Posts Tagged ‘Mediaeval’

AlphegeÆlfheah, or Alphege (954 –1012), was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be martyred. He became a monk at Deerhurst at a young age, and then moved to Bath where he embraced the solitary life of an anchorite. His holiness and asceticism resulted in his election as Abbot of Bath Abbey, and he came to the attention of St Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was instrumental in the election of Ælfheah as Bishop of Winchester in 984.

While at Winchester he devoted his energies to the construction of a gigantic organ, which reported requiredly upwards of twenty-four men for its operation, and which could be heard from over a mile away. Ælfheah was a builder and restorer of churches, and was also assiduous in the promotion of the cult of Anglo-Saxon saints, especially those of two bishops of Winchester, St Swithun and St Æthelwold.

He was actively involved in the conversion to Christianity of Olaf Tryggvason, one of the leaders of a series of Viking raids in 994, who agreed to desist from further attacks in return for danegeld. In 1006 he succeeded Ælfric as Archbishop of Canterbury, bringing the head of St Swithun with him in a gesture which reflected his policy of promoting devotion to the saints of Anglo-Saxon England.

Once in office he pursued this policy still further, advancing the cult of St Dunstan – his former mentor and a predecessor at Canterbury – and commissioning Adelard to write Dunstan’s Life. He also helped secure the acknowledgment of the saintly status of St Wulfsige of Sherborne by the Witenagemot.

The year 1011 witnessed further Viking invasions, and in September the Danes laid siege to Canterbury. Together with the Bishop of Rochester (Godwine) and the Abbess of St Mildrith’s (Leofrun), Ælfheah was captured and held in prison for seven months.

Refusing to permit the payment of a ransom in exchange for his liberty, Ælfheah was killed by a mob of drunken Viking soldiers, though whether he was a martyr in the strictest sense of the term is questionable inasmuch as the immediate motive for his murder was his refusal to allow himself to be ransomed rather than his Christian faith per se.

He was initially laid to rest at St Paul’s Cathedral, but in 1023 King Canute (a Dane) arranged for the translation of his body to Canterbury. After the Conquest in 1066, Norman bishops, including Lanfranc (the first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury) were somewhat antipathetic to Anglo-Saxon saints, including those venerated at Canterbury (not least because the cult of pre-Conquest saints could be seen as a political statement).

However, after Pope Gregory VII had canonized Ælfheah in 1078, Lanfranc enthusiastically recognized him as a saint (even going so far as to commission a monk to write a Vita), and Ælfheah (under the Norman rendering of his name, Alphege) became the only pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury (not counting Augustine, who was in any case a Roman) whose name was retained in Canterbury’s calendar of saints.

His remains were placed around the high altar of Canterbury together with those of St Dunstan, and St Thomas Becket is said to have prayed there to St Ælfheah before his own martyrdom.


Read Full Post »

StanisławStanisław was born at Szczepanów in 1030 in southern Poland, and studied at a cathedral school in Gniezno (which at the time was the capital of Poland), before traveling abroad to further his education. Having returned to Poland, Stanisław was ordained to the priesthood, and in 1072, at the behest of Pope Alexander II he somewhat reluctantly succeeded Lambert Suła as Bishop of Kraków.

Episcopal status (Stanisław was one of the first native Poles to become a bishop in Poland) thrust him into Polish political life, and, ultimately, into conflict with King Bolesław II who was crowned in 1076.

Stanisław worked out to bring about the full Christianization of Poland, introducing papal legates, restoring the see of Gniezno to metropolitan status (acceptance of which was a condition for the then Duke Bolesław’s coronation), and persuading King Bolesław to build a network of Benedictine monasteries.

The initial falling-out between Stanisław and Bolesław seems to have related to some land that a man called Piotr had sold to Stanisław for the use of the diocese, and which Piotr’s family had refused to hand over after his untimely death.

Sitting in judgment on the case, Bolesław decided in favour of the family of Piotr, but, according to pious legend, Stanisław arranged for the publice exhumation of Piotr (no fewer than three years after his death), after which he dramatically raised him from the dead so that he could testify on his behalf.

Bolesław had no choice but to decide in favour of Stanisław against the family of Piotr, who rebuked his astonished sons in open court, and, presented by Stanisław with a choice of remaining alive or returning to the peace of his grave, opted for the latter.

Stanisław also came into conflict with Bolesław over the King’s sexual immorality. Some historians believe that Stanisław was involved in a plot orchestrated by the nobles to dethrone Bolesław, or at least to distribute some of his powers the nobility and to the Church.

