Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Iron Age (AD 900-1000)

by Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1910)

Image of Sr. Augusta Theodosia Drane.
Sr. Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1823-1894)

Baronius, when about to enter on the history of the tenth century, thinks it necessary to prepare his readers for what is coming by a sentence which, in spite of the wildness of its metaphors, has obtained an odd kind of immortality. “We are now entering on a period,” he says, “which for its sterility of every excellence may be denominated iron; for its luxuriant growth of vice, leaden; and for its dearth of writers, dark.” Why iron should be chosen as most fit to typify the sterility of virtue, and lead to figure forth the luxuriance of vice, is not perhaps at first sight obvious; but these words, which are certainly not remarkable for the appropriateness of their imagery, have formed the text for many commentators; from one of whom, as being a professedly Catholic writer, I select a passage which claims to explain at least one of the phenomena of this period–the darkness, namely, that succeeded the establishment of the Carlovingian schools.

“The want of success in the excellent establishments of Charlemagne,” observes Mr. Berington, in his “Literary History of the Middle Ages,” “may be traced to various causes:–to the inaptitude of the teachers, who, though endowed with the natural powers of intellect, knew not how to excite attention or interest curiosity; to the subjects called sciences, or the seven liberal arts, which were so taught as to disgust by their barbarous elements, and of which the emaciated and haggard skeleton was alike unfit for ornament or use; to the absence of the first rudiments of education, as of reading and writing, in the higher orders of society, and their habitual devotion to martial exercises; to the oblivion in which the classical productions of former ages were held; to a want of capacity in the bishops and clergy and monks, upon whom the weighty charge of education had devolved; to a selfish reflection in the same order of men that, in proportion to the decline of learning and the spread of ignorance, their churches and monasteries had prospered, whilst the revival of letters was likely to direct the copious streams of benevolence into a channel less favourable to the interests of the clergy and monks; to a marked aversion in the Bishop of Rome to any scheme by which the minds of churchmen or others might be turned to the study of antiquity, and of those documents which would disclose on what futile reasons and sandy foundations the exclusive prerogatives of his see were established; and to the genius of the Christian system itself, which, when it expelled the Pagan Deities from their seats, too successfully fixed a reproach on many things connected with them, and thus contributed to banish from the schools, and consign to oblivion those works on the study and prevalence of which will ever depend the progress of the arts, of the sciences, and of literary taste.”

The above passage has been somewhat of the longest, and I shall therefore do no more than allude to the terms in which another historian of the Middle Ages, of yet greater repute, speaks of “the inconceivable ignorance which overspread the face of the Church, broken only by a few glimmering lights which owe almost all their distinction to the surrounding darkness;” to his unqualified and unsupported declaration, that “the cathedral and monastic schools were exclusively designed for religious purposes, and afforded no opportunities to the laity;” that “for centuries it was rare for a layman, of whatever rank, to know how to sign his name;” that “with the monks a knowledge of church-music passed for literature;” and that as to the religion which prevailed during the same period, “it is an extremely complex question whether it were not more injurious to public morals and the welfare of society than the entire absence of all religious notions.”

“One of the later Greek schools,” says Bacon, “is at a standstill to think what should be in it that men should so love lies;” yet he presently adds, “the mixture thereof doth ever give pleasure.” Charity, then, obliges us to believe that the fictitious element which appears in these passages has only been added to stimulate the pleasure of the reader. In perusing them, and scores of others which might easily be accumulated from writers both great and petty, we are, of course, left with the impression on our minds, that not only was the ignorance most dense, gross, and universal, but that it found its cause in the low cunning of the clergy, and especially of the monks, who had just wit enough to keep the rest of the world in darkness. And as the first writer has expressly told us that their object in doing this was to maintain that flourishing state of monastic prosperity which, we are assured, existed in proportion to the spread of ignorance, we are logically bound to suppose that the countries and the times wherein darkness thus prevailed were the Elysium and the golden age of monkhood. No one certainly would be led to suppose that the iron, leaden, and pitch-dark state of society in the tenth century, could be accounted for by any particular circumstances in the history of the times, which, far from favouring the monastic institute, all but destroyed it, and did totally eradicate it in the districts most subject to their influence. No,–our historians do not so much as allude to such insignificant episodes in history as the irruptions of three new races of barbarians, but complacently refer us to the superstition and selfishness of the Bishop of Rome and his clergy, which they regard, as a certain astronomer regarded the spots in the sun, as being “large enough to account for anything.”

The prospect before us looks but dreary; and in candour it must be confessed that a nearer acquaintance with this unhappy period will not set it in a more advantageous light. It was indeed a time as dark and terrible as the imagination can well depict, though whether the human mind were altogether in a state of ruin, and whether the darkness were exclusively the work of the monks, and whether monasteries grew and prospered as ignorance increased, or whether some other possible causes may not be assigned for the state of things so universally deplored, are questions which cannot be resolved without a glance at the current history of the times.

Enough has been said in a former chapter of the restoration of letters which took place under Charlemagne. If any work ever had fair promise of success, it was surely this, and yet in a certain sense it was a failure. The century that followed his decease was precisely the iron century which all historians have agreed to vilify, and it is undoubtedly true that in some respects the state of Europe under the Carlovingian monarchs was even worse than under their Merovingian predecessors. The dream of a restoration of the Roman Empire, which had been realised only so long as the European sceptre was grasped in the mighty hand of Charlemagne, fell to pieces after his death like a child’s house of cards. The fatal step taken by Louis the Debonnaire, of dividing his dominions among his sons during his lifetime, plunged the whole empire into a civil war, which resulted in his own deposition, and which did not cease on his death. The various subdivisions into which the empire then split were indeed reunited under Charles the Fat, but his cowardice and incapacity having rendered him contemptible to those great feudal vassals who were gradually assuming all the real power in the realm, he also was deposed, and the imperial dignity ceased to find a representative till it was revived under Otho the Great. For a century after the death of Charles, France was nominally governed by princes of the Carlovingian race, appointed or removed at the will of the dukes of France. On the death of Duke Hugh the Great, his son, Hugh Capet, contented himself for a time with the system adopted by his predecessors, but in 987 he assumed the royal title, the powers of which he had long exercised, and became the founder of the Capetian dynasty. During the progress of these events, the firmly-knit and centralised government of Charlemagne totally disappeared; the territories of his empire were divided first into three, then into seven kingdoms; and were finally dismembered into more than fifty feudal sovereignties. Florus, the deacon of Lyons, mentioned in a former chapter, in a poem entitled Querela de divisione Imperii, describes the disorders consequent on these changes with an eloquent pen. “A beautiful empire,” he says, “once flourished under a glorious crown. Then there was one prince and one people, and every town had judges and laws. The word of salvation was preached to nobles and peasants, and youth everywhere studied the Sacred Scriptures and the liberal arts…. Now, instead of a king, we see everywhere a kinglet, instead of an empire, its fragments. The bishops can no longer hold their synods, there are no assemblies, no laws; and if an embassy arrive, there is no court to receive it.”

