Tuesday 28 May 2013

The Almsgiving of Archbishop Lanfranc

Lanfranc, the first post-Norman-Conquest Archbishop of Canterbury, died on 28 May 1089, after holding that challenging post for nearly twenty years. His achievements were many and various, but they belong more to political and ecclesiastical historians than to literary scholars like me; thus, I won't attempt a summary of his life, but just do the lazy thing and refer you to wikipedia. My interest is in Canterbury history, as ever, and in how one particular Canterbury monk, the historian Eadmer, saw his archbishop. I deal in stories, and this is the story which, for Eadmer, summed up Lanfranc's character:

In his treatment of the brethren of the church of Canterbury, what generosity, what loyalty, what beneficence Father Lanfranc showed may to some extent be gathered from the fact that he could not bear that even any of their parents or brothers should be in want. What may still more surprise you, he made it his practice not to wait to be asked to help, but, tender-hearted as he was, he of his own accord gave now to one and now to another just what would help a needy relative for as long as possible. Yet in so doing he showed always remarkable discernment, weighing up in his own mind the deserts and needs of each. Of all this the following story is an instance.

One of the brethren of the monastery of Canterbury was accustomed to receive from Father Lanfranc thirty shillings every year for the benefit of his mother. On one occasion he was on Lanfranc's instructions given five shillings, part of the thirty, as the money was paid periodically by installments. This money tied up in a cloth he, while talking to his mother, slipped, as he thought, into her hand; but, her mind intent on other things, she did not notice what her son was doing. So the money fell to the ground; and mother and son parted and went their different ways. Afterwards the woman sent a message to her son, anxious to know what had happened to the money which he had promised to bring her. Astonished, he got her to come to him, and hearing what had happened was distressed, not so much at the loss which his mother had suffered but rather from fear that the Archbishop, when this came to his knowledge, would be vexed at his carelessness and be to some extent less kindly disposed towards him. Meanwhile the good Father, coming into the cloister, sat down there as he was accustomed to do. Noticing that the brother was distressed as he returned from talking with his mother, when they were alone, he enquired privately what was the reason for his being so. On being told, with a look of the utmost kindness, as was always his way in dealing with those in trouble, he said, "Is that the cause of your distress, my dearest son? Why, God must purposely have given that money to someone whose need of it was perhaps greater than your mother's. Keep quiet and take care not to say a word about it to anyone. That what has happened may not trouble you in the least, in place of those five shillings I will have seven shillings given to you today for your mother. But, as I have said, see that no one knows of it." Indeed it was his way when giving to give gladly what was to be given and not let anyone tell of the gift or who was the giver.

So much then for his treatment of the monks of the Mother Church of Canterbury. But what poor man ever cried to him and was rejected? Who of all the pilgrims of whatever rank sought his help and did not obtain it? What community of monks or of clergy at any time sent asking for support and did not find the abundance of his generosity exceed their utmost hopes? Of the truth of our words Italy can bear witness and France and Britain, that to this day mourns the death of Lanfranc with sighs of lamentation.
Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England: Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans. Geoffrey Bosanquet (London, 1964), pp.14-15.

'This day' was the second decade of the twelfth century, some thirty years after Lanfranc's death. It has been suggested, and seems quite possible, that the monk in this story is Eadmer himself; his family lived in Canterbury, and the account is detailed enough to suggest personal involvement.  (In writing about it Eadmer would therefore be flouting Lanfranc's direct request, but he did something similar when disobediently writing Anselm's biography; he presumably thought there was a higher good at issue). The archbishop of Canterbury was also abbot to the cathedral's monks, and while some archbishops did not take this fatherly duty very seriously, Lanfranc clearly did. Eadmer's story nicely illustrates why the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which doesn't have a good word for many people in the weary, war-filled 1080s, recorded Lanfranc's death in these terms:
On þisum geare se arwurða muneca feder 7 frouer Landfranc arcebiscop gewat of þissum life, ac we hopiað þæt he ferde to þæt heofanlice rice. (MS. E, 1089)
[In this year the worthy father and comforter of monks, Archbishop Lanfranc, departed this life, but we trust that he went to the heavenly kingdom.]

frouer is a form of frofor, a lovely Old English word which means 'comfort, support, consolation'; naturally it is often applied to God and not uncommonly collocates with the alliterating 'father', as in the last line of The Wanderer, which urges us to seek frofre to fæder on heofonum, þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð, 'comfort from the Father in heaven, where for us all stability stands'. The foreign archbishop, by his fatherly love for monks, has merited this assimilation into the language of Old English piety.

