Bricstan

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"The Story of Bricstan and the Apparition of SS. Benedict and Ethelreda"
from Historia Ecclesiastica
by Orderic Vitalis, translated by Thomas Forester
Chapter X, from The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy Vol.II (London: Bohn, 1853)
Bricstan was a Twelfth Century monk from Chatteris in East Anglia who, according to the manuscript, was falsely imprisoned by "a servant of the devil". Following a vision of St Ethelreda and St. Benedict he was released at the request of Queen Matilda of Scotland, wife of King Henry I of England c.1115-6. The Historia Ecclesiastica by the Chronicler Orderic Vitalis (1075–c. 1142) is one of three contemporary accounts of the incident.[1][2]

The Story of Bricstan[edit]

In the time of Henry, King of England and Duke of Normandy, in the sixteenth year of his reign over England and the tenth of his government of the duchy,[3] obtained there was on the possessions of our church a certain free tennant called Bricstan, who lived at Chatteris.[4]

This man, according to the testimony of his neighbours, never injured any one and content with what he had, meddled not with what belonged to others. Neither very rich nor very poor, he conducted his affairs and brought up his family, in moderate independence, according to the habits of laymen. He lent money to his neighbours who wanted it, but not at usury, while, on account of the dishonesty of some of his debtors, he required security.

Thus holding a middle course, he was considered not better than other good men, nor worse than the ill-disposed. Being thus at peace with all mankind, and believing that he had not a single enemy, he was inspired by divine influence (as it appeared in the sequel) to entertain the desire of submitting himself to the rule of St. Benedict, and assuming the habit. In short, he came to our convent dedicated to St. Peter the apostle and St. Ethelreda, implored the favour of the monks, and engaged to put himself and all he had under their rule.

But, alas! the evil spirit, through whose malice Adam fell in paradise, will never cease from persecuting his posterity to the last man who shall exist. God, however, whose providence ordereth all things in mercy and goodness, in his omnipotence bringeth good out of evil, and out of good what is still better. When, therefore, the news was spread abroad (for Bricstan, though his acquaintance was not extensive, was sufficiently well known), a certain man who was in King Henry's employment, but more especially a servant of the devil, interfered with malicious spite.

We must make a short digression that you may understand what sort of man this was. His name was Robert Malart (which signifies in Latin malum artificeni) and not without reason.[5] He had little else to do but to make mischief against all sorts of persons, monks, clerks, soldiers, and country folk; in short, men of all ranks, whether they lived piously, or the contrary. That I may not be accused of calumny, this was his constant practice, wherever he was able to vent his malice. He slandered every one alike to the best of his ability, and exerted himself to the utmost for the injury of others. Thus mischievous to one and another, he may be counted among those of whom it is said that 'they rejoice to do evil and delight in the forwardness of the wicked.'

When he failed of truth for his accusations he became a liar, inventing falsehoods by help of the devil, the father of lies. It would be impossible for any one, even if he had been his constant companion from childhood, to recount, much more to commit to writing, all the evil doings of this man, who was truly called Thousand-craft; let us, therefore, proceed with our story.

When Robert heard the news that Bricstan wished to assume the habit of a monk, he lost no time, in accordance with the teaching of his master the devil, who is always lying and deceiving, in presenting himself at the convent. Having a false account to give, he began with a falsehood, saying:

"This Bricstan is a thief; he has fradulently appropriated the king's money in secret, and wishes to become a monk, not to save his soul, but to save himself from the sentence and punishment which his crimes merit. In short, he has found a hidden treasure, and has turned usurer with sums clandestinely subtracted from what is the king's by right. Being therefore guilty of the grave offences of theft and usury, he is afraid to appear before the king or the judges. In consequence, I have the royal authority to forbid your receiving him into your convent."

The Trial[edit]

Whereupon, having heard the king's prohibition, and dreading his anger, we refused to admit the man into our society. What shall I say more? He gave bail and was brought to trial. Ralph Basset was judge, and all the principal men of the county were assembled at Huntingdon, according to the custom in England.[6]

Hervey, was also there with Reginald, Abbot of Ramsey[7] and Robert, Abbot of Thorney, and many clerks and monks. Not to make the story long, the accused appeared with his wife, the charges falsely made against him were recapitulated. He pleaded not guilty, he could not confess what he had not done; the other party charged him with falsehoods, and made sport of him; he was indeed rather corpulent, and was short in stature, but he had, so to speak, an honest countenance. After having unjustly loaded him with reproaches, they pre-judged him, as in the case of Susannah, and sentenced him and all his substance to be at the king's mercy.

After this judgment, being compelled to surrender all that he possessed, he gave up what he had in hand, and owned where his effects were, and who were his debtors. Being however pressed to give up and discover more, he replied in the English tongue:

"Wat min Laert Godel Mihtin that ic sege soth", which means "My Lord God Almighty knows that I speak the truth."

