the author. The earliest surviving manuscript of these is now in the British Library in London, and we will begin by examining it, sitting at one of those long tables in the manuscripts reading room. It is a small chunky volume on parchment, hardly bigger than a thick modern paperback but quite heavy. Anselm is described in the manuscript's opening heading as being 'the lord abbot', which reasonably dates it to the period between 1078 and 1093, when he still held this office in Bec, where the book was very possibly made. Across the foot of the first page is the flourished signature of Sir Robert Cotton (here already is a meeting of the manuscripts fraternity, for Cotton will be the subject of Chapter 5). Several of Anselm's letters in the volume touch on manuscript production in a detail which is almost unique for Romanesque Europe. People consulted him about obtaining manuscripts, and he brought together people who were able to make them. Books and book production were an important part of his life. We will therefore eavesdrop on a few of Anselm's exchanges, as Cotton probably did when he acquired the volume, to listen to fragments of conversations with his friends.
Just for a moment, consider the position of Normandy at that time. Most monasteries were largely cut off from the daily world and, in establishing a community in the deep countryside of western France in the 1030s, the monks of Bec had probably expected a life of rural isolation very far removed from international politics. All that changed in 1066, when the Normans conquered England, and a French province suddenly became the hub of an empire. Some of Anselm's letters are addressed to Lanfranc (c.1010-89), his former teacher and earlier prior of Bec. In 1070, Lanfranc had been appointed by William the Conqueror as his archbishop of Canterbury, part of an invasion force of Normans tasked with securing England and transforming it to continental standards. Lanfranc found the ancient Anglo-Saxon library in Canterbury to be impoverished and ill-equipped. Perhaps hardly yet knowing where else to turn, he had written home to his old colleagues in Normandy for help with obtaining manuscripts of some of the most necessary monastic texts, which he knew were available there. Anselm's reply to Lanfranc in England, written probably in the earlier 1070s, is preserved in the anthology of letters. 'As regards the Moralia
in Job which you requested from me', Anselm tells him in Latin, 'Brother Abbot William of Caen and Brother Hernost, your faithful friends, have in fact found a scribe, and, since he already has our book, I think he has started on yours.'
is the commentary on the Old Testament book of Job by Gregory the Great (c.540-604), relating the patience and faithful submission of Job to the daily life of monasteries in his own times. Gregory was the first monk to become pope, and he was initiator of the evangelization of Britain. The Moralia
is a wise and humane text with much practical advice for times of tribulation, very suitable for monastic reading at mealtimes. It was one of the fundamental texts for Benedictine libraries of the Middle Ages, and it is shameful that there was apparently no copy in Canterbury, unless it had been destroyed in the fire there in 1067. Lanfranc knows that Bec possesses one and so he has asked to have it copied and sent to him in England. It is actually a huge text.
The library catalogue of Bec Abbey in the twelfth century, the earliest extant, lists the monks' copy of the Moralia
as being in two volumes, with sixteen books in the first part and eighteen in the second. Copying this quickly for Lanfranc in England was clearly too large a task for the monks within Bec itself, and Anselm had consulted two former colleagues, friends of Lanfranc too from the old days. In the British Library manuscript, the names of William and Hernost are written in small capitals touched in red, and the scribe who copied out Anselm's letter here probably knew them personally. Brother Abbot William was the son of the bishop of Séez in Normandy and he had by this time been appointed to the abbacy of Saint-Étienne in Caen, a post which Lanfranc held on leaving Bec and had then vacated again on his transfer to England. William was later archbishop of Rouen and died in 1110. Brother Hernost was then the prior at Saint-Étienne. He had himself been a scribe at Bec and was afterwards (briefly) bishop of Rochester in England before an early death in 1076. Here we first see the networks of contacts and connections which were so important in the transmission of manuscripts and, indeed, in the intellectual subjugation of England. These people were all old colleagues, acquainted with one another. Under Anselm's direction, William and Hernost have found a scribe for Lanfranc, probably a professional copyist rather than a monk, doubtless working in the cathedral city of Caen, about fifty-five miles east of Bec, and the scribe has been lent the master copy of the Moralia
from the library of Bec Abbey to use as his exemplar. It all seems to be in hand.
was not the only text Lanfranc was trying to obtain for Canterbury. Anselm's letter to Lanfranc continues further, 'To accomplish what you commanded, I have worked and am working to obtain the books of Saints Ambrose and Jerome, but I have not been able to get them yet. As quickly as I can, I shall complete what I know you want from them.' This time these are texts - unnamed but possibly their Epistles - which were evidently not available for loan from the resources of Bec, and so Anselm is asking around. Like Gregory, these were authors represented in all self-respecting Norman monasteries: Ambrose (c.339-97), bishop of Milan, and his contemporary Jerome (c.342-420); both were prolific writers and commentators on the Bible and on Christian life.