By the end of the tenth century feudalism had fairly established itself on the ruins of the empire. The new system brought in its train many evils and some social benefits, but whilst in process of development its immediate effect was to throw the whole governing power into the hands of a number of petty lords, who were responsible to no superior for their exercise of it. In spite, however, of the turbulence of the times, we shall find, on comparing them with the Merovingian period, that there was a decided advance in point of civilisation, which shows that the labours of Charlemagne and his bishops had not been entirely thrown away. The century which preceded the coronation of Hugh Capet, with all its intrigues and bloody contests, does not present us with a single political murder; whereas the Merovingian annals consist of little else than a catalogue of such crimes. Nay, after the great battle of Fontenay, fought in 841, in which it is said that a hundred thousand of the noblest warriors of France were slain, and which for ever established the preponderance in that country of the Romanesque over the Tudesque race and dialect, the victorious combatants submitted to the severe penance imposed on them by the bishops of the realm; and the same singular spectacle was exhibited in 923, when, after the battle of Soissons, the bishops assembled in council imposed very severe penances on all concerned, thus protesting in the name of humanity and religion against these miserable civil broils.

In the midst of such contests, however, the scholastic system established by Charlemagne was entirely deprived of that support which it had received from him and his immediate successors. The monastic and cathedral schools were left to flourish or decay according as the ruling abbot or bishop chanced to foster or neglect them. The withdrawal of imperial patronage was not probably in every respect a misfortune, but in cases where schools had only been kept up by state support they would naturally not long survive the break up of the government. This, however, though one, was not the main cause of the decline of letters in the tenth century. Schools disappeared for the simple reason that the churches and monasteries to which they were attached had disappeared also. It is inconceivable how any author who has read the most meagre abridgments of European history can be found to advance the monstrous assertion that monasticism flourished after the death of Charlemagne in proportion as ignorance increased. The tenth century, this very century of lead and iron ignorance, witnessed the all but total extinction of the monastic institute in France; and in Germany, where it survived and flourished, schools and letters continued to flourish likewise. If any spots are discoverable west of the Rhine where sparks of learning were still kept alive, we shall find them in those remote retreats where the monks took shelter from the storm which was elsewhere laying waste all the fairest sanctuaries of the land. In short, the iron age was an age of darkness because it witnessed a return of those barbaric incursions which had already swept away the Roman civilisation, and which were now attacking the Christian civilisation which had sprung up in its place. The calamities that were already hanging over Europe before the death of Charlemagne had not been unforeseen by his eagle glance. So early as 810 the Norman keels had appeared off the shores of Friesland, and the powerful marine force which then guarded the coasts of the empire proved but a vain protection. He himself beheld them in the offing from the windows of his palace in one of the Narbonnese cities, and sorrowfully predicted the evils they would bring on his people after his death. And his words were only too soon fulfilled. In the reign of Louis the Debonnaire the Normans sailed up the Loire and laid siege to Tours, reducing the whole country as far as the Cher to a desert. In the following reign they showed themselves yet bolder. Entering the Seine they proceeded up that river to Paris, which they sacked, after massacring all the inhabitants who had not saved themselves by flight. Treves, Cologne, Rouen, Nantes, Orleans, and Amiens, shared a similar fate. At Aix-la-Chapelle they turned the chapel of Charlemagne into a stable: Angers was twice given to the flames; and in 885 took place that terrible siege of Paris, by an army of thirty thousand Normans, which has been rendered famous by the historic poem on the subject written by the monk Abbo, and which lasted for thirteen months. In the course of this siege the Normans filled up the ditch which separated them from the walls by the bodies of their slaughtered prisoners.

The mode of warfare adopted by the invaders was entirely novel. Their fleets entered the estuaries of rivers and ascended them almost to their source, predatory bands landing on either bank to ravage the surrounding country. From the great rivers they proceeded up the lesser streams, which led them into the heart of fertile districts. They would seize on some island suited for their purpose, where they fortified themselves and spent the winter. In this way whole provinces, even those most remote from the sea-coast, were devastated, and that so entirely that, says one writer, “not a dog was left to bark in them.” The inhabitants deserted their villages and fields at the first alarm, and fled to the woods; towns were sacked and given to the flames, and the churches and monasteries which were supposed to contain the greatest treasures were the first objects of attack. “What else is now to be seen,” says the author of the “Romaunt of the Rose,” “but churches burnt and people slain? The Normans do as they please, and from Blois to Senlis there is not an acre of wheat left standing.” Another monkish historian thus describes what was passing under his own eyes: “Not a city, not a town, not a village but has in its turn felt the barbarity of the heathen men. They overrun the whole country, and their cabins form great villages where they keep their miserable captives in chains.” The desolate tracts of country thus laid waste became the resort of packs of wolves, which prowled about unmolested; it seemed, says one historian, as if France were abandoned to the wild animals.

The Carlovingian princes offered but a feeble resistance to these terrible invasions. The Normans themselves were surprised at the supineness of their victims. “The country is good,” said Ragnar Lodbrog to the Danish monarch, after returning from the sack of Paris, “but the people are tremblers. The dead there have more courage than the living, for the only resistance I met with was from an old man named Germanus, who had been dead many years, and whose house I entered.” He spoke of the Church of St. Germain d’Auxerre, where his sacrilegious marauders had been miraculously put to flight. In the reign of Charles the Bald the only opposition to the invaders was offered by Robert the Strong, who in reward of his exertions received the dukedom of France, by which name was then designated the country lying between the Seine and the Loire. As to the king himself he was content to buy off the sea-king Hasting by the payment of forty thousand livres of silver, promising either to give up as prisoners, or to ransom at a fixed sum, every Frenchman who had escaped from the Normans’ hands, and to pay a composition for every Norman who should be slain; a stipulation which probably exceeds in infamy any other ever agreed upon by a Christian prince. A few years later the cowardice exhibited by Charles the Fat, at the second siege of Paris, moved his indignant subjects to deprive him of the crown; an heroic defence was indeed offered by Eudes, son of Robert the Strong, but his chief supporters were three priests, Gauzlin, Bishop of Paris, his nephew Ebbo, and Anchesius, abbot of St. Germain-des-Pres. In 912, the devastations committed by Rollo and his followers obliged Charles the Simple to make peace with them, on terms which made over to the Norman chieftain the feudal sovereignty of Neustria. The wild sea-king received baptism, and became the first duke of Normandy but though a stop was thus put to the attacks on Paris and the northern coast, the Northmen continued their ravages in the provinces south of the Loire.

Terrible as they were, however, these barbarians were only one out of the many savage swarms let loose on Europe at this unhappy time. In 836, the Saracens, who were the masters of the Mediterranean, attacked the coasts of Provence. Marseilles, the only city of Septimania where Roman letters still partially lingered, was surprised and pillaged, and the monks and clergy carried into slavery. The Saracens established themselves at Frassinet, a port between Toulon and Frejus, and held possession of it for more than a century. From these head-quarters they were able at their pleasure to ascend the Rhone as far as Arles, and to overrun all the south of France. About the same time they sailed up the Tiber, and advancing as far as Rome, burnt a great part of that city. “How many and great are the things we are suffering from the Saracens!” wrote Pope John VIII. to Charles the Bald; “why should I attempt to describe them with the tongue, when all the leaves of the forest, were they turned into pens, would not suffice. Behold cities, walled towns, and villages bereft of inhabitants! Wild beasts usurp the sanctuaries once filled with the chair of doctrine. Instead of breaking the bread of life to their flocks there, bishops have to buy their own. Rome herself is left desolate. Last year we sowed, but could not reap our harvests by reason of the Saracens; this year we can hope for none, for in seed-time we could not till the ground.” Every part of the Italian peninsula was wasted by these barbarians, who established themselves at Benevento, and were not driven thence till the end of the century. They even had the audacity to seize and hold possession of fortified posts in Provence, Dauphiny, Savoy, and Piedmont, which gave them the command of the Alpine passes, so that they could stop and levy tribute on all the pilgrims travelling from the north to Rome.

