THE HISTORY OF ST. NORBERT
by J.C. Kirkfleet, O. Praem.; 1916, B. Herder, London
His Birth and Education
- Pone metum Hadwigis: sic vox monet aethere lapsa:
- Tam mundo Illustrem gignere digna Virum.
"Be of' good courage, Hedwig," said a voice from heaven "for you are found worthy to be the mother of a renowned servant of God."
No observant student, scanning the history of Christianity, can fail to see the Providence of God coming to her rescue, whenever special intervention seems necessary. As often as the powers of darkness and the intrigues of a corrupt world threatened to undermine the faith and morals of the multitude, so often did the Holy Spirit raise up men of learning and sanctity to counteract the evil influences of Satan's helpmates. Some of our most eminent Saints have lived in the times of moral corruption. They were sent by God to lead the army of the faithful against the legions of vice and heresy, and thus defend the honor of the Spouse of Christ.
The year of our Saint's conversion coincides with the death of Tankelin or Tanchelm, the heretic, who had shaken the faith and corrupted the morals of thousands His followers were found in Flanders, on the banks of the Rhine, and had infested the diocese of Cologne. Norbert was the Angel of peace chosen to restore the true practices of religion, to defeat Abelard and Peter di Leone, and to raise a strong arm on the side of right in the conflict then raging between the temporal and the spiritual powers.
The traveler coming down the Rhine from Wesel towards Nymegen, beholds to his left—at the extreme border of an immense plain—the two rising spires of the collegiate church of Xanten. The town, situated near Wesel, has only about four thousand inhabitants, who are nearly all Catholic. Built at the foot of mount Furstenberg, Xanten has a certain attractiveness, increased by an ancient venerableness difficult to define. Although the date of its exact origin is lost to history, local pride traces it back to the city of Troy—the Troy of the Franks. To the end of the third century its name was "Vetera Castra." However, since it became the scene of the martyrdom of a number of soldiers belonging to the illustrious Theban Legion, the name has been changed into Xanten, the town of Saints.[A-1-2]
In this historic little town Norbert was born in the year 1080[A-1-3], of one of the most illustrious families of Germany's nobility. His father, whose name was Heribert, was related to the Imperial House itself, and his mother Hadwigis, was a descendant of the ancient House of Lorraine. His father bore the title of Count of Gennep, which he derived from his great castle, situated about seven miles from Xanten. The road leading from the castle to the village is called Norbert's road to this day, on which account there is a local tradition that the Saint was born in the castle. Most historians agree, however, that his cradle stood in his father's costly mansion at Xanten, where he also received his early education.
His parents, belonging to God's nobility as well as that of the world, were both virtuous and God-fearing Christians. Besides Norbert, they had another son, Heribert by name, older than the Saint, and one younger, Erbert[A-1-4]. The Saint's mother especially was a very pious woman. Although history is quite silent about her, there is one very significant incident of her life related in all the biographies of Norbert. Shortly before the Saint was born, she heard very distinctly a voice from heaven, saying: "Be of good courage, Hadwigis, for you are found worthy to be the mother of a renowned servant of God, a future illustrious archbishop." Thus also were announced the great Samuel, St. John the Baptist, and other Saints. As the golden dawn heralds the sun which brings to the earth light and heat, so also were announced the approach of these saints, who were to spread the light of the Gospel and kindle the warmth of Jesus' love in the hearts of the people. Blessed indeed may we call the mother who receives such tidings from above. It was also said of the Precursor of Our Lord that he would be great before God, and it is remarkable that Norbert during his lifetime always considered the great Preacher of Penance his special patron and protector. He tried continually to model his own life after St. John's example.
When the new-born babe was baptized, it was not without reason that his name was called Norbert or Norbert, for this name means "Shield of the North." As history will prove, our Saint in reality did become a protector of Northern Europe against the invasions of Paganism, where his Order for centuries proved a mighty rampart.