Acquiring the books you need is never as simple as it seems. In the event, all was not well with the order for Gregory's Moralia
and the texts of Ambrose and Jerome. There is a subsequent letter from Anselm copied in our manuscript a few pages later, now writing again to Lanfranc to report a problem: 'Regarding the Moralia in Job
, it was not executed as I told you. There is disagreement (I do not know what about) between the scribe and those with whom he came here.' It seems that the transcription has not even been started. 'For this reason', Anselm continues, 'Brother Helgot and Brother Hernost came and spoke with the scribe of Brionne as you ordered, in the presence of Brother Abbot, but we did not achieve anything.' Helgot and Hernost were both then at Saint-Étienne in Caen: Hernost, as we have seen, was the prior, and Helgot was later to succeed him there in 1075. Lanfranc has suggested a local scribe he remembered from Brionne, the nearby town just to the south of Bec. The scribe does not seem to have been a monk. He was interviewed at Bec in the presence of the abbot, the very elderly Herluin (c.995-1078), himself also from Brionne, the founder and first abbot of Bec. Anselm's use of the 'we' suggests that he was present at the meeting too. Anselm had been concerned only with what really mattered, which was whether the scribe suggested by Lanfranc was competent for the task. It seems that he was not. Anselm explains:
I also asked our aforementioned brothers, your faithful servants from among the scribes of the monastery, to examine his writing and ability, but there was not one among them who did not either disapprove of his handwriting or condemn his unexpected slowness. And so they are returning to Caen, taking with them our book, which they had brought in the hope of finding a scribe.
The candidate from Brionne has failed his interview, and they are starting all over again.
It is that phrase about the brothers being among the abbey's scribes which gives a clue as to why Helgot and Hernost were involved now. They had experience in the scriptorium. Having been unable to secure local help, they came back again to Caen, still with Bec's copy of the Moralia
as a would-be exemplar, to begin looking for a new scribe once more. Speed as well as competence were qualifications they required. There is one further letter many pages later to another correspondent, which seems to suggest that it all worked out eventually. This time Anselm was writing to an unidentified Abbot 'O', who had evidently also asked to borrow the Bec manuscript of the Moralia
to have his own copy made. He explains that they would gladly have lent it, but that it is already in use:
The lord abbot of Caen has it, and another copy is being made there for him, besides the copy being made for the lord Archbishop Lanfranc. Therefore, do not think that we do not
want to lend it to you . . . I write our excuses to you to let you know our good intentions, that as soon as we receive the book, we will gladly hand it to your lordship's messenger, according to your wish.
These exchanges reveal what was doubtless a common problem in the eleventh century, so obvious that it is easy to overlook. You cannot write out a manuscript without having already located and arranged the use of an exemplar to copy it from. Having done so, you must assign a scribe capable of undertaking the labour. If your own monastery cannot do it, you must look elsewhere. It is apparent that in the 1070s there were already scribes in Normandy available for hire, and these letters furnish very early allusions to a trade which by the later Middle Ages had taken over most medieval book production. It must have been an inconvenience for the monks of Bec if their only copy of the Moralia
was forever absent on loan to scribes elsewhere, but that was a penalty of being neighbourly to other monasteries or obedient to authority. Two copies were evidently being made from it in Caen. The one for Lanfranc was doubtless finally finished and sent off to England. The early fourteenth-century library catalogue of the cathedral priory of Canterbury in England does indeed record a copy of the Moralia in Job
, presumably the one made at Lanfranc's request. Like its probable exemplar in Bec, it was in two volumes. It lasted until the fifteenth century, when what seems to have been the flyleaf of its second volume was cut into strips and reused to strengthen the binding of a manuscript then being newly made in Canterbury. It preserves part of its original title, Secunda par M[oralium]
(most of this last word being now concealed in the spine), and is on parchment of good quality, just over 14 inches in height. It is as close as we can get to the enterprise orchestrated with such difficulty for Lanfranc in England by his friend Anselm in Normandy.
Let us now take a trip to Bec itself, to see something of the setting where Anselm was a monk and teacher and where their library was kept. These days you drive down the A28 south of Rouen in the direction of Le Mans, turning right at junction 13, through Malleville-sur-le-Bec, descending through the dense forest into the little town of Le Bec-Hellouin in the valley. It is probably not much bigger now than it was in the eleventh century, when a large monastery required a supporting community of workers and suppliers. 'Le Bec' is the name of the tiny stream which still trickles through this peaceful pastoral landscape. It is a Viking word for a little river, bekkr
in Old Norse, reminding us that Normandy had been occupied and named from Scandinavia. 'Hellouin' is derived from Herluin, that local landowner and first abbot who established his monastery here in 1035 in Anselm's lifetime. There is easy parking by the trees in the gently sloping Place Guillaume le Conquérant near the Rue de Canterbury. They have not forgotten their history in Bec-Hellouin. Outside the abbey gateway is the Place de l'Abbé Herluin, a small and neat municipal precinct bounded along one side by a row of ancient half-timbered houses in the style so characteristic of the architecture of Normandy, in which chocolate brown beams criss-cross over mellow cream plasterwork, unlike the strident panda black and white of medieval and Tudor buildings in England. Roofs are the soft grey of slate. There are window boxes and flowers everywhere. The fifteenth-century abbey gateway is in the far corner of the square, opening between two rectangular towers topped by conical steeples, like the fantasy turrets of Disney castles or the tall headdresses of fashionable princesses in the late Middle Ages.
Copyright © 2023 by Christopher de Hamel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.