In his Prayers and Meditations Anselm created a new kind of poetry – the poetry of intimate, personal devotion. These poems were not written in lines and stanzas, but in the rhymed prose which was a fashionable literary mode in the late eleventh century, and with the intricate antitheses which were a special feature of Anselm’s thought and art. The carefully constructed form and choice of words convey the heightened emotion of poetry, and it is one of the great merits of this translation that both the emotion and poetic form have been carefully preserved.

The form and the emotion cannot be separated. What Anselm attempted was, first of all, to stir up his own sense of horror, compunction, humiliation, and self-abasement at the recollection of his sins, and then to communicate these feelings to the reader, by arranging his words to give them their fullest possible effect. They were (he said) to be read ‘not cursorily or quickly, but slowly and with profound and deliberate meditation’; and we find in fact that it is impossible to read them in any other way. Eye and mind alike are arrested by the intricacies of construction and thought, and Anselm’s literary art serves to enforce the principles of meditation on which he insisted.

The practice of meditative prayer was already very ancient when Anselm began to write his prayers, but he introduced some important innovations both as regards the public for which he wrote and in his manner of writing. Until his time meditation had been essentially a monastic exercise, and Anselm certainly wrote largely for monks; but he also wrote to meet the increasingly articulate needs of lay people, especially of women in great positions who had the time, inclination, and wealth to adopt the religious practices of the monastic life. Such women were among the earliest recipients of his prayers, and one of them, Countess Mathilda of Tuscany, was one of the main agents of their dissemination.

In his manner of writing also Anselm made a distinct break with the past. When he started to write, extracts from the Psalms formed the main texts for private devotion. In addition, there were already in existence several collections of short prayers for private use, but they had not yet established themselves as a distinct form of religious literature. Anselm’s prayers made the distinction at once complete and irreversible. They were longer, more subtle, more personal, and theologically more daring, than any earlier prayers in use in the West; and they were clearly unsuitable for public use.

Most of Anselm’s prayers are addressed to individual saints. In casting them in this form he was following an established devotional practice, but here too he did something which was new. He threw himself before the saint with so personal an appeal and so vivid an evocation of the saint’s personality, that his prayers have a visual quality like a picture by El Greco. The saint stands out as a central dominating figure in a brilliant and varied canvas.

The Prayer to St Peter is a good example of Anselm’s method. He addresses St Peter in every possible guise: as a worn-out sinner addressing the chief of the apostles, as a scabby sheep addressing the shepherd of the flock, as a wounded desperate soul addressing the door-keeper of heaven. Then, by a subtle change of view, the reader’s attention is directed to the fact that St Peter himself had needed and received mercy and forgiveness. Thereafter the prayer turns into a petition to God and St Peter, sometimes jointly, sometimes singly, and ends in a final intricate pattern of imploration. It is altogether much too elaborate and artificial for our taste, but it leaves an intense sense of the contrast between the squalid sinful soul and the glory to which the soul aspires.

The main art of Anselm in his prayers is directed towards bringing out this contrast. He piles up images and epithets to emphasize the misery, squalor, and desperation of the sinful soul, overwhelmed in the mire and stench of its own making, just managing to articulate entreaties to the shining friends and collaborators of God. The misery of the individual soul would seem simply vast and shapeless were it not given a certain degree of form by the precise rhythms of Anselm’s prose, the refinement of his language, and the extraordinary boldness of his imagery. It is by these devices that Anselm arouses the sinner’s interest in his condition, and keeps this interest alive even while he is being bludgeoned into numbness by the long enumeration of his evils. For instance, in his very long Prayer to St Paul, Anselm explores every aspect of Paul’s career to find an avenue of approach along which the sinner can travel with confidence. But all in vain. Everywhere he comes up against an impenetrable wall of sin. Then he stumbles on some words of St Paul in his Epistles to the Thessalonians and Galatians which suggest the contrasting images of a nurse and a woman in labour. With this flimsy aid Anselm finds a new approach to St Paul, now depicted as a tender nurse and mother. There is indeed a faint absurdity in this double image, but it serves to provide a climax for the prayer by suggesting a further image of Jesus dying in spiritual childbirth so that his children in the faith may live. The two images are then combined, and tossed to and fro – ‘both Paul and Jesus are mothers, both are fathers too’ – until the prayer ends in a general sense of consolation.

This small example brings out the baroque side of Anselm’s prayers – the sometimes wild extravagance of the word-play and association of ideas. In the curious ambiguity of mother and father images it also contains a hint of the psychological complications of Anselm’s life; he was a man who had lost his mother and quarrelled with his father, and he was always seeking to replace them in his spiritual life. The prayers are not just exercises in generalized devotion and idealized imagery; they are also reflections of a tormented and tumultuous spirit, which only slowly found peace in prayer and meditation.