But this was not all. The last and worst of the plagues poured out on Christendom yet remains to be noticed. Towards the close of the ninth century, the Magyars or Huns, driven westward by the advance of other Asiatic tribes, crossed the Carpathian mountains, and descended into the plains of Dacia. Thence they spread like a torrent over Germany, which they ravaged as far as the Black Forest. Crossing the Alps, they laid waste the plain of Lombardy, and thence poured into Aquitaine, which they overran as far as the Pyrenees. Some bands proceeded as far as the southern extremity of Italy, others found their way into Greece, and advanced to the walls of Constantinople. In 926, they appeared on the frontiers of Lorraine, and laid the German princes under tribute. Their wild habits and ferocious appearance inspired such universal terror, that it was commonly believed that the sun turned blood red at their approach. “They live not as men, but as savage beasts,” says one chronicler, “eating raw flesh and drinking blood. It is even reported that they devour the hearts of their prisoners, and they are never known to be moved to pity.” Filled with the bitterest hatred of the Christian name, their track was marked by the smoking ruins of churches and monasteries, and the panic which they spread has survived even to our own time in the popular tales of the savage Ogres, a corruption of the name Ungren, by which they were known in the Tudesque dialect. The incursions of the Hungarians lasted, at intervals, for the space of eighty years, nor did they entirely cease until the death of their great chief Tatsong, in 972.

Events such as these will, probably, be thought sufficient to account for any amount of social disorder and literary decay. As to the supposed prosperity enjoyed by the monasteries in this darkest of all the dark ages, it might be illustrated by a catalogue of their sacked and smoking ruins. Fontanelles, with its noble library, St. Ouen and Jumièges, were all burnt by the Norman sea-king Hasting in 851. Marmoutier was pillaged two years later, one hundred and sixteen of the monks being slain. St. Martin’s of Tours was burnt in 854, and most of the seats of learning founded in the former century–such as the abbeys of Corby, Liege, Stavelo, Prom, and Malmedy–were destroyed about the same time. By the beginning of the tenth century hardly one of the great French abbeys was left standing; and the monks being slaughtered or dispersed, their houses and lands were in many cases seized by laymen, who lived there with their wives, children, and hunting-dogs, a scandal complained of in 909 by the fathers of the council of Troli. Italy presented much the same spectacle. The abbey of Nomantula was plundered no less than seven times over–“first by Christians in the civil wars; next by the Vandals; a third time by the Saracens in 831; a fourth time by the Normans, which was _desolatio desolationum_; the sixth, and seventh time by the Huns,” who in 899 slaughtered all the monks, together with their abbot Gregory. A page might be filled with the names of French bishops massacred with their clergy. It could hardly be expected that schools and letters would greatly flourish at a time when the whole country was lit up by the flames which were destroying the only sanctuaries of learning; and when the libraries which had cost years of persevering toil in their collection were destroyed in one hour of ruthless barbarism. Mezeray, in his history of France, particularly notices the destruction of books among the calamities of the period. “Books,” he says, “were becoming scarce at this time, the wars had almost destroyed them all by burning, tearing, and other such like barbarities; and as there were none but monks who transcribed the copies, and as monasteries were now for the most part deserted, the number of learned men was but small.” Odericus Vitalis in like manner speaks of the irreparable loss occasioned by the destruction of those manuscripts, which furnished the only materials for compiling the history of the times, all of which had perished with the monastic libraries in which they were preserved. Hallam, however, while noticing the destruction of the monasteries and the incursions of the barbarians, sees nothing in these facts to explain that prevailing ignorance of which he elsewhere so loudly complains. In one passage only does he so much as connect the two ideas together, and then it is only in order to direct a sneer against the monks. “As the Normans were unchecked by religious awe,” he says, “the rich monasteries were overwhelmed in the storm. Perhaps they may have sustained some irrecoverable losses of ancient learning; but their complaints are of monuments disfigured, bones of saints and kings dispersed, and treasures carried away.”

There is no doubt that the monks did attach a very great value to the holy relics preserved in their churches, and that they rarely notice the destruction of any sanctuary without saying something of their loss, or the efforts made to preserve them. But it is puzzling to think how Mr. Hallam could have become aware of this fact without also informing himself of their kindred lamentations over the loss of their books. The monastic chroniclers generally couple the two subjects so closely together, that we know not what term to bestow on that singular organisation which enables a reader to acquaint himself with one without knowing anything at all about the other. A very few instances given at random may suffice to show what we are to think of the innuendo conveyed in the sentence above quoted. When the Normans burnt Hamburgh, they destroyed not only the city, but the church and monastery which St. Anscharius had built with such extreme care, together with the library containing a collection of books presented to him by Louis the Debonnaire, all beautifully transcribed. None were saved, excepting so many as each monk was able to carry with him. They went out of the city, therefore, bearing their books and their relics, not knowing whither to bend their steps; but Anscharius, who saw the labours of a lifetime destroyed in a moment, uttered no complaint, repeating only the words of Job: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” Pingonio again gives the following narrative from the ancient chronicles of the monastery of Novalesa. In 906 the monks of that house flying on the approach of the Saracens, took with them their treasure and their library, which last numbered upwards of 6000 volumes. They found their way safely to Turin, where, not being able to procure a house in which to stow away so many books, Riculf, Bishop of Turin, took 500 volumes off their hands, in part discharge of the cost of their maintenance. Erelong, however, the Saracens entered Turin also, plundered their treasure, and burnt their library; and the books which Riculf had taken were unhappily lost after his death, so that the poor monks were never able to recover them. Again, in 842, when the Normans sacked the town of Nantes, and slaughtered the bishops and clergy in the cathedral, the historian of Armorica tells us that, having loaded their vessels with plunder and captives, the heathen men proceeded to a certain island to divide the spoil. A quarrel ensued over the division, and some of the captives profited by the confusion to make their escape. One man, bolder than the rest, thought he might as well secure some of the valuables. And on what does the reader suppose he pitched? Neither on jewelled reliquary, nor church-plate, but on the great Bible which had been used in the cathedral, and which he took on his back and ran off with to the mines, where he remained concealed with some of his companions, until the Normans took their departure. “The fugitives then issued from their hiding place, and returned to Nantes,” says the chronicler, having lost much in books, silver and gold, and having saved nothing but their Bible.

