Anselm - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Boy of the Val D'aosta

Beyond the great St Bernard lies the little town of Aosta, one of the 'gates of Italy,' but touching the borders both of the Lombardy and Burgundy of the eleventh century.

Italy and Switzerland were only separated at this spot by the high ridge of the Alps, and so the little place must have been strangely cosmopolitan in its inhabitants. Lombards and Burgundians, Swiss and Italians must have climbed the pleasant Val d'Aosta under the shade of the chestnut-trees or skirting the bank of the rapid stream of the Dora Riparia, which hurries from its mountain home to join the peaceful waters of the Po far down in the sunny meadows of the plain.

Two noble families, the one of Burgundian, the other of Lombard stock, were united somewhere about the year 1032 by the marriage of Gundulf the Lombard, of near kin to Manfred, Marquis of Susa, and Ermenberg, cousin of the Emperor Henry II, and a close connection of the Bishop of Aosta.

The latter was the great man of the district, the most important civil magistrate as well as chief ecclesiastic; and as Ermenberg was herself a landowner of no small consideration in the Val d'Aosta, her marriage with the gallant and high-spirited Gundulf was no doubt a notable event in the everyday life of the restless little cosmopolitan town on the high road to Italy.

To this happy young couple, in their palace near the cathedral of Aosta, was born in the springtime of the year 1033 or 1034 a boy baby whom they named Anselm. Both the brothers of Ermenberg were 'reverend lords,' canons of the collegiate church of St Ours in the town, and one of these became the child's godfather, or nutritor, a word that implies the responsibility of training him not only in spiritual matters but also in mind and body.

For the first few years, however, his mother had him to herself. His father, Gundulf, generous and open-handed to a fault, loved to ride abroad, to share in the gay life of the time, to enjoy the wealth that his young wife had brought him; and no doubt he looked forward to the time when all this tiresome period of education and training should be over, and he would have a gallant son riding by his side, ostensibly to look after the valley lands that were his inheritance, but actually to see something of the world of fashion and gaiety that lay beyond the Alps.

But Ermenberg had other dreams. Her gentle heart had never ceased to yearn after the life of the cloister, the life that would have been her choice had not the marriage with Gundulf been arranged for her by her relatives. She was the best of wives and housekeepers, her sense of prudence affording just the restraint needed by her somewhat too lavish husband; but her deepest interests lay in the supernatural world, that world to which from his earliest days she directed the wondering attention of her little son. And as she watched the upturned face and wide baby eyes gazing into the blue distance of the Italian skies, she would pray that her lost dream might in this child be fulfilled, and, speaking to that Mother-heart which understood so well, would cry: "Blessed Mother of my Lord and Saviour, I give him to you; take care of him!"

If it be true, as a great poet-thinker has told us, that the Heaven from which the soul has so lately come "still lies about us in our infancy," the teaching of Ermenberg must have quickly taken root in the mind of the little Anselm.

The very scenery upon which his young eyes rested fitted readily those descriptions of the Heavenly Country of which he never tired to hear. The road to the City of God was uphill and none too easy; on that everyone was agreed; and the same might surely be said of that steep path across the river that scaled the ledge of rock called Gargantua, before ascending beyond the eye of man up the slope of the 'Noontide Peak' that guards the entrance to the Alps. Beyond lay the dim white mountain-tops, snow-covered, mysterious; but the Becca di Nona, at any rate in the autumn season, has lost its snow after the summer heat, and gleams golden in the sunshine. Where else, then, should lie that city of pure gold, whose gates were of one pearl and the streets like unto transparent glass?

And so to the little child Anselm came in the autumn-time a dream that was, at any rate to the loving mother-mind of Ermenberg, a presage of the future.

He thought in his dream that he toilsomely crossed the river, and, scrambling up the steep cliff of the Gargantua, found himself among fair meadows full of corn ready for the harvest. But the maidens who should have gathered the ripe ears were slothful and intent rather on their own amusement; to these the child, to be noted in later days for his hatred of idleness, spoke words of rebuke before he went his way.

Then, leaving the harvest-fields, he made his way up through forests of pine-trees, broken here and there by lawns of turf and lavender, wondrous sweet, and thence over steep bare rocks, where at every moment he stumbled and fell. Then suddenly the toilsome path ended, and the glory of the heavenly city shone forth upon the little pilgrim. In the midst of it, upon His throne, the Lord awaited him, alone, save for His seneschal, for the rest of the heavenly host were busy in the harvest-fields.

To Him the child confidently approached and sat down at His feet. "And the Lord with gracious gentleness would know who he was and whence he came and what was his desire. He answered all according to the truth; and so the Lord gave order, and the seneschal brought him bread of the whitest, and he ate and was refreshed in the presence of the King."

