April 21 is the feast day of St. Anselm of Canterbury.
Anselm was born in 1033 in the Alpine town of Aosta, an old Roman town at the southern end of Burgundy. His father was a Lombard who had become a citizen. His mother was a very devout woman from an old Burgundian family, whose family was from the valley of the Rhone, probably a decaying branch of a noble family.
Anselm’s family narrowed his choices in life. He was expected to support his family’s declining fortune by a provincial education and lucrative career. He had no interest in law, rhetoric, or business. Before he was 15 years old, Anselm asked to be admitted to a Benedictine monastery. However, the monks refused for fear of his father’s objection.
Around 1056, his mother died, leaving him without the “anchor” who had helped him through his frustrations. Soon afterward, he argued with his father and fled his childhood home, together with one friend. He spent the next three years partly in Burgundy and partly in France, where his mother’s relatives probably helped to support him. He had abandoned his religious interests of earlier years and was not quite sure what he was seeking. However, around the age of 26, he settled at Bec.
At the time of Anselm’s arrival, the prior at Bec was Lanfranc, who had been widely known as a teacher of the liberal arts even before he became a monk. Lanfranc had taught the trivium and quadrivium, Scripture and the Church Fathers. He was a master of the dialectic, whose work broke new ground in applying the dialectic to Scripture in the 1050’s. Lanfranc used Aristotle’s explanation of the universe, found in The Categories, and taught in the schools of northern France in the tenth century. Yet Lanfranc’s work addressed the issues of his day, and it held little interest for later generations.
After some soul searching and after seeking the advice of Lanfranc, Anselm became a monk. With Lanfranc’s encouragement, Anselm, who had never seen much success earlier in life, became a successful student and then a successful teacher, strictly adhering to the Rule of St. Benedict. During those years, he wrote his De Grammatico, the only one of his works that reflected Lanfranc’s Aristotelian leanings. Three years later, Lanfranc became the Abbot of Caen, and Anselm was chosen to succeed him as Prior of Bec. As prior, he wrote his Prayers and Meditations, which he prepared and revised over 20 years. It was also during those years that he began to read Augustine, the greatest influence in his later thinking. Near the end of Anselm’s 15 years as prior, he wrote his “great meditations”, the Monologium and Proslogium. The Monologium addressed the qualities of God and was much influenced by St. Augustine’s The Trinity. The Proslogium addressed God’s necessary existence, only slightly dependent upon Augustine, more clearly anticipating the Scholasticism of future centuries.
In 1078, Herluin, the founder and first Abbot of Bec, died, and Anselm was elected to take his place as Abbot. Anselm protested with tears, asking that he not be given the burden, but the other monks implored him, and he remained their abbot. By then, Anselm’s own views had departed significantly from Lanfranc’s. As Abbot of Bec, Anselm came into control of the abbey’s lands in England, where Lanfranc had become Archbishop of Canterbury. As Abbot, Anselm encountered a true theological opponent, Roscelin, who tried to support his own views by wrongly counting Anselm among his supporters. Anselm then began his reply, Cur Deus Homo, which went through several drafts, but remained unfinished before Anselm became Archbishop of Canterbury.
Upon Lanfranc’s death, the king, William II, left the see of Canterbury vacant for four years, benefiting from the vacancy financially, and using the money for his military campaigns. William fell seriously ill in 1093 and wanted to make a confession to Anselm. Anselm heard William’s confession, and the king promised to make amends. The king then faced questions about the vacant see of Canterbury. The king accepted the clergy's demands, perhaps even as part of the penance imposed by Anselm, but surprised Anselm by appointing him as archbishop. Anselm reacted with tears and protests just as he had done when elected Abbot, but he did not question William’s right to make the decision. At that point, Anselm believed it permissible in England -- a view that was in conflict with the 1077 Lateran Council's decisions, of which Anselm was undoubtedly unaware, and a view that Anselm would later reject.
Anselm sought the counsel and permission of others back in Lombardy before agreeing to accept the archbishopric. He was consecrated in December, 1093. Appointing a prior at Bec, Anselm continued to exercise the authority of the Abbot there even as he lived in England. A theologian, philosopher, and contemplative, he knew little of canon law and administration. As archbishop, he continued to place priority on living a Benedictine life, and he never did learn a great deal of the law that should have governed his practical decisions.
Anselm quickly encountered difficulty with the now recovered William. He was obligated to receive the pallium from the Pope for his consecration to be recognized. Being from Normandy, he had already vowed his allegiance to Pope Urban II, who was recognized as Pope in France and Normandy. However, Germany recognized the anti-pope Clement, and England had made no choice. William refused to allow Anselm to travel to Rome to receive the pallium from Urban II, and Anselm refused to remain archbishop if he could not receive the pallium. In the end, an arrangement was reached whereby a Papal legate brought Anselm’s pallium to England and set it on the altar, from which Anselm accepted the pallium.
In 1097, William brought charges against Anselm related to an unsuccessful military campaign. Anselm went into exile and journeyed to Rome. At a council in Bari in 1098, Anselm’s position was upheld. Afterward, Anselm was near Lyon when he received word of William’s death. The new king, Henry, asked Anselm to return to England, which he did in 1099. A new conflict arose with the new English king over investitures of those chosen by Henry to be abbots and bishops. Such investitures had been abolished by a council held on Easter, 1099, but Henry still insisted that Anselm consecrate those Henry had invested. Henry sent Anselm to Rome to state his case. The matter was resolved at a counsel in London in 1107, where the king abandoned his claimed right to investitures, while prelates could still do homage to the king for their temporal possessions.
After 1107, Anselm lived his last two years in peace. While Anselm’s strong stand for the papacy marked his time as archbishop, he never again had the leisure for the kind of thinking and writing he had done as a prior, Cur Deus Homo being the one notable exception. He died on April 21, 1109, at the age of 76.
Southern, Richard W., St. Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape
Tellenbach, Gerd, The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century