Sometimes, again, we read of the strange expedients used by the owners of books to conceal them from plunderers. In the abbey of Pfeffers, the books and the church-plate were always hidden together, and on more than one occasion unexpected discoveries were made in aftertimes, of the deposits thus contrived. In the twelfth century one of these secret stores was accidentally brought to light, and contained, besides church plate and vestments, a rich library. Its catalogue included, besides missals and choral books, the works of most of the Latin fathers, and those of Virgil, Lucan, Statius, Sallust, Cicero, and many others. When the great abbey of St. Gall’s was threatened by the Huns, the first thought of the abbot was to send the books across the lake to Reichnau. In some of the Italian convents it was always the custom to bury the books on the approach of the Saracens; and several manuscripts may still be seen in the Library of Florence, bearing traces on their covers of having been so dealt with. Not unfrequently the relics are spoken of as being kept in the library, of which an instance occurs in an anecdote preserved by Martene, concerning the monks of St. Florent. When their monastery was threatened by the Normans, they fled to Tournus, taking with them the body of their patron saint. The danger being past, they prepared to return, but their ungenerous hosts, the monks of Tournus, refused to let them take the body with them. Very disconsolately they bent their steps back to St. Florent without their treasure: but one of their number, named Absalon, devised a scheme for its recovery. “He was,” says the historian, “a very skilful youth, very fond of law-studies, and much given to letters.” His law-studies had possibly sharpened his wits, but the reader must forgive his wiliness, remembering that it was put forth in a just cause. He feigned illness, and remained behind at Tournus, where the monks entrusted him with the offices of scholasticus, librarian, and cantor, and one night, having the keys of the library he effected a quiet entrance, and taking the body of St. Florent from the place where it was deposited, lost no time in finding his way with it back to his own monastery.

One other story may suffice on this subject, which I purposely select as having more to do with relics than books, because it shows that even the narratives more specially devoted to chronicling the loss of saints’ bones often indicate the loss of books also; and because, moreover, it gives us to understand that monks could sometimes act as village schoolmasters. It is from the pages of Odericus Vitalis, and will assist us in forming some notion of the sort of violence to which monasteries were exposed, not only from Huns and Saracens, but even from their Christian neighbours.

For many years after the conversion of the Normans, and their peaceable establishment in the north of France, they continued to be objects of jealous fear to the French sovereigns, and particularly to Louis l’Outremer, who, in 943, treacherously got possession of the young Duke Richard, and detained him prisoner. He then proceeded to lay plans for recovering possession of the duchy. He offered Hugh the Great, duke of France, the grant of an enormous territory on condition of his reducing the strong places of the Normans, and Hugh, nothing loth, overran the duchy with a powerful army, and sent some of his men under command of his chancellor, Herluin, to Ouche, where they were hospitably entertained at the monastery of St. Evroult. The simple monks, who thought they had nothing to fear from Christians and Frenchmen, showed them all over the house, and exhibited their oratories and the secret recesses where the bones of the saints were deposited. For this act of confidence they soon paid dearly.

Bernard the Dane, uncle to the young duke, finding himself unable to resist the superior force of the French, had recourse to stratagem, and persuaded the king that the Normans would at once own his sovereignty, if the army of Duke Hugh were withdrawn. Louis accordingly sent orders to Hugh to retire; but the fiery duke, enraged at this breach of faith on the part of a monarch whose crown depended on his good will, commanded his soldiers to withdraw indeed from Normandy, but not till they had wasted the country, burnt the towns, and driven off the cattle. The savage soldiery executed his orders with delight, and the band that had been quartered at St. Evroult, remembering the treasures which had been displayed to them, hastened thither without delay, and bursting into the church, laid hands on the body of St. Evroult, with other holy relics, and after ransacking the house of “everything serviceable to human existence,” together with books, vestments, and even furniture, they took their departure, and marched back to their own country laden with their spoils. The poor monks were left very disconsolate; stripped of their all, they knew not what to do, but after a while they came to the resolution of abandoning their ruined monastery, and following the body of their holy founder into exile. They considered themselves the guardians of this treasure, and would not desert their trust: perhaps, too, they hoped to soften the hearts of their enemies, and move them at least to restore the relics. All therefore prepared to depart, with the exception of Ascelin, the prior, who refused to quit the monastery. “Go in God’s name,” he said, “but as for me, I will never forsake the place where I have received so many blessings: I shall remain as the guardian of these solitudes, till through the mercy of the King of kings, a better day shall dawn upon us.” Finding he was not to be moved, the others took leave of him, and set out on their melancholy journey. They reached the duke’s camp, and told their tale, and Hugh, touched by the recital, promised to protect them and provide for their maintenance, if they would follow him to his own city of Orleans. There they had the mortification, however, of seeing the chiefs dividing their spoils. Herluin took for his share the head of St. Evroult, a portable altar plated with silver, and one of the books. Ralph de Tracy, who had commanded the plundering party, obtained the remainder of the saint’s body, which he very devoutly presented to another abbey, but the poor monks of Ouche recovered nothing. However, they were treated with tolerable kindness by the men of Orleans, who provided them with a habitation, and plenty of fish, bread, and wine, and so ended their days in France in comparative prosperity.

Meanwhile Ascelin, whom we left in the deserted abbey, did not waste his time in barren regrets. He set himself to consider what he could do to provide for the continuance of God’s service in that place, and at last resolved on a step which must be acknowledged as not a little creditable in a monk of the Age of Iron: he opened a school. He sought out and assembled together the youths of the neighbourhood, and among them his own nephew, and taught them to read. There is something both picturesque and touching in the idea thus presented to us, of the old man keeping school among his ruins, and acting as the faithful guardian of the holy spot, doing what good he could whilst time and strength remained to him, and with too much quiet confidence in God to lose heart and courage because all else was lost. At last, however, he died, persevering to the last in the observance of his monastic rule, and then his scholars were scattered, the forest thickets grew up round the ruins, and gradually the ancient solitude recovered its former wildness, and became the resort of wild animals. In the next generation, the names of Ouche and St. Evroult had passed utterly out of mind, till one day a peasant in search of a strayed bullock, followed him into the deserted valley, and making his way through bushes and brambles, found his beast couched on a little plot of soft green grass, before what seemed a ruined altar, surrounded by grey walls held together by ivy roots. And then grey-headed men were found who had heard their fathers talk of the time when St. Evroult, who despised the world, had made himself a dwelling in these wilds, and how his brethren had been driven away by the soldiers of Hugh the Great. The good knight Gaston de Montfort rebuilt the church, and the abbey was afterwards restored and colonised from Jumièges; and at last, in 1130, two hundred years after the forcible translation of the relics from Ouche to Orleans, they were brought back to their rightful home, in consequence of the eloquent entreaties of St. Bernard.

