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The Normans
by Sarah Orne Jewett
Chapter XI.

Dukes of the Normans


          "He heard across the howling seas,
          Chime convent bells on wintry nights."
                    - Matthew Arnold.

     The only way of escaping from the obligations of feudalism and constant warfare was by forsaking the follies of the world altogether for the shelter of a convent, and there devoting one's time and thought to holy things. A monastic life often came to be only an excuse for devotion to art or to letters, or served merely to cover the distaste for military pursuits. It was not alone ecclesiasticism and a love for holy living and thoughts of heaven that inspired rigid seclusion and monkish scorn of worldliness. Not only popular superstition or recognition of true spiritual life and growth of the Church made up the Church's power, but the presence of so much secular thought and wisdom in the fold. Men of letters, of science, and philosophy made it often more than a match for the militant element of society, the soldiery of Normandy, and the great captains, who could only prove their valor by the strength of their strategy and their swords. William was quick to recognize the vast strength of the clergy and the well-protected force of cloistered public opinion. A soldier and worldly man himself, he arrayed himself on the side of severe self-repression and knightly chastity and purity of life, and kept the laws of the convent in high honor; while he mixed boldly with the rude warfare of his age. He did not think himself less saintly because he was guilty of secret crimes against his rivals. A skilful use of what an old writer calls "the powder of succession" belonged as much to his military glory as any piece of field-tactics and strategy. He was anxious to stand well in the Pope's estimation, and the ban and malediction of the Church was something by all means to be avoided. The story of his marriage shows his bold, adventurous character and determination in a marked way, and his persistence in gaining his ends and winning the approval of his superior, in spite of obstacles that would have daunted a weaker man. To gain a point to which the Church objected he must show himself stronger than the Church.

     So there were two great forces at work in Normandy: this military spirit, the love of excitement, of activity, and adventure; and this strong religious feeling, which often made the other its willing servant, and was sometimes by far the most powerful of the two. Whether superstition or true, devout acceptance and unfolding of the ideas of the Christian religion moved the Normans and their contemporaries to most active service of the Church, we will not stop to discuss. The presence of the best scholars and saints in any age is a leaven and inspiration of that age, and men cannot help being more or less influenced by the dwelling among them of Christ's true disciples and ministers. That there was a large amount of credulity, of superstitious rites and observances, we cannot doubt, neither can we question that these exercised an amazing control over ignorant minds. Standing so near to a pagan ancestry, the people of large, and, relatively speaking, remote districts of Normandy, were no doubt confused by lingering vestiges of the older forms of belief. As yet, religion, in spite of the creeds of knighthood, showed itself more plainly in stone and mortar, in vestments, and fasts, and penances, and munificent endowments, than in simple truth and godliness of life. A Norman nobleman, in the time of the Conqueror, or earlier, thought that his estate would lack its chief ornament if he did not plant a company of monks in some corner of it. It was the proper thing for a rich man to found a monastery or religious house of some sort or other, and this was a most blessed thing for the scholars of their time. The profession of letters was already becoming dignified and respectable, and the students of the Venerable Bede, and other noble teachers from both north and south, had already scattered good seeds through the states of Europe. It was in this time that many great schools were founded, and in the more peaceful years of the early reign of the Conqueror, religion and learning found time to strike a deeper root in Normandy than ever before. There was more wealth for them to be nourished with, the farms were productive, and the great centres of industry and manufacture, like Falaise, were thriving famously. It was almost as respectable to be a monk as to be a soldier. There is something very beautiful in these earlier brotherhoods -- a purer fashion of thought and of life, a simplicity of devotion to the higher duties of existence. But we can watch here, as in the later movements in England and Italy, a gradual change from poverty and holiness of life, to a love of riches and a satisfaction with corrupt ceremonies and petty authority. The snare of worldliness finds its victims always, and the temptation was easy then, as it is easy now, to forget the things that belong to the spirit. We have seen so much of the sword and shield in this short history that we turn gladly away for a little space to understand what influences were coming from the great abbeys of Bec and Saint Evreuil, and to make what acquaintance we can with the men who dwelt there, and held for their weapons only their mass-books and their principles of education and of holy living. Lanfranc we must surely know, for he was called the right-hand man of the Conqueror; and now let us go back a little way and take a quick survey of the founding of the Abbey of Bec, and trace its history, for that will help us to understand the monastic life, and the wave of monasticism that left so plain a mark upon the headlands and valleys of Normandy. Both in England and Norman France, you can find the same red-roofed villages clustered about high square church towers, with windows in the gray stone walls that look like dim fret-work or lace-work. The oldest houses are low and small, but the oldest ministers and parish churches are very noble buildings.