Although we know very little about Norbert's early education, we have no doubt that his pious mother took charge of it herself and gave him a gentle and reverential training. She also must have imprinted upon that youthful soul that real piety, which, though dimmed for a time, shone forth in all its splendor immediately after his conversion. It must be further observed that Xanten had a collegiate church, formed in those days after the model of cathedrals, and therefore had a grammar school attached, the duties of the Canons being such as did not occupy more than a few hours each day. Probably, therefore, the education of our youthful Saint was entrusted to the Canons of Xanten[A-1-5]. He quickly surpassed his fellow-students, and convinced his teachers of the fact that God had bestowed extraordinary gifts upon him. Before very long, the Canons advised Norbert's father to send his son to a university. Norbert went to Cologne, where he again so distinguished himself, that when he was twenty years of age, he was looked upon as a scholar. His contemporaries are unanimous in praising his profound knowledge of philosophy. This solid foundation served him admirably in his later life, when he was called upon to refute the heretical doctrine of the clever Abelard and expose the sophistry of the party of the antipope. He had moreover an inborn eloquence and a wide knowledge of literature, sacred and profane. When we add to all this his noble birth and genteel appearance, we can readily believe that the young Norbert was considered a veritable leader among the rising generation of his day. His biographers agree that he was tall in stature— in bearing, graceful and refined, quick and penetrating of intellect, tractable and tender of heart. Thus equipped at the age of twenty, our Saint faced the world at the time of its mediaeval crisis.
The two great powers of the civilized world had for years been at open war. The great Pope Hildebrand had died when Norbert was a child of four, and conditions were still very much unsettled. Although the right of lay-investiture had been taken away from the Crown—although the perfidious Henry had gone to Canossa, in Germany, the old simoniacal practices had long since been resumed. The war between the temporal and the spiritual powers, far from being settled, continued as a matter of fact, for more than fifty years, and the Saint himself took an active part in this great struggle and also beheld the triumph of the Church before his death.
It might be well to call the reader's attention to the fact that we are now at the beginning of the period of the Crusades. The zealous indignation over the insults and cruelties suffered at the hands of the Turks by Christians in the Holy Land, was just at its height. Great fears were being entertained as to the fate of that valiant army of over half a million warriors, many of whom were of the nobility, who had set out for Asia Minor. And if anywhere, it certainly must have been at the home of Norbert that the movements of the Crusaders were being watched with feverish excitement, since the leader himself, Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower-Lorraine, was a blood-relation of Norbert's mother. Although it is but insinuated in some biographies, it seems quite probable that, when on July 15th of that same year the news came from the Holy Land that Jerusalem was captured and that Godfrey had been proclaimed its King, Norbert's enthusiasm to join the army of the Crusaders was thoroughly aroused. How very natural to picture this accomplished young man, in the vigor of youth and full of ambition, pleading with his father and mother to be allowed to join the holy army and win fame by setting free the Holy Places and driving out the Turks. However, his virtuous parents, mindful of the heavenly warning given before his birth, had decided to lead Norbert into God's sanctuary. Not that they lacked the general enthusiasm, for his illustrious father, the Count, died a Crusader in the Holy Land. His younger brother Erbert, in a later expedition, is said to have lost his life under the walls of Tyre, in Palestine,[A-1-6] but Norbert was, in their opinion, destined to become a "Cleric." Whether or not his parents had selfish motives in this determination, it is impossible to say. Some biographers are inclined to think they had, first because it was customary in those days to have at least one son a "Cleric;" secondly, on account of Norbert's subsequent behavior.
Norbert was ordained subdeacon by the Archbishop of Cologne, his Ordinary, and forthwith appointed to a Canonry in the Imperial Church at Xanten. It was not unusual in those days to meet canons who were not yet elevated to the dignity of the priesthood. Many clerics were given a canonry through the influence of some friend, or on account of their exalted station in life, and derived rich emoluments from it. We should not forget that we are in the beginning of the twelfth century, when, as Cardinal Newman says: "The Christian world was in a more melancholy state than it ever had been, either before or since." Any one acquainted with the struggle of lay-investiture will readily understand the truth of this statement.
