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Anselm (1033-1109)

A Short Biography


Anselm was born in 1033 into a noble family in the city of Aosta in the region of Lombardy - then part of the kingdom of Burgundy, but now part of northern Italy. His father, Gundulph, was of Lombard descent, and owned considerable property in the region. He was known as a man with a harshness of character and a violent temper. His mother, Ermenberga, by contrast was known as a particularly pious lady, and it was under her influence that Anselm, at the age of 15, asked to be admitted into a local monastery as a novice. However, the abbot feared that Anselm's father would not approve of this, and fearing the consequences of upsetting such a nobleman of influence and power, refused permission for Anselm to enter the monastery. After that Anslem, for a period at least, lost all interest in religion and led the life of a young, worldly nobleman in the fashion of his times.

Sometime during the next few years his mother died, and his relationship with his harsh father deteriorated so much that in 1056 (according to his contemporary biographer Eadmer, though some current biographies claim he left in 1059, but this may be because it was in 1059 he arrived in Normandy) he left home and after a period which included time spent studying in his native Burgundy, finally arrived in Normandy in 1059, attracted by the reputation of his fellow-Burgundian, Stephen Lanfranc, who had already established his reputation through the lectures that he gave as Master at the Cathedral School in the town of Avranches in western Normandy between 1039 and 1042.

Tower of Abbey

Lanfranc was at that time the prior of the Benedctine Abbey of Bec in Normandy. It's full title today is the Abbaye de Notre-Dame du Bec (The Abbey of Our Lady of Bec), and is located in Le Bec-Hellouin in the French département of Eure, to the south-west of Rouen. It was founded in 1034 by Herluin, a Norman knight who left military service in 1031 in order to commit himself to a life of religious devotion. He first lived the life of a hermit, but was soon joined by other disciples, including Lanfranc in 1042. The name of the community still bears his name in the modern form of Hellouin rather than Herluin.

During the French Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century much of it was damaged, and the French Revolution saw the expulsion in 1792 of the last remaining monks. Of the original buildings there remains nothing much besides the fifteenth century Tower of St. Nicholas (see picture above) and a pile of ruins (see picture below).

Ruins of old abbey

There are many other buildings on the site of later dates though. It was used from the time of the French Revolution until the end of the Second World War by the French Army. However in 1948 a group of Benedictine monks resettled there and began the process of restoration.

When Anselm arrived in Normandy in 1059 he first spent some time studying at the Cathredral School in Avranches before entering the Abbey at Bec as a novice in 1060 at the age of 27. Bec, under the leadership of Lanfranc, had become one of the leading European centres of learning during that period. It was while Anselm was studying at the Abbey of Bec that he learned of the death of his father. He consulted Lanfranc as to his opinion as to whether Anselm should return back to Burgundy in order to manage the estates he had inherited. Lanfranc, not wishing to use his position as prior and mentor of Anslem to unduly influence him, referred him instead to Maurillus, Archbishop of Rouen. As a result of his discussions with Maurillus that Anselm decided to stay at Bec and enter fully into the life of a monk.

It was only three years after entering the Abbey as a novice that Lanfranc moved on to become the Abbot of St. Stephen's Abbey in Caen. Despite having only been part of the abbey for three years, Anselm was elected as Lanfranc's successor as prior in 1063, a post he held for the next 15 years. There was, not surprisingly, some criticism and grumbling from among his fellow monks that such a recent arrival at the abbey as Anselm should be given such rapid promotion and be elected prior, but Anselm gradually managed to win the full support of all the monks, including his most bitter opponents and critics.

On the death of the abbey's founder and abbot, Herluin, in 1078, Anselm was elected as his successor, and so became Abbot of Bec. In his role as abbot he made several visits to Norman-occupied England where the Abbey of Bec owned a considerable amount of property, notably in south-east England. The king of England at this time was William I (William the Conqueror), and he appointed many men from the region of Normandy to high office in the Church and the State in England, including, in 1070, Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury. Relations between the King and the Church were strained at this time, with William trying to encroach upon the finances and the rights of the Church.

Anselm's contemporary biographer, the monk Eadmer (c.1060 - c.1124), who knew him personally from 1093 until Anselm's death in 1109, writing in his books Vita Anselmi (Life of Anselm) and his Historia Novorum makes the comment that Anselm as Abbot of Bec was received with honour throughout the realm of England, including by King William I himelf. We see also from what Eadmer wrote that Anselm must have spent time in England in a role as teacher and preacher during his frequent visits, for he notes that Anselm's method of teaching was much appreciated and admired, being full of simple, everyday illustrations which helped even the most simple of his listeners understand what he was teaching.