     The first entrance into one of the old cathedrals is an event in one's life never to be forgotten. It grows more beautiful the longer one thinks of it; that first impression of height and space, of silence and meditation; the walls are stored with echoes of prayers and chanting voices; the windows are like faded gardens, with their sober tints and gleams of brighter color. The saints are pictured on them awkwardly enough, but the glory of heaven beams through the old glass upon the worn tombstones in the floor; the very dust in the rays of sunlight that strike across the wide, solemn spaces, seems sacred dust, and of long continuance. We shut out this busy world when we go into the cathedral door, and look about us as if this were a waiting-room from whence one might easily find conveyance to the next world. There is a feeling of nearness to heaven as we walk up the great aisle of what our ancestors called, reverently enough, God's house. One is suddenly reminded of many unseen things that the world outside gives but little chance to think about. We are on the journey heavenward indeed. There where many centuries have worn away the trace of worldliness and the touch of builders' tools, so that the building itself seems almost to have grown by its own life and strength, you think about the builders and planners of such dignity and splendor more than any thing, after all. Who were the men that dared to lift the roof and plant the tall pillars, and why did they, in those poor, primitive times, give all they had to make this one place so rich and high. The bells ring a lazy, sweet chime for answer, and if you catch a glimpse of some brown old books in the sacristy, and even spell out the quaint records, you are hardly satisfied. We can only call them splendid monuments of the spirit of the time (almost uncivilized, according to our standard) when nevertheless there was a profound sentiment of worship and reverence.

     Besides this, we are reminded that the lords of church and state were able, if it pleased them, to command the entire service of their vassals. All the liberties and aids and perquisites that belonged to rank ceased where the lowest rank ended, at the peasant. He was at anybody's command and mercy who chanced to be his master; he had but precious few rights and claims of his own. When Christ taught his disciples that whosoever would be chief among them must become as a servant, he suggested a truth and order of relationship most astonishing and contrary to all precedent. He that would be chief among Hebrews or Normans, chief, alas, even in our own day, is still misled by the old idea that the greatest is the master of many men. Worldly power and heavenly service are always apt to be mistaken for each other.

     In an age when every man claimed the right of private war against every other man, unless he were lord or vassal, we naturally look for ferocity, and understand that the line between private war and simple robbery and murder was not very clearly kept. Those who were comparatively unable to defend themselves were the chief sufferers, and of course many peace-loving men were obliged to take on the appearance of fighters, and be ready for constant warfare in all its shapes. There was only the one alternative -- first to the universal dissension of a nationality of armed men, and later to the more orderly and purposeful system of knighthood, -- simply to retreat from the world altogether and lead a strictly religious life. The famous order of the Benedictine monks was built up in Normandy with surprising devotion. A natural love and respect for learning, which had long been smouldering half-neglected, now burst into a quick blaze in the hearts of many of the descendants of the old Norse skalds and Sagamen. While the Augustinian order of monks is chiefly famous for building great cathedrals, and the mendicant friars have left many a noble hospital as their monuments, so the Benedictines turned their energies toward the forming of great schools. The time has passed when the Protestant world belittled itself by contemptuously calling the monks lazy, sensual, and idle, and by seeing no good in these ancient communities. Learning of every sort, and the arts, as well, would have been long delayed in their development, if it had not been for such quiet retreats, where those men and women who chose could turn their thoughts toward better employments than the secular world encouraged or even allowed. The Benedictines were the most careful fosterers of scholarship; their brethren of monastic fame owed them a great deal in every way.

