The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy/Book 6/Chapter 10

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This chapter contains the full text of a (purported) letter concerning Bricstan written by Warin des Essarts.

Ch. X.Materials for history destroyed by the Northmen—Relics of saints dispersed—Those of St. Evroult translated to Orleans—The abbey deserted—Its restoration—Notices of public events—Letter of Abbot Warin, in the name of Hervey, bishop of Ely.

I have thus faithfully described the life of the holy father Evroult, inserting it in this work, as it was compiled by our predecessors, that the knowledge of so exalted a patron may profit the reader, and my labour and regard be pleasing to the Lord God, while I have endeavoured to publish the glorious actions of my nursing father to the praise of Him in whom we live, and move, and have our being. But, from the time that this illustrious man was taken from the world, who and what his successors were in the convent of Ouche for four hundred years, or what were the fortunes of the monks or the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, I am entirely ignorant. In the times which succeeded, as I have already distinctly stated on several occasions, bands of pirates issued from Denmark, first with Hasting for their leader, and afterwards Hollo, invaded Neustria, and ignorant of Christianity and of the pure worship of God, inflicted the most cruel disasters on the believing natives. They burnt Noyon and Rouen, and many other cities, towns, and villages, destroyed a number of monasteries of venerable sanctity, devastated a vast extent of country with their incessant ravages, and having either exterminated or driven out the inhabitants, reduced the towns and villages to utter solitude. In the midst of so much desolation, the defenceless monks, not knowing what to do, were often in the greatest terror; and in their tribulation gave vent to their distress in continual lamentations, and waited their end in caverns and thickets, absorbed in grief. Some indeed in terror at the savage cruelty of the barbarians, fled to foreign lands which had hitherto escaped the hostile attacks of the pagans. Some also bore with them the remains of their fathers, whose souls reign with the Lord of Sabaoth, whom they devoutly served while on earth. The fugitives also carried abroad with them the writings which contained the acts of these same fathers in the Lord, and accounts of the possessions of the churches, their nature and extent, and by whom they were given; but great part of these documents was swept away in the storms of the times, and alas! irrecoverably lost amidst such fearful commotions.

This is what the monks of Jumièges and Fontenelles did;[1] overtaken by a terrible disaster they never brought back what they carried away. The monks of Jumièges translated to Haspres[2] the relics of St. Hugh the archbishop and abbot Aicadre, which the inhabitants of Cambray and Arras preserve in precious shrines, and venerate to this day. The monks of Fontenelles carried to Ghent the relics of the holy confessors Wandrille the abbot, and Ansbert and Wulfran, archbishops,[3] which are in the possession of the Flemings Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/310 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/311 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/312 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/313 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/314 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/315 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/316 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/317 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/318 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/319 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/320 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/321 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/322 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/323 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/324 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/325 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/326 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/327 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/328 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/329 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/330 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/331 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/332 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/333 Page:The ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy vol 2.djvu/334 an excellent example to all who were under his government. Geoffrey was of middle stature, tall and thin, so that not being burdened with flesh, his activity was remarkable. In his humility he heard with attention the words of instruction and doctrine which fell from the lips of others, and frequently made diligent inquiries from his equals and inferiors on subjects with which he was very well acquainted, listening to them with the deference of a disciple. He handled the lessons of the divine law with overflowing eloquence, and skilfully explained the most profound doctrines by his lucid dissertations. Having assumed the profession of a monk when he was a young man of the age of twenty-three years, he was a soldier of the most high King forty-six years, and gave to the world the fruits of his penetrating genius and deep meditations in metrical poems, eloquent epistles, and other works. I will extract from them, and insert' in this book of mine, an account of one miracle which he learnt when he was at Thorney Abbey in England with Abbot Robert,[4] and committed to writing, at the request of the bishop of Ely[5] and the convent of monks. The following is the text of the letter:[6]

"To all the faithful sons of holy church, and especially to those who are subject to the rule of the excellent father Benedict, Hervey, the humblest servant of the servants of God and the unworthy minister of the church of Ely, sendeth greeting, and trusts that what is well begun may be happily ended. It is our wish to publish for the praise and honour of St. Benedict, the patron of monks, a circumstance worthy to be recorded as most agreeable to those who hear it, most useful to those who retain it in their memories, and perhaps very profitable to those who are at present ignorant of it.

"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,[7] there was on the possessions of our church a certain free-tennant called Bricstan, who lived at Chatteris.[8] 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. Ethelrida,[9] 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 artificem) and not without reason. 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.'[10] 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;[11] 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.' 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,[12] and all the principal men of the county were assembled at Huntingdon, according to the custom in England: I, Hervey, was also there with Reginald, abbot of Ramsey[13] 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. 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. Ethelrida, with her sister Sexburga, stood before the sorrowful prisoner.[14] 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[15], who happened to be in the city at the time, to tell her of it. 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,[16] the abbot of that place, 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. Nor, as regards our blessed father Benedict, let any one be surprised that he wrought great and inconceivable wonders; for, according to Pope Gregory, he may be equalled to Moses for having brought water out of the rock; to Elijah for receiving the ministry of a raven; to Elisha for raising iron from the bottom of a pit and to Peter for having caused a disciple to walk on the water at his command.[17] St. Benedict likewise, as is well known, showed himself to be a prophet by predicting events to come, and an apostle by the miracles he wrought; and to sum up all in few words, he was full of the spirit of all the just. Since, therefore, we know with certainty that he obtains from the Lord all that he desires, let us continue joyfully in his service, knowing that through his intercession we shall not lose our reward: and if St. Benedict did not refuse his aid to one who had engaged to become a monk, what must be the protection he will afford to those who are actually bound by their voluntary engagements to the rules of his discipline? It is clearly manifested by many evident tokens that our kind patron, who is now glorified by God in heaven, unceasingly intercedes for his suppliant disciples, and daily renders them effective aid in their necessities. We then, who have submitted to the light yoke of Christ, and labouring in his vineyard, bear the burden of the day with constancy and perseverance, may, through the divine goodness, be assured that Almighty God will save and protect us for the merits and prayers of our wonder-working master. Let us, therefore, earnestly supplicate the Creator of the universe that he will bring us out of Babylon and the land of the Chaldeans, and conduct us to Jerusalem by the observance of his laws, and that He who is the Almighty and merciful God will give us a place in the company of the citizens above, to praise him who liveth and reigneth for all ages. Amen."