In 1089 Lanfranc died, two years after the death of King William I in 1087. Lanfranc had worked to get William II (William Rufus) appointed as his successor, but William II did not work in the Church's best interests. Rather, he was refusing to give permission for any new bishops or archbishops to be appointed in order that he could keep for himself the not inconsiderable amounts of Church revenue that would have fallen to those bishopric or archbishoprics. Since the death of Lanfranc there had been a move in England to have Anselm appointed as Lanfranc's successor to the archbishopric of Canterbury. When, in 1092, Anselm was invited by Hugh, Earl of Chester, to visit England in order to give him some advice about a monastery he was planning to build, he went with reluctance because he had learned of the rumours that the English church would try and get him appointed as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. However he was eventually persuaded to go to England, and while there, the Church leadership tried to get both his agreement to become Archbishop and that of King William II to appoint him to that position.

King William II continued in his refusal to allow any church offices to be filled, and even swore on oath that he would never permit Anselm nor anyone else to be appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury while he, the king, continued to live. Yet when King William became gravely ill in 1093, and seemed on the point of death, he changed his mind and relented, and, upon his unexpected recovery, agreed to the appointment of Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury. King William even promised that from then on he would govern the realm, and Church-State relations, according to the Law - a promise which he did not always manage to fulfill.

Anselm, however, was still very reluctant to accept the nomination. He pleaded that he was too old - he was about 60 at the time, which was a considerable age in those days - that he was too ill, and that he was not qualified to undertake such a role. However the English bishops put considerable pressure upon Anselm to accept, claiming that if he declined to become Archbishop of Canterbury, then the blame for all the problems of the Church and its relations with the State would be in effect rest on his shoulders, because he could have done something about them, but failed to do so. In the presence of King William II, the bishops effectively forced him to accept, and then almost literally dragged him off to the church to carry out the service of consecration. Even then Anselm refused to go ahead - unless King William II acknowledged Urban II as the legitimate pope (this was one of several periods were there was a dispute about who was the real pope), and also returned to the Church all the lands that William had confiscated since the days of Archbishop Lanfranc. When eventually the king could be persuaded to accept those terms, Anselm was duly consecrated as Archbishop at Canterbury on December 4th 1093.

At this time King William II was plotting against his brother Robert to sieze control of the Duchy of Normandy and add it to his own territories. For this he needed money and supplies. Anselm, on behalf of the church, offered a considerable and very generous sum to William, but he refused the offer and demanded double the amount. Anselm refused such an unreasonable demand. From that moment William began to plot ways of getting Anselm removed from his position as Archbishop of Canterbury by any means that he could. William even in effect tried to bribe the pope (Urban II) to depose Anselm in return for an annual tribute to be paid by the king to the pope. The pope in response to William's proposals sent a Papal Legate to England with the message that his offer was rejectd by the pope, and to confirm the pope's blessing on Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury. This did not settle the dispute between King William and Anselm, and eventually Anselm asked William for permission to leave England in order to go to Rome to meet with the pope personally in order to discuss these matters concerning Church-State relations and to try and find a resolution. William gave Anslem permission to go but with the threat that if he went all church revenues falling to him would be confiscated and that he would never be allowed to return to England.

Despite those threats, Anselm decided to go to Rome, and set out in October 1097 dressed as an ordinary pilgrim, and in the company of his biographer, the monk Eadmer, and one other monk whose name remains unknown. In Rome the pope once again confirmed his blessing upon Anselm, and assured him of Rome's protection. The pope also wrote to King William II to demand that Anselm be reinstated as Archbishop of Canterbury and that all his rights and possessions be returned to him.

While waiting for permission to return to England, Anselm stayed at a quiet monastery in the southern Italian region of Calabria. While there he completed the writing of his book “Cur Deus Homo” (Why God became man), which set out to explain the necessity of the Incarnation if God was to save sinful and rebellious man.

Anselm, not seeing any hope of being able to return back to England, and now being an old man not in the best of health, asked the pope that he might be relieved of his office as Archbishop of Canterbury. This the pope declined to do. Nevertheless it was obviously impossible for Anselm to return to England, so the pope gave him permission to stay in southern Italy.

It was during this period of Anselm's life, in 1098, that a church council was called to meet in the Italian town of Bari in order to discuss the possibilities of reconciliation between the Greek and Roman sections of the Church. Pope Urban II insisted that Anselm should attend this council. Much of the discussion focussed on the issue knwon as the Filioque clause, which the Roman church had added to its creed, but which the Greek church rejected. This relates to the part of the creed that talks about the Holy Spirit. The creed originally said of the Holy Spirit that he was “proceeding from the Father” but the Roman section of the Church emended this to read “proceeding from the Father and from the Son”. It was the edition of the clause “from the Son”, known in its Latin form by the word “Filioque” that was responsible for a good deal of the separation that had grown up between the two sections of the Church in the previous centuries. There was much debate about these words, often very heated and bitter, and at the moment of one particularly hostile debat, the pope turned to Anselm and asked him to give a lecture on the subject the following day. This lecture, it seems, was sufficient to put an end to much of the controversy, and allowed reconciliation, at least in part, to go forward between the two parties.