     There was a noble knight named Herluin, who lived in the time of Duke Robert the Devil, and who was for thirty-seven years a knight-at-arms. He was a descendant of one of Rolf's companions, his lineage was of the very best, and his estates made part of the original grant of Charles the Simple. Herluin was vassal to Count Gilbert of Brionne, and had proved himself a brave and loyal knight, both to his overlord and the duke. He was high in favor, and unusually tender-hearted and just to those in trouble. We cannot help wishing that it had seemed possible to such a man that he should stay in the world and leaven society by his example, but to a thoughtful and gentle soul like Herluin the cloister offered great temptations. There was still great turbulence even among ecclesiastics -- the worst of them "bore arms and lived the life of heathen Danes. . . . The faith of Herluin nearly failed him when he saw the disorder of one famous monastery, but he was comforted by accidentally beholding the devotions of one godly brother, who spent the whole night in secret prayer. He was thus convinced that the salt of the earth had not as yet wholly lost its savor."*
     Our pious knight forsook the world, and with a few companions devoted himself to building a small monastery on his own estate at Burneville, near Brionne. The church was consecrated, and its founder received benediction from his bishop, who ordained him a priest and made him abbot of the little community. Herluin was very diligent in learning to read, and achieved this mighty task without neglecting any of the work which he imposed upon himself day by day. Soon he grew famous in all that part of Normandy for his sanctity and great wisdom in explaining the Bible. But it was discovered that the site of his flourishing young establishment was not well chosen; an abbey must possess supplies of wood and water, and so the colony was removed to the valley of a small stream that flows into the Lisle, near the town of Brionne. In the old speech of the Normans this brook was called a beck; we have the word yet in verse and provincial speech; and it gave a name to the most famous and longest remembered perhaps of all the Norman monasteries. Mr. Freeman says: "The hills are still thickly wooded; the beck still flows through rich meadows and under trees planted by the water-side, by the walls of what was once the renowned monastery to which it gave its name. But of the days of Herluin no trace remains besides these imperishable works of nature. A tall tower, of rich and fanciful design, one of the latest works of mediæval skill, still attracts the traveller from a distance; but of the mighty minster itself, all traces, save a few small fragments, have perished. . . . The truest memorial of that illustrious abbey is now to be found in the parish church of the neighboring village. In that lowly shelter is still preserved the effigy with which after-times had marked the resting-place of the founder. Such are all the relics which now remain of the house which once owned Lanfranc and Anselm as its inmates.

     "In this valley it was that Herluin finally fixed his infant settlement, devoting to it his own small possession."

     "By loving this world," he said, when he pleaded for his poor peasants in Gilbert of Brionne's court -- "By loving this world and by obeying man I have hitherto much neglected God and myself. I have been altogether intent on training my body, and I have gained no education for my soul. If I have ever deserved well of thee, let me pass what remains of life in a monastery. Let me keep thy affection and with me give to God what I had of thee."

     Herluin was not left alone in his enterprise; one companion after another joined him, and presently there was a busy company of monks at Bec. They subjected themselves to all sorts of self-denials and privations, working hard at building their new home, at ditching, gardening, or wood-cutting, and chanting their prayers with entire devotion. Herluin allowed himself one scanty meal a day, and went about his work poorly dressed, but serving God in most humble fashion. This was the story of many small religious houses and their founders, but we cannot help tracing the beginning of the abbey of Bec with particular interest for the sake of Lanfranc, who has kept its memory alive and made it famous in Norman and English history.

     The story of this friar of Bec, who came to be archbishop of Canterbury, and whose influence and power were only second, a few years later, to William the Conqueror's own, reads like a romance, as indeed does many another story of that romantic age. He was born at Pavia, the City of the Hundred Towers, in Lombardy, and belonged to an illustrious family. He was discovered in early boyhood to be an uncommon scholar, and even in his university course he became well known by his brilliant talents and fine gift of oratory. He was looked upon as almost invincible in debate while he was still a school-boy, and when he left college it was supposed that he would give the benefit of his attainments and growth to his native city. For a little while he did stay there, and began his career, but he appears to have been made restless by a love of change and adventure, and a desire to see the world, and next we find him going northward with a company of admiring scholars, as if on pilgrimage, but in the wrong direction! The enthusiastic little procession crossed the St. Bernard pass into France and for some reason went to Avranches, where Lanfranc taught a school and quickly became celebrated. In spite of the more common profession or trade of fighting, there was never a time when learning or the profession of letters was more honored, and the Normans yielded to none of their contemporaries in the respect they had for scholars.