We have said enough of the disorders of the ninth and tenth centuries to show that, whatever were the intellectual sterility of the Iron Age, there was cause enough to account for it. Let us now reverse the picture, and inquire whether the clergy resigned themselves contentedly to this lamentable state of things, or what means they took for amending it. Our wonder is, not that the age was one of literary decay, but that learning was not wholly extinguished; and the exertions made by a few to preserve a knowledge of letters in the midst of such unparalleled discouragements, strike us as more justly meriting admiration than all the magnificent institutions founded in more prosperous times. And such efforts were certainly made. In the ninth century the attention paid to the establishment of schools and the cultivation of learning under Charles the Bald and his successors, led Henry of Rheims to declare that it seemed as if the Grecian muses had migrated to France. This is, perhaps, a rhetorical flourish; yet most of the episcopal schools, the names of which are given by Mabillon, were founded during forty years of incessant civil distraction. Even when the ravages of the barbarians swept away the fruits of so many labours, how wonderful is the patient, hopeful perseverance displayed by the bishops in reconstructing their shattered work! Give them but a few years’ respite, a short interval of comparative tranquillity in any province, and you will invariably find the schools restored and the old discipline beginning over again. Thus Egidius, in his “History of the Bishops of Liege,” tells us of the extraordinary efforts made by Bishop Heraclius to re-establish studies in his diocese. It had borne the brunt of the Norman invasions in the ninth century; all the existing schools had been destroyed, and the ecclesiastics had grown so indifferent to the subject that, when Heraclius began his administration, he found no one to support him in his attempts to organise a fresh staff of teachers. And yet in a few years he succeeded in restoring monastic schools throughout the whole province, and reviving a love of learning among all classes. He accomplished this not so much by his exhortations as his example; for, says his biographer, “he did not think it beneath him to frequent these schools by turns, taking on himself the office of teacher, giving lectures to the elder students, and patiently explaining and repeating his lessons to those who did not understand him. When he travelled to any distance he always corresponded with his scholars, sporting with them in pleasant verse. Even from Italy and Calabria he remembered to send them agreeable letters to provoke them to the love of study, and he generally took some of them with him on his journeys, that he might beguile the tediousness of the way by conferring with them on the Holy Scriptures.” His successor, Notger, carried on the good work with even greater ardour. Like Heraclius, he always taught in his own cathedral school, and a great many of his pupils afterwards became bishops. They were so many, and so remarkable for their good scholarship, that their names and their various excellences were thought worthy by a certain scholasticus named Adelman, of being made the subject of some verses, which are still preserved. Notger had originally been a monk of St. Gall’s, and had been called thence to direct the school of Stavelot. He naturally, therefore, had a taste for teaching, and, like Heraclius, he never travelled without a troop of scholars, abundance of books, and what his biographer calls _arma scholaria_. Nor were all of his scholars clerks, for we are expressly told that he had numerous young laics entrusted to him that he might train them in a manner suitable to their state of life. He did so much for his cathedral city, that he has been called its second founder, and not a few of the churches and pious institutions existing there at the present day owe their erection to his munificent zeal.

At Rheims, which from its geographical position enjoyed a longer immunity from pillage than cities situated on the great rivers, schools and teachers found a safe retreat and ample encouragement from Archbishop Hincmar. However, the Normans at last made their way thither; and when Fulk succeeded to the archiepiscopal dignity, he found both the cathedral school, and that established for the rural clergy, ruined and deserted. He restored them both, and invited the two monks, Remigius of Auxerre and Hucbald of St. Amand, to come and take charge of them. Their scholastic pedigree has been given in a former chapter, and they are commonly regarded as the chief restorers of learning in France. Fulk, who knew their value, encouraged his clergy to profit from their instructions by himself taking his seat as a scholar among the youngest of his clerks. The Rheims pupils included many men of note, such as Flodoard the historian, whom Fleury calls the ornament of his age. The old epitaph on his tomb praises him as “a good monk, a good clerk, and a better abbot,” and concludes with two lines somewhat hyperbolical in their expression:–

Per sen histoire maintes nouvelles sauras Et en ille toutes antiquité auras.

Hucbald was famous as a poet, musician, and philosopher; but his colleague, Remigius, was great in grammar, and wrote comments on Priscian, Donatus, and Marcian Capella. He taught humane letters and theology, and was extraordinarily learned in Scripture and the Fathers. After the death of Fulk he proceeded to Paris, and opened the first public school which we know with any certainty to have been established in that city. This, according to the Paris historians, was the real germ of the university; at any rate it was the first of those celebrated schools out of which the university subsequently developed. Nevertheless, half a century earlier, in the midst of the great siege of Paris, there had been both schools and scholars, for Abbo of St. Germain apologises for the incomplete state of his poem before mentioned, “on account of the multitude of his pupils.” Whence we gather that even famine and massacre had never entirely extinguished the Parisian thirst for letters.

Remigius continued to teach at Paris for several years, pupils coming to him from all parts of France. Among them was one whose story deserves to be told a little more at length, inasmuch as it exhibits, in a striking manner, the utter ruin which had fallen on the monastic institute in the French provinces, and at the same time shows us that in the tenth century laymen were to be found who were possessed of a respectable education, and were capable of collecting libraries. There lived at that time, in the province of Maine, a certain noble named Abbo, who had been fortunate enough in his youth to find some school where he not only learnt how to sign his name, but acquired a great taste for reading. His reading, too, was of a solid kind, for his favourite studies were the histories of the ancients, and the “Novellæ” of Justinian, the latter of which he knew by heart, using his legal erudition when called on to dispense justice to his feudal subjects, and to act as umpire in the disputes which arose among his neighbours. The Gospels were always read aloud at his table, and on the Vigils of solemn feasts he and his family spent the night in prayer and watching. Nor are we to draw the hasty conclusion that Abbo’s household, and his way of life, was at all an extraordinary exception from the common rule. He had friends as learned and as holy as himself, such as Duke William of Aquitaine, whose religious habits earned him the surname of “the Pious,” while his love of letters gained him that of “the Grammarian.” This good prince had a number of books in his castle, and during the long winter evenings he amused himself by reading them, never leaving his studies till fairly overcome by sleep. Abbo had one son named Odo, born in 879, and whilst yet an infant, his father going to see him in his cradle, by a devout impulse took him in his arms and offered him to St. Martin. As he grew up he was given in charge to a priest to be taught his letters, but it does not appear that there was any idea of bringing him up to the ecclesiastical state: on the contrary, his father placed him in the household of Duke William, that he might acquire the martial exercises becoming a knight. Odo, however, had no taste for these pursuits, and the chase and the tilt-yard were insupportably wearisome to him. Praying to Our Lady that he might be guided in the choice of a state of life, he was for three years attacked by inveterate headaches, which obliged him to return home, and which obstinately resisted every remedy. His father at last became persuaded that it was not the will of God that his son should pursue a secular calling. Remembering his former promise to St. Martin, and finding that Odo’s own wishes pointed in the same direction, he took him to Tours, and placed him, in his nineteenth year, among the canons of that city. There was a very solemn reception of the noble postulant, and among those who assisted at the ceremony was the brave Count Fulk of Anjou, the same who has before been mentioned as himself holding a canon’s stall, and scandalising king Louis by his proficiency in music.

No sooner did Odo find himself in quiet possession of his new retreat than he applied himself to his books with an ardour that quite astounded his brother canons. They perpetually asked him what he meant by all this reading, and where could possibly be the good of it. Odo let them talk as they would, and made no change in his habits. He often spent the whole day in study, and the whole night in prayer. He finished his course of grammar, and was about to commence Virgil, when he was deterred by a vision, in which he seemed to see a beautiful vessel filled with serpents, which he understood to indicate the poison to be found in the charms of profane literature. Putting it aside, therefore, he devoted himself exclusively to the study of the Scriptures, and to obtain the more freedom from interruption, he shut himself up in a little cell which Count Fulk had given him, and distributing all his money to the poor, lived on the moderate daily allowance of half a pound of bread and a handful of beans. However, he soon became desirous of better teaching than he had as yet been able to procure, so he set out for Paris, and entered at the school of Remigius of Auxerre. That master made him go through a course of the liberal arts, and gave him to study the treatises of Marcian Capella, and the “Dialectics” of St. Augustine.