After the council was over, Anselm eventually moved to France for a while, spending some time near Lyon writing his book “On Original Sin”. On the death of King William II on August 2nd 1100, he returned to England, and was welcomed by the new king, Henry I. Although Anselm gave Henry I valuable help in arranging Henry's marriage to Matilda of Scotland and also in gaining the support of the barons for the king in his dispute with Robert of Normandy, yet, once again, tensions soon developed between King and Archbishop over the degree of involvement of the State in Church affairs. At that time ecclesiastical officials also served a civil role in the government of the State, so it was not wholly out unreasonable for the king to expect some considerable say in the appointment of those who not only served the Church but the State as well. Anselm again had to leave England and go into exile, where he remained from 1103 to 1106. Finally, in 1107, a royal council of clergy and nobility met to discuss these issues, and in a compromise known as the Westminster Agreement, the king formally renounced his right to appoint bishops and abbots. After this council, in which Anselm played a large part, King Henry I came to view Anselm in a very good light, so much so that when the king was away in France, he appointed Anselm as his regent.

Anselm's health now declined rapidly, and in 1109, on April 21st, the Wednesday of Holy Week, he died peacefully at Canterbury, surrounded by monks.

Anselm was renowned throughout his life both as a man of learning, and also as a man of sympathy and sincerity. He was regarded with affection by nearly all who came into contact with him, even those who did not agree with his views and principles.

Anselm was among the first known to make a public stand against slavery when in 1102 at a church council meeting at Westminster he persuaded them to pass a resolution banning the practice of “selling men like cattle”.

Anselm, as a Norman - or at least as an adopted Norman - continued the attempts of his equally pro-Norman predecessor, Lanfranc, to remove or downgrade from any officially recognised status, or from their position in the church calendar, those considered to be Anglo-Saxon saints, thus exhibiting some degree of prejudice as conqueror versus the conquered.

Anselm's motto was “Faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). By this he meant in effect “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God”. His position was not that faith should be replaced by understanding. Anselm said: “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand”.


Monologium (1076) Written while at Bec, in which he collects together all the logical arguments that he could find in the writings of earlier theologians that set out to prove the existence of God.

Proslogium (1077-8) Not satisifed with the arguments presented in his first volume, Monologium, in this volume he presents his own original argument - the Ontological Argument - for the existence of God.
See below for a summary of Anselm's argument.

De grammatico
De veritiate (Of Truth)
De libertate arbitrii (Of Free Will)

The above three volumes were written during the period 1080-1085)

De casu diaboli (1085-90) (The Fall of the Devil)

Epistola de Incarnatione Verbi (1092-94) On the Incarnation of the Word

Cur Deus Homo (1094-98) (Why God became Man)
In this book Anselm propounds what has become known as the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. That is, that Man's offence of rebellion against God is one that demands a payment of satisfaction. Fallen man himself is not capable of making such a satisfaction, so God took on himself human nature in order that a perfect man could make perfect satisfaction and so restore the human race to fellowship with God once again.

Epistola de sacrificio azymi et fermanetati (1106-7)

De sacramentis ecclesiae (1106-7)

De concordia praescientiae et praedestinationis et gratiae dei cum libero arbitrio (1107-8)
This volume explores the compatibility of God's foreknowledge, predestination and grace with human freedom

De conceptu virginali et originali peccato (1099-1100) On the virgin conception and original sin

Meditatio redemptionis humanae (1099-1100)

De processione Spiritus Sancti (1102) On the procession of the Holy Spirit

Epistola de sacrificio azymi et fermanetati (1106-7)

De sacramentis ecclesiae (1106-7)

De concordia praescientiae et praedestinationis et gratiae dei cum libero arbitrio (1107-8)
This volume explores the compatibility of God's foreknowledge, predestination and grace with human freedom

Anselm's Argument for the existence of God

This is a proof by the method known as reductio ad absurdum, that is, by arriving at a point where the argument becomes absurd or self-contradictory.

A summary of the argument that Anselm sets out in his book Proslogium is set out below. Anslem starts from the statement in Psalm 14.1 “The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'”, and he sets out to show by the eight steps summarised below, that from this position the Fool arrives at a point of complete self-contradiction in his position, and that the only way out of this is to accept the existence of God.

Not all theologians or philosophers at the time, nor since, have accepted that Anselm's argument is sound. Thomas Aquinas, for example, rejected it as a sound proof of the existence of God.

  • The Fool asserts that God does not exist.
  • What is called “God” is “a being than which no greater can be conceived.”
  • The Fool agrees that “a being than which no greater can be conceived” exists in the mind, since he understands the words.
  • To say that “a being than which no greater can be conceived” does not exist is to say that such a being is only an idea - it does not exist in the mind and in reality.
  • But such a being, which exists in the mind alone, is in fact “a being than which a greater can be conceived” since it is greater to exist in both mind and reality than just mind alone.
  • So, the Fool believes that “a being than which no greater can be conceived” is “a being than which a greater can be conceived” which is impossible.
  • Therefore, since “a being than which no greater can be conceived” cannot exist in the mind alone (because that is self-contradictory) such a being must exist in both mind and reality.
  • Therefore, God exists.

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