Anselm - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Founding of St Marie Du Bec

Nothing in the eleventh century illustrates more effectively the contrast between the worldly life of the knight and courtier and that of the monk in his cloister than the story of the founding of the Abbey of Le Bec. For this contrast, curiously enough, is seen in the life of one man, sometime soldier and gentleman at ease, who became the founder and first abbot of this famous monastery, and performed his task, not when he was worn out with years and weary of worldly joys, but in the prime of his strength and at the height of popularity and success.

At the court of Gilbert, Count of Brionne, cousin of Robert Duke of Normandy, lived a certain gentleman named Herlwin, who some few years before the birth of Anselm had won for himself a high reputation as a "very perfect gentle knight." Both in Brionne and Normandy his prowess was known: as first in the field of battle, as bravest of his lord's companions, as the flower of knightly chivalry.

In those rough days a man was fortunate indeed who escaped any semblance of quarrel with his overlord, and a story of the time tells how Herlwin, his honour touched by some rude personal affront of Gilbert, once withdrew himself and all his following from court and retired to his own castle. Soon afterward he heard that his lord had been obliged to go out against an ancient foe, who, being far the stronger in his forces of war, was likely to win the day. A meaner man would have felt the threatened humiliation a worthy penalty for Gilbert to pay; but the generous Herlwin at once laid aside his private quarrel, called his men together, and, riding rapidly to the field of battle, took his place by the side of his lord and helped to ensure him the victory.

For this act honours of every kind were heaped upon him by Gilbert, and the praises of all men were his. And then at the very height of success, flattered and honoured by everyone, Herlwin suddenly found his whole position unbearable, and from it he longed, like any prisoner, to make his escape.

For to the man of the world, the accomplished courtier, the successful soldier, had suddenly and unmistakably come the call of God to leave all and follow Him.

Many were the difficulties in his path. To leave his lands and people to the mercy of an offended overlord seemed altogether wrong; the permission of Gilbert to leave his service was withheld, with a jeer, indeed, but firmly enough; and he had, moreover, no knowledge of what religious order he should enter, nor much idea of all that the monastic life implied. In those days of difficult travelling Cluny would be little more than a name to him, and probably appealed not at all to a man of mature years who yet knew nothing of how to read or write.

For a while he tried the impossible task of living the life of a monk in the world, and, while obeying the command of Gilbert to attend the court, laid aside his gay clothes, ceased to trim hair and beard, and sitting at the banquet table contented himself with dry bread and a cup of cold water. In vain did his master and the other courtiers reason with him, jeer, or threaten. Gilbert in desperation even tried the expedient of sending Herlwin as ambassador to some of the ducal courts, where he had always been treated with such signal honour. It was hoped that very shame and dread of ridicule would make him put off his shabby tunic, trim his beard, and ride forth upon his discarded warhorse. But, to the dismay of all, the knight set off calmly on his errand in his poorest attire and most unkempt appearance, riding upon a humble ass.

Some scoffed anew, but Gilbert put him to further test by bidding him take a message, that would involve one of his neighbours in an unjust war, to Duke Robert the Norman. Herlwin refused absolutely, and abruptly left the court he had grown to hate. His master proceeded in a tempest of rage to declare his estates forfeit and to deprive his vassals of their homes and goods. At the entreaties of his distressed dependents, Herlwin returned to court and implored Gilbert's mercy upon them. "For my own possessions, take them and do with them what you will, if only these poor folk, who have done nothing to deserve your displeasure, have their goods restored."

The courtiers burst into a storm of reproaches for his previous defiance of Gilbert's commands. The Count and the knight looked steadfastly upon one another with softening gaze. Then Gilbert, hurrying to his chamber, broke into bitter tears at the thought of the loss, now clearly inevitable, of one he dearly loved. Herlwin, going sorrowfully forth, wept also for the lord he had once served so well. It needed only one more incident to bring matters to a climax.

At Gilbert's most earnest entreaty he had consented to stay a while longer at the court, partly, no doubt, because the future was still so dark and uncertain. He even took up arms again and followed his lord on one of his many border raids, this time against Ingelram, Count of Ponthieu. But Ingelram, falling upon them with a very great force, put to flight Count Gilbert and all his men, most of whom were overtaken and slain. And then it was that by Herlwin, fleeing for his life, the vow was made that "if he escaped from so present a danger, he would henceforth be soldier to none but God."

