Anselm - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Awakening of the Eleventh Century

Everybody knows that the history of nations is but the history of the individual 'writ large'; and this is perhaps most clearly seen in that period of awakening and growth that we know as the eleventh century.

The stormy years of the youth of Europe were nearly at an end; those years of struggle and warfare, when the limits of countries and the rights of nations were yet unsettled, and men were so busy fighting one another for the things of the material world that those which belong to the world of the intellect and the soul were wellnigh forgotten.

But when this time of stress was over, Europe, like a youth emerging into studious, thoughtful manhood, began to take heed of these higher matters and to realize the superior claims of things spiritual. And so it came about that this eleventh century was to see a great struggle between Church and State, representing, in those days, the forces of religion, morality, learning, often of civilization itself, arrayed against the claims of absolutism and brute force.

Two pairs of striking figures represent to us this struggle of spiritual rights against secular demands. In Europe we find the fiery Hildebrand, as Pope Gregory VII, opposing with all his might the claims of the Emperor Henry IV; in England the two conflicting elements are Anselm, gentlest of archbishops, and the stubborn-faced, angry-eyed Red King, William II.

Nominally, the question upon which the struggle turned in either case was that of 'Investiture,' or the right of granting to the recipient of a bishopric or abbey the spiritual rights symbolized by the ring and staff.

Actually, these 'spiritual rights' were themselves only the symbol of a far more important matter, summed up in this question:

Was the government of the kingdoms of Christendom to pass entirely under the control of lay princes, who at any time might be heathen in heart if not in name? Or was it to be shared to any important extent by that great organization, standing in those days for learning of all kinds, for morality, for discipline, which, since the days of Charlemagne, had been known as the Holy Roman Empire?

Now, to understand the importance of the answer to this question we must try to realize the condition of Europe in those days.

The 'Dark Ages,' during which to a great extent brute force held sway, were almost over when the eleventh century opened. A long struggle against the powers of paganism had been fought, and, thanks to the influence of the Church, even where, as in Normandy and England, the heathen conquerors had overspread the land, the faith of civilized Europe had asserted itself again and again, and the conquering Northman had become a convert to Christianity.

But in such a period of struggle and darkness it was inevitable that the lights of Christendom should burn very low. The end of the reign of Charlemagne, 'Second Emperor of the West,' broke up his great Empire, and amid the gloom and darkness of the tenth century we look in vain for any influence for good in the highest quarters of the Church. Where it had once been the aim of bishops and kings to build up, strengthen, establish, all alike had become absorbed with the rest of Europe in a passion for ruin and destruction.

When neither the realm of the sovereign nor the loaf of the labourer was free from marauding bands, it became scarcely worthwhile to attempt to rule righteously or to labour for one's daily bread. And so, in an age when every man's hand was against his neighbour, when all were content to destroy rather than construct, the dignity, the obligation of honest work as well as the still more necessary duty of prayer, became a lost ideal.

The rapid growth of the feudal system, depending as it did almost solely on the principle of 'might is right,' did little to improve matters; for the powers of religion had now to pit themselves not only against the hordes of heathendom, but also against that spirit of greed, injustice, and ferocity which soon became the characteristic of feudalism.

Not seldom the Church was found on the side of the great feudal lords. Almost of necessity the bishop was forced to handle the sword rather than the missal, and to leave the altar for the battlefield; and though the Empire whose Head sat in the chair of St Peter in Rome managed to keep its hold upon Europe, this was done not so much by spiritual bonds as by secular force.

This state of things lasted throughout the tenth century and well into the eleventh; yet even before the tenth century was over there were some among the few who had leisure to watch and judge who saw the first faint dawn of a vast impulse toward better things.

It came from the direction of Cluny, a monastery founded in Burgundy by some few men who, despairing of the condition of society in the world of that day, hoped to live, under the strict rule of St Benedict, a common life more in accordance with the ideals of Christianity.

From thence the movement spread. New monasteries arose which in course of time brought about a great revival of religion. As has been well said, "When Christendom had won a clear space in which to pray and think, the Church returned to its proper task."

That task was no light one. Feudal Europe had to be taught that war for war's sake was no part of the teaching of Him who said "Love your enemies"; that this life is but a preparation for another; that honest labour is of greater merit than brilliant conquests.

And for many more years the Church, as a whole, stood dumb, waiting for her own great revival in the days of Hildebrand, the monk of Cluny, who as Gregory VII was to make the authority of the Pope supreme in Europe.

Meantime the message was left in the hands of these 'reformed Benedictines,' destined, curiously enough, to bring about by their very withdrawal from the world a reformation of society as far-reaching as it was thorough. Their method was to set up high ideals rather than to destroy existing abuses; for the spirit of St Benedict was all "for service rather than destruction, for love rather than for strife."

"Every Benedictine community stood for one thing Europe; it preached the sacred dignity of labour and the hatefulness of destruction. In an age when men counted their manhood by the amount they could destroy, when their pastime, as their pride, was to wreck, or to prevent others from wrecking them, the rule which commanded labour as necessary to the soul's health reminded an astonished world of the dignity of labour."

No sooner was this ideal accepted and made a permanent influence in Europe than a new aim arose. Since the merging of Church and State for the sake of unity against a common foe had inevitably led to the loss of high spiritual aims, any real attempt at reform must set up a kingdom of Christ that was not under the rule of earthly monarchs. The Church must be kept separate from the State, and must be free from the interference of the secular power.

Such an ideal would be hard to fulfill in any age, since it must always be the duty of the Church to concern herself with the reform of that very society which it is the work of the State to organize. It was almost impossible in a period when the line of action taken by the Church depended very largely on the character of popes who, not content with spiritual authority, were determined to make their voices very distinctly heard in secular affairs.

So it came to pass that when, as we shall see, a clever, ambitious, and courageous man such as Hildebrand sat as Pope Gregory VII in the chair of St Peter, he was able to humble a proud emperor to the dust and to assert beyond doubt the triumph of Church over State. But this had its own inevitable drawback.

In a movement of spiritual reform the worldly success of Hildebrand counted as very little. To the onlooker it was merely the old strife of feudal lords under a modern disguise. No doubt it was necessary to reassert the high position of the Church, to insist upon her claims to spiritual supremacy; but the spectacle of an emperor shivering in his thin tunic among the snow-wreaths of Canossa, and there refused admittance to the Pope to whom he had offered his submission, did less to strengthen the Papacy in Europe than did the decrees against buying and selling spiritual offices, or the reform of the private life of the clergy.

The story of Hildebrand will be told more fully in a future chapter. We may turn from it now to the happier tale which tells of the foundation of the abbey that was to be the place of preparation for one who, in his own quiet way, was to do much to uphold the high ideals and spiritual rights of the Church, while caring not a jot for worldly privileges.

For what was really needed during the eleventh century was a man not only of learning but of saintly life; a man who might combine keen spiritual insight with a firm and courageous grasp of the just rights of the Church he served.

Nowhere, perhaps, in Europe was a man of this kind so much needed as in England; and it was therefore, all unknowingly, for England that a certain young monk was being prepared and trained within the walls of that abbey whose story shall now be told.