Tuesday 13 January 2015

'What an inestimable benefit have they conferred on posterity...'

13 January is the anniversary of the death of Eadmer of Canterbury, who is probably my favourite medieval historian. The year of his death isn't known, but it most likely took place in or shortly after 1126; at that time he was in his sixties, and had returned after many travels to his first home, the cathedral priory of Christ Church, Canterbury. I've written about Eadmer fairly often, most recently here, and at greater length here. Born on the cusp of the Norman Conquest (c.1060), he grew up to be not only a monk, historian, and hagiographer but also the friend and biographer of St Anselm. He bridges the gap between Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England, rooted in traditional Anglo-Saxon spirituality but fitted by taste and talent to flourish in the new world of twelfth-century continental monasticism. His work, especially the Historia Novorum and his biography of Anselm, is of great historical value and interest. But besides this, he's just very likeable: it's hard not to be fond of eager Eadmer, with his care for detail, his ear for conversation, his loyalty to his home, his tendency to hero-worship. He takes us with him, vividly, into particular moments in his life: we see him as a child in the pre-Conquest monastery at Canterbury, listening to the stories of the older monks; as a young adult, tempted to rebel against authority by adventuring without permission into the archives of the monastery; talking with Anselm, half familiar and half in awe; in exile, dreaming of his guardian angel; excited at meeting bits of Canterbury history while far from home; attending at Anselm's deathbed, and anxiously pretending to himself that his friend and mentor would live; and we see him at the end of his own life, reflecting on why he found his childhood memories so very tenacious. His historical work is in general clear-sighted, accurate, and scholarly, but it's also intensely personal; he wrote about people and subjects which mattered a great deal to him, and somehow in reading him you feel like you are being invited to share in his love.

Here are some extracts from Eadmer's writing which give a fairly representative sense of what he thought the purpose and value of his work might be. First, from what is probably his earliest surviving work, this is a short sketch of English history as seen from the perspective of Canterbury, c. 1090:
Britain, which the English, since they defeated and expelled the Britons, inhabit and call England is surrounded on every side by the ocean and from ancient times has abounded to an amazing extent in riches both native and imported from everywhere. Just as Britain was rich in resources provided by the earth, so too was it in its great abundance of very holy men. The grace of Almighty God, by the exacting merits of these men and out of his own bountifulness, adorned the whole island to such an extent that worship and obedience to him were also increased everywhere; moreover, public as well as private affairs enjoyed much peace and blessed prosperity.

But since nature has conceded to worldly matters nothing that is perfect in every respect, the blind mistress of the mind – excessive desire – had led certain people to the point of not knowing how to be content with their own affairs, and she tore apart the ramparts of peace; and when peace was thus torn apart, she gave birth to acts of pillage and arson, civil discords, wars and the destruction of all good things. Sometimes the effect of these things was lessened by the holy men of that province; sometimes, because the calamities increased to an immeasurable degree, those who were struggling to prevent them were themselves ground down by the immensity of troubling events... [M]any were deprived of their rank, many were exiled from their native land, many also were slain by a most cruel death – and these were crowned most gloriously by God, who is a just Judge. The Church of the English experienced these things among its fathers: in the first stages of the faith as it was taking root, when they came to the church as preachers; it endured these things against its own preachers who had been brought forth within it as that faith developed; it suffered these things no less cruelly when the same faith had been established everywhere, at the hands of their own people and at the hands of foreign enemies. And so, to pass over to other matters, the venerable priests Mellitus and Justus were expelled from England and made for Gaul; the most holy father, Wilfrid, was removed many times from his seat of personal authority; and the most glorious King Edmund and the most blessed bishop Ælfheah were condemned to an unjust death and were crowned most worthily with glorious martyrdom. So also, it is well known that Dunstan, a very distinguished man and a father of most exceeding sanctity, was driven into exile. But let it suffice that I have touched upon these matters briefly. For our ancestors made note of many things worthy of memory about these people, and subsequently left their own writings – distinguished by the light of truth – for posterity.

Vita Sancti Wilfridi Auctore Edmero: The Life of Saint Wilfrid by Edmer, ed. and trans. Bernard J. Muir and Andrew J. Turner (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1998), pp. 9-11.

Like every good historian of Anglo-Saxon England, Eadmer is here partly following Bede, whom he calls "the most noble author of the history of our people"; but this is Bede's history of the English church updated for the post-Conquest world. It's a story of good people in each generation standing up against injustice and oppression, from Mellitus and Justus in the very earliest days of the English church, through Wilfrid in the seventh century, then Edmund of East Anglia and St Ælfheah, martyrs of the Viking Age, down to St Dunstan, who was in Eadmer's time Canterbury's most important saint. In the century after Eadmer wrote these words, two more archbishops of Canterbury were to follow Dunstan into exile: first Anselm, whose exile Eadmer himself would share (although at the time of writing this Eadmer had only met Anselm once); then, some forty years after Eadmer's death, Thomas Becket, who became the most famous of Canterbury's exiles and martyrs. I don't know what Eadmer would have thought of Thomas Becket (I don't really feel he would have been a fan), but he would have recognised Becket as the latest in a long line of succession, archbishops standing up for the rights of their church even if it meant their own suffering and death.