He often repeated this, but said nothing else. Having delivered up all that he had, the holy relics were brought into court, but when he was called upon to swear, he said to his wife:

"My sister, I adjure you by the love there is between us, not to suffer me to commit perjury; for I have more fear of perilling my soul than of suffering bodily torments. If therefore there is any reservation which affects your conscience, do not hesitate to make it known. Our spiritual enemy covets more keenly the damnation of our souls, than the torture of our bodies."

To this she replied:

"Sir, besides what you have declared, I have only sixteen pence and two rings weighing four drachms."

These being exhibited, the woman added:

"Dearest husband, you may now take the oath in safety, and I will afterwards confirm, on the testimony of my conscience, the truth you have sworn by the ordeal of carrying hot iron in my naked hand, in the presence of all who desire to witness it, if you so command."

In short, Bricstan was sworn, he was then bound and carried in custody to London, where he was thrown into a gloomy dungeon. There, heavily ironed with chains of unusual weight, in a most cruel and outrageous manner, he suffered for some time the horrors of cold and hunger. In this extremity of distress, he implored divine assistance according to the best of his ability, inspired by his urgent necessity. But as he felt that his own merits were but very small, or to speak the truth, of no account whatever, having no confidence in them he incessantly invoked, with sorrowful heart and such words as he could command, St. Benedict, to whose rule, as we have seen before, he had unfeignedly proposed to devote himself, and the holy virgin St. Etheldrida in whose monastery he intended to make his profession. In this dark dungeon, loaded with chains, tortured with cold, and wasted with hunger, he wore out five wretched months, and would rather, in my opinion, have chosen to die at once than live thus miserably. But still, seeing no hopes of human help, he continued to call on SS. Benedict and Etheldrida with sighs and groans and tears, and with heart and mouth.

The Apparition of SS. Benedict and Ethelreda[edit]

To proceed; one night when the bells in the city were ringing for lauds, and Bricstan, in his dungeon, besides his other sufferings, had received no food for three days, so that he was quite exhausted and entirely despaired of his recovery, he repeated the names of the saints with a sorrowful voice. Then at last, the clement and merciful God, the never-failing fountain of all goodness, who never despises those that are in adversity, and chooses none for their wealth or power, at last vouchsafed to show his loving-kindness to the supplicant. It had been long indeed implored, but it was deferred, that the earnestness of his supplications might be more intense and the mercy shown be more ardently loved. For now St. Benedict and St. Ethelreda, with her sister Sexburga, stood before the sorrowful prisoner.[8] The light which preceded their appearance was so extraordinary that he screened his eyes with his hands and when the saints were seen surrounded by it, Etheldrida spoke first:

"Bricstan," she said, "why do you so often pour out your griefs before us? What do you implore us, with such earnest prayers, to grant?"

But he, spent with fasting, and being now thrown into a sort of trance by excessive joy and the supernatural visitation, could say nothing in reply. Then the holy virgin said:

"I am Etheldrida, whom you have so often invoked, and this is St. Benedict under whose rule you devoted yourself to the service of God, and whose aid you have continually implored. Do you wish to be set free?"

On hearing this his spirit revived, and waking, as it were, from a dream, he said:

"My lady, if life can by any means be granted me, I should wish to escape from this horrible dungeon, but I find myself so worn out by sufferings of every description, that my bodily powers are exhausted and I have no longer any hope of obtaining my liberty."

Then the holy virgin turning to St. Benedict, said:

"Holy Benedict, why do you hesitate to do what the Lord has commanded you?"

At this, the venerable Benedict laid his hand on the fetters, and they fell in pieces, so that the prisoner's feet were released without his being sensible of any act, the saint appearing to have shattered his chains by his word alone. Having detached them, he threw them indignantly against the beam which supported the floor of the prison, making a great opening, and waking the guards, who lay in the gallery, in great alarm at the crash which took place. They supposed that the prisoners had made their escape, and lighting torches hastened to the dungeon, and finding the doors fast closed, they opened them with the keys and went in. Upon seeing the prisoner they had left in fetters freed from his chains, their astonishment increased, and upon their demanding an account of the noise they had heard, and who had caused it, and how his fetters were struck off, Bricstan said nothing, but a fellow prisoner replied:

"Some persons, I know not who, entered the prison with a great light, and talked with this man my companion, but what they said or

did I know not; ask him who knows best."

Then the guards turning to Bricstan, said:

"Tell us what you saw and heard."

He replied:

"St. Benedict, with St. Etheldrida and her sister Sexburga appeared to me and struck the fetters off my feet: if you will not believe me, at least believe your own eyes."