So in the year 1031, two or possibly three years before Anselm, his future novice and monk, was born, Herlwin went forth from the court of Brionne, intent, not on founding a great abbey, nor on a striking reformation of society, but merely on the salvation of his own soul in answer to the call of God.

We find in the history of this one man at this time an epitome of what was going on in the Europe of his day; a call to those who wished to be sincere and upright and just to leave the world of feudalism, with its constant petty wars, its injustice, its spiritual ignorance, and to come apart, not necessarily as monks, but with the intention of living up to the monastic ideal of simplicity and honour and labour and self-sacrifice. It was the protest of the age against a life practically of heathenism, which, had it gone on unchecked, would have swamped Europe anew in the black gloom of the Dark Ages.

So Herlwin went forth to find out what he could about the monasteries then existing in Normandy in the hope of eventually making one of them his spiritual home. In this quest he was singularly unfortunate. Not all the Benedictine houses of his day were of the reformed type of Cluny; and Normandy, barely civilized as yet, was not likely to possess monasteries of the most refined character.

Timidly he entered the doorway leading to the cloister of one of these, and stood gazing with eager interest at the monks within. It was the time of recreation, and to his mind, tuned perhaps a trifle too high at that period, the men whom he was ready to revere as almost saints were conducting themselves in fashion frivolous enough even to one accustomed to the idle amusements of a court. But, even as he stood gazing, there came suddenly upon him a brawny lay-brother, porter to the gate, who, taking him for a thief, struck him a heavy blow on the nape of the neck, and, seizing him by the beard as he fell, thrust him headlong forth.

At another monastery of some renown in Normandy he found the monks passing in procession to the church. Hoping to find here the devotion he longed after, be joined the band of lookers-on, and was scandalized to see the vanity with which the brothers displayed their fine vestments, and the way in which they freely distributed nods and smiles to their friends among the crowd. Finally, the spectacle of their struggle to be first to enter the church, in which struggle one of their number was stretched headlong by a blow from an angry fist, so disgusted the would-be monk that he turned away almost in despair.

The obvious solution for a man of property like Herlwin was to found his own monastery and to introduce therein his own high ideals. At Burneville, near Brionne, he made his first attempt, helping to build with his own hands a humble dwelling-place, where he was joined by a few companions, probably his former men-at-arms. But the site was a bad one. Vowed to live upon the produce of the land, the tiny community was often faced with instant starvation owing to the unproductive soil, and had scarce strength to crawl the necessary mile or two to the nearest spring for water. Yet for nearly five years they remained there, suffering extreme privation with the utmost cheerfulness, and training themselves in that fine spirit of detachment that was to be the glory of their future abode.

In 1034 the humble church was consecrated by a neighbouring bishop, who also 'clothed' with the coarse cowl and hood of St Benedict, Herlwin, the former fine gentleman of the court, together with his brother-in-law, his nephew, and two of his own former servants.



There, against his own will, but at the urgent request of the tiny community, Herlwin, now ordained priest, was consecrated the first abbot. For the past few years, while the convent had been a-building, he had set himself to accomplish a task of great difficulty to a man of forty years. A monk must say his office, must know his psalter, and hence must be able to read. Thus, while busily employed in laying the stones of the walls of a monastery that was, in another place, to be famous for its learning throughout Europe, we see its future abbot spending the night hours in the study of the alphabet, and later of the Holy Scriptures, and giving to prayer the time that the rest spent in sleep.

But even the most ascetic of monks cannot live on air, and after some consideration Herlwin determined to move to a more fertile spot just above a tributary stream known as Le Bec, or 'The Rivulet.' Here were raised the humble buildings afterward to become famous as the Abbey of St Marie du Bec, Our Lady of the Brook; and here, amid more hopeful surroundings, the number of the monks increased. Abbot Herlwin was not the only soldier to lay aside the sword for the psalter in those days, and these once warlike converts naturally sought a foundation where they would be received with sympathy and understanding.