Long years afterward the remembrance of this dream was yet fresh in the mind of the great archbishop, whose earthly pilgrimage, sustained so constantly by heavenly bread, was then almost at an end.

Anselm was probably still but a very young boy when his mother was called upon to send him forth from her gentle arms in order that his education might be commenced. It was the universal custom of those days that high-born children, especially boys dedicated to what such a parent as Gundulf would describe as a 'career' in the Church, should be sent to the household of a great prelate or wealthy canon to be trained and educated. For even high-born mothers could seldom read, and fathers wedded to the world could little more than stumble through the alphabet; and so we find ambitious parents sending off babes of four years old, and sometimes very much younger, to learned priests or noted bishops, in whose households they would breathe a bookish atmosphere, and whence they could attend the primary school of some adjacent monastery.

So we may imagine the sweet-faced mother endeavouring to hide her tears as she left her little son of four or five within the walls of her brother, canon of the collegiate church, sponsor and nutritor to the boy, and returning with a lonely heart to the country house at Gressau, some three miles from the city, where the family was probably living at this time. No doubt she hoped to see him fairly frequently, but her grief at losing him for the present was not softened by the contemplation of the kind of life upon which her tender youngling was about to enter.

The training of children in those days bore a strong resemblance to the education of puppies in these. Whippings of the most severe kind formed a regular part of the curriculum, whether at school or at the house of the guardian or nutritor.

We read of the monastery schools that "at nocturns and at all other hours, if a boy makes a mistake in singing a psalm or anything else, if he falls asleep, or, in short, does that which he ought not to do, no matter what, he is taken to task at once, and without a moment's delay, as soon as he gets into the schoolroom, is stripped of frock and cowl, and either by the prior or by his own master birched with a rod provided for the purpose."

The higher the calling, the severer the whippings! The life of Guibert of Nogent about the same period reveals that on one occasion, when he had been most unmercifully birched by his private tutor, his mother was filled with pity for the delicate little lad, and clasping him to her breast exclaimed, "Never, never shall you be a priest. Scholar or no scholar, no longer shall you pay like this for scholarship." To which the child, looking up reproachfully into her face, replied: "If I have to die for it, I intend to go on learning, and I will be a priest."

The mother tried to bribe her son with the promise of a splendid suit of armour would he only consent to become a knight, but he was not to be persuaded; and he adds himself, concerning the same grammaticus or tutor: "So sincere was my return of his affection, notwithstanding the many stripes my skin carried from his numerous and gratuitous castigations, that I forgot all his roughness and paid him the homage, not of my fears, but of a love deep as the very marrow of my being."

In many cases it was a fine breed of men that this stern discipline turned out; but in the case of exceptional children the severity was certainly overdone. Studious and industrious as was the child Anselm, he probably did not escape a punishment that would fall doubly heavy on so sensitive a nature, and this accounts for the fact that in later days, though himself unsparing of the rod when it was really necessary, he, as prior of Le Bec, used his influence to introduce a gentler and more humane method of training the young.

It seems likely that Anselm's early education was received from Benedictine monks who had a small monastery and school within the city. Thither he would go each day in charge of a clericus, or clerk in minor orders, carrying his alphabet, or abecedarius, his folding tablets of boxwood covered with wax, and the sharp-pointed stylus with which to write upon the same.

The chief subject taught was the psalter in Latin, and when he was proficient in reading this, the little pupil would learn how to write and how to sing. The former accomplishment comprised not only the scratching of the wax by the stylus in the formation of letters (dictare) but the copying from this corrected exercise upon parchment. When we recall how expensive was this latter material, we can perhaps estimate better the magnitude of the crime of making an error and the reason for the severity of the punishment which would inevitably follow.

The singing of the psalms to their proper tunes was also essential to the equipment of a scholar in the primary school; those who aspired yet further entered the grammar school, and began a course of what were known as the Seven Liberal Arts.

The first three of these were linked together as grammar, rhetoric, or the art of style and composition, and logic, or the science of thought; the last four were also grouped together as the science of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

In his study of these the young 'grammarian' had chiefly to give his attention to mastering the difficulties of Latin accidence, syntax, and composition. All conversation was in Latin, and the usual method of teaching, though useful in attaining skill in composition by imitation, must have exercised little but the memory.

An extract from a Latin author was dictated by the 'grammaticus' to the pupils, who wrote it on their tablets of wax and learnt it by heart for repetition. Whether individual style was taught and encouraged depended much on the skill and learning of the master; and judging from the clearness, simplicity, and beauty of Anselm's Latin treatises in later days, we may believe him to have been especially fortunate in this respect.

We know that when he had learnt both to read and sing his psalter, he was not sent to the grammar school but was put into the charge of a certain kinsman, who acted as his tutor for the next few years.

To this unknown teacher no doubt Anselm owed the foundation of that wealth of scholarship that was in later days to win for him a reputation second only to that of Lanfranc, his future friend, in Europe.