Bolesław was unwilling to reform his ways (either sexually or politically), with the result that Stanisław felt compelled to excommunicate him. Bolesław interpreted this as a politically motivated action designed to undermine the King and foment treason, and dispatched a band of soldiers to execute Stanisław on the spot.

The soldiers were reluctant to harm so holy a Bishop, so, being a man of action, Bolesław took matters into his own hands, and murdered Stanisław during a celebration of Mass. His emboldened henchmen then helped him hack the corpse of Stanisław to pieces before hurling the severed parts into a pool outside the church.

The martyrdom of Stanisław took place in 1079, and provoked such outrage that Bolesław was forced to flee to Hungary. A cultus soon developed, and the year 1245 saw the translation of his relics to Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, and in 1253 he was formally canonized by Pope Innocent IV. From the time of Władysław I the Elbow-High, most of the Kings of Poland were crowned kneeling in front of the sarcophagus containing the relics.

It was also said that, guarded by four eagles, his dismembered corpse had been miraculously reassembled in the pool where the parts had been thrown, and in feudal times, when Poland itself was broken up into smaller points, this pious story became a powerful metaphor for hopes of future national recovery and unification.

A more recent Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła (the future Pope John Paul II, described Saint Stanisław the patron saint of moral order, which seems appropriate inasmuch as Stanisław’s ecclesiastical career was devoted to the establishment of moral order and discipline within Church and society, while the catalyst for his martyrdom was his conflict with Bolesław concerning the disordered morality of the King.

Read Full Post »

St Antony of Padua

Antony of Padua holding the Infant Jesus; icon from http://www.monasteryicons.com/monasteryicons/Item_St-Anthony-of-Padua_402_ps_srm.html

Antony of Padua holding the Infant Jesus

June 13th was the feast of St Antony of Padua.

Born in Lisbon (Portugal) in 1195 into a noble family with connectiona at the court of King Alfonso II, Fernando Martins de Bulhões chose at the age of 15 to become an Augustinian canon at the monastery of San Vincente (near Lisbon) before relocating to the priory of Santa Cruz at Coîmbra.

In 1220 Fernando was inspired by a visit Don Pedro of Portugal who carried with him from Morocco the relics of recent Franciscan martyrs to transfer to the Franciscan order, and, entering the friary at Olivares in 1221, he adopted the Antony in honour of St Antony the Abbot, the greatest of the desert fathers.

He traveled to Morocco where he was part of a Franciscan project to convert Muslims to Christianity, but, on his arrival, the onset of ill-health prevented him from participating in this mission, and he was sent back home to Portugal. However, his ship was wrecked off the Sicilian coast, and, finding himself in Italy, he managed to attend the Franciscan general chapter of Assisi in 1221.

His ongoing ill-health initially made it difficult for him to gain admission to a Franciscan friary in Italy, but finally he was sent to the hospice of San Paolo near Forli (close to Bologna), where he lived partly as a hermit and partly as a cook/kitchen-cleaner surrounded by friars who were neither scholars nor preachers.

One day, a mix-up among some visiting Dominicans over who was supposed to be preaching a sermon resulted in Antony being invited to extemporize a homily – and, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, he duly obliged. His reputation as a brilliant and charismatic preacher was immediately established, and from that moment onwards the Italian Franciscans utilized him as one of their premier evangelists.

St Francis was so impressed that he licensed Antony to teach theology in all Franciscan houses, and appointed him as the order’s first lector in theology. Antony was a gifted expositor of theology (he taught at the universities of Montpellier and Toulouse), but he was first and foremost a preacher, and it was in this capacity that he was pronounced by Pope Gregory IX to be a “jewel case of the Bible” and was commissioned to preach on some of the great feasts of the liturgical year.

Released from his papal duties so that he could focus more exclusively on preaching, Antony now based himself at the monastery of Santa Maria in Padua, preaching (and writing) sermons on the saints, on Sundays and Holy Days, on the refutation of heresies, on social injustices (he campaigned against usury and debtors’ prisons), and on the vices of clergy and laity. His sermons drew enormous crowds, and became major events which profoundly affected those in attendance.

Antony died in 1231, worn out by his arduous preaching schedule, and lies buried behind the altar of his chapel in the Basilica di Sant’Antonio in Padua, where numerous miracles have occurred. He is often portrayed preaching to the fish (where St Francis preached to the birds, St Antony preached to the fish), displaying a consecrated Host to a mule who duly venerated it in preference to feeding on a readily available bundle of hay, resisting the attacks of devils, and carrying (and conversing with) the Infant Jesus – an event witnessed by a householder spying on his famous guest.