Norbert did not remain very long a canon at Xanten. The Archbishop, hearing of his natural talents and learning, invited him to come to live at his Court in Cologne. Alas! our worldly-minded Norbert, blinded by ambition, obeyed with great eagerness. Soon misled by the flattery of the world, he allowed himself to be entirely carried away by its pleasures and allurements. He forgot the lessons of his pious mother and the obligations of his state in life, and became thoroughly worldly. True, he was living at the Court of an Archbishop, but as in those days bishops and abbots often filled the post of Chancellor or Ambassador at the various courts, so also worldly chancellors and ambassadors often filled episcopal sees, or were placed at the head of monasteries. Consequently a worldly spirit prevailed even at the court of many a Church dignitary. In regard to the Court of Cologne in particular, a panegyrist of Norbert has said that there especially the Church and the world made their display successively.
We can readily understand how well the young Count was received at the Court. His nobility, his learning and graceful bearing, made him a favorite with all, especially when he showed his eagerness to join in their amusements. Still, to do him justice, we feel obliged to add here, that however worldly he was, Norbert never gave himself over to the sinful excesses of those days. Even his greatest enemies, who after his conversion, did all in their power to counteract his influence, never accused him of having been guilty of any great sin or scandal. On the other hand, we cannot deny that at this time Norbert's eyes and ears were open only for things of the world, that he was ambitious and fond of honors. Says the author of the Office of St. Norbert:
- "Yet worldly glory wooed thy heart,
- And thou, of noble race, didst turn
- Away from shine eternal part
- To seek the fair, false lights that burn
- In royal halls of' earth. . . "[A-1-7]
Norbert succeeded in obtaining a second ecclesiastical preferment, a canonry in the cathedral of Cologne, besides other benefices, by which he was enabled to increase his income. But growing dissatisfied at the court of the Archbishop, he did all in his power to enter that of the Emperor, to whom he was related through his father. The Emperor was Henry V, who came to the throne, Dec. 25, 1105, having forced his father to abdicate. Henry was a bitter opponent of Pope Paschal II. Nevertheless, his gay court tempted our young canon, which fact alone shows sufficiently how far Norbert had drifted.
Caesaris hinc juvenem favor allicit, inde Voluptas, Addictum studiis dum tenet aula suis.[A-1-8]
By what intrigue he succeeded we do not know, but very soon Norbert was installed as chaplain and almoner of the Emperor himself. In the capacity of almoner he was present at the Imperial Diets, and was one of the immediate councilors of His Majesty. Thus we read that at the Diet of Ratisbon, held on Epiphany day, 1110, Norbert spoke in the name of the King. He did this with such eloquence and conviction, that he was designated by the votes of the most prominent men of the kingdom, to accompany the Emperor on his expedition to Rome; truly a great honor, but by no means an enviable one, when we consider the Emperor's mission.
Pope Paschal II had refused to restore to Henry the right of Investiture. Henry's first object, therefore, in going to Rome was, as his ambassadors themselves expressed it, to decide the question by the sword, if necessary. His second object was to receive the Imperial Crown from the hands of the Pope. Norbert's part in this woeful expedition was to assist Henry in coming to terms with the Pope. From Florence, where the Emperor spent Christmas, that year, the conditions of the Coronation were arranged by letter as follows:
"On the day of the coronation, Henry shall make in writing a renunciation of all right of Investiture of churches. He shall pledge himself by oath to the Pope, in the presence of the clergy and people, to its strict observance. He shall swear to leave the churches in the peaceful enjoyment of their property. He shall confirm the Holy See in the possession of its estates and fiefs, after the example of Charlemagne and other predecessors. On these conditions the Pope will crown Henry V and acknowledge him as Emperor. He will assist him to maintain his authority in Germany, and forbid the bishops to usurp the 'regales,' or do anything prejudicial to the rights of the prince." [A-1-9]
We have reason to fear that when these terms were duly drawn up and signed by both parties, Norbert prided himself on his successful diplomacy, not knowing the false character of Henry. At first everything pointed to real success. The king entered Rome, preceded by an immense multitude of people bearing green boughs, palms and flowers. However, when Henry was required to sign the document, he proved false, and boldly refused to give up the right of Investiture. It was on this occasion that one of the most shocking scenes related in history took place within the very walls of St. Peter's. The outcome of it all was that Henry was forced to flee from Rome, but he dragged the venerable Pontiff along as his prisoner, and for two months the Pope was subjected to fearful threats and cruel treatment.