In this there was one distinct disadvantage. A monastery without learning was a contradiction in terms, for spiritual wisdom needs as much serious study as secular. Herlwin, though by hard work he had made himself very familiar with the sacred Scriptures, was not the man to educate the rest. Scholarship was badly wanted at Le Bec, and even as the need made itself felt, there approached its gates one of the finest scholars of the Europe of that day.

Educated as a secular teacher and lecturer, Lanfranc of Pavia had made his way into France, and at the town of Avranches had earned golden opinions from all who heard him speak. But success of this kind became more and more unsatisfactory to his ardent soul, and about the year 1042 he set out for Rouen with one companion, all his worldly goods being strapped upon the back of an ass. His aim was either to seek entrance into some unknown monastery, where the great teacher could be forgotten in the humble monk, or to make the experiment of living on the outskirts of the city as a hermit.

On the way he and his clerk, or secretary, were attacked by robbers, who carried off all that they possessed, leaving Lanfranc only a threadbare cloak in which to continue his journey. They had not gone far, however, when Lanfranc's well-stored mind recalled how one in former days, having been robbed of his horse, offered the thieves, as they were riding away, the whip for which he had no further use; and how this so touched them that they repented promptly of their wickedness and returned the good man both his horse and his whip. Simplicity is ever a quality of noble natures, and Lanfranc forthwith determined to try the same course. Hurrying after the robbers, he offered them the cloak they had left him; but they took the matter very ill, beat him soundly for what they considered his impudence, and finally left him bound to a tree and almost naked, with his friend in like case close by.

For a while the air was filled with the lamentations of the unhappy scholar and of his clerk, for the forest was full of beasts of prey, and they expected that every moment would be their last. But, since nothing happened, the peace of the forest night stole over their souls, and morning light found Lanfranc, with mind weary but calm, attempting to recite his Matins and Lauds, the morning offices of the Church. Then he made a strange discovery. He, the famous scholar of whom all Europe had heard, did know how to repeat his morning prayers as well even as an ignorant child in the preparatory school. Breaking down with sobs and tears he cried:

"O Lord God, how many years have I spent upon this world's learning! I have wearied both my and soul with secular studies, but have not yet learnt to recite Thy praises. Deliver me from this trouble, and I will so order my life as to learn how to do Thee loyal service."

Soon after, he and his companion were found and released by some charcoal-burners of the forest; of whom, in his new passion of humility, Lanfranc asked the way to the poorest monastery of the district. They directed him promptly to Le Bec, saying that there the monks were too poverty-stricken In keep a light burning perpetually in their chapel.

It was still early in the morning when Lanfranc approached the humble dwelling and asked for the abbot. They pointed out a little bake-house, within which Herlwin, a dimly seen figure, was busy building an oven.

"God save you," said the stranger. "Are you the abbot?"

"I am," replied Herlwin, taking up a trowel-fill of mortar. "God bless you, my son; but why do you ask?"

"Because I wish to become a monk."

"Are you a Lombard?" asked Herlwin, struck by the more refined accent of the South, "and are you clerk or layman?"

"I am a clerk, a teacher in schools, and a Lombard. My name is Lanfranc."

With a premonition that this was the man he sought, Herlwin stooped forward, and, after taking a long look at the unexpected postulant through the half-finished aperture, said tranquilly: "Very well, my son. I receive you in the name of the Lord."

Upon this Lanfranc threw himself upon his knees, and, having kissed the clay-stained hands of his future superior, immediately set to work to help him build his oven.

The meeting of these two men under such homely circumstances is a landmark in history. For the influence of Lanfranc, developed by Anselm, was not only to make Le Bec famous throughout Christendom, but was to produce a type of man, spiritual and yet practical, wise with the wisdom of both worlds, able to rule as well as to obey. From the ranks of such men as these were drawn some of the most notable ecclesiastics that have ever lived, and by means of them not only were great educational reforms brought about, but the best side of the Benedictine spirit was developed, a spirit which did an immense amount to leaven, civilize, and uplift the moral state of Europe in the eleventh century.

It was not easy for Lanfranc, when he found that his only companions were ignorant monks, to settle down at Le Bec and divest himself of his pride of intellect and ambition while taking the position of an ordinary novice.