On his return to Tours he applied himself to the study of St. Gregory’s “Morals,” in which he took such delight that he wrote an abridgment of it, which is still preserved. His love of letters may be gathered from the fact that he gradually procured himself a library of a hundred volumes–a very large collection in those days for any private individual. Among them were some “Lives of the Holy Fathers,” and the “Rule” of St. Benedict, the constant study of which filled Odo with an intense desire to embrace the monastic state. In this he was encouraged by the intimate friendship he formed about this time with a knight named Adegrim, one of the household of the good Count Fulk. At last Adegrim threw up his military employments and came to live with the young canon at Tours. The talk of the two friends was ever of monks and of monasteries, and they made many journeys into different parts of France to seek out the sites of those once famous abbeys of which they had read, and to discover if perchance one yet survived in its ancient state of discipline. But these expeditions invariably ended in disappointment. For more than sixty years the monastic institute in France had been utterly ruined. Most of the houses so renowned in the last century were now nothing but heaps of blackened ruins. The monks had either been slain or driven out as wanderers. Sometimes they were to be met with in the guise of poor vagrants; sometimes in places far from public resort you might come upon a miserable hut, where the remnants of what had once been a flourishing community were gathered together in the wilderness, striving to keep their Rule as best they might. This is not a fancy picture. It was about this very time that William Longsword, duke of Normandy, was induced to restore the abbey of Jumièges, having when hunting in the forest come upon two poor monks who were trying to construct a cell for themselves out of the ruins of the abbey. All the refreshments they could offer him were some barley bread and some water; and the spectacle of their poverty, together with the remembrance that the desolation he witnessed had been the work of his own Norman forefathers, induced the duke to undertake the work of restoration. Abbo and Adegrim, however, were not to be discouraged in their plan. Finding no house in France where they could embrace the life to which they longed to devote themselves, they resolved to carry on their search in Italy, and Adegrim accordingly set out, intending to make the pilgrimage to Rome. But as he passed through Burgundy he accidentally found his way to La Baume, a small monastery which had been recently founded by the abbot Berno, and in which the Rule of St. Benedict was strictly observed, together with the reformed Constitutions of St. Benedict d’Anian. Adegrim at once wrote to his friend, bidding him come without delay, and bring all his books with him; and Odo lost no time in obeying the summons. In the year 909 he began his noviciate, being then exactly thirty years of age. Adegrim, after three years of penitential exercises, begged leave to retire to a little cave about two miles distant from the monastery, where he spent the rest of his life as a hermit. But a very different course awaited his friend Odo. His books pointed him out to be the right sort of man for a schoolmaster, and he was therefore charged with the education of the children brought up in the monastery, and the younger monks. He had much to suffer from the jealousy of some of his brethren; but Berno, rightly appreciating both his talents and his humility, sent him to Turpion, Bishop of Limoges, to be ordained priest.

The reformed monastery of La Baume soon became the mother-house of other foundations. Those who deplored the decay of learning and religion were eager to provide for the restoration of both, by erecting houses in which the Rule and spirit of St. Benedict might be revived in their ancient vigour. Abbo’s old friend, Duke William of Aquitaine, was of the number of those who desired to take part in the good work, and he invited Berno to choose a site for a new foundation in any part of his dominions. Berno selected a beautiful solitude, about four miles from Macon, on the confines of Burgundy, where the river Grosne, after passing the village of Bonnay, winds down to the Seine from the mountains of Beaujolais, through a valley girt in by high hills covered with forests. It was exactly suited for the purposes of a religious retreat, but the duke hesitated when Berno named it, for it was his favourite hunting ground, and was at that time occupied by his kennel of dogs. “Well, sir,” said Berno, when the duke had explained his difficulty, “it is only to turn out the dogs, and to turn in the monks.” This recommendation was accordingly followed, and in course of time there arose among those wooded hills the stately abbey of Cluny, the church of which was inferior in size to none save St. Peter’s of Rome.

On the death of Berno in 927, the bishops of the province obliged St. Odo to accept the government of Cluny and two of the other five houses which had sprung under the reformed Rule. Not content with this, they likewise forced upon him the most odious and difficult of all imaginable enterprises; that, namely, of restoring monastic discipline in a vast number of other houses both in France and Italy, which had fallen into the hands of a dissolute set of men, who sometimes opposed the entrance of the abbot, sword in hand. Odo entered on this work in obedience, and accomplished it in the spirit of meekness. There is no courage like that of gentle souls, and the history of this great reformer exhibits him to us forsaken by his terrified attendants, and riding up on his ass to the gates of Fleury, where a band of armed men were awaiting his coming, having sworn to kill him if he dared set foot among them. But Odo’s meekness gained the day, and among the seventeen abbeys which accepted the Cluniac reform, that of Fleury became one of the most flourishing.

In fact, the character of St. Odo had nothing of that stern austerity which we commonly associate with the notion of a reformer. Its force was its amiability. He used to tell his monks that cripples and beggars were the door-keepers of heaven, and would not endure that they should be spoken to with harshness. If he heard the porter giving a gruff answer to the crowds of poor who thronged his gate, he would go out to them and say, “My friends, when that brother comes to the gates of Paradise, answer him as he has just answered you, and see whether he will like it.” On his journeys, if he met any children, he always stopped, and desired them to sing or repeat something to him, and he did this, says his biographer, that he might have an excuse for giving them something. And if he met an old woman or a cripple, nothing would prevent his getting off his beast and mounting them in his place, when he would desire his servants to hold them securely in the saddle, while he himself led them on their way. This excess of goodness made him so dear to his monks, that they would often steal behind him and indulge their affection and respect by secretly pressing to their lips the hem of his garment.