Lanfranc in a 1959 window in St Anselm's Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral

And his monks were much in need of fatherly care. When the last Anglo-Saxon archbishop, Stigand, was deposed in 1070 and Lanfranc was summoned from Normandy to take his place, he found the monastic community at Canterbury in a parlous state: as if the Norman Conquest was not enough to deal with, a catastrophic fire in 1067 (as predicted by St Dunstan's ghost) had gutted the church and destroyed many of the monastic buildings, leaving nothing standing but the refectory and the monks' dormitory. Conquered, humiliated and in ruins, Canterbury was at probably the lowest point in its history since the arrival of St Augustine. Lanfranc set about rebuilding, Eadmer tells us:

[Lanfranc], when he first came to Canterbury, was appalled to find the church of the Saviour, which he had undertaken to rule, reduced by fire and destruction almost to nothing. But, though the extent of the calamity drove him to despair, he soon recovered himself and with firm determination, postponing all thought of providing for his own convenience, he set urgently to work and completed the building of dwellings needed for the use of the monks... The church, almost the whole of which he in seven years built up from the foundations, he richly adorned with copes, with chasubles, with gold-embroidered dalmatics and tunicles, with stoles and with many other precious ormaments.
Historia Novorum, trans. Bosanquet, pp.13-14.

Rebuilding a church is one thing, but the monastic community had suffered other wounds it was not so easy for Lanfranc to heal. We have good evidence for the state of the community in this period, partly because Lanfranc and his scholarly friends were addicted to letter-writing and to composing biographies of each other (academics never change!), and partly because Lanfranc's Canterbury produced two of post-Conquest England's most observant eyewitnesses: Eadmer and his slightly older contemporary Osbern, who both saw and wrote about life at Canterbury in the period immediately before and after Lanfranc's arrival. Here we have an unusually well-documented microcosm of England in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest - a story of trauma, conflict and loss, but also of renewal and productive opportunities for cross-cultural interaction.

At the time of Lanfranc's consecration Eadmer was a boy of perhaps ten years old, a child oblate being educated in the cathedral school; Osbern was probably in his late teens. They remembered the best of pre-Conquest Canterbury - Osbern recalls how as a child he witnessed miracles at St Dunstan's tomb, Eadmer describes in loving detail the many shrines and altars which dignified the cathedral church - and had learned from their elders of the worst: the siege of Canterbury by the Vikings in 1011, the cathedral's troubles under Edward the Confessor. Lanfranc's pontificate was a formative time for both these young Englishmen. Eadmer wrote about it, much later in life, as part of his Historia Novorum, which I've been quoting in this post; Osbern wrote about it shortly after Lanfranc's death in his Miracles of St Dunstan (which Eadmer later rewrote). It's Osbern's account which most clearly gives us a vivid picture of Lanfranc's Canterbury as a community in shock, nervous and on edge, divided by language and cultural allegiance. He tells an extraordinary story about an English monk named Æthelweard who, while serving at a mass presided over by Lanfranc, was possessed by a devil and seized by a bout of violent insanity. Æthelweard clung to the archbishop in terror, in full view of the horrified monks. When he recovered his senses it seemed at first as if the trouble had passed, but the next night at Compline his madness returned, and he disrupted the service and assaulted the prior (an appointee of Lanfranc). He was restrained, but in the dead of night his demonic screams burst out again and he began to attack his brothers with accusations of the secret sins they were concealing, which had been diabolically revealed to him. We're told the devil spoke in French, a language Æthelweard did not know. Lanfranc and the prior were unable to find a cure, but at last an English monk, a devotee of St Dunstan, prayed to the Anglo-Saxon archbishop for help, and Æthelweard was healed.

These disturbing events, and the terror of the monks at witnessing them, are evocatively described: we see Lanfranc trying to preserve calm as tensions bubbling beneath the surface erupt, secret sins are brought to the light of day, monastic silence is disturbed by uncontrollable shrieks of terror. Eadmer later called this episode a 'cruel and savage torment' to witness - strong words for this sober historian. He would have been too young to do much but observe what was happening, but Osbern seems to have been right in the middle of it: in this fevered atmosphere, we know that he committed some infraction of discipline against the prior - one of poor Æthelweard's targets, surely not a coincidence - and was punished by being sent away from the monastery where he had spent his whole life, to study with Anselm at Bec. Anselm was no harsh disciplinarian, and this was probably an exercise of Lanfranc's fatherly care for a troublesome but talented young monk; but it suggests just how difficult things at Canterbury were. Æthelweard's madness and Osbern's exile took place probably in 1075-6, years of revolt within England and threatened invasion from Denmark, in which Lanfranc also had to deal with the rebel Earl Waltheof (who sought Lanfranc's help in reconciling with the king, but was executed in 1076). These were miserable years.