It has been thought that his position, both as son of Ermenberg and Gundulf, and as near kinsman to the Bishop of Aosta, demanded the education of a private tutor rather than that of the grammar school. For certainly, by his fourteenth year, and possibly much earlier, he himself had been appointed to one of the vacant canonries either of St Ours or of the cathedral itself, as was often the case with boys of high rank, even when they were of the most tender years. Clad in his white habit, he would perform his daily duty of singing the offices, which he already knew by heart from his psalter, in his stall either in the cathedral or the cathedral church. Thence he returned to the school-room, there to apply himself, under the zealous eye of his tutor, to a course of study at thought of which the most earnest scholar of our universities to-day would stand aghast.

Pride in so apt a pupil is the only excuse for the misdirected zeal of his teacher, who allowed no recreation, scarce a breath of fresh air, and grudged the shortest possible time spent in eating and sleeping. The inevitable consequences followed. The boy, always delicate and now growing fast, became utterly overstrained. The study became a prison, the keen, fresh, young mind dazed and stupefied. Awaking at length to the serious nature of the case, his uncle hastily sent him home to his mother. But the hurt had been too deep for even Ermenberg's gentle caresses to soothe. To her dismay, the boy turned from her as from everyone else, and with strained white face sought solitude in the loneliest spots around the home he had formerly loved so well. A less wise mother would have entreated, coaxed, or scolded, till the boy's reason, already trembling in the balance, might well have given way. She, with her mother-wit, after one broken-hearted exclamation of "Alas! I have lost my son!" gave orders that no one should molest or interfere with him, but that he should be allowed to do exactly as he pleased.

Rest, fresh air, and the mother's unobtrusive but ever-watchful care, were the boy's best medicines, and from her he learnt, perhaps, that wonderful tenderness and skill for which he was notable in the infirmary of the monastery of future days.

Perhaps it was during this period of quiet, unharassed refreshment that Anselm's mind first began to turn definitely to a higher ideal of life than that which had been set before him by his uncles, the canons secular of St Ours. Worthy gentlemen they were, no doubt, wearing their white habits and tonsured crowns with singular grace and elegance; but their lives were lives of ease, often of self-indulgence, and afforded not the smallest attraction to the tall young lad with the refined features and spiritual expression who was growing up in their amidst. Nor did his studies, now somewhat relaxed in severity, satisfy the eager mind, which longed to dedicate itself to God under conditions as rigorous as possible.

The one thing that seemed to fulfill this ideal was the Benedictine order of monks, lately revived in all its early severity. How it all happened we know not; but it seems that the boy, when about fourteen, quietly left his uncles' house, and going to a monastery nearby, begged to be admitted as a novice. In his young innocence he never dreamt of the possibility of refusal to such a reasonable request. But the abbot was astounded to find this high-born lad, a probable bishop of Aosta in the future and already holding an important ecclesiastical position, a humble postulant at his feet; and hastily reviewing the position, he asked: "What says your father, Gundulf, to this wish of yours, my son?

"He knows naught of it," replied the boy.

That settled the matter. To offend an illustrious family of near kin to the highest ecclesiastical rulers of the city would never do; and Anselm was sent home to ask his father's consent. Gundulf, however, would have none of it. Not for the first time, probably, and certainly not for the last, did the strong wills and clashing ideals of father and son come into conflict. To allow his only son and heir to bury himself within the walls of a monastery was not to be thought of for a moment. Probably, too, in his ambition, Gundulf intended his clever boy to be the future bishop of Aosta by hereditary right.

All unconscious that he was acting as the instrument of God by delaying, though not, as he thought, defeating, the lad's vocation, he bade him roughly put all such ideas from his mind. In the words of Eadmer, Anselm's future biographer, the boy, "persisting in his design, prayed God for the grace of an illness, that so he might be received into the monastic order for which he yearned. A wonderful thing then happened. God, as if to show him that in all emergencies he might surely trust the Divine Compassion, gave favourable heed to the prayer, and visited the boy with an overmastering weakness of body. Reduced to a grievous sickness, Anselm now sent word to the abbot, assured him he apprehended death, and prayed to be made a monk.

"But the abbot's fears were obstinate, and the request was not granted. So does human sight scan the ways of God, but erringly. He whose foreseeing eye can by nothing be deceived was unwilling that His servant should have share in the religious life of that place, because He had some others hidden in the bosom of His mercy, whom, as became evident in due time, He was prepared to be informed by Anselm to the doing of His will.

"After a while, health returned to the lad, and what he was unable to do then he determined by the Grace of God to do at some future time."

So he returned to the old studious life under the care or his uncles, living under an obedience that was itself no bad preparation for the life of a monk, and by his habit of giving away to his poorer brethren the income that came to him as canon, as well as by his strict purity of heart, fulfilled, half unconsciously, the most important features of the rule for which he craved.

