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Life of Herluin Abbot of Bec: Gobbet

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1292
  • Category: Life

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“He observed the same austerity in food and drink in old as he had in his youth except that, under pressure from the whole congregation of brethren, except on obligatory fast days he ate twice a day. He acquiesced in this not through a concern for reviving his exhausted body, but because when taking food he could be in the company of those eating, for whose benefit he presided over the house. He preserved with his work until nightfall, and often into the night; rest and leisure were banished from his life. Neither his age, now exceeding the number of years of which it is said in the Psalm: “And beyond them labour and sorrow,” nor the violent illness by which his body was often racked kept him from his necessary duties.

He treated his monks in every respect with paternal affection, ruling them with firm discipline but loving them with utmost devotion. If he found any of the brethren slothful or forgetful of his observance or his studies, or dozing in church, he held him to be utterly detestable; he always used to say: “What use is a man ignorant of letters and the commandments of God?” But whomsoever he thought to be alert, studious and resolute in the exercise of virtue, to him he behaved not as his abbot but as his servant; the hope of his favour stirred many to study rather than the love of learning, for he enquired carefully who among the whole body of those being taught were possessed of keen minds and retentive memories, who were making the most eager progress and in what branches of study, in short which all of them was striving hardest to master all the virtues and attain the love of God. For he loved and endeavoured to encourage whatever he saw was worthy of love in each of them no less than himself; if a man of letters came to him with the desire to become a monk, how gladly did he receive him, with what loving care and reverence did he entertain him.”1

It is impossible to consider the “Life of Herluin: Abbot of Bec”, as a literal text without first, deliberating over the author Gilbert Crispin’s background. Harper-Bill describes Crispin’s hagiography of Herluin as being “perhaps less than credible”2, this mainly due to Crispin himself being “a man who was soaked in the tradition of Bec.”3 This accompanied by our knowledge that Crispin was a child oblate at Bec from 1050, and would have had glowing stories passed down to him from his father William, who had known Herluin personally altogether emphasis to us, as modern-day readers we cannot take this hagiography as neither exact nor accurate. The main reason for this being that it would have been inconceivable that Crispin would have spoken negatively of Herluin, the church or as an Abbot himself anything holy. However this shouldn’t mean we dismiss Crispin’s work as fictitious, again Harper-Bill states that it “provides [us with] a valuable insight into early eleventh-century Norman society”4 disclosing the state of the church in the 11th century. In addition to significantly exhibiting the practices in which the Abbot and monks live.

The texts itself written sometime between 1085 and 1117, the years in which Crispin became Abbot of Westminster and his death, deals with the transformation of Herluin a knight to a renowned Abbot. Crispin’s initial purpose for writing this text would have been to commemorate Herluin, a man he would have had deep respect and admiration for and perhaps even to promote his unappreciated achievements seen in fact he was never canonised5.

Another viewpoint which we could interpret is possibly the reason Crispin wrote this text was a more self-motivated reason and in which Crispin wants to celebrate ‘Bec’ itself as it was the monastery where he was educated, and in the process exalting himself. This however may be a little unfair about a man devoted to God and the following of the “Rules of St. Benedict.” We see Herluin, illustrated by Crispin as a man who also adheres in following the ‘Rules of St. Benedict’. Rule number two, “What Kind a Person an Abbot Ought to be”6, is particularly adept in underlining Herluin’s prominence. It’s extremely fitting that Crispin describes Herluin as “treat[ing] his monks in every respect with paternal affection”7, while St. Benedict declares an Abbot ‘ought’ to show the “loving affection of a father.”8 This emphasises the sincerity and skill in which Herluin succeeds in his role as Abbot, he sometimes needs to “persuade” and “coax” his “flock”9 while at other times “rule them with firm discipline”10, thus showing his adaptability and ability in accomplishing the task set about for him as an Abbot.

We see other examples of Herluin’s ability in realising the ‘Rules’ set about him by Benedict. Benedict writes “let him make no distinction between persons in the monastery… unless it be one he find better”11, in the extract Herluin is illustriously described in carrying out this measure, “But whomsoever he thought to be alert, studious and resolute in the exercises of virtue… was worthy of love”12, again Crispin here is stressing that while the church was going through Norman reform as it attempted to “abolish simony and marriage of the clergy”13, here was someone perfect, everybody could resemble, somebody extremely devoted to working towards God. This though could be argued as the fatal flaw of the text, as it comes across as Crispin simply checking off “The Rules of St. Benedict”, writing insincerely and something which could have been construed by contemporary’s as being feigned and contrived.

Although Harper-Bill argues that the text “Life of Herluin: Abbot of Bec” is “invaluable”14, add to this the fact that it is clear that Herluin was justly more fond of Lanfranc due to his “obedience” and “good works”15, overall wholly show that Herluin did successfully adhere to attain living by that particular ‘Rule of St. Benedict’, “that an Abbot Ought to be.” In Herluin’s older age, one could expect him to have become less rigorous in his following of the “St Benedictian Rules” and the “Psalms”, but Crispin demonstrates this not be the case. Crispin writes, “he observed the same austerity… in old age as he had in youth”16, exemplifying not only his piousness and faithfulness to God and his monastery but the type of virtuous man Herluin was. He is shown as after being put “under pressure from the whole congregation… [to] eat twice a day”17, he only finally complies as so he can be in the “company of those eating”, this again accentuates his “utmost devotion”18 towards his “flock” and not caring for his general wellbeing when conflicting the ‘rules’ in which he must follow God, this point again highlighted as “rest and leisure were banned from his life.”19

“Life of Herluin: Abbot of Bec”, ultimately carries a vast amount of historical and social significance. Crispin successfully allows the modern-day historian to delve into the medieval era and identify, firstly the detailed inner workings of an 11th century monastery. In addition to emphasising the continuity between what ‘St. Benedict’ rules and the way the monks lived. It is very difficult to fault Herluin on any of the ‘St. Benedictian rules’, but this maybe where the success of the text wavers, as for the modern reader it would be hard to support a man so perfect, claiming it to be fabricated. But irrevocably Herluin’s character would have inspired many in the medieval era, and overall I profusely expect that this objective would have been the main aim of Crispin, when writing this text to display to the Christian church that Herluin was someone they should all be enthused to become.


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