As they did not doubt the miracle they saw, the gaolers sent in the morning to queen Matilda[9], who happened to be in the city at the time, to tell her of it.

Bricstan's Release[edit]

The queen sent Ralph Basset to the prison, the same who had before doomed Bricstan, who said that magical art was now employed. Ralph entering the dungeon addressed the prisoners derisively, as he had done on the former occasion:

"What has happened Bricstan? Has God spoken to you by his angels? Has he visited you in your prison? Tell me what witchcraft you have been practising."

But Bricstan made no more reply than if he had been dead. Then Ralph Basset, perceiving that his fetters were broken, and hearing from his fellow prisoners of the three persons who entered the dungeon surrounded by light, the words they had spoken, and the crash they had made, and perceiving the hand of God in these events, began to weep bitterly and, turning to Bricstan, he said:

"My brother, I am a servant of St. Benedict and the holy virgin Etheldrida; for the love of them speak to me."

He replied:

"If you are a servant of those saints, you are welcome. Be assured that what you see and hear about me is the truth, and not the effect of magic."

Ralph, then, taking charge of the prisoner, conducted him with tears of joy into the presence of the queen, where many nobles were present. Meanwhile the report flew swifter than a bird throughout London, and coming to the ears of almost all the citizens, they raised shouts to heaven, and people of both sexes and every age praised together the name of the Lord, and flocked to the court where it was reported Bricstan was taken, some shedding tears of joy, and others wondering at what they saw and heard. The queen, rejoicing in so great a miracle (for she was a good Christian), ordered the bells to be rung in all the monasteries throughout the city, and thanksgivings to be offered by the convents belonging to every ecclesiastical order. Bricstan went to many of the churches to return thanks to God in the fulness of his joy for his liberation, great crowds preceding and following him through the suburbs, and every one being anxious to see him, as if he were some new man. When he reached the church of St. Peter, called in English Westminster, Gilbert, the abbot of that place[10], a man of great eminence in sacred and profane literature, came forth to meet him outside the abbey in a procession formed of the whole body of monks, with all the pomp of the church; for he said

"If the relics of a dead man are to be received with ceremony in a church, we have much more reason for giving an honourable reception to living relics, namely such a man as this: for as to the dead, we who are still in this mortal life are uncertain where their spirits are, but for this man, we cannot be ignorant that he has been visited and delivered by God before our eyes, because he has not acted unjustly."

When thanksgivings had been offered to God, to the best of their ability, according to what in their estimation was due for Bricstan's deliverance, the queen sent him with great honour to the abbey of St. Etheldrida in the isle of Ely. I went myself, attended by the whole convent of monks, to meet him, with candles and crosses, chanting Te Deum laudamus. Having conducted him into the church with befitting ceremony, and offered thanksgivings to God, we delivered to him, in honour of the blessed Benedict his liberator, the monastic habit he had so long desired. We also hung up in the church, in view of the people, the fetters with which he was bound, that they might be a memorial of this great miracle, to the honour of St. Benedict, who broke them, and of St. Etheldrida, who was his colleague and assistant; and they long continued to be suspended there to keep alive the remembrance of these events.

I have been desirous of making known to the sons of holy church these acts of the venerable father Benedict, not because he had not performed greater wonders, but because they are more recent, and such miracles appear in our days to be infrequent in England etc.

Notes[edit]

  1. Originally in Latin, translated by Thomas Forester M.A.
  2. Lois L. Huneycutt, Matilda of Scotland: a study in medieval queenship (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) 91.
  3. Henry I, crowned king of England, August 5, 1100; possession of the duchy of Normandy, September 28, 1100. The circumstance here related occurred, therefore, between September, 1115 and 1116.
  4. Chatteris, in the fens, ten miles from Ely. At the time when Domesday Book was compiled, it was divided between the abbeys of Ely and Ramsey.
  5. a Mille-Artifex; a name commonly given to the devil in the middle ages.
  6. Ralph Basset was one of the minions of Henry I, whom he raised, from a low origin, to the highest offices in the state, in preference to his nobles.
  7. Reginald, Abbot of Ramsay (in Huntingdonshire), from 1114 May 20, 1133.
  8. Sexburga, eldest sister of St. Etheldrida, was married to Ercombert, king of Kent. She founded a monastery in the isle of Sheppy, and afterwards succeeded her sister as abbess of Ely.
  9. Matilda, a princess of great piety and excellence, daughter of Malcolm, King of Scotland, and Margaret, sister of Edgar Atheling, was married to Henry I. in December, 1100, and died May, 1 1118.
  10. Gilbert Crespin, abbot of Westminster, son of William Crespin, governor of Neaufle, one of the greatest benefactors to the abbey of Bee. Gilbert was one of the most able and voluminous writers of the age. It appears that he was still living in 1123.

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