Sunday, 19 April 2015

Anselm and Alphege

Alphege in a 12th-century Canterbury manuscript (BL Cotton MS Nero C VII, f.46v)

Today is the feast of St Alphege (Ælfheah), one of the chief saints of Anglo-Saxon Canterbury. Taken prisoner during the Viking siege of Canterbury in 1011, he was held hostage for seven months before being killed by his captors at Greenwich, apparently because he would not (or could not) pay a ransom for his freedom. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says the army, drunk on 'wine from the south', took the archbishop to their husting and pelted him with bones and ox-heads, until one of them killed him with an axe-blow to the head. He was buried at St Paul's in London, but his body was returned to Canterbury in 1023, with royal ceremony provided by Cnut and Archbishop Æthelnoth.

I've posted about St Alphege several times before, at greatest length here, so today I thought I'd just post the famous discussion which Lanfranc and Anselm had about him in the 1070s, as recorded in Eadmer's Vita Anselmi. It makes a nice contrast to the conversation between Lanfranc and Anselm which featured in my last post (that wasn't intentional, actually). Twenty years on, Lanfranc was by now Archbishop of Canterbury, and Anselm was abbot of Bec; the young Anselm of that story - uncertain about his future, puffed up with youthful pride, seeking Lanfranc's counsel - was now someone Lanfranc himself would ask for advice.

This is from Eadmer's Vita Sancti Anselmi, ed. and trans. R. W. Southern (Oxford, 1972), pp. 50-2.

The things which were said and done in those days between the reverend prelate Lanfranc and Abbot Anselm will require no explanation to those who knew the lives and habits of both; but those who did not know them may form some idea from the fact that - in my opinion and that of many others - there was nobody at that time who excelled Lanfranc in authority and breadth of learning, or Anselm in holiness and the knowledge of God. Moreover Lanfranc, as an Englishman, was still somewhat green, and some of the customs which he found in England had not yet found acceptance with him. So he changed many of them, often with good reason, but sometimes simply by the imposition of his own authority.

While, therefore, he was giving his attention to these changes, he had Anselm with him, a friend and brother with whom he was of one mind; and talking with him informally one day, he said, 'These Englishmen among whom we are living have set up for themselves certain saints whom they revere. But sometimes when I turn over in my mind their own accounts of who they were, I cannot help having doubts about the quality of their sanctity. Now one of them lies here in the holy church over which by God's will I now preside. He was called Elphege, a good man certainly, and in his day archbishop of this place. This man they not only number among the saints, but even among the martyrs, although they do not deny that he was killed, not for professing the name of Christ, but because he refused to buy himself off with money. For - to use the words of the English themselves - when his foes, the pagan enemies of God, had captured him, out of respect for his dignity they gave him the possibility of buying himself off, and demanded in return an immense sum of money from him. But since he could only have obtained this by despoiling his own men and possibly leave them to a wretched state of beggary, he preferred to lose his life rather than to keep it on such conditions. Now, my brother, I should like to hear what you think about this.' Thus, talking as a recent citizen of England, he briefly outlined the case and submitted it to Anselm.
'Talking as a recent citizen of England...' It's worth noting at this point that this is not in any way a transcript of their conversation, and it was written more than thirty years after the event, when both Lanfranc and Anselm were dead. So all this is Eadmer's reconstruction of the discussion, his dramatisation almost, and his own framing of the issues. (When this conversation took place in the late 1070s, Eadmer was still a teenager, and probably too junior to be personally witnessing the archbishop's conversations with his guests!) What we have is not so much Lanfranc and Anselm's views as Eadmer's view of their views, which is, if not quite as straight a line to the facts as some modern historians would like, still very much worth having - perhaps more so, since Eadmer had a longer and deeper involvement in Alphege's story then either Lanfranc or Anselm. In the 1070s Lanfranc 'as an Englishman was still somewhat green', says tactful Eadmer (Southern's translation of quasi rudis Anglus); and as if feeling we need to hear from a more qualified Englishman at this point, Eadmer interjects on his own behalf:

If, however, we look on the matter historically, we see that this was not the only cause of Saint Elphege's death, but that there was another and more fundamental one. It was not only because he refused to buy himself off with money, but also because like a Christian freeman he stood out against his pagan persecutors, and tried to convert them from their infidelity, when they were burning the city of Canterbury and the church of Christ which stands there, and when they were putting the innocent citizens to a horrible death - it was for this that they seized him and put him to death with cruel torture.

