Magazine article History Today

Death of St Anselm: Apr 21 1109

Magazine article History Today

Death of St Anselm: Apr 21 1109

Article excerpt

Anselm of Canterbury is one of the most important and influential figures of the medieval world, best known for his ontological 'proof' of the existence of God. He spent most of his adult life at the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy, where he gained a widespread reputation as a brilliant theologian. Born to a wealthy family in the Piedmont area of northern Italy, he had entered the abbey in his 20s in 1060, drawn there by the intellectual reputation of the prior, Lanfranc of Pavia. Three years later, Anselm succeeded him as prior and was unanimously, though on his part reluctantly, elected abbot in 1078. Anselm detested administration, considering it a distraction from the true purpose of life: to worship, study and think. 'I want to understand something of the truth which my heart believes and loves,' he wrote. 'I do not seek thus to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.' A man of the most profound piety, he is reported to have said that, if he had a choice between committing a sin and being condemned to suffer the agonies of hell, he would choose hell.

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In 1093 Anselm accepted the See of Canterbury, again reluctantly, and once more in succession to Lanfranc. It embroiled him in years of dispute with two successive English kings, William Rufus and Henry I, largely over the question of how far he and other prelates and abbots owed obedience to the king rather than to the pope. Anselm wanted the church freed of secular control. He tried to resign his see, but the pope would not permit it. He spent several years in exile in Italy, where he completed his most famous work, Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Man?). The wrangle with Henry was at last settled by compromise at the Synod of Westminster in 1107.

Anselm's final years were lived at peace in England but, according to the biography written by his pupil and close friend Eadmer, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, his health was failing and, too ill to ride a horse, he had to be carried about in a litter. Eadmer had been writing his life of the archbishop for some time when Anselm discovered what he was doing. At first he helped Eadmer with it, but on reflection he insisted that the biography be destroyed because he modestly considered himself too unworthy for future ages to place any value on an account of his life. …

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