The icon pictured above is available from Monastery Icons.

Read Full Post »

St William of York

June 8th is the feast of William of York (also known as William Fitzherbert and William of Thwayt).William_of_York

Born early in the 12th century, William was, according to tradition, the son of Herbert of Winchester, Henry I’s treasurer, and Emma, sister of King Stephen (though this is now disputed). With such connections it was perhaps inevitable that, having been ordained a priest, he received rapid preferment and in the early 1130s became canon and treasurer of York.

In 1142 Stephen secured William’s election as Archbishop of York at the expense of a Cistercian monk called Henry Murdac. Murdac’s supporters questioned the validity of the election (not least because of the royal intervention), and Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, decided to defer the consecration until Rome had had an opportunity to pass judgment.

St Bernard of Clairvaux, a towering figure not only within the Cistercian order but within the Church as a whole, backed Murdac, but in 1143 the Pope ruled that Theobald should proceed with the consecration provided that William could demonstrate his innocence of charges of bribery and excessive royal influence.

Once consecrated, William’s pastoral zeal soon won for him the affection of his flock, but may have been one of the reasons for his overlooking the need to obtain from the hands of Cardinal Hincmar the pallium which had been conveyed to him in 1146 by Pope Lucius II sent him in 1146.

Before William could be invested, Pope Lucius died and was succeeded by a Cistercian, Bl Eugenius III, whose election encouraged the English Cistercians, supported by St Bernard, to renew their campaign against William and on behalf of Murdac. Hincmar took the pallium back to Rome, William sold treasures belonging to York in order to fund his own journey to Rome – thus raising another storm of protest – and the last straw for Eugenius were allegations of irregularities in the appointment of William of St Barbara as Dean of York.

While William was in Sicily (taking refuge with his friend King Roger II), the Cistercian Pope deposed him and appointed Murdac in his place, though Stephen prevented him from taking up his see (probably because he wanted to use recognition of Murdac as a bargaining-counter for obtaining papal support for the idea that his son Eustace should be crowned as his successor in his own lifetime, thereby heading off the rival claims of Henry of Anjou).

William retired to a life of mortification and prayer in his home-town of Winchester, but, after the deaths of Bernard and Eugenius, appealed in 1153, who took the opportunity of the death of Murdac to restore William to the see of York.

On his return William treated the Cistercians with great generosity. Within a few weeks, however, he was dead – possibly by poison administered at Mass in the chalice. Miracles soon abounded at his tomb, from which (in 1223) sweet-smelling oil began to flow. In 1283 a shrine was constructed behind the high altar of York Minster to which his relics were translated.

Read Full Post »

Norbert (on the right) receives the Augustinian Rule from Saint Augustine. From the "Vita Sancti Norberti," 12th century manuscript.

Norbert (on the right) receives the Augustinian Rule from Saint Augustine. From the "Vita Sancti Norberti," 12th century manuscript.

Norbert (whose feast-day is June 6th) was born into an aristocratic family c. 1080 at Xanten on the bank of the Rhine. Ordained a subdeacon, he was summoned to the imperial court, and seemed destined for a glittering ecclesiastical career. His refusal of the bishopric of Cambrai was due not to unworldliness but to the fact that he was even more committed to luxury and pleasure than he was to easy preferment, and it seemed that his weakness of character was set to prevent him not only from being a holy priest but even from being a successful worldly priest.

While Norbert was riding to the village of Vreden (near Xanten) one day, he found himself caught in a ferocious storm, and a particularly violent thunderbolt caused his horse to throw him, as a result of which he nearly died. This experience jolted him into a re-examination of his priorities, and, renouncing his appointment at the imperial court, he embraced the life of a penitent.

Aged 35 he drew on his personal wealth to found the Abbey of Fürstenberg (whose Abbot had given him spiritual guidance), and was ordained to the priesthood by the Bishop of Cologne. His first Mass did not go well – his sermon on the transitory nature of the world’s pleasures (a subject on which he was an expert) elicited boos and catcalls (and even spitting) from some of his fellow clerics.

In 1119 he resigned his ecclesiastical preferments, and obtained permission from Pope Gelasius to live the life of an itinerant preacher, giving all his money to the poor and resolving henceforth to travel barefoot and begging for his food. Pope Calixtus II helped persuade Norbert to found a religious order in the diocese of Laon, and Norbert selected Prémontré, a cruciform valley in the forest of Coucy, as the appropriate location.