Having thus far discoursed on various subjects, I am weary of my task of writing, and bring to an end this sixth book of the Ecclesiastical History. In another volume,[18] by God's help, I have already completed seven books, in which I have, in addition, given accounts of the death of King William, of his three sons, of the crusade to Jerusalem, and of various events which have occurred in my own times. The Omnipotent Creator, as he did from the beginning, still wonderfully directs the course of time, and instructs the docile minds of the inhabitants of the earth, calling them off from the dangerous pursuit of worthless objects, and rousing them to better desires, by the display of memorable deeds. For mankind receives continual lessons from the fall of the proud and the exaltation of the humble, the damnation of the reprobate and the salvation of the just, that it may not lapse into impiety by an execrable warfare against God, but may constantly fear his judgments and love his commands, avoiding the fault of disobedience and offering perpetually faithful service to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, One God, the King of ages, and Lord of the universe, who liveth and reigneth for ever and ever. Amen.

Guide us, O Virgin Mother, gate of heaven,
Whose gentle aid in every storm is given![19]

Monks, knights, priests, nobles, crowd the busy stage,
Vitalis notes them in his lively page;
Courts, abbeys, camps, in varying shades he blends,
And here the fourth book of his story ends.[20]

  1. Both these abbeys stood in the valley of the Seine, and were therefore particularly exposed to the devastations of the Northmen. For some account of Jumièges, see a note towards the close of the present chapter, under date of the year 1050. The abbey of St. Wandrille, originally Fontenelles, was founded in 648. Its ruins are now seen embosomed by woods in a glen which issues on the road from Rouen to Havre, about three miles from Caudebec. The refectory exhibits the only relics of the Norman structure, and with some pointed arches of the church destroyed at the revolution, is the principal remains of this once stately abbey.
  2. Haspres, between Cambray and Valenciennes. It appears that Pepin d'Herinstal, towards the end of the sixth century, founded a priory in this place, which he attached to Jumièges. The remains of St. Aicadre and St. Hugh, archbishop of Rouen, were translated there to secure them from the outrages of the Northmen, but it must have been after their first devastation of Jumièges, which took place the 24th of May, 841.
  3. The relics of St. Wandrille and St. Ansbert, after several migrations from Fontenelles to Boulogne-sur-Mer, and from thence to Chartres and back again to Boulogne, between the years 858 and 944, found their final resting place on the 3rd of September of the latter year in the abbey of St. Peter at Blankenberg, near Ghent. The account of the translation of the relics of St. Wulfran is not so clear, but there are formal records
  4. Robert was abbot of Thorney (in Cambridgeshire), 1113–1151.
  5. Hervey, first bishop of Ely, 1108–1130, Henry I. having erected the bishopric in October; 1108.
  6. This letter, though bearing the name of the bishop of Ely, was in fact written by Warin des Essarts, as our author tells us.
  7. Henry I., crowned king of England, August 5, 1100, obtained possession of the duchy of Normandy, September 28, 1100. The circumstance here related occurred, therefore, between September, 1115, and August, 1116.
  8. 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.
  9. See vol. i. p. 124, for an account of this saint.
  10. Prov. ii. 14.
  11. Mille-Artifex; a name commonly given to the devil in the middle ages. Our author has made use of it in the legend of St. Martial, vol. i. p. 304.
  12. 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.
  13. Reginald, abbot of Ramsay (in Huntingdonshire), from 1114—May 20, 1133.
  14. 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. See Bede's Eccles. Hist. p. 205, of Bohn's Antiquarian Library.
  15. 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.
  16. Gilbert Crespin, abbot of Westminster, son of William Crespin, governor of Neaufle, one of the greatest benefactors to the abbey of Bec. Gilbert was one of the most able and voluminous writers of the age. It appears that he was still living in 1123. For his life and writings, see the Histoire Litéraire de France, t. x. p. 192–201.
  17. The four special miracles of St. Benedict here alluded to are described in the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th chapters of his history by St. Gregory.
  18. That this is the volume which was saved by M. Du Bois from the wreck of the library of the abbey of St. Evroult, and deposited at Alençon, as related in the introduction to this work, p. xiii. appears from its exact coincidence with the description here given by our author. The two volumes of the Colbert library, mentioned in the introduction comprising the first six books, are evidently of the same age, and written by the same hands, for the author dictated to scribes and in the commencement of the ninth book complains of the want of them. They are, therefore, considered to have formed part of the MS. of St. Evroult, and there is little doubt that we thus possess the original manuscript dictated by, and in some places the autograph of, the learned and pious author.
  19. Although these verses appear in the manuscript of St. Evroult, they are evidently a subsequent addition, and it appears plain that they are not the author's composition.
  20. Instead of these verses, the MS. of St. Evroult has the following words in a hand of the thirteenth century: Explicit quarta pars Vitalis, "here ends the fourth part of Vitalis." Although now the sixth, it was the fourth book in the author's first arrangement.