Only occasionally was the peace of that quiet study disturbed by the noise of the world outside; but one of these occasions must have had a marked effect on the boy's mind, especially if, as seems likely, the persons concerned were lodged within his own father's house.

Over the St Bernard, in the year 1049, when Anselm was fifteen or sixteen years old, came Bishop Bruno, cousin of the Emperor, who had been lately chosen by him as Pope. A most holy character, and full of the spirit of Cluny, whose monks had been his teachers in former years, Bruno was the very man to bring in the spirit of reform so necessary in the Church of those days. But there was much opposition at the thought of a German Pope, and rather than cause a schism, Bruno determined to visit Rome in the guise of a humble pilgrim before accepting the high office thus thrust upon him, in order to see if he would be acceptable there.

If, as it is thought, Ermenberg and Bruno were relatives, it would most probably be at her house that the thin-faced man, clad in ordinary cloak and hood, who spent his time in prayer and in weeping over the threatened divisions of Church and State, would make his residence; and no doubt the boy Anselm was among those who gazed with reverence at the future Pope Leo IX. Perhaps he was even more interested in his companion, a short, dark-faced monk from Cluny, whose determined expression combined with his zeal and evident strictness of life would inevitably attract the dreamy lad, longing to follow some such path as that in which he trod. But he could scarcely have guessed that the Prior Hildebrand, whose lineaments and movements he so closely studied, was to be the great Pope Gregory VII, before whom the most powerful of emperors was to abase himself in the dust.



It was at Aosta, we are told, that Bruno heard, either by spiritual sense or physical hearing, the chanted words that were to encourage him to persevere in his mission of reform:

"Thus saith the Lord, My thoughts to you are thoughts of peace and not of evil: thou shalt call upon Me and I will hear you, and I will bring back your captivity from all places."

The circumstances of the Divine message are unknown; but one would like to think that the voice of the boy Anselm, from his canon's stall, mingled with those which chanted the words that brought such comfort and encouragement to Bruno, soon to be unanimously elected to the papacy as Leo IX.

After such an interesting episode the years passed slowly and quietly on their course, as far as Anselm was concerned. Possibly the fact that his young eyes scanned too critically the easy, self-indulgent lives of his uncles, the good canons, softened their regret when he was judged old enough to return to his father's house. And even there the lad must still have felt restless and ill at ease. The sense of vocation was only dulled, not killed. As he grew stronger in health, at the urgent representation of his father he began to take part in the sports and occupations of secular life, and no doubt enjoyed them as much as any lad of nineteen or twenty would do to-day. Probably these amusements went far even to satisfy him on the surface, at least for a while, and much to his father's gratification he appeared to forget his old desires.

But Anselm was, like Augustine, the child of many prayers; and Ermenberg, now nearing the end of her own saintly life, was not one to relinquish without a struggle her early hopes that her boy would fulfill the call she would so gladly have obeyed herself. Says the old chronicler: "After all, however, his love and devotion for his mother held him back somewhat from these pastimes. But on her death, like a ship that has lost its anchor, he narrowly escaped drifting utterly off into the billows of the world."

Ermenberg passed away from this life in the year 1056, probably when her second child, a little daughter named Richera, was born. It soon became clear that hers had been the chief influence that had kept even the outward semblance of peace between the headstrong, worldly father and the quiet, gentle son. Gundulf had never forgiven Anselm for his wish to become a monk, and now that his wife no longer stood between them, his fits of rage at the impossibility of turning a studious, ascetic youth into a worldly young gallant became quite uncontrolled.

Before long the situation had become impossible, and the father who, curiously enough, was to end his days three years later as a cloistered monk, no longer withheld his permission that his son, now twenty-three years of age, should leave his home for a period of prolonged travel. It was probably no willing permission that was given, and Anselm departed from his father's home with his little band of companions as one under a cloud.

Only one of these companions seems to have clung to him in his toilsome journey across the Alps, and was with him in that ascent of Mont Cenis when, having miscalculated distance or provisions, they found themselves exhausted on a trackless waste of snow, without food or drink.

The delicate frame of the young Anselm proved quite unfit for further effort, and, as he sank, apparently dying, to the ground, the 'clerk,' his companion, searched with anxious forebodings, for the second or third time, in the empty sack that lay across the back of the ass which carried their baggage.

Was it by an oversight that a 'manchet of bread' had been overlooked in a corner of the bag, or was it by miraculous agency that such was now found?

Whichever way we read the story, the fact remains that to Anselm, as reminding him of that 'whitest bread of his childhood's dream, it was in every sense the bread of life. And so, "having eaten thereof and become greatly refreshed," he passes out of sight for a while beyond the snowy peaks of the Alps.