St. Odo died in 942, and in 965 Maieul or Majolus, a former canon of Macon, was elected abbot. His life, like that of his predecessor, affords an illustration of the two features in the century which I am most solicitous to bring before the reader’s notice; the disordered state of society, consequent on the barbaric invasions, and the fact that in spite of such disorders, men were not wholly indifferent to letters, though they were often sadly at a loss to find the means of acquiring them. Maieul made his studies at Lyons, which his biographer, Odilo, declares was then regarded as the nurse and mother of philosophy, under a rather celebrated teacher named Anthony de l’Isle Barbe. He learnt both kinds of literature, says the monk Syrus, who also wrote his life, the divine and human, and attained to whatever was most sublime in the one, and most difficult in the other. The approach of the Saracens obliged him to leave Avignon, his native city, and retire to Macon, where he was chosen first canon and then archdeacon. But as he found that the clergy and people had it in their mind to procure his further promotion to the bishopric of Besançon, he fled to Cluny, where he was received with great affection, and in process of time was appointed schoolmaster, librarian, and syndic of the house. In this combination of the intellectual and the temporal government he managed to make himself greatly beloved, and in 948, with the consent of the whole community, Aimard, the successor of Odo, whom Syrus styles a son of innocence and simplicity, surrendered the government of the abbey and all its dependencies into his hands. Both as scholasticus and coadjutor to the abbot, Maieul superintended the studies of his monks, and it is remarkable that he had to use the bridle rather than the spur. He was obliged to exert his authority to discourage their excessive study of the profane poets, especially Virgil; not that he disapproved of a moderate use of humane literature; on the contrary, he advocated the principle that we should get all the good out of it that we can; but he would have preferred to see his monks learned in the Scriptures, the reading of which formed his own delight. Whether he walked or rode, the Sacred volume was never out of his hands, and when he travelled into distant countries he always took with him a portable library. These journeys were very frequent, for Maieul extended the Cluniac reform into a great number of abbeys, and made many pilgrimages to Rome. Returning from that city in 973, he was attacked, whilst crossing the Alps, by the Saracens of Frassinet, and carried off, together with all his retinue. His captors chained him hand and foot, and confined him in a cave among the mountains, plundering him of all his baggage, and among other things of his books. The saint recommended himself to God in the spirit of martyrdom, and then lay down on the floor of the cavern to take what rest he might. On awakening he was surprised to find lying on his breast one of his lost books, which appeared to have been overlooked by the plunderers. He opened it, and found it was a treatise on the Assumption of Our Lady, and counting the days, he found that there remained exactly twenty-four to the Feast of the Assumption; so he began to pray that through the intercession of the Queen of Heaven, he might perhaps be permitted to keep that Feast among Christians. After a while the Saracens began to treat him more kindly. They allowed him to write a letter to his brethren directing them to send the money for his ransom, and seeing that he did not eat the meat which they set before him, one man took a shield, and baring his arms, he proceeded to knead some meal in this strange dish, and produced a cake which the prisoner gratefully accepted. Another time a Saracen, wishing to clean his lance, set his foot on the great Bible which formed part of the abbot’s library. Pained at the irreverence, the saint gently remonstrated with him, but without effect, and a few days afterwards the man quarrelling with his companions, they cut off the very foot that had been set on the Sacred Volume. At last the ransom arrived, and the prisoners were liberated, and Maieul spent the Feast of the Assumption among Christians, as he had prayed. Not long afterwards the Saracens were driven from Frassinet by Duke William of Arles, and the books of St. Maieul being found among their baggage, were sent back to him at Cluny to his very great joy.

The information conveyed in stories of this kind will be taken for what it is worth. It does not certainly represent the monks of the Iron Age as prodigies of erudition, but it shows that they did a little more than learn their Psalter. In some cases they certainly set themselves to overcome the difficulties which then beset the path of learning with a perseverance and success that merit all praise; and one example of this sort occurs among the monks of that very abbey of Fleury, the reformation of which was effected by St. Odo in the teeth of an armed rabble. Abbo of Fleury, as he is commonly called, a contemporary of St. Maieul, did not enter the monastery until some years after it had begun to flourish under the Cluniac rule, and the good discipline of Abbot Wulfhad. He was a native of Orleans, and a boy of such a sweet disposition and such a happy memory, that he forgot nothing of his master’s lessons, and studied much in private, not merely for the sake of knowledge, says his biographer, but also because he counted application to study to be a means of subjecting the flesh to the spirit. The Fleury teachers at this time were not first-rate; however, far from being disgusted with “the haggard and emaciated skeleton of barbarous elements,” the more Abbo learnt the more he desired to learn. He was appointed in time scholasticus to his convent, but he felt by no means satisfied as yet with his own attainments. He was tolerably well versed in grammar, logic, and arithmetic, but he had found no one at Fleury who could teach him the other liberal arts. With the permission of his abbot, therefore, he resigned his office, and went first to Paris, and then to Rheims. In these schools he acquired a knowledge of philosophy and astronomy, but not so much of the last science as he desired. So he next proceeded to Orleans, and there not only perfected himself in other branches of learning, but, by dint of expending a good sum of money, managed to get some excellent lessons in music. This, however, could only be done secretly, by reason of the opposition of envious minds. He had now studied five out of the seven liberal arts, and he could not rest till he had acquired the other two. But not being able to find any good master either in rhetoric or geometry, he endeavoured to supply the first by a careful study of Victorinus, the master of St. Jerome, and also by his own exertions gained some knowledge of mathematics. We have seen in the last chapter how he was summoned to England by St. Oswald of York, and established sacred and scientific studies in the monastery of Ramsay. So greatly was he esteemed by both St. Oswald and St. Dunstan, that an amicable quarrel arose between the two prelates as to which should keep possession of so great a treasure. The question was settled by the abbot of Fleury recalling Abbo to his own convent after a two years’ absence.

His English friends took leave of him with no small regret, and loaded him with parting presents. St. Dunstan gave him a number of exquisitely-wrought silver ornaments of his own workmanship, which he requested him to present as his offerings to St. Benedict, a portion of whose body was preserved at Fleury. St. Oswald ordained him priest, and gave him a chalice, some vestments, and everything else requisite for saying mass. In 988 he became abbot, in which office he continually recommended his monks to cultivate study as the most useful exercise next to fasting and prayer. For himself he ceased not all his life to read, write, or dictate. His favourite studies, next to the Holy Scriptures, were dialectics and astronomy, and among his works were some treatises on both those subjects. Renowned for his learning throughout Europe, he was killed at last in 1004 in an affray between his servants and some Gascon monks of the monastery of Reole, whither he had been sent to effect a reform.

In fact, if the age exhibited much decay and many scandals, it found men ready to spend their lives in the weary work of restoration and reformation. And it is remarkable that the greatest prelates of the time invariably regarded the revival of monachism as the only means of restoring good discipline and learning. Such were the views of St. Dunstan and his fellow-labourers, and such was also the conviction of the excellent Adalberon, who in 933 became Bishop of Metz. He was brother to the reigning duke of Lorraine, and his talents and zeal equalled the nobility of his birth. In order to provide his diocese with a seminary of devoted and learned men, he resolved on restoring the great monastery of Gorze, which had been founded by St. Chrodegang of Metz, but which had been ruined under the combined attacks of the Normans and the Hungarians. He completed the rebuilding of the abbey, but was still uncertain whence he should procure his colony of monks, when he was informed that a little society of ecclesiastics, which had been formed in the neighbouring diocese of Toul, was about to pass into Italy, seeking some spot where they might unmolested lead a more perfect life. The way in which this society had been organised was altogether remarkable. At their head was John of Vandières, the native of a village in the diocese of Nancy, who, having been born when his father was advanced in years, had suffered from some of the disadvantages of being a spoiled child. The fond parent, however, was at last persuaded to send the boy to school, first at Metz, and then at the monastery of St. Michael’s, where Master Hildebold, a pupil of Remigius, gave lessons in grammar. John, however, profited very little by his teaching, and on his father’s death, his mother, marrying a second time, recalled him home, and gave him the charge of all the temporal affairs of the house. John showed considerable ability in the management of lands and revenues, and absorbed in these cares, soon forgot the little he had learnt at school. However, as time went on, he became disgusted with his secular way of life, and embracing the ecclesiastical state, received two benefices in the diocese of Toul. There he became acquainted with the learned deacon Berners, who, by no means approving of illiterate clerks, persuaded John to begin his studies over again. Divine grace quickening his powers, he did his best to make up for lost time. But he was never much of a grammarian. He contented himself with what his biographer calls a sprinkling of Donatus, just so much as enabled him to read and understand the Scriptures, to the study of which he then exclusively devoted himself, and in which he obtained very extraordinary light. The church which he served was dependent on a convent of nuns at Metz, where his duties called him from time to time to say mass. He became acquainted with the community, and the example of their holy and mortified life inspired him with new ardour. He began a course of reading with these good religious, which speaks in favour of his diligence and their patience, and in which, says his biographer, he persevered “with all his might.”

