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Blessing from Bec

04 October 2013

Serenhedd James on a great Primate

Archbishop Anselm 1093-1109: Bec missionary, Canterbury Primate, Patriarch of another world
Sally N. Vaughn
Ashgate £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18  (Use code CT213 )

NESTLING quietly in the Eure Valley, not far from Rouen, the Abbey of Bec, it is easy to forget, was one of the most important religious houses of its day. Monks of Bec were ubiquitous in the revitalisation of the religious life in 11th-century Normandy. It is no coincidence that the main hostelry in the little village outside the abbey gates is called Le Cantorbery, as, post-Conquest, the abbey was also to play no small part in the life of the see of Canterbury: Archbishop Lanfranc was a monk of Bec, as was his pupil and successor, St Anselm.

In this book, part of Ashgate's Archbishops of Canterbury Series, Sally N. Vaughn adds to her already considerable contribution to our understanding of Anselm, and of the life of the English Church in his day. She does so in seven chapters, introducing us first to the important letters that survive in the archives at Lambeth Palace, and then consid­ering the importance of Anselm's identity as a monk of Bec; his view of the Southern Primate's ministry; his stormy relationship with William Rufus: "an old sheep yoked to a wild bull"; the total breakdown of the relationship between Archbishop and King, and Anselm's exile in Rome; Anselm's return to England after Rufus's suspicious death, and his more peaceful dealings with Henry I; and, finally, his elevation of the see of Canterbury to a position of power, dignity, and influence which it had not previously enjoyed, and which brought him into inevit­able conflict with Archbishops Gerard and Thomas II of York.

The book closes with a good number of documents relating to each chapter, each presented in the original with an English translation directly opposite: a great boon to students whose grasp of Latin may be shaky.

Given that Vaughn is based at the University of Houston, it should not surprise us that this study of an Italian man who became a French monk and then an English arch­bishop is aimed at an American market. The quaint spellings and the dots after contractions become less grating as the book progresses, and although the layout of the intro­duction is odd in places, the rest of the book is an easy read, with the added benefit of notes at the bottom of the page rather than at the end
of the chapter - which can be infur­iat­ing. There is the odd slip - the curse of the auto-correct func­tion, for example, which renders "plan­tatio" as "plantation" - but nothing that detracts from the over­all useful­ness and excellence of the whole.

In this work, Vaughn seeks to illuminate three particular areas: the influence of Bec on Anselm's work at Canterbury; the circumstances surrounding the death of William Rufus; and the conflict between Anselm and Rufus - on which she provides a reading that reassesses and, to some extent, mitigates the obloquy cast on the King by successive historians.

On Anselm the theologian, the book does not supersede the earlier scholarship of the late Sir Richard Southern and others; nor is that its aim. Rather, Vaughn seeks to present a reassessment of Anselm's states-man­ship - "[his] view of God's cause in England" - and does so admirably.

Dr James is Visiting Tutor in Ecclesiastical History at St Stephen's House, Oxford. 

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