In time Osbern returned to Canterbury and wrote valuable accounts of his beloved Anglo-Saxon saints, Ælfheah and Dunstan (the former commissioned by Lanfranc, after some persuasion by Anselm). Osbern plainly wanted Anglo-Saxon Canterbury to have something to show for itself - saints to be proud of - and so he presented Dunstan in particular as the kind of saint of whom Lanfranc and Anselm would most approve: a reformer of monastic life, who stood up to kings and defended his monks from external threat. (It was Dunstan's intervention, remember, which Osbern says cured Æthelweard's madness.) But Osbern is never effusive about Lanfranc - unlike Eadmer, who has almost nothing but praise for him. This is how Eadmer later assessed Lanfranc's influence:

His teaching and his perseverance resulted in a great increase of religion throughout the whole country and everywhere new monastery buildings were erected, as can be seen today. He was, too, himself the first to set an example to the builders of such houses by building the Church of Christ at Canterbury with all the outbuildings which are within the wall of its close and the wall itself. With what thoughtfulness too, what fatherly care, he aroused the monks living in the precincts of that Church from the life of the world in which he found them all too much engrossed, how he trained them in every way of holy living and, when their numbers increased, with what kindness he watched over them so long as he lived, all this who can ever fully tell? This only will I say here: that, because he wished them to be able to devote themselves continually to the service of God free of want or anxiety, he so brought his tact and perseverance to bear upon the King that the King restored to the Church of Canterbury almost all the lands which, rightfully hers, the Normans had seized when they first possessed themselves of the country and even some others which from one mischance or another had been lost before they came. Of these and countless other good works on which he laboured unceasingly to his life's end, there is indeed no need for me to write, because his works are so evident that they speak for themselves more clearly than any written record... None the less, so sweet is his memory that we have thought it pleasing to enlarge a little on what so far we have but mentioned.
Historia Novorum, trans. Bosanquet, pp.12-34.

Recovery of lands and restoration of the church were two of Lanfranc's gifts to Canterbury; another was his almsgiving, which was considerable. It was the theme of his episcopate, since at his consecration the Biblical verse selected for him (at random, as was customary) was Luke 11:41: 'Be generous to the poor, and all things will be clean for you'. His DNB article notes:

he was believed to have disbursed in alms £500 a year. He provided for the poor on all his manors, but his three principal charitable foundations were at Canterbury itself. In his latter years, when his main expenditure upon Christ Church was completed, he founded outside the north gate of the city the church of St Gregory, the dedication of which reflected his devotion to the pope who had sent St Augustine of Canterbury to Britain. He established there a community of clerks whom he intended to make good the pastoral ministrations in Canterbury, especially burials, which had been curtailed by reason of the expansion of the cathedral monastery, and which were to be provided for the poor without payment. Lanfranc brought to St Gregory's a rich endowment of relics of early archbishops and other saints of the Anglo-Saxon, and especially Kentish, past. Near to it, he built the hospital of St John the Baptist to relieve the sick and aged, and at Harbledown, a short distance to the west of the city, he built a leper hospital of St Nicholas. From his estates he endowed these twin hospitals with £140 yearly.

Harbledown is a little village on the pilgrims' road to Canterbury, later to be memorialised as the last place reached by Chaucer's pilgrims ('a litel toun/Whiche that ycleped is Bobbe-up-and-doun,/Under the Blee, in Caunterbury weye...'). Lanfranc's leper hospital became almshouses, which you can read about here. The church looks like this:

The view from the village:

'His works are so evident that they speak for themselves more clearly than any written record', says Eadmer. Well, perhaps - but I'm glad we have both.


Patrick Sheridan said...

I think that a lot of the vilification about Archbishop Stigand was Norman propaganda aimed at disparaging the English Church. Lanfranc was, after all, at the head of a Papally-approved reform of the English Church in order to bring it into line with Roman Catholicism.

Before the Conquest England was Orthodox. Afterwards she was thoroughly Roman Catholic.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Indeed, poor Stigand didn't deserve half the things which were later said about him! Unfortunately, Norman contempt for (or bafflement at) the practices of the Anglo-Saxon church had a lasting influence which is still evident in the church today; it's a great shame.

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed - Archibishop Stigand has had fairly rotten time!

However, I think St. Augustine, who evangelised England after being sent by Pope Gregory from Rome, may have some qualms about England being called Orthodox before the Norman Conquest. He and the archbishops of Canterbury did, after all, wear the pallium.

Since the Great Schism only happened in 1054 and the English Reformation in the 16th century, I'm not sure the labels 'Orthodox' and 'Roman Catholic' are entirely appropriate for this period of history anyway.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Anonymous, I agree.