The original ramshackle collection of wooden huts soon developed into a proper monastery and church. A preaching tour conducted by Norbert in Germany meant that the fledgling religious order soon began to attract large number of recruits (male and female), and German nobles started donating land and buildings for the purpose of establishing monasteries. In order to accommodate those who wished to share in the Norbertine charism while remaining in the world, he instituted the first “third order”.

Although his energies were now focused on building up his order of Premonastratensian Canons, Norbert remained an assiduous and enthusiastic preacher – a work which he not infrequently confirmed with miracles – and found himself called upon to combat heretical teachings on the Eucharist (hence the fact that one of his symbols in art is a monstrance).

Having relucantly agreed to accept the Bishopric of Magdeburg in Germany, he became involved in ecclesistical reform, and, more particularly, in the task of recalling to a true understanding of their priesthood those clergy who were living scandalous lives (in return for which he received numerous death-threats). On the political front, he was active in opposing a rival claimant to the papacy (Anacletus), and in persuading the Emperor and German bishops and princes to support the authentic successor of Peter.

Norbert died in Magdeburg  in 1134, and was laid to rest in the Norbertine Abbey of St Mary, where numerous miracles were associated with his tomb. After the Lutheran Reformation, Magdeburg became a Protestant city, and, in 1627, his body was transferred to the Abbey of Strahov in the Bohemian city of Prague (in the modern Czech Republic).

Read Full Post »

St Andrew Corsini

AndrewCorsiniWhen Gemma Corsini (some biographers inaccurately call her Pellegrina), who belonged to a devout, prosperous and well-connected Florentine family, was expecting the child who would be baptized Andrew, she consecrated him under the protection of the Virgin Mary to the service of God. However, when she was about to give birth, she had a disturbing dream in which it seemed that she was giving birth to a wolf.

Andrew Corsini was born in 1301, and, as he arrived at adulthood, he appeared to be far closer to fulfilling Gemma’s alarming premonition than to fulfilling the vow that she had undertaken on his behalf, for he was indeed living like a wild animal, devoting himself not to the service of God but to the pursuit of drink, gambling and sex.

Perceiving Andrew intent on self-destruction (in this life and the next), Gemma decided to reveal to him both her original act of consecration and her subsequent nightmare, and Andrew was so impressed by what she told him that he underwent a dramatic conversion, racing off to the nearest church to pray at the altar of Our Lady.

Being a man who never did things by halves (whether in pursuit of the pleasures of vice or the joys of virtue, his commitment to his goal was invariably wholehearted), Andrew resolved never to return home, and, in 1318, chose instead to join the Carmelites of Fiesole near Florence.

He embraced Carmelite life with characteristic zeal, seeking to atone for past sins and to subdue existing passions (which at this early stage were, presumably, as fiery as ever) by throwing himself into prayer, hard work and humiliations at every available opportunity. (The love of humiliation and self-abnegation which is such a part of the Carmelite tradition as exemplified by, for example St Thérèse of Lisieux, was very much part of Andrew’s approach to religious life).

Having been ordained to the priesthood in 1328 he was so concerned to avoid the lavish celebrations (musical and culinary) which his justifiably proud family were planning that, on the day designated for his first celebration of Mass, he contrived to spirit himself away to a small hermitage were he was able to celebrate Mass in quiet and humble solitude.

In 1349 Andrew was elected bishop of Fiesole (near Florence), but, conscious of his own unworthiness (as he saw it), and reluctant to assume a role which would inevitably compromise a personal spirituality which was grounded in radical humility, he initially withdrew to the Carthusian monastery of Enna.

Having been prevailed upon to accept episcopal consecration, Andrew discovered that his aristocratic connections together with his natural empathy for the poor and lowly were the ideal qualifications for a bishop at a time when promoting social cohesion was as much a part of the function of a bishop as was purely spiritual leadership, and no less a figure than Pope Urban V made use of Andrew as a kind of troubleshooter in situations of civic and political conflict.andrewcorsini2

Whereas previous bishops of Fiesole had lived in Florence, Andrew elected to live among his own flock in Fiesole, and was thus able to develop a genuine bond with those whom he served.

He was always assiduous in the service of the poor, meeting their material and spiritual needs, and insisting, not just on Maundy Thursday but every Thursday, on washing the feet of poor in conformity with Our Lord’s injunction (resulting, on one occasion, in the miraculous healing of a man whose feet were severely ulcerous).

Although he was now a bishop, Andrew never forgot that he was also a Carmelite, and, far from relaxing his penances and austerities, actually added to them, supplementing his hair shirt with an iron girdle, and sleeping on the floor on a scattering of vine-branches.