An initial from Eadmer's Life of Anselm (BL Harley 315, f.21v)

Some fifteen years after writing the above, Eadmer wrote a Life of Dunstan - perhaps while he was in exile with Anselm - which closes with a moving passage reflecting on the state of England in the first decade of the twelfth century.
it is clear enough from the chronicles and from our own tribulations without my saying anything what misery has enveloped all of England since his death, and by enveloping it has ruined it. [Dunstan died in 988.] Wherefore I do not see why I should write anything about it since those events are so clearly evident without a single word being written that there is no one could not see the real misery there. I do not know what the outcome of these things might be or when it will occur, but I have no doubt at all that everything which he has done, God has done in true judgement of us because we have sinned against him and not obeyed his commandments. Wherefore, since I do not have the physical strength and have no one to advise me, I do not know what might be said or done, except that God, who has ground us down, should be begged with humble heart that he give glory to his own name and deal with us according to the bounty of his mercy and the merits and intercession of our most blessed father, Dunstan, who predicted these things would happen, and that he deliver us according to his wondrous works. O good Lord and loving omnipotent God, whether you do this at some stage because of your bountiful mercy or do not do it on account of your inscrutable justice, may your name be blessed forever, O God of Israel. Amen.

Eadmer of Canterbury, Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, ed. and trans. Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J. Muir (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), p.159.

In such times, what can a historian do? Well, he can record what he sees and hears around him, in the hope that future generations will find his testimony valuable, as Eadmer describes at the beginning of his most famous work:
What an inestimable benefit have they conferred on posterity who with an eye to the good of future generations have committed to writing a record of the events of their own times. This is the conclusion which seems to be borne in upon me when I note how men of the present day under stress of difficulties of one kind or another search laboriously into the doings of their predecessors, anxious to find there a source of comfort and strength and yet, because of the scarcity of written documents which has resulted in the events being all too quickly buried in oblivion, they cannot for all their pains succeed in doing so as they would wish. I cannot doubt that those who have composed such records, provided they have laboured with a good motive, will receive from God a good reward. Accordingly, having this consideration in mind I have determined, while aiming at brevity, to set down in writing the things which I have seen with my own eyes and myself heard. This I do both to comply with the wishes of my friends who strongly urge me to do so and at the same time to render some slight service to the researches of those who come after me if they should chance to find themselves involved in any crisis in which the events which I record can in any respect afford a helpful precedent.

Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England: Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans. Geoffrey Bosanquet (London, 1964), p. 1.

(Eadmer has done much more than 'some slight service' to later historians!)

As well as recording the events of the present, the historian can look to the past, to the saints and great people about whom 'our ancestors made note of many things worthy of memory':
Wherefore, being mindful of what these writers have said in all respects, I trust that I shall say almost nothing which cannot be confirmed by their authority, nothing, to be sure, which may be wholly contrary to what they have said. Certainly, I pray that whoever deigns to read or listen to these things should understand that I have written them in this way, not as if I preferred what I have written to those, as it were, ancient versions, whatever they may be with respect to this matter, but rather that he should think that I wanted both to please my friends, who are asking it of me (as I have said), and to show some indulgence of my love and, at the same time, reverence to this holy man of God [Wilfrid].
Vita Sancti Wilfridi Auctore Edmero, trans. Muir and Turner, pp.11-13.

And he can stand up for the importance of accuracy and telling the truth. This is Eadmer describing why he felt it necessary to rewrite Osbern's Life of Dunstan, to correct a number of minor errors:
When asked by my friends the plain truth in all these matters I was concerned to investigate them with such zeal that it did not trouble me to send letters for this reason everywhere throughout England where I knew that studies in these sorts of things were thriving, and I myself was not able to go, believing it clearly despicable in every way to provide in either spoken or written form things deviating from the strict facts to people wishing to ascertain the truth. Therefore let no one judge me to be motivated by some sort of arrogance or jealousy when I set my hand to writing these things; since my conscience bears witness in the very truth from which it is not permitted for a Christian to deviate, I declare that unless the blindness of the human mind deceives me, in this regard the errors which I described have not had any influence, but the love of truth alone, by which I desired to commend this great father, with all ambiguity set aside both to those living and to those who will follow later...

Therefore if anyone should deign either to read or to listen to these things, I beg that he not read or listen in such a way as to rebuke the simplicity of my good intention. For I declare that these things have been described according to my ability not for those who are anxious to criticise, but for those who know how and are prepared to make allowances for my simple style and that of others like me. And so if anyone is not sympathetic to what I am seeking to do, may he not waste his time with the things I am writing.
Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, trans. Turner and Muir, pp. 45-9.

(I'd gladly put that last disclaimer on everything I write, too...)

The images in this post are all from manuscripts Eadmer himself would have known: BL Harley 315 and 624 are the remains of a multi-volume legendary from Christ Church, Canterbury, which was probably produced during Eadmer's time as precentor of the monastery and under his direct supervision. And this is his own handwriting, in a fragment of a Canterbury manuscript written around the same time as the first extract quoted above (BL Harley 5915, f. 12):

His personal manuscript of his works can also be viewed online.


ambrosechrysostom said...

Just found this blog; know little of the period but find this fascinating and exceedingly clear to a non- expert. Thank you

bloobird said...

Thank you for this fascinating glimpse into the writings of Eadmer, of whom until now I had never heard. I love the immediacy of his style which as you note shines with his enthusiasm and devotion.

andrew said...

Turned to the internet to find out about the new England rugby squad & became de-railed by this wonderful blog. Thank you.