Of all Anselm’s prayers there can be no doubt that the most important and original are those to St Mary. They happen also to be the best documented. Anselm sent them from Bec, probably in 1072, to a friend at Caen called Gundolf with a letter explaining how they came to be written. He says that an unnamed friend had asked him to write a prayer about St Mary, and he had done so; but the friend was not satisfied, and he wrote a second. The friend was still dissatisfied, and he wrote a third. A careful examination of the manuscripts has shown that even the third of these prayers did not at once satisfy Anselm, for he continued to make alterations and additions for some time after its original composition. The composition of these three prayers, therefore, gave him a quite unusual amount of trouble, and he tells us that the main source of this trouble was the dissatisfaction of an unnamed friend. Yet as so often happens where an author tells us how he wrote something, his account is rather misleading. I think that the unnamed friend is probably a fictitious character introduced to satisfy the literary convention that an author should write only under pressure from outside; it was Anselm’s own desire for completeness of expression which drove him on. It is clear, for instance, that the third prayer did not supersede the two earlier ones as his letter suggests, for he preserved all three and always kept them together. Nor did any of them cover the same ground as the other two: they dealt with different aspects of the subject; and, if we look at them carefully, we can see that they form a logical sequence and describe a process of spiritual growth. The first prayer is a meditation addressed to St Mary ‘when the mind is heavy with lethargy’; the second, ‘when the mind is filled with fear’; the third, when the sinner ‘seeks the love of St Mary and Christ’.

This progression from inertia to a vivid apprehension of the being and love of God is the programme which Anselm follows in his prayers. It is also the programme of his theology, especially in the greatest of his early theological works, the Proslogion, which he wrote in a single gust of inspiration in 1078. The first step of spiritual progress is the stirring up of the soul from its state of torpor. This leads to fear and horror, and to an awakening of the desire to know and love God. The resulting movement is a two-fold process of intellectual illumination and spiritual purification. Roughly speaking, when the emphasis is on intellectual illumination the result is theology; when it is on spiritual purification the result is the kind of prayer which is exemplified in the collection which is printed below.

The third Prayer to St Mary is the fullest statement of this programme in devotional terms, and in its extraordinary freedom of verbal and imaginative elaboration it is Anselm’s greatest achievement in this mode. Since no translation, however good, can entirely capture the spirit of the original, the reader may wish to have a few lines of Anselm’s own words as he reaches this highest point in his verbal and devotional flight. I have arranged the lines to make comparison with the translation (lines 175–189) easy, and the reader will notice the rhymes and assonances which are especially important:

Omnis natura a deo est creata, et deus ex Maria est natus.

Deus omnia creavit, et Maria deum generavit.

Deus qui omnia fecit, ipse se ex Maria fecit,

et sic omnia quae fecerat refecit.

Qui potuit omnia de nihilo facere,

noluit ea violata, nisi prius fieret Mariae filius, reficere.


Most of Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations were written in the decade between 1070 and 1080, when he also wrote his first two theological works, Monologion and Proslogion. These and the letters to his friends at Canterbury were his earliest writings, and they show a striking similarity of theme and method: they are all about the mental and spiritual awakening which is the origin of love. They all have the same fanciful, yet precise, word-play, which expresses Anselm’s feeling for the subtle links between words and reality.

In his later years there was a change both in his style and in his habits of thought. His writing became more solid, less fanciful, less fragile. We can see the results of this change in the latest of his meditations, the Meditation on Human Redemption, which is the devotional counterpart to his last great theological work, the Cur Deus Homo. This work, and the meditation associated with it, were written about twenty years later than the main body of his Prayers and Meditations. The Meditation was probably composed in 1098 in the peaceful surroundings of the small monastery at Liberi in southern Italy where the Cur Deus Homo was completed. It is a theological meditation, and the reader will easily detect the change of tone from the personal and effusive self-examination of the earlier prayers.

When he wrote this last meditation Anselm was an elderly archbishop of sixty-five, a man more worn by experience and troublesome duties than the monk who had begun to write nearly thirty years earlier. He died eleven years later in 1109. After his death he had many imitators. His prayers set a fashion for long theological meditations and elaborate prayers. Some of the best of these imitations became attached to the genuine body of Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations, and circulated under his name. Until forty years ago (when a Benedictine scholar, Dom André Wilmart, finally cleared up the whole matter) nobody could distinguish the genuine from the spurious elements in the collection. But now that the difference between the genuine and the spurious has been made clear, we can see how far Anselm outshone his later imitators in the brightness of his imagery, the beauty of his prose, and the originality of his thoughts. These qualities by themselves would be sufficient to make his prayers worth reading; and it is unlikely that anyone will read them without sometimes being drawn into the paths along which Anselm invited the reader to follow him.

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