     Lanfranc became dissatisfied with the honor and glory of his success at Avranches; and presently, in quest of something more deep and satisfying -- more in accordance with the craving of his spiritual nature, left his flourishing school and again started northward. The country was very wild and unsafe for a solitary wayfarer; and presently, so the tradition runs, he was attacked by a band of robbers, beaten, and left tied to a tree without food or money or any prospect of immediate release. The long hours of the night wore away and he grew more and more desperate; at last he bethought himself of spiritual aid as a last resort, and tried to repeat the service of the church. Alas! he could not remember the prayers and hymns, and in his despair he vowed a pious vow to God that he would devote himself to a holy life if his present sufferings might be ended. In good season some charcoal burners played the welcome part of deliverers and Lanfranc, yet aching with the pinch of his fetters and their galling knots, begged to know of some holy house near by, and was directed to Herluin's hermitage and the humble brotherhood of Bec.

     The little colony of holy men was all astir that day. Soldiers and sober gentlemen were tilling the soil and patiently furthering their rural tasks. Herluin himself, the former knight-at-arms, was clad in simple monkish garb, and playing the part of master-mason in the building of a new oven. Out from the neighboring thicket comes a strange figure, pale yet from his uncomforted vigil, and prays to be numbered with those who give their lives to the service of God. "This is surely a Lombard!" says Herluin, wonderstruck and filled with sympathy; and when he discovers the new brother's name and eager devotion, he kneels before him in love and reverence. It was a great day for the abbey of Bec.

     Such learning and ability to teach as Lanfranc's could not be hidden; indeed the church believed in using a man's great gifts, and each member was bound to give of his bounty in her service. The brothers who could till the ground and hew timber and build ovens kept at their tasks, and all the while Lanfranc, the theologian and teacher, the man of letters, gathered a company of scholars from far and wide. Bec became a famous centre of learning, and even from Italy and Greece young men journeyed to his school, and, as years went by, he was venerated more and more. His quick understanding and cleverness saved him many a disaster, and we recognize in him a charming inheritance of wit and good humor. He had the individuality and characteristics of his Italian ancestry, while he was that rare man in any social circle of his age, or even a later age, -- a true man of the world. A Norman of the Normans in his adopted home, he was yet able to see Normandy, not as the world itself, but only a factor in it, and to put it and its ambitions and possessions in their true relation to wider issues. There was no such churchman-statesman as Lanfranc in the young duchy, and his fame and glory were felt more and more. William the duke himself might well set his wits at work to conquer this formidable opponent of his marriage, and win him over to his following, and the first attack was not by conciliatory measures. Lanfranc received a formidable order to quit the country and leave his abbey of Bec on penalty of worse punishment.

     The future archbishop of English Canterbury meekly obeyed his temporal lord, and set out through the forest with a pitiful straggling escort affectingly futile in its appearance. He himself was mounted on the worst old stumbling horse in the despoiled abbey stables, and presently they meet the duke out hunting in most gallant array with a lordly following of knights and gentlemen. It looks surprisingly as if shrewd Lanfranc had arranged the scene beforehand. Along he comes on his feeble steed, limping slowly on the forest path; he, the greatest prior and book-man of Normandy, turned out of the house and home that his own learning had made famous through Christendom. "Under Lanfranc," says the chronicler, "the Normans first fathomed the art of letters, for under the six dukes of Normandy scarce any one among the Normans applied himself to liberal studies, nor was there any learning found till God, the provider of all things, brought Lanfranc to Normandy." All this, no doubt, flashed through William's mind, and the prior of Bec's Italian good-humor proved itself the best of weapons. "Give me a better horse," he cried, "and you shall see me go away faster." The duke laughed in spite of himself, and Lanfranc won a [a] chance of pleading his cause. Before they parted they were sworn friends, and the prior's knowledge of civil law and of theology and of human nature (not least by any means of his famous gifts) were for once and all at the duke's service. He supported the cause of the unlawful marriage, and even won a dispensation from the Pope, long desired and almost hopeless, in William's favor.