This is a valiant effort to put Alphege's death back into its historical context, as part of the two-decade catalogue of miseries which England had suffered in the years before the archbishop was murdered. The disasters of Æthelred's reign culminated in the siege and burning of Canterbury, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Osbern's account of Alphege's death both talk about the events of 1011-12 as twin disasters, the destruction of the city and the death of the archbishop together comprising a turning-point in English history. Osbern says 'Each singly would have been calamity enough to the kingdom – either the harm done to the priest or the deadly destruction of the city – so that deprived of either glory England would never from that time on regain her former status'. In this view of things Alphege's death was less about the payment of ransom than a symbolic blow at England's Christian identity, in the city (as the Chronicle says, speaking for 'us' the English) þanon com ærest Cristendom 7 blis for Gode 7 for worulde, 'from where there first came to us Christianity and joy before God and before the world'. The lurid nature of Alphege's death makes it easy (for many modern readers, and maybe for Lanfranc too) to see it as simply the product of a barbaric age, in which the English were not much better than their Danish attackers. In Lanfranc's eyes, the pre-Conquest church of Canterbury (which he had first encountered in ruins) probably did not seem all that much to boast of. 'But if we look on the matter historically', through the eyes of a historically-aware English monk, Canterbury and its church were the very symbol of English Christianity, their destruction a mark of decline - the end of all the spiritual, artistic, intellectual, and literary richness which characterised the Anglo-Saxon church in its prime. It was for that church and its people that Alphege died.


Looking at things historialiter was Eadmer's speciality, but an argument from English history was never really going to convince; so Eadmer gives Anselm's more theoretical reply:

But Anselm, replying simply to the question put to him, as one prudent man to another, spoke as follows:

'It is clear that a man, who has no hesitation in dying rather than sin against God even in a small matter, would very much rather die than anger God by committing some grave sin. And certainly it appears to be a graver sin to deny Christ than for any lord on earth to injure his men to some extent by taking away their money. But it was the lesser of these evils which Elphege refused to commit. Much less therefore would he have denied Christ, if furious men had laid hands on him, threatening him with death unless he did so. From this we can understand the wonderful hold which justice had in his breast, since he preferred to give his life rather than to throw aside charity and become a cause of scandal to his neighbors. How far from him then is that "woe" which the Lord threatened "to him by whom scandal comes". And, in my view, it is not unfitting that one who is truthfully pronounced to have suffered death voluntarily for so great a love of justice should be numbered among the martyrs. For John the Baptist also, whom the whole church of God believes to be the chief of martyrs and venerates as such, was killed, not because he refused to deny Christ, but because he refused to dissemble the truth. Indeed, what difference is there between dying for justice and dying for truth? Moreover, there is the witness of Holy Scripture, as you, Father, very well know, that Christ is both truth and justice; so he who dies for truth and justice dies for Christ. But he who dies for Christ is, as the Church holds, a martyr. Now Saint Elphege has truly suffered for justice as Saint John did for truth. So why should anyone have more doubt about the true and holy martyrdom of the one than of the other, since a similar cause led both of them to suffer death? These arguments, reverend father, so far as I can see, are what reason itself teaches me to be sound. But it is for your judgment to correct and restrain me if you feel differently, and to teach and declare to the church of God a better way of looking on this important matter.'

To this Lanfranc replied, 'I acknowledge - I approve and deeply respect the subtlety and insight of your mind and now that I have been instructed by your solid argument, I trust that I shall, by God's grace, henceforth worship and venerate Saint Elphege with all my heart, as a truly great and glorious martyr of Christ.'

And this he afterwards faithfully carried out, and even ordered a careful history of his life and passion to be written. This history was nobly written at his command by Osbern, a monk of Canterbury, of happy memory, who wrote it not only in plain prose for reading, but also put it to music for singing; and Lanfranc himself for love of the martyr gave it the seal of his eminent approval, authorized it, ordered it to be read and sung in the Church of God, and in this respect added no small glory to the martyr's name.
I wrote about Osbern's work on Alphege at length here; it is indeed 'nobly written'! So Alphege remained (with St Dunstan) one of Canterbury's most venerated saints, the two of them being joined by Thomas Becket at the end of the twelfth century. Though Becket's saintly fame has since greatly overshadowed his predecessor's, contemporaries were more likely to link than to contrast the two; Becket compared himself explicitly to Alphege in a sermon he preached a few days before his death, and I posted here about an Anglo-Saxon prayer to Alphege which was later repurposed for the new martyr. It's sometimes been pointed out that Chaucer's pilgrims, travelling towards Canterbury, as we are specifically told, around April 18, would have arrived at the city (had they ever got there) on or just after the feast of St Alphege; so they would have had more than one 'hooly blisful martir' to pray to, once they arrived at the cathedral.

The empty space beside the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral, where Alphege's tomb once stood

1 comment:

Rolo said...

Long-time admirer of Anselm (since reading Southern as an undergraduate) and the logic and mercy of his reply to Lanfranc reaches down to me across the years..