First, then, having read through with them the whole of the Old and New Testaments, he committed both to memory, “and that so accurately that no man could do it better,” also “all the lessons appointed to be read in church,” which are contained in the book called Comes; then the rules for the computing of Easter and the canonical laws, that is, the decrees of councils, the judgments of penitents, the mode of ecclesiastical proceedings, and the secular laws, all of which he treasured up word for word. Of homilies, sermons, and treatises on the Epistles and Gospels, I will only say that he was able to repeat an alarming catalogue of them in the vernacular, “straightforward from beginning to end, as if he were reading from the book.” At the same time he laboured hard to acquire a knowledge of church music, not caring for the derision of some who considered it an unsuitable enterprise for one of his age to engage in. However, his perseverance was rewarded with very fair success, and it was thus that he employed his intervals of leisure time, together with the handmaids of God.

It must be confessed that John’s choice of reading, considering the gentler sex of his fellow-students, was somewhat of the driest. Nor do I at all cite him as a model of erudition, though, considering the deficiencies of his early education, his achievements in that line might have saved him from the contempt of Brucker, who notices him only to string him up among other barbarous dunces. His studies probably took their direction from the very few books which he had at his command, and it is at least clear that he made a tolerable use of those he possessed.

His intercourse with the nuns inspired him with a great desire to embrace a religious life, but, like St. Odo, he sought in vain for any religious house in his own part of the country where religious discipline still flourished. So first he joined the company of a recluse of Verdun, named Humbert, and then he passed some time with a hermit in the forest of Argonne, and at last, in company with Bernacer of Metz, who was a tolerable scholar, he set out on pilgrimage to Rome. However, even in Italy he found nothing that exactly suited him, and returning to Verdun, resumed his former exercises of prayer and study, under the direction of Humbert.

About the same time Einold, Archdeacon of Toul, had been touched with similar desires after a perfect life; and distributing all his goods to the poor, he shut himself up in a little cell adjoining the cloisters of his cathedral, together with his books and his priestly vestments, living only on what the Bishop Gauzelin sent him as an alms. The times were, indeed, dreary enough, when, one after another, these good men were to be found seeking, and seeking in vain, for some spot untouched by the spoiler’s hand. As Einold prayed for guidance, what seemed a little schoolboy’s voice in the street outside chanted the words, “I will give you the heritage of your father Jacob;” and half disposed to take the words as a sign of divine encouragement, he was still pondering over their meaning, when Humbert of Verdun came to ask his counsel. To be brief, the four friends, Einold, Humbert, John, and Bernacer, determined on migrating to Italy, and establishing themselves either among the solitaries of Mount Vesuvius, or in the neighbourhood of Monte Cassino. And it was this little knot of holy men, who had been drawn together by the ties of Christian sympathy, whom Adalberon proposed to detain in France for the purpose of entrusting them with the restoration of monastic life in the abbey of Gorze. They accepted his offer; a very few of the old monks who yet survived were brought back, and willingly accepted the strict reform which Adalberon desired to establish; Einold was chosen abbot, and the house soon became a model of good discipline. Sacred studies were at once instituted in the school, and after his religious profession, John of Gorze, as he was henceforth called, entered on rather a wider range of reading than he had hitherto been able to follow. We find him applying himself to St. Augustine, and working with characteristic energy at certain logical studies, which were, however, cut short by the prohibition of Einold, who desired him to leave logic for secular students, and to confine himself to more spiritual subjects, an injunction which he humbly and promptly obeyed. He became abbot of Gorze about the year 960.

Adalberon’s zeal was not satisfied with the restoration of Gorze; he invited a learned body of monks over from Ireland, under a superior named Cradoc, and established them in another deserted monastery, that of St. Clement’s at Metz. When Gerard, Bishop of Toul, the successor of Gauzelin, heard of the arrival of the Irishmen, he never rested till he had procured some of them for his own diocese. He had already procured a community of exiled Greek monks, among whom, in the following century, Cardinal Humbert acquired his Greek learning. A sort of holy emulation sprang up between the two prelates, which should outstrip the other in their labours at reform and revival; and Gerard was not content with setting others to work; he worked himself as hard as the humblest scholasticus. He took into his own hands the instruction of his clergy in all that appertained to ecclesiastical discipline and the ministry of preaching; and acting on the principle that he who instructs others should never cease to be a learner, he never considered that his time of study was ended; and his historian declares that even when he was in bed he appointed some of his clerks to read to him until he fell asleep.

From all that has been said, it may be seen that there was no want of solicitude on the part of the pastors of the Church to amend the disorders of the time. In fact, we might appeal to the acts of those very councils which show what the abuses of the times were, as affording proof of the strenuous exertions made to correct them.

In Spain we are told the incursions of the Saracens had left everything in ruins. The school of Palencia, established in the sixth century for the education of the clergy, had fallen into decay; the monastic institute had all but disappeared; and the sites of many monasteries, like the famous one founded near Vierzo by St. Fructuosus, had become wildernesses, overgrown with thorns and brushwood. But here, as in France and Germany, bishops were to be found stemming the strong tide of barbarism. Gennadius of Astorga restored a great number of abbeys destroyed by the Saracens, and placed them under the Benedictine Rule. And as the libraries that formerly enriched them could not be at once replaced, he introduced a custom by which the books belonging to one house were lent to a number of others in regular succession, always returning to their original owners. Among the books so lent appear the works of St. Gregory, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine.

Even the education of the poor was not wholly uncared for in the Iron Age. Witness the constitutions of Ado of Vercelli, Dado of Verden, and Heraclius of Liege, in which the establishment of “little,” or parochial, schools, is ordained, wherein poor children of both sexes, about the age of seven, are to be received and taught gratis, the girls and boys being always separated from one another. The regulations, simple as they are, have a very modern sound; and so also have those other constitutions of Riculf of Soissons, who, for the improvement of his parish priests, hit on a scheme of clerical conferences, in order to afford them means of mutual edification, on a plan precisely similar to that adopted in later times.

But we have dwelt long enough on the aspect which the tenth century presented in France. Something remains to be said of the state of schools and monasteries during the same period on the other side of the Rhine, where the achievements of the German prelates were crowned with a much larger share of success, and well deserve a chapter to themselves.

Source:  Augusta Theodosia Drane, Christian Schools and Scholars (1910) .

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Mission News Theme by Compete Themes.