Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nigel (fl.1190)

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NIGEL, called Wireker (fl. 1190), satirist, became a monk at Christ Church priory, Canterbury, probably some time before the murder of Becket in December 1170; for he claims personal acquaintance with the archbishop: ‘we have seen him with our eyes, our hands have touched him, we have eaten and drunk with him’ (Anglo-Latin Satir. Poets, ed. Wright, i. 155). He calls himself old in line 1 of the ‘Speculum Stultorum,’ which may be assigned to the latter part of Henry II's reign; but there is no evidence as to the exact date of his birth. He took part in the dispute between Archbishop Baldwin [q. v.] and the monks of Christ Church [see under Norreys, Roger], being one of the delegates from the convent to King Richard in November 1189, and being singled out, about the same time, for a severe rating by the archbishop (Epist. Cantuar. Rolls Ser. pp. 312, 315). In his treatise, ‘Contra Curiales et Officiales Clericos’ (circ. 1193), he describes himself as ‘Cantuariæ ecclesiæ fratrum minimus frater Nigellus, veste monachus, vita peccator, gradu presbyter’ (Anglo-Latin Satir. Poets, i. 153). In that work (p. 211) he speaks of having visited Coventry after the expulsion of the monks and the introduction of secular canons in their place (in 1191), a sight which grieved him to the heart. Leland calls him precentor of Canterbury (Collect. iii. 8, and Scriptores, i. 228); but there is no precentor named Nigel in the extant obituaries of the priory, although the entry ‘Nigellus, sacerdos et monachus,’ occurs three times, viz., 14 April, 13 Aug. and 26 Sept. (Nero C. ix. ff. 9 b, 12 b; Lambeth MS. 20, ff. 180, 209 b, 225; Arundel MS. 68, ff. 24, 38, 43).

The earliest authority for the surname Wireker is Bale (Catalogus, 1557, i. 245) who refers in the notes prepared by him for the ‘Catalogus’ now in the Bodleian (Seld. MS. supra 64, f. 134) to the collections of Nicholas Grimald [q. v.]

The first part of Vespasian D. xix. is a 13th century manuscript, which originally belonged to Christ Church priory; it contains a number of Latin poems by a writer named Nigel, who may safely be identified with the subject of the present article. The first flyleaf bears the inscription ‘Nigelli de Longo Campo,’ in a hand of about the same period as the manuscript itself. From this, and from Nigel's intimacy with William Longchamp [q. v.], bishop of Ely and chancellor of England, it may perhaps be inferred that he was a kinsman of the bishop, or that he came from the same place, viz., Longchamp in Normandy. The latter supposition derives some slight support from the fact that Nigel speaks in the ‘Contra Curiales’ of having been in Normandy (Anglo-Latin Satir. Poets, i. 203).

His best known work is the ‘Speculum Stultorum,’ a satire (in elegiac verse) on the vices and corruption of society in general, and of the religious orders in particular, under the guise of a narrative of the adventures of Burnellus, or Brunellus, an ass who wants a longer tail, and who is explained in a prose introduction as typifying the discontented and ambitious monk. Both the introduction and the poem itself are addressed to a person named William, probably Longchamp before his elevation to episcopal dignity. An allusion to King Louis of France (ib. i. 17) seems to indicate that the poem was written before the death of Louis VII in 1180. It attained great popularity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as is shown by the large number of manuscripts still extant in continental as well as English libraries. The British Museum contains two copies of an edition printed at Cologne in 1499, besides three or four undated editions which are probably earlier. The only recent edition is that of Thomas Wright in the Rolls Series (ib. i. 3). Chaucer refers to the poem as ‘Dan Burnel the asse’ in the ‘Nonnes Preestes Tale’ (Canterbury Tales, ed. Tyrwhitt, l. 15318).

The next in importance of Nigel's works is the prose treatise ‘Contra Curiales et Officiales Clericos,’ an epistle addressed, together with a prologue in elegiac verse, to William Longchamp as bishop of Ely, chancellor, and legate (printed by Wright, Anglo-Latin Satir. Poets, i. 146). It was written after the capture of King Richard at the end of 1192, but while Longchamp was still an exile from England (ib. i. 217, 224); and may therefore be assigned to 1193, or the beginning of 1194. Nigel addresses the chancellor in terms of affection and intimacy; but he does not exempt him from his strictures on prelates and other ecclesiastics who neglect their sacred calling for secular pursuits: in fact the work is largely devoted to proving the incompatibility of the office of chancellor with that of bishop.

The poems in Vespasian D. xix. are: (1) Several short pieces, including some verses to Honorius (prior of Christ Church, 1186–8) and an elegy on his death (21 Oct. 1188); (2) ‘Miracula S. Mariæ Virginis;’ (3) ‘Passio S. Laurentii;’ (4) ‘Vita Pauli Primi Eremitæ.’ Among them is also a copy of the well-known poem on monastic life, beginning ‘Quid deceat monachum, vel qualis debeat esse,’ which appears in many editions of the works of Anselm [q. v.] It was ascribed by Wright (ib. ii. 175) to Alexander Neckam, apparently on the sole authority of Leland (Collect. iii. 28); it has also been attributed, with better reason, to Roger of Caen, a monk at Bec, and friend of Anselm (Hist. Litt. de la France, viii. 421). Some verses on the succession of archbishops of Canterbury, from Augustine to Richard (d. 1184), seem to be the work of Nigel (Vitellius A. xi. f. 37 b; Arundel MS. 23, f. 66 b); and Leland mentions ‘Liber distinctionum super novum et vetus testamentum’ and ‘Excerptiones de Warnerio Gregoriano super Moralia Job,’ both by him, among the books which he saw at Canterbury (Collect. iii. 8). The poem ‘Adversus Barbariem,’ ascribed to Nigel by Bale, and afterwards by Wright (Anglo-Latin Satir. Poets, i. 231), is really the ‘Entheticus ad Polycraticum’ of John of Salisbury [q. v.]

[Wright's Anglo-Latin Satirical Poets, vol. i., and Stubbs's Epist. Cantuar. p. lxxxv, both in Rolls Ser.; Wright's Biogr. Brit., Anglo-Norman period, p. 351; Ward's Catalogue of Romances, ii. 691, 695; information kindly given by R. L. Poole, esq.]

J. A. H-t.