Norbert, now realizing the baseness of the king's action, exerted his influence to obtain the release of the Pope and to restore peace between the two sovereigns, but all in vain. He visited the Pope in prison, consoled him in his distress and appeared greatly shocked at the king's violence and injustice. He is also said to have thrown himself at the feet of the august prisoner and implored his pardon. That this incident made Norbert turn seriously into himself, we know from his subsequent conduct. As yet, however, he was too ambitious, too much of a courtier to listen to the inner voice of his conscience and forsake the unjust cause of the king altogether; still we shall presently see signs of an inward struggle.
History informs us that, overcome by the entreaties of many bishops, and fearing a new schism in the Church, Pope Paschal II at last yielded, and signed a treaty by which he conceded to Henry the right of investing bishops by ring and crozier. On his return journey, Henry wanted to make use of his privilege at once, and offered the Archbishopric to his Chancellor, and the Bishopric of Cambray to his chaplain and almoner, Norbert. Strange to say, Norbert refused. The king's offer was tempting, for the Bishopric of Cambray was a very important see and yielded a large revenue; but Norbert had changed. Although he lacked the courage at the time to lead the life of an exemplary cleric, his upright character had been shocked by the late acts of the king, and thus at the risk of losing Henry's favor, he declined the honor. Attached to honors he was, but nothing could ever have induced him to accept the ring and the crozier from an excommunicated layman. On the other hand, it is strange that even after this event, Norbert does not entirely sever his connection with court-life. True, after returning from Italy, he left the Court of Henry, but returned to that of the Archbishop of Cologne. He had either offended the king by declining his offer, and thus lost his favor, or perhaps he no longer dared, even tacitly, approve of his perfidious conduct. At any rate the change did not affect his manner of living.
- ". . . But lo!
- These halls are trembling 'neath the power
- Of Him Who stoops to thee, to show
- Thou shalt be His. Alas! that hour
- Thou 'rt faltering still. The voice of fame,
- Its flattery, in thine ear is sweet."
- (Offlce of St. Norbert.)
Norbert plunged into society, took part in all amusements, and seemed to be leading a life even more worldly than before. He was so thoroughly enslaved by the world at this time, that nothing short of a miracle could change this ambitious Saul into a second Paul.
<<Footnotes for chapter A-1>>
These Latin verses were composed by an unknown author and originally formed the inscriptions under thirty-five paintings representing scenes of the life of St. Norbert. The paintings were executed by J. A. Pfeffel, 1674-1760. Cfr. "Iconographie Norbertine," by Ign. Van Spilbeeck, O. Praem. Vol. III, p. 61. <<BACK TO THE TEXT>>
Cfr. Acta SS. T. V., Octob., p. 14-30. <<BACK TO THE TEXT>>
This is the date on which most biographers agree. There are some who name 1084 and even 1086, but give no reason for it. <<BACK TO THE TEXT>>
This younger brother is mentioned in the Necrology of Xanten and Floreffe. Cfr. further in the Acta SS. T. I. Junii Analecta C, III, p, 857. <<BACK TO THE TEXT>>
This is the opinion of G. VandenElsen "Het leven van den H. Norbertus," p. 6. Madelaine in his "Vie de Saint Norbert," p. 33, observes that it is more probable that Norbert had a private tutor at home, according to the custom of wealthy families in those days. Both agree about Norbert's going to the University of Cologne. <<BACK TO THE TEXT>>
Thus the Necrology of Xanten and Floreffe. <<BACK TO THE TEXT>>
Hymn at Matins. Cfr. Manual of' Third Order of' St. Norbert, p. 66. <<BACK TO THE TEXT>>
Royal favor and luxury attracted the youth who had tasted court life at the palace of the archbishop. <<BACK TO THE TEXT>>
Cfr. "General History of the Catholic Church," by J. E. Darras, Vol. III, p. 181. The same author also observes that what is here meant by "regales" are the temporal rights and fiefs, which flowed, as such from the suzerainty of the king. <<BACK TO THE TEXT>>
<<end of footnotes for chapter A-1>>