Humility had to be learnt in many bitter ways; and once his heart seems to have so failed him that he determined to go away and live the life of a hermit. But Herlwin's grief and deep affection constrained him to remain, and encouraged him to cultivate his real vocation as a teacher while living the life of a monk. Before long he was made Prior of Le Bec, and presently his skill in teaching his fellow-monks was noised abroad. Men asked in wonder: "Is this that Lanfranc who once had the learned world of France at his feet?"

Old pupils sought him out and brought new ones with them, and soon the classroom in the humble monastery became crowded with eager students, who lived in the cottages of the neighbourhood. Fresh interests arose in other directions also, for he was soon called upon to play a part in the history of his own time.

Count Gilbert of Brionne had now been dead for is twelve years past, and his successor, Count Guy of Burgundy, had shown himself a generous friend to Le Bec, giving Herlwin a fertile stretch of land lying for some three miles above the monastery, containing a grange, or grassy enclosure for the storing of corn, protected by a thick palisade of wood.

But Duke William of Normandy, son of Duke Robert, had besieged the castle of Brionne in one of his many quarrels with neighbour barons; and while he was in the neighbourhood, being always interested in religious matters, he sought the counsel and spiritual help of Prior Lanfranc. Soon the two men, though of absolutely opposite types of character, established a sound friendship, which was not altogether, however, without peril. For William had an indomitable pride and Lanfranc a hatred of flattery and pretense that once bade fair to make shipwreck of their affection, when the monk boldly opposed the marriage of William with his kinswoman, Matilda. Of this we shall hear more later on. Now, the Duke had a certain ignorant upstart chaplain named Herfast, who had announced with great importance that he intended to patronize the lectures of Lanfranc. Riding down, surrounded by courtiers, to the little thatched building where the class was held, he very soon exposed his ignorance and vanity to such an extent that Lanfranc determined to teach him a really necessary lesson.

With great ceremony he set an alphabet before him, at which Herfast was so enraged that he posted back to William and succeeded in convincing him that Lanfranc had mocked and insulted, not only himself, but his royal master. Mindful of Lanfranc's attitude toward his marriage, and falling into one of his sudden fits of rage, the Duke commanded that the monks' grange, stored as it was with corn, should forthwith be burnt, and Lanfranc banished from that region.

Amid the bewildered tears and moans of his companions, the Prior of Le Bec mounted a lame horse, the only one they possessed, and calmly set off for the limits of the duchy. Before long he met the Duke astride of his great warhorse, and cheerfully saluted him with gentle and unmoved countenance.

The Duke dropped his head on his chest, and, turning his horse, growled words to the effect that he had expected the banishment to have been carried out ere this.

"Give me a better horse, and I shall go the quicker!" replied the monk, unmoved; upon which the Duke, his sense of humour touched, cried with a great roar of laughter "Who is this that asks presents of his offended judge before he has cleared himself of accusation?" Lanfranc took the hint, made good his case, and received the warm embrace of the man whose heart he had fairly won.

For the next few years, during which the monastery was again rebuilt on a larger scale and on a higher and healthier site above the rivulet, the classrooms of Prior Lanfranc were closed, and he himself, during the latter part of this time, was busy in Rome, striving for a more favourable verdict from the reigning Pope concerning the marriage of Duke William and Matilda.

That excommunication was averted from William was no doubt due to the tact and wisdom of the Benedictine monk, which certainly won for him the lasting affection and respect of the Duke.

And now that affairs were happily settled in Normandy Lanfranc was free to return to Le Bec and resume his work of teaching.

This brings our story up to the year when our real hero, Anselm, of whom we have scarcely heard as yet, was to appear as postulant and pupil at his classroom door.

For the years have slipped fast away, and Anselm, not even born when our story of Herlwin began, is now a youth of four or five and twenty. Yet we could ill spare the tale of these busy years, seeing that the influence of that spot, which did so much to make and mold his character, was due, before most other things, to the curious blend of the practical piety and rough moral force of Herlwin the Abbot, with the refinement, spiritual strength, and sound learning of Lanfranc the Prior of Le Bec.