     But the abbey of Bec was a great power for good in its time, and carried a wonderful influence for many years. In the general scarcity of books in those days before printing, the best way of learning was to listen to what each great scholar had to say, and the students went about from school to school, and lingered longest at places like Bec, where the best was to be found. The men here were not only the patrons of learning and the guarders of their own copies of the ancient classics, but they taught the children of the neighborhood, and sheltered the rich and poor, the old people and the travellers, who wandered to their gates. They copied missals, they cast bells for churches, they were the best of farmers, of musicians, of artists. While Lanfranc waged his great battle with Berengarius about the doctrine of the Eucharist, and came out a victorious champion for the church, and won William's cause with the Pope with most skilful pleading of the value of Norman loyalty to the See of Rome, his humbler brethren tended their bees and ploughed straight furrows and taught the country children their letters. Such a centre of learning and of useful industry as Bec was the best flower of civilization. Lanfranc himself was true to his vow of humility. We catch some delightful glimpses of his simple life, and one in particular of his being met on a journey by some reverential pilgrims to his school. He was carefully carrying a cat behind him on the saddle, comfortably restrained from using her claws, and Lanfranc explained that he had sometimes been grievously annoyed by mice at his destination, and had provided this practical ally. One can almost see the twinkle in the good man's eyes, and the faces of surprised scholars who had been looking forward with awe and dread to their first encounter with so renowned a man.

Jewett's Note


Notes for Chapter 11

convent bells on wintry nights:  "Saint Brendan," by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) appeared in New Poems 1867.
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the powder of succession:  Sir Francis Palgrave, who explains the suspicion that William the Conqueror eliminated a rival, Walter Count of Vexin and his wife, by means of poison.  See The History of Normandy and of England, v. 3, p. 270.  Jewett's Sources.
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Venerable Bede:  See Wikipedia for a sketch of the life and works of Saint Bede (672/673 – 735):
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Benedictine monks: St. Benedict founded a monastery in the 6th century near Rome and developed “The Rule of Benedict.”  See Wikipedia.
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 Augustinian order of monks: According to Wikipedia:  The Order of St. Augustine is one of the four great mendicant orders.  Though by tradition they trace their founding to St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430 A.D.), the order was formed by Pope Innocent IV in 1244 and became a mendicant order under Alexander IV in 1256.
    Wikipedia also says: "The four great mendicant orders established at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 were: the Order of Preachers, The Friars Minor, the Carmelites, and the Hermits of St. Augustine."
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his own small possession:  The passage is quoted from Freeman, vol 2, pp. 144-5, from which Jewett varies in minor ways.  (Jewett's Sources)
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give to God what I had of thee:  Jewett may quote from Johnson, The Normans in Europe, p. 106, though where Jewett says "affection," Johnson says "love." 
                Jewett may draw upon Johnson as well for her account of Lanfranc's being robbed and his promise to devote himself to holy life if rescued (107).  (Jewett's Sources)
    For a biographical sketch of St. Anselm, see Wikipedia.
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Lanfranc:  For a fuller biographical sketch of Lanfranc, see Wikipedia.
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he could not remember the prayers and hymns:  Palgrave recounts the story of Lanfranc's decision to take orders in History of Normandy and England, vol. 3, pp. 258-9.  However, Jewett's narrative differs in detail and interpretation from Palgrave's.  For example, they give different accounts of the first meeting of Herluin and Lanfranc.  Johnson and Freeman offer little detail about this first meeting.  Therefore, Jewett's source must be elsewhere.  (Jewett's Sources)
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Under Lanfranc ... the Normans first fathomed the art of letters:  Probably, this is quoted from Johnson, pp. 108-9, which is identical with Jewett's text.  (Jewett's Sources)
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cat ... practical ally:  The story of Lanfranc and his cat is told in several sources, but of those we can be reasonably sure Jewett used, it seems to be repeated only in Palgrave, vol. 3, p. 263.  (Jewett's Sources)
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Jewett's Note

The faith of Herluin nearly failed him: Quoted, with slight variations from Freeman, p. 143.  Note that Freeman spells the knight's name: Herlwin.  Jewett uses the same spelling as Johnson. (Jewett's Sources)  Note also the allusion of the salt losing savor which comes from Matthew 5:13.               
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  Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College, with assistance from Allison Anderson and Gabe Heller.


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