He also dedicated himself to the restoration of church buildings and to the reformation of the clergy, many of whom had grown lax, wearing secular clothes and indulging in those same vices which Andrew had abandoned after his conversion.

He died aged 71 in January 1373, having been struck down with fever while celebrating Mass on Christmas Eve. He was buried (curiously, considering that he was a Carmelite) in the Franciscan church in Florence, which soon became associated with miracles, and his status as a saint was recognized by public acclaim immediately after his death, though he was not formally canonized until 1629.

Read Full Post »

St Paschasius Radbertus


The Abbey Church of Corbie

The Abbey Church of Corbie

Born in 785, Radbertus was orphaned and abandoned on the steps of St Mary’s convent in Soissons (France), where he was raised by the nuns, developing a close bond with the Abbess Theodrara (a cousin of Charlemagne).

Radbertus took the Benedictine habit, but subsequently decided that, having spent his entire life inside convents and monasteries, he needed to experience the wider world, so he left his monastery and for a while enjoyed a worldly lifestyle – all of which served to convince him that he really was called to the life of the cloister.

Radbertus elected to enter the Abbey of Corbie where two of Theodrara’s brothers, Adalard and Wala, were monks, (Adalard was the Abbot, and Wala was later to succeed him in that role), and he duly devoted himself to a life of prayer, study and monastic observance.

His knowledge of Greek and Hebrew – together with the family connections of Adalard and Wala with Charlemagne) meant that Radbertus soon became a prominent figure in the Carolingian Renaissance, and to this end he was sent along with Adalard to establish monasteries in Saxony.

Charlemagne’s evangelistic program in Saxony had hitherto involved beheading 4500 hostages in order to persuade the wider population to accept forced baptism, and the efforts of Radbertus and Adalard to evangelize by establishing centers of prayer and study represented a welcome counterbalance to Charlemagne’s heavy-handed (not to mention brutal) approach.

Always a humble man (he described himself as the “dishwater” of monastic life) Radbertus developed a reputation both as a preacher and as a public lecturer. As director of the schools of Corbie (he had helped to found a New Corbie in Westphalia), he was also responsible for a flowering of Carolingian scholarship as represented by (among others) Blessed Adalard the Younger, and Saints Anscharius, Hildemar, and Odo.

He also exercised the function of master of novices, and so became instrumental in shaping the moastic and spiritual development of monks in the Corbie schools, where, in spite of all his academic and administrative responsibilities, he was exemplary in his attendance in choir and in his observance of the rule.

The Abbey Church of St Riquier

The Abbey Church of St Riquier

In 844 he became Abbot, but the additional administrative burdens, together with political tensions within the Corbie monasteries, meant that this was an unhappy time for him, and he resigned in 851, retiring to the abbey of Saint-Riquier in order to follow a life of prayer and study before returning to Corbie in order to die (some time between 860 and 865).

Radbertus was the author of a large corpus of theological writings, the most significant of which was the hugely influential De Corpore et Sanguine Domini – a full-length treatise on the Eucharist (the first in Western theology) which drew sharp criticism from (among others) his own abbot, Ratramnus (who succeeded Wala in that role).

Taking his lead from St Ambrose of Milan, Radbertus insisted that the true, historical body of Jesus Christ is literally present in Eucharist, in such a way that, in receiving Christ’s true body and blood, the communicant is united with Christ physically and directly.

Radbertus affirmed that the image of God is located in the whole human person – body and soul (and not just soul) – with the result that salvation is to be seen in terms of union between the whole human person and the whole person of Christ (body, blood, soul and divinity) who makes himself efficaciously, literally and physically present (and communicable) in the Eucharist.

Critics such as Ratramnus felt that Radbertus went too far in emphasizing the sheer fleshliness of Christ’s eucharistic presence, and preferred to focus on the idea of a metaphorical and spiritual presence, but Radbertus’s rejection of the dualistic separation of body and soul (which some Latin theologians had imported from Greek theology) meant that, for him, the opposition of physical presence and spiritual presence was a false distinction.


Charles the Bald

His sound instincts in this regard served to preserve the best traditions of patristic writing on the subject (St Irenaeus, St Ambrose), and to prepare the way for a more complete articulation of the idea of the Real Presence by St Thomas Aquinas and other mediaeval authors.

The rebuttal penned by Ratramnus was written at the instigation of the King, Charles the Bald, who was initially unhappy with aspects of De Corpore et Sanguine Domini, but Charles eventually came round to a more positive assessment, with the result that Radbertus’s approach to understanding the Real Presence came to exercise a growing influence on the development of Latin eucharistic theology.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »