Post-classical history


A period in history, such as the twelfth century, can be seen as the rush of events – ‘one damn thing after another’, in the words of one critic – and as useful and, indeed, necessary as that is, occasionally one should stop the projector and look at a few individual frames to get a more nuanced view. Thus, we shall take another look at the twelfth century, a look focused on three individuals whose life experiences will allow us to see the twelfth-century church in a fuller, more personal dimension. The three persons – two men and one woman – were neither popes nor monarchs, yet they show us different aspects of the church as it lived out its life in the complexities of a Europe coming of age. One was near the centre of power, Thomas Becket as chancellor to King Henry II of England. And through the experience of another, Peter Abelard, we catch sight of the world of the schools and the contentiousness, personal and intellectual, in which he found himself. We come to an entirely different place when we meet Hildegard of Bingen, not merely because she was a woman in a man’s world, but also because she was a visionary prophet and perhaps much more. To them, then, let us turn.

Peter Abelard (c.1079–1142)

Peter Abelard has fascinated observers uninterruptedly from the twelfth to the twenty-first century. Depending on which glasses one may be wearing, he is seen as a rebellious malcontent, a male chauvinist seducer, a paranoid personality, an original and seminal scholar or an unhappy monk, and there is some evidence to support each of these views. Every generation rediscovers Peter Abelard, and no generation feels satisfied that it fully understands him. Almost inevitably and probably unfairly, he is known in every generation largely because of his love affair with the young Heloise and equally inevitably moral judgements about his actions towards her are made and are almost always negative.

There is no scarcity of sources about his life, but even these, like Abelard himself, are not without controversy. There are his scholarly works on logic, ethics and theology as well as sermons, letters, hymns and perhaps even love songs. It has been estimated that his surviving works run to about 1,000,000 words, and that obviously does not include the works which he is known to have written but which have not survived. Our principal source for his life is a series of eight letters, the first of which is the autobiographicalHistoria calamitatum (‘Story of My Calamities’) and the next seven letters are to and from Heloise, his lover and then wife. This correspondence will be relied upon to a large extent in what follows and is quoted, but there is a problem. Scholarly voices, few in number, it is true, have been raised, questioning the authenticity of these letters. Their argument runs along these lines. The correspondence, which was reputedly written during the 1130s, exists today only in nine Latin manuscripts, the earliest of which was written 150 years after the supposed date of the correspondence. In addition, one looks in vain for any reference to this collection of letters in the intervening century and a half. Computer analyses of the texts of the letters have led to ambiguous results. Besides those who think the whole correspondence a later forgery, there are others, still a very few, who suspect that the entire correspondence, including the letters of Heloise to Abelard, were written by Abelard himself. Another collection of love letters has been found, and some scholars attribute it to Abelard and Heloise. The major events of Abelard’s life are attested to by other sources and are hardly in dispute, yet, as we use the correspondence, it is always with the faint, nagging fear that some day new evidence may appear, proving it fictitious. Suppressing that fear, let us look at the life of Peter Abelard.

Born in the westernmost region of France, in Brittany, Peter was probably not Breton, but a descendant of a knightly family with roots in neighbouring Poitou. Le Pallet, his birthplace, was at the southern edge of Brittany, south of the Loire River near Nantes. Not much is known about his family. He was the eldest son, destined to be a knight, but he chose instead to become a student. His parents, in later life, by mutual agreement entered the religious life. He was simply Peter, and, perhaps only as a nickname, he later added Abelard.

Sometime about the year 1093 Peter left his native Le Pallet and became a peripatetic student. By then the centres of learning had largely shifted from the monasteries and their monastic schools to the newly emerging and maturing towns, where schools grew up around cathedrals and other great churches. What attracted students to particular schools tended to be the fame of individual masters. And it was not unusual for a student to move from school to school in order to study with different masters. And so it was with Peter Abelard: he went on a circuit of schools, which led him eventually – almost inevitably – to Paris. As he wrote in his autobiography,

I travelled about in the provinces, disputing, wherever I had heard that the study of dialectic flourished.

By dialectic he was referring to the study of logic. Peter’s exact itinerary cannot be traced, but there were schools and teachers nearby at places like Nantes and Vannes in Brittany. It is known that he studied, perhaps for several years, at Loches and Tours with the master Roscelin, a logician of international fame, a man whose foray into theology had created problems for him in 1092. ‘I arrived finally at Paris, which was truly outstanding.’ This was in about 1100, and by Paris he meant the cathedral school at Notre-Dame. There he listened to the master, William of Champeaux. They soon clashed. The young Abelard – he was about 21 at the time – gained the enmity of William and his fellow students by attempting to refute the most renowned teacher at the most renowned school in Christendom. Two years or so at Paris and anxious to flee the resentments of his enemies, Peter Abelard left not to study elsewhere but to open his own school, and he was still a young man. First he went to Melun, south-west of Paris and then, after a couple of years, nearer to Paris at Corbeil, where he attracted students in direct competition to William of Champeaux. By about 1105 he had worn himself out and experienced what was probably a mental breakdown. He returned to Le Pallet, where his family nursed him back to health.

Abelard returned from Brittany, not to Corbeil, his previous school, but to Paris, and not only to Paris but to Notre-Dame as a student once again of William of Champeaux. Amateur psychology has no place in the study of history, yet one may wonder if part of Abelard’s health problems had to do with a fixation with his old teacher and if he felt that he needed to return to the scene and to the person of his tribulations. Whatever the reason, he again attacked William of Champeaux. The precise issue was universals.

To the modern mind the problem of universals might seem particularly recondite, but it was hardly so to medieval intellectuals. What is a universal? When schoolmen spoke of universals, they referred to a word like homo (human being), which applies to allhomines (like Plato and Aristotle or, as we would say, Jack and Jane). Does homo really exist? Or, take a commonly used example: tree. Does the universal ‘tree’ exist or only individual trees (this maple or that oak)? The problem of universals concerned the kind of existence which one can attribute to a universal term. Two general positions were taken. Realists would say that homo is more than a term and exists apart from individual human beings and that ‘tree’ exists independently of individual trees: these universals and others like them have a real existence. But the Nominalists held that a universal is merely a name (nomen) and nothing more: all that really exist are individual things. William of Champeaux championed the Realist position, whereas Abelard, following his former master, Roscelin, gave no reality to universals, asserting the Nominalist position. Roscelin had said that a universal (e.g. homo, tree) was merely flatus vocis (i.e., an exhaling of the voice, a sound). Abelard held that they were more than that: the word has meaning and was more than just a sound. The mind recognizes, he said, the elements in common to Jack and Jane and uses a mental construct for which the word homo stands. It has meaning as the spoken (or written) sign of that mental construct, yet it has no real external existence. Jack and Jane do not ‘share’ humanity: each is human independent of the other. We simply, by means of abstraction, focus on one aspect of each individual which they have in common (i.e., humanity), abstracting it from other, differentiating characteristics (age, sex, colour of eyes and dozens of others), and construct a concept of a universal and give to it the word homo. For Abelard the ultimate basis for universals was to be found in the ideas which God had when he created individual beings having these characteristics. But, when one turns one’s focus on God himself, problems arise. Roscelin was suspected of heresy when he used his Nominalism to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Since he held that only individuals exist, it could, therefore, be inferred that he held that the universal ‘divinity’ does not exist, merely three divine persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which sounds like polytheism. Later, Abelard was to encounter his own problems in trying to explain this same doctrine.

In Abelard’s telling he was so successful in challenging William of Champeaux on universals that William had to modify his position – it might merely have been a clarification – and, as a consequence, William was abandoned by some of his students. Abelard’s ambition to be master at Notre-Dame failed at this time, and he withdrew briefly to Melun. When he returned to Paris, it was to the church of Sainte Geneviève, outside the walls of the town, where he set up a rival school. Dates are not easy to come by in all this, but it was probably from 1109 to 1113 that Abelard taught at Mont-Ste-Geneviève, for it was in 1113 that his life took another turn, which led to yet further controversy.

Up to this time Abelard had studied philosophy (or logic, we might say). Now, for reasons that elude us, he turned to the study of divinity, not at Paris, but at Laon to the school of Anselm of Laon (not to be confused with St Anselm of Bec or Canterbury). Perhaps Abelard envisioned a career as a churchman. Although he was not a priest at the time, he was almost certainly a cleric in minor orders. Whatever his motives, Abelard soon found himself in conflict with his new teacher. Like the student who thinks he knows more than the teacher, Abelard held Anselm in contempt, first, by cutting his classes and then, still but a novice student of divinity, by presuming to give lectures on the Bible. Quite understandably, Anselm was furious and silenced Abelard, who also gained the enmity of two influential fellow students, Alberic of Rheims and Lotulf of Lombardy. Despite this unpleasantness at Laon, Abelard returned to Paris in 1114 to the place which he had long wanted: he became a master at Notre-Dame.

The next three or four years must have been the most satisfying of his life. He taught within the cloister of the cathedral; he drew students from far and wide; he had become the successful, popular teacher at a renowned school. But trouble was not far off. As a master, Abelard was a canon of the cathedral. One of his fellow canons, obviously very senior, was Fulbert, who had a house in the cathedral precincts. Canon Fulbert, by renting rooms to Abelard and by arranging for him to tutor his niece, the young girl Heloise, set in motion a string of events which have forever linked the names of Abelard and Heloise. Who was this woman? She was at this time probably a teenage girl, yet she had a wide reputation for learning: ‘A gift for letters is so rare among women that it made her even more attractive’, Abelard later wrote. He schemed to seduce her and feared no rebuff: ‘My reputation was so great and I was so youthfully handsome that I feared rejection from no woman.’ So eager was the naive Fulbert that he encouraged Abelard to spend more time with his niece: ‘I was astonished at his simplicity.’ The hitherto chaste Abelard abandoned himself to his carnal desires:

With our studies as an excuse, we gave ourselves to love. We withdrew to a private room, ostensibly for study, but our books lay unread before us. We spoke more of love than of books, and there was more kissing than learning. My hands were more often on her breasts than on our books. Love drew our eyes to each other far more than the lesson drew them to the page before us.

So absorbed was Abelard in his love relationship that he spent less and less time preparing his lectures, relying instead on old themes, delivered with no inspiration and with increasingly evident boredom. Such bliss was not destined to be eternal and, in 1118, ended in great tragedy.

Fulbert caught them in the act; like Mars and Venus, Abelard was to say. One can only imagine Fulbert’s fury. The drama was accentuated when Heloise joyfully told Abelard that she was pregnant. At once, he secretly sent her to his family to have the child, a son, whom they called Astrolabe. Fulbert’s fury became uncontrollable when he discovered that his niece had been sent to Brittany, as it were, a hostage to his inflicting harm on Abelard. In the most self-serving terms, Abelard sought an interview with the offended uncle:

I accused myself of the deceit forced on me by love … I reminded him how, since the beginning of the human race, women had brought the noblest of men to ruin. To assuage his feelings I made a magnanimous offer which he could never have expected: I offered to marry the girl I had wronged, provided the marriage be kept secret.

Fulbert agreed to what was patently not a magnanimous gesture. Why, we may ask, the condition of secrecy? Obviously Abelard did not want the world to know, but why? There was no legal reason, since, not in priest’s orders, he was not bound by celibacy, but he seems to have been bound by an elephantine self-centredness and did not want his career as a master of Notre-Dame complicated by the fact he had married. And so it was agreed. A private ceremony took place. Heloise is said to have protested, ‘We shall both be destroyed.’ How prophetic. Returning secretly to Paris, Heloise joined Abelard at daybreak at a church, where, with only Fulbert and a few others present, they were married. What is often lost sight of in this almost stereotypical shotgun wedding is the fact that Abelard and Heloise actually became husband and wife. Yet the secrecy was to be their undoing, for it was not kept. Fulbert and his kinsmen soon divulged the secret, and it was Abelard’s response to this disclosure that brought the issue to its ultimate point. Feeling betrayed, he sent his new wife to the nunnery at Argenteuil outside Paris, where she had been as a child. There she was now dressed in the habit of a Benedictine nun save for the veil, the final sign of commitment. Abelard had made a tragic error: it was his dispatching of Heloise to a convent and not his affair with Heloise that raised Fulbert to a monumental rage. Canon Fulbert believed he had been betrayed, that Abelard had rid himself of Heloise by making her a nun. The revenge was swift and cruel. Kinsmen of Fulbert burst into Abelard’s bedroom and, while he resisted in vain, they cut off his testicles. It was a barbarous act by any standard, and news of it quickly spread around Paris and soon beyond to the far reaches of Christendom: Abelard, the great Parisian master, had been castrated.

The next morning a crowd of Parisians, crying and grieving, gathered outside his house: ‘My students tormented me with their unbearable weeping and wailing.’ Yet not all response was sympathetic. Roscelin, his one-time master, cruelly commented that he could no longer call him Peter since that is a masculine name. As soon as he could, Abelard fled Notre-Dame to enter the royal monastery of St Denis as a monk. At his urging Heloise agreed to take the veil and become a nun of Argenteuil. In his autobiography the ever self-serving Abelard had Heloise say, as she took the veil, the words of an ancient poet:

Why did I marry you and cause your downfall?

The story could end there, tragic as it was, with Abelard, an emasculated monk, and Heloise, an unwilling nun, but it did not.

Wherever he went Abelard seems to have created problems for himself, and the pattern continued at St Denis. He denounced the monks as worldly and scandalous and their abbot as notoriously evil-living. His position became untenable, and it was arranged that he go to a dependent priory, not an unheard of way of dealing with difficult monks. This priory, it seem likely, was in Champagne, near one of the great crossroads of France. Students discovered where he was and crowds went there to be taught by the master, now famous not only for his teaching but for his physical mutilation. They would have likened him, as he did himself, to the great Father of the church Origen (d. c.254), who had suffered (but at his own hand) a similar mutilation.

Abelard’s intellectual interests, save for the brief interlude at Laon, were hitherto devoted to the liberal arts, particularly to logic; they now turned to the serious study of divinity, which befitted his new status as a monk. Although he was virtually untrained in this subject, Abelard did not hesitate to turn to its study. Self-doubt seldom disturbed his mind. This study he called ‘theology’, a term which he, perhaps more than any other master, caused to become popular. During the years between 1118 and 1121 he wroteTheologia, which he was to continue to rework during most of his subsequent life. It got him into trouble in 1121.

Abelard’s behaviour at Laon appears to have so incensed Alberic and Lotulf that they conspired to have the charge of heresy brought against him at a council held at Soissons in 1121. The accusation was that in his Theologia Abelard had taught that there were three gods. Called before the council, Abelard tried to defend himself, but his explanations went unheard, and he was forced by the council to throw his book into the fire. He thought this an even greater injury than his castration.

The earlier betrayal was small in comparison to this. I mourned much more for the harm done to my reputation than the harm done to my body, since the latter came upon me through my own fault, whereas it was only sincere intentions and love of the faith that brought this open violence upon me.

He subsequently acknowledged two faults of character – lechery and pride – and that God had provided him a remedy for both: ‘first, for my lechery by depriving me of the means to practice it, and for my pride by the burning of my book.’ (It should be noted that, although Abelard reluctantly hurled his book into the flames, he had saved another copy.) He returned, humiliated, if not humbled, to his monastery at St Denis.

Abelard soon offended his fellow monks by questioning the identity of their patron saint. Flight soon followed, and an accommodation was arrived at that allowed him to live as a hermit. This he did at a secluded place near Troyes, accompanied only by a single cleric. A rough oratory was built of reeds and thatch. In time, Abelard named it after the Holy Spirit: ‘the Paraclete’. Students eventually came to him there, where, at first, they lived in primitive huts, but, as the self-subsistence hoped for became impractical, economic need required Abelard to establish a school. It was at about this time that he put together a treatise, Sic et non (‘Yes and No’), in which he acknowledged contradictions in theological sources and, by his use of reason, tried to resolve them. It remains his best-known scholarly work.

The monks of the monastery of St Gildas in far western Brittany, where it overlooked the sea, elected Abelard as their abbot, possibly as early as 1125. If the monks made a bad choice in choosing Abelard, then Abelard made an even worse choice in accepting the election. It was probably at this time that he was ordained a priest. He had little in common with the Celtic-speaking monks. His attempts to reform these ‘wild’ monks, in his account, led at one point to their attempting to kill him by poisoning the altar wine. Real threats or another instance of Abelard’s paranoia? Whether the threats were real or not, Abbot Abelard looked for opportunities to spend more and more time away from his abbey. By now Heloise was prioress of Argenteuil, and the expulsion of the nuns from there in 1129 gave Abelard the opportunity to come to their rescue and, in effect, to be absent for very long periods from St Gildas. He offered the exiled nuns of Argenteuil the Paraclete and then saw to the settlement there of a number of these nuns and to the appointment of Heloise as their abbess. Let tongues wag, he said; he would give comfort to these unfortunate nuns.

About this time (say, 1131) Abelard is said to have written his autobiographical Historia calamitatum (‘The Story of My Calamities’). A copy by accident fell into the hands of Heloise, and there ensued their celebrated correspondence. Despite Heloise’s pleas, Abelard would give her only spiritual advice. She complained that she deserved more:

You belong to me by the obligations of marriage which unite us, and you are even under greater obligation because, as the whole world knows, I have ever loved you with a boundless love.

(Letters, 2)

She reminded him that she had tried to dissuade him from the marriage but that he had persisted and prevailed.

With God as my witness, if Augustus, the emperor of the world, offered me marriage and the whole world as a wedding gift to have forever, it would be more precious and more honourable to me to be called your whore than the wife of the emperor.

(Letters, 2)

How cold his response must have seemed when, in reply, he merely counselled her to pray. She answered that this was not easy, for even at the most sacred moments at Mass ‘lewd images of our pleasures seize my hapless soul’. Abelard, in turn, confessed what his motives had been: ‘My love, which led us both into sin, should not be called love but lust; I took my pleasures from you and that was all the love I had.’ Then he described the manner of life which nuns should live. Some may think this but a pious response; others may find Abelard’s replies among the most honest deeds of his life.

His theological troubles were far from over, and opposition to Abelard’s theology was led by the formidable and unfathomable Bernard of Clairvaux. He was a Cistercian abbot, but he was more, much more. During the 1130s and even the 1140s Bernard was the most powerful ecclesiastic in western Europe. In a moment of rare self-mockery, he wrote to his friend Pope Eugenius III, ‘People say that it is not you but I who am pope.’ Author of some of the most sublime works of Christian spirituality – his sermons on the Song of Song perhaps his masterpiece – Bernard was also the master of scathing invective. A reading of his numerous letters reveals a man seemingly lacking in subtlety, tolerance and, it must be added sadly, elementary Christian charity. He called the bishop of Winchester, ‘the whore of Winchester’. The archbishop of York he said was ‘not created but execrated’, ‘a Simon Magus’, ‘an idol’, ‘the devil’, ‘a thief’, ‘a wild beast ravaging the Lord’s vineyard’, ‘rotten from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head’. In 1227 that archbishop was recognized as a saint. Abelard had the misfortune to come into Bernard’s sights, and his fate was to be worse than that of these two English bishops. The differences between Bernard and Abelard were, indeed, personal, very personal, but they were also more profound than that. What differentiated Bernard and Abelard were essentially different views of the Christian life. Bernard accepted on faith alone the mysteries of the Christian religion. He accepted that the Father is God and the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, yet there is but one God. For him no effort of the human intellect was necessary to try to understand this doctrine of the Trinity. So great was God, he felt, so utterly transcendent of anything human, that one should merely prostrate oneself before the unutterable, unknowable deity. It would be, for Bernard, the greatest human arrogance to use human reason to try to understand what is utterly beyond the reach of human reason, since wholly other. On the contrary, Peter Abelard, the greatest logician of his day, saw nothing wrong with using human reason to study God: that is what theology meant for him. How can one believe – say ‘Credo’ (‘I believe’) – without trying to understand the object of one’s credo? For him, it was not contrary to faith to theologize but the very fullness of faith. These two strong personalities and their two different approaches to Christian belief were almost bound to collide, and collide they did with Abelard being vanquished and Bernard displaying the most unattractive side of his character. Bernard wrote of Abelard,

He has defiled the church; he has infected with his own blight the minds of simple people. He tries to explore with his reason what the devout mind grasps at once with a vigorous faith. Faith believes; it does not dispute. But this man, apparently holding God suspect, will not believe anything until he has first examined it with reason.

(Bernard, Letter 338)

And Bernard’s attack then became acutely personal:

Outwardly he appears a monk, but within he is a heretic having nothing of the monk about him save the habit and the name … He is a monk without a rule, a prelate without responsibility, an abbot without discipline. He argues with boys and consorts with women.

(Bernard, Letters 331, 332)

Bernard’s pen seemed to know no restraint.

The climax to their controversy came at the show trial of Abelard at Sens in 1141. In its notoriety it can be compared to any of the celebrated televised trials of modern times. The king of France, Louis VII, as well as a large number of the nobility of France and bishops and abbots and many others went to Sens in June 1141 to see what they thought would be the trial of the century. They had come to see Bernard and Abelard in personal combat. Nineteen propositions had been drawn up, attributed to Abelard and alleged to be heretical. They concerned such doctrines as the Trinity, the nature of faith, the Redemption and the nature of sin, although this last was not particularly emphasized. Bernard himself undertook the prosecution and stood before the assembled churchmen and the audience of the famous and powerful. He dramatically confronted Abelard with these propositions. Abelard must have known that in the previous evening Bernard had dinner with the bishops and convinced them to find the propositions heretical. Under such circumstances what could Abelard do? He could hardly argue that the proposition were not heretical in the face of the pre-trial decision by the bishops. Nor could he admit that they were heretical, for this would be an admission that he was a heretic. It was possible for him to argue that they did not accurately represent his teachings, that, in fact, they were distortions. Instead, he simply said, ‘I appeal to the pope’ and left immediately, leaving behind a disgruntled Bernard and a disappointed king. The council at Sens in 1141 was hardly a triumph for Bernard and is seen by some as the moment when bishops successfully resisted his de facto power: they may have condemned the propositions, but they did not condemn the person Peter Abelard.

Only two years were left in Abelard’s life. Perhaps he recognized his failing health while at Sens. On his way to Rome, he stopped at the abbey of Cluny, where its

Plate 9 Tomb of Heloise and Abelard, cemetery of Père Lachaise, Paris. Reproduced by permission of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

abbot, Peter the Venerable, one of the most attractive persons of the era, advised him not to proceed to Rome and took him in as a monk of Cluny. His appeal, in any case, fell upon deaf ears in Rome, and Pope Innocent II, immensely dependent on Bernard for being restored (see chapter 8), not only condemned Abelard but, according to one account, personally presided over the burning of his books in St Peter’s. Abelard moved to a priory of Cluny, Chalon-sur-Saône, where his health continued to fail. A face-to-face reconciliation with Bernard occurred at some point as also his absolution from the papal condemnation. And there at Chalons-sur-Saône, Peter Abelard died on 21 April 1142; he was about 63 years old. Peter the Venerable, in response to the request of Heloise, personally conducted Abelard’s body to the Paraclete, where it was buried in the sanctuary of the chapel. When Heloise died about 22 years later, her body was placed next to her husband’s. Their grave was disturbed during the French Revolution, but their bodies now repose in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, although there is even some slight, lingering doubt about that.

Romantics might see in this story the tragedy of violence destroying love or, more subtly, the tragedy of a young girl who never recovered from her first love, the rest of her life but a long postscript to a teenage love. Still others might find the tragedy elsewhere, in Abelard being more remembered for his relationship with Heloise than for his being one of the greatest scholars of the twelfth century.

Thomas Becket (c.1120–70)

The death of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 has recommended him to the ages, the man of principle slain by order of a king, Henry II, intent on extending the power of the state. His martyrdom created a saint, to whose tomb came countless pilgrims for centuries until another Henry, removing every symbol of resistance to the growing power of the Tudor state, had that tomb violated, its gold and precious stones carted off to the royal treasury and the bones of St Thomas removed and either burned, his ashes thrown to the winds, or buried in an anonymous grave, where it still remains unhonoured. Dramatic stage productions have attempted to portray him in various lights. T.S. Eliot in his verse play Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh in Becket (later a 1964 film) found ready audiences for their own views of the martyred archbishop. Neither a dramatist nor a hagiographer nor indeed a propagandist, the historian must attempt to sift the wheat of truth from the chaff of fiction.

First, his name. He was named Thomas for the simple reason that he was born on the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle, 21 December. The year is not certain, but 1120 cannot be far off. His parents were both Norman by birth (pace Anouilh), among the many Normans who came to England from Normandy in the wake of the Norman conquerors. Becket was probably his father’s nickname. The name probably derived as a diminutive from ‘bec’ meaning ‘beak’ or ‘nose’. In an age when surnames were not fixed and not limited to a single name, Thomas was known as Becket probably only as long as he lived in London. When he left, he was called Thomas of London and, after he became archbishop, Thomas of Canterbury. If he is referred to here throughout his life by his boyhood name, it is only by modern historiographical convention. As to ‘a Becket’, that appellation is a later, unfortunate confection.

Thomas’s parents lived at Cheapside in the city of London. After his death, Thomas’s sister had a hospital built on the site of the family house; it later became the site of the Mercers’ Company. His father was a successful merchant, who mixed in the social circles of the Norman elite in London. Thomas grew up speaking French with the great men of rank and wealth who visited the Becket house at Cheapside. Although the son of foreign-born parents, Thomas was a Londoner and spent the first half of his life in and around London.

At the age of 10 Thomas was sent by his father to study with the Augustinian canons at Merton Priory, about 15 miles from London, a monastery recently founded (1114) and enjoying the patronage of prominent Normans. He stayed only a few years and then went to a city school, possibly at St Paul’s Cathedral. Two sources say that Thomas then went to Paris to continue his studies. If so, then Thomas Becket would have studied at Paris in the company of John of Salisbury, who, in his many writings, makes no mention of Thomas at Paris. In any account, he soon appeared in London, where his father had suffered financial reverses and his mother, the only woman in his emotional life, had died. Thomas left his father’s house, perhaps aged 20 or thereabouts, to learn practical administration with a rich kinsman, who was involved in the London money market. Three years there and Thomas made a move that was to lead to an almost meteoric rise to high offices in church and state. At the age of about 25 Thomas of London entered into the household of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury.

In Theobald’s household, he had his real schooling. This household was a cradle for future bishops, including four archbishops and six bishops. It was clearly a place for ecclesiastical high-flyers. When Becket arrived there, John of Salisbury had just returned from a brilliant success at Paris and Vacarius had come from studying law at Bologna. At one point, although the matter is a bit obscure, Thomas seems to have taken a sabbatical leave to study canon law at Bologna. Archbishop Theobald led a peripatetic life, spending time not only at his residences in Canterbury and in London (at Lambeth), but also elsewhere in his province on archiepiscopal business and also abroad at Rheims and, perhaps, even Rome. Contemporary descriptions agree that Thomas was a handsome man of impressive appearance and that he was a personality of great charm. His memory for specific detail impressed all who knew him throughout his life. He quickly became a favourite of Archbishop Theobald. Thomas took at least minor orders and probably proceeded as far as subdeacon. After almost 10 years in the archbishop’s household, in 1154 Becket was appointed archdeacon of Canterbury, the office in the diocese of Canterbury second only to that of archbishop and an office which was often a springboard to higher preferment: his immediate predecessor had become archbishop of York. Now he took deacon’s order, but his direct exercise of his archdeaconry was to be limited since he was appointed within a matter of weeks to high secular office, the chancellorship of the realm.

The newly crowned Henry II (1154–89) chose Becket to be his chancellor no doubt upon Theobald’s recommendation. It would be saying too much and too little to say that Becket was now the king’s prime minister, too much because the modern term relates to a popularly elected, democratic government and too little because, as the right hand of an autocratic king, he wielded more power than a modern prime minister. Thomas, then about 35, quickly became friend and confidant of the new, 21 year old king, and it was this friendship that elevated the office of chancellor from keeper of the king’s secretariat and the authenticating seal to that of the king’s closest adviser; in addition, he became the king’s best friend. Henry by an astute marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine extended his holdings on the Continent to include not only Normandy and Anjou but the great duchy of Aquitaine; he now held close to half of France. He was a very great man in the Europe of his day, and the chancellor of such a great man was himself a great man. And Thomas Becket lived the role: fur-lined capes, silken garments, tables laden with plate and vessels of gold and silver, hospitality unmatched in munificence even by the young king. When, in 1158, Becket went on an embassy to the French king in Paris, according to a description of the mission, he took with him an enormous retinue. French villagers wondered in amazement who this could be. The chancellor of England on his way to see the French king, they were told. ‘What a great man the king of England must be.’ Becket served his king not merely in household and by elaborate diplomatic matters, but, although still an archdeacon, served King Henry on the field of battle. In 1159, dressed in the armour of a soldier, he led a successful campaign in Aquitaine, commanding an army of 700 knights and some thousands of mercenaries against the king’s enemies.

An easy relationship developed with the king, who often without notice, dropped in to see his friend, sometimes for a drink or a chat. They hunted together, they hawked together, they played fierce games of chess together. On a winter’s day they were riding through London, when the king noticed a poor man huddling from the cold. He and Thomas dismounted, and the king, in a playful mood, told his chancellor to give the poor man his new, miniver-lined cloak. The two friends, laughing all the while, wrestled on a London street, before Becket obeyed Henry’s order. One biographer said, ‘Never in Christian times have there been two friends more at one than these.’ The closeness of their friendship only emphasizes the tragedy of their great falling out.

It was Becket’s great success as chancellor that was to be his undoing. He was clearly the king’s man, even in matters touching the church. When Archbishop Theobald, to whom Becket owed his career, lay dying in late 1160 and early 1161, he begged Becket to come to his deathbed, but the busy chancellor, in an act seen by many as gross ingratitude, failed to visit his dying benefactor. With Theobald’s death (18 April 1161) only two obvious candidates for Canterbury could be seen in the field, the learned monk-bishop of Hereford, Gilbert Foliot, and the king’s chancellor, Thomas Becket. Whatever the canonical niceties, the king selected his archbishop, and the king now chose his friend and loyal chancellor, a choice which, before long, he was to deeply regret. With his chancellor of six years as the principal bishop of his kingdom, the king, with ample justification, felt he would have no challenge from the church to his exercise of royal power. On consecutive days in June 1162 Thomas Becket was ordained priest and consecrated bishop. The king was startled when, almost at once, Becket resigned the chancellorship. Trouble was not far off.

A profound change was quickly noticed in the lifestyle of the new archbishop. The worldly chancellor became an ascetic priest. Early morning prayer, private washing of the feet of the poor, the constant irritation of a hair shirt, the scourging of his body, private prayer, the study of the scriptures and the company of learned ecclesiastics were all part of his new life. His table was still magnificent, and he entertained generously, but, we are told, he himself ate simply, almost indifferently. Historians will long debate the nature of this transformation. Had Becket experienced a conversion of soul and become a new man? Had he, rather, lived out his roles consistently, as chancellor adopting the worldly display of a great king’s great man and as archbishop adopting the way of life of a man of the spirit with his eyes on a heavenly goal? Whatever the explanation, a dramatic change clearly occurred.

The first major confrontation with the king – there were earlier skirmishes – concerned the constitutions issued by Henry II at Clarendon, near Salisbury, in January 1164. The king demanded that the bishops give solemn assent to the customs observed by his grandfather, Henry I (1100–35). The bishops were extremely reluctant to do so, Thomas Becket particularly. Threats and intimidations followed, and, unexpectedly and to the consternation of the other bishops, Becket agreed and so swore, and the others after him. Henry II then ordered the customs to be written down. As events would show, this was a blunder. It would be one thing to agree to vague, unwritten customs of a bygone period and quite another to agree to explicit, written-down customs. What resulted was the Constitutions of Clarendon and, eventually, the murder of the archbishop. Sixteen constitutions, containing ‘some of the recognized customs and rights of the realm’, were set down. Six of them were immediately cited as unacceptable to the churchmen. These can be summarized.

Constitution 1: disputes concerning advowson (i.e., presentation of clergy to benefices such as parishes) shall be decided in the king’s court.

Constitution 3: clergy, accused of any crime, shall first appear in the king’s court, which can then send them to the church court for trial, and, if found guilty there, sent back to the king’s court for punishment.

Constitution 4: only with the permission of the king can archbishops, bishops and beneficed clergy leave the kingdom.

Constitution 7: none of the king’s tenants-in-chief (the principal men of the realm) shall be excommunicated without the king’s permission.

Constitution 8: in ecclesiastical court cases the final appeal shall not be to the pope without the king’s consent.

Constitution 12: when bishoprics or certain abbeys fall vacant, the king has the right to the incomes.

In the age of reform, now over a century old, it is almost inconceivable that any bishop in the reforming mode of the times would not raise objections to these six constitutions. Pope Alexander III, later, was to condemn them. Becket now rued what he had done in swearing to the customs, and, when required to seal the document containing them, refused, to the bitter consternation of the king and to the bewilderment of his fellow bishops. A crisis was created.

We must return to those men whom English historiography calls ‘criminous clerks’, i.e., those members of the clergy who committed secular crimes. Let us look first at church courts and their jurisdiction. These courts came into existence in England shortly after the Norman Conquest (1066). In general, it can be said that cases came before these courts in either one of two ways: ratione materiae (by reason of the matter), when the matter of the crime had to do with something that was in some sense spiritual (crimes such as stealing a sacred chalice, laying violent hands on the person of a priest, burning down a church), or ratione personae (by reason of the person), when the person accused of a crime was a spiritual person (such as a cleric, monk, nun). Little dispute arose over cases brought to church courts ratione materiae. The sticking issue concerned cases ratione personae. What should happen if a cleric commits the crime of murder, or if he steals a neighbour’s livestock, or if he rapes a young girl of his parish? According to the canonists, although there was some dissent, such a cleric should be tried in the church courts. If he confesses or is found guilty in that court, the ecclesiastical judge should inflict punishment, which for capital crimes such as murder could be degradation (i.e., loss of clerical status) and exile. In a society where the secular courts would have inflicted much more severe punishment, even capital punishment, degradation and exile were seen by many as exceedingly lenient. Also, in the church courts an allegedly criminous clerk could purge himself by denying the crime and finding others willing to swear to his truthfulness. Becket’s position was that all cases, ecclesiastical as well as secular, which involved clerics should be tried solely in the ecclesiastical courts, that clerics who are convicted or who confess in that court should be punished in that court and not again elsewhere, that the degradation and handing over to the secular jurisdiction for the future constituted punishment and that clerics receiving this punishment should not be punished again for the same offence in the secular courts. Becket did not create this point of view; he was echoing the current teaching of canon law. The clash here was between two jurisdictions, not one right and another wrong, but both supported by arguments of law and custom. In hindsight, we could say that there was room here for compromise. That none was reached or seriously considered laid the ground for dispute and, in the event, the death of the archbishop.

Dissatisfied with Becket’s actions at Clarendon, the king summoned the archbishop to appear before the council of the king and the great men of the realm to answer charges about a matter concerning rightful possession of land on the archbishop’s estates. The royal council was to meet at the castle at Northampton in early October 1164. Other charges were soon added, including the charge that Becket had embezzled from the king in his days as chancellor, although the king had discharged Thomas from any such debt. It was clear that Becket was the target of the king’s wrath and that almost any issue would do. His brother bishops gave Becket conflicting advice; several even urged him to resign. In the end, he heeded the advice of his confessor: ‘You could easily soothe the king’s wrath and keep him as your friend, but you have chosen the service of God, Who will not fail you.’ On the morning of Tuesday, 13 October, Becket appealed to the pope, in clear violation of Constitution 8, leaving him subject to a charge of perjury. He then said Mass in honour of the proto-martyr St Stephen, which opens with the words, ‘Princes also did sit and speak against me.’ Becket feared that threats made to his life would that day be acted upon. After Mass he took with him a communion host to be his dying viaticum (via tecum, on the way with thee).

The archbishop upon his arrival at Northampton Castle took the processional cross from his cross-bearer and entered as a priest carrying the sacerdotal sword of the cross. He and a few companions waited on the ground floor, while in a hall above the king met with barons and bishops, the king intent on humiliating the wilful archbishop. The issues had now been reduced to two: Thomas’s refusal to render account of his chancellorship and Thomas’s allegedly perjurious appeal to the pope. The king’s justiciar went down to Thomas to pronounce the judgement on him, but Becket refused to accept it, since a layman had no right to judge an archbishop. He then bolted out of the chamber and, using a side gate, escaped the castle. The breach had occurred. Becket, dressed in the habit of a Gilbertine brother, silently left St Andrew’s Priory, where he had been staying, and in a heavy rain escaped the town through the north gate at midnight, Lincoln – and not London – his destination. Accompanied only by a single servant and two Gilbertine brothers, the archbishop stayed at Lincoln in the humble home of a fuller. From there his journeys were now almost exclusively by night, finding safe-houses with the Gilbertines. Certain that he had given the slip to any king’s men hunting for him, Becket reached the coast at Sandwich and sailed into an exile that was to last six years.

That the exile was to last six years was the expectation of neither king nor archbishop. That it did owes much to the character of both but also to the situation of Pope Alexander III (1159–81) and the ever precarious relations between the Angevin king of England and the king of France. Alexander had been challenged by an anti-pope and had to spend much of his pontificate in France (see chapter 8). He also had to woo the support of both kings, a ticklish task at the best of times, but a task now muddied by an English archbishop living in exile in France. In addition, Henry II, although king of England, was a vassal of the king of France for his substantial holdings in France. Louis VII (1137–80), who allowed Becket sanctuary in his realm, remained a player in the events of this saga. It was in these circumstances that Becket found himself once he was on the European mainland.

Henry II made an almost immediate attempt to have Becket deposed. He used bishops as his agents, and they appeared before the pope at Sens. He refused the king’s request and then warily received Becket. Alexander III condemned the Constitutions of Clarendon and released Becket from the oath which he had made at Clarendon. With the pope’s help Becket was taken into the Cistercian abbey at Pontigny in Burgundy, where he remained for two years. There he lived an austere life, asking for and receiving the rough, coarse habit from the pope himself. For a few months he followed the sparse diet of the monks, but he fell ill and had to moderate the monastic diet. He considered his stay at Pontigny a penance for his weakness at Clarendon. It was from here that Becket, joined by some members of his household, carried on the dispute with Henry II. Yet the king would not permit his exiled archbishop to enjoy the tranquil life of his Cistercian retreat; he wrote to the general chapter of the Cistercians and threatened to confiscate all Cistercian lands in England if they continued to allow Becket to live in one of their monasteries. It was no idle threat, and the abbots knew this. The abbot of Cîteaux, himself an Englishman, went to Pontigny to see the archbishop about the matter. In November 1166 Becket, to the great relief of the Cistercian grandees, volunteered to leave Pontigny to save his hosts embarrassment and their order great loss. King Louis offered him residence in whatever monastery he wished, and Becket chose the Benedictine abbey of St Columba just beyond the north wall of Sens, where, with brief absences, he was to remain for four more years.

Throughout his exile Becket did not experience the unanimous support of his brother bishops, far from it. A hostile party among his episcopal colleagues was led by Gilbert Foliot, rival candidate for Canterbury, now, as a consolation prize, bishop of London. Foliot had the continued support of the bishop of Hereford, the archbishop of York and, depending on the issue, the wavering support of others of the bishops. The position of the archbishop of York was critical. Roger of Pont L’Evêque had been a colleague of Becket in the household of Archbishop Theobald and, in fact, was Becket’s immediate predecessor as archdeacon of Canterbury. He inherited the traditional claims of York to primacy over Canterbury, and, when Becket became archbishop of Canterbury, the rivalry of earlier days in Theobald’s familia was renewed. The bulk of the bishops found themselves in an uncomfortable position: they were in England, facing an angry king, while their leader (and king’s enemy) was abroad in France. Their position was to support a resolution to the crisis. In 1167 the pope sent emissaries to meet with Henry II and Becket in an attempt to effect a resolution. They met with no success. Both parties gave negative responses, but efforts continued.

In January 1169 the two adversaries had a meeting at Montmirail, where the French and English kings were settling their differences. It made much sense to settle the issue of the archbishop at the same time. At the field below Montmirail, in a moment planned in advance, the archbishop fell on his knees before his king, the first time they had seen each other since the fateful meeting at Northampton over four years before. Henry then raised Becket to his feet, and they discussed their differences. The archbishop was willing to swear to observe the ancient customs of the realm salvo ordine suo (‘saving his order’). This clause was seen as an escape clause, rendering Becket’s agreement meaningless, for it meant, in effect, that he would agree to these customs insofar as they did not contradict the liberties of the church, and this was the crux of the matter. The king ended the interview, and a chance was missed. On 7 February the kings met again, this time at St Leger, and Becket again met the king with no more success than at the previous meeting. An attempted meeting on 22 February never took place. Many now felt that only nature would resolve the controversy by the death of one of the parties, king or archbishop or pope. It was the lowest hour.

Two months later, on Palm Sunday, 1169, Becket formally excommunicated two of his fellow bishops, Gilbert Foliot of London and Jocelin de Bohun of Salisbury and seven other of his enemies. As angry as Foliot clearly was at this action, he observed the terms of his excommunication. The king, also sensitive to ecclesiastical penalties, feared his kingdom would be placed under an interdict, which prohibited most church services and sacraments except the baptism of infants, confession of sins (but outside the church proper) and the last rites for the dying. As negotiations in the summer of 1169 faltered, the king added to the Constitutions of Clarendon a provision that anyone who brought a decree of interdict into England would be treated as a traitor and punished accordingly. Six weeks after the decree came into force, Henry and Becket made another effort to reach a solution, this time at Montmartre, then outside Paris. When an agreement seemed near, the king refused to give the archbishop the kiss of peace as his guarantee of his sincerity and promise of Becket’s personal security. Pope Alexander III, by now safely back in Italy, could be more assertive, and in January 1170 explicitly threatened an interdict if the king refused to settle.

If matters were not intense enough as it was, temperatures rose to white heat when Henry insisted on having his son Henry crowned at Westminster Abbey on 14 June 1170 by Archbishop Roger of York. Henry II overstepped long-standing tradition which reserved coronations to the archbishop of Canterbury, a reservation confirmed as recently as 1166 by Alexander III. It was an insult to Becket owing either to calculation or to gross insensitivity on the part of the king. In either case, the insult was taken. Almost at once Henry seemed to realize that he had gone too far and wrote to the papal legate that he was anxious to make peace with Becket. And within six weeks of the coronation peace was made. The terms followed, in general, the terms recently offered by Pope Alexander. Henry would allow Becket and his companions to return in peace and for Becket to gain full possession of all his property. The controversial constitutions were not mentioned; they would be quietly buried by the king. In addition, Henry would allow Becket to punish the bishops who had participated in the coronation. For his part, Becket agreed to act as an archbishop should act towards his king, saving the freedom of the church. The two met near Fréteval not far from the Loire. Sitting on their horses, they greeted each other, and before the day was out the deed was done: reconciliation had been effected. Ambiguities obviously remained, but with good will they could be lived with amicably. Yet the king, claiming an oath taken previously, refused to give Becket the kiss of peace, the symbol of the special protection to his life by the king. Nonetheless, it was a victory for the archbishop against the most powerful man in Europe after the emperor. When the two met for the very last time, probably in early October 1170, they had this parting dialogue:

Thomas: I have the feeling, my lord, as we leave, that you will never see me again in this life.

Henry II: Do you think me a man who breaks his faith?

Thomas: May God forbid, my lord.

They were not to meet again in this life. When next they met, the penitent king spent a night of vigil with the lifeless body of his old friend.

At the end of November Thomas Becket was at Wissant, his face turned towards the Channel and England. He had papal letters re-excommunicating the bishops of London and Salisbury, recently absolved, for their participation in the coronation. The archbishop of York remained an excommunicate, never having been absolved. Becket sent ahead to Dover a messenger bearing the papal excommunications, who served them on the three bishops, who were themselves at the coast ready to depart for Normandy to see the king. The messenger escaped with his life, but the bishops, particularly the archbishop of York, reacted with a rage, which still flamed when the bishops met the king some weeks later. Meanwhile, with a favourable wind and a placid sea Thomas Becket sailed for England and arrived at Sandwich on the morning of 1 December 1170, six years and one month after he had sailed into exile.

Two welcomes met the archbishop. First, there was the hostile welcome. As so often happens in major disputes – it happens in our own times as in the Middle East, in the Balkans and elsewhere – one demonized one’s enemy, and, consequently there were many supporters of the king, including those who had profited from Becket’s absence, who truly hated the archbishop. So it was that, on the very day of his arrival at Sandwich, the three most senior royal officials in Kent rode with an armed troop to confront the archbishop. He refused to meet with them until they disarmed themselves. They angrily – and wrongly – charged that Becket believed that the young king’s coronation was invalid. They demanded that he remove the excommunications of the bishops. The sheriff of Kent told him, ‘You have brought fire and the sword with you to England.’ Yet the popular welcome was wholly different. Becket was greeted as a returning hero, even as a patriot, for his courage in standing up resolutely to an overbearing, unpopular king. The 12-mile progress from Sandwich to Canterbury became a victory parade, the medieval equivalent to a New York ticker-tape reception. At each village priest and people cheered him in a festive way. Chanting monks met him at the gate of Canterbury; the bells of all the churches pealed. And Becket removed his shoes and walked barefoot to his cathedral, where, his face flushed with excitement, he prostrated himself on the stone floor.

At Christmas at Canterbury the archbishop preached on the theme of peace on earth to men of good will, reminding his congregation of the only martyred archbishop of Canterbury, St Alphege. Then, after the bidding prayers, Becket reiterated the excommunications of the three bishops.

Two parties, each antagonistic to Becket and, indeed, exceedingly angry with him, arrived in time for Christmas with the king at Bures near Bayeux in Normandy. During the course of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day itself they spoke to the king of little else but the treachery of the archbishop. First, there were royal officials who came, spreading the rumour (for which there was not a shred of evidence) that Becket intended to dethrone the young king. The three excommunicated bishops were also there, filling the king’s ears with a torrent of abuse concerning Archbishop Becket. The archbishop of York is reported to have said, ‘You will never have peace as long as Thomas is archbishop.’ At some point, probably on Christmas Day itself, the king uttered the words that sent four knights on a tragic mission. They are variously reported but in essence were, ‘Will no one of my men rid me of this contemptuous, low-born priest?’ Four of his knights, upon hearing this, decided to carry out what they saw as the king’s wish: they set out from Normandy for the Channel, intent on murdering the archbishop at Canterbury. Later it would be said that their intentions were only to seize the archbishop, but account after account state that they headed for England with assassination their clear purpose. Less clear is the king’s knowledge of their purpose. He claimed later that he did not know what they planned to do, and writers, sympathetic to Becket, later exculpated the king from ordering Becket’s murder, although, it should be added, they were writing while Henry was still alive and, at the height of his power, still an intimidating presence.

The knights were Reginald FitzUrse, who, ironically enough, had come to the king’s court through Becket’s influence; Hugh de Moreville, who had been Becket’s vassal; William de Tracy, a descendant of Henry I; and Richard le Breton, a younger knight with lands in the west of England. They travelled separately, using different ports and met at Saltwood Castle on the evening of 28 December 1170, a Monday, to plot their tactics for the morrow.

Early on Tuesday morning the four knights rode towards Canterbury, a journey of about 15 miles over the ancient Roman road. Meanwhile, at Canterbury, Becket was following his usual regimen. He attended Mass, said his devotions to the saints at their altars in the cathedral, confessed himself and took the discipline of scourging. The main meal of the day was taken at about two o’clock, and by three Becket sat in his own large chamber with a number of friends and advisers. It was then that the knights entered the archbishop’s rooms. What followed has been reported by five eye-witnesses, who tell a uniformly sad tale, each complementing the other in detail.

The knights had entered the cathedral precincts alone, leaving armed guards near the gate to prevent supporters from the town coming to the archbishop’s aid and also to prevent the archbishop’s escape. The four knights, no doubt led by FitzUrse, having passed through the gate, had stopped briefly at a mulberry tree to leave their horses and their weapons. At the archbishop’s great hall they found the meal concluded and the servants eating. The steward went to the adjoining chamber to announce their arrival to Becket. They entered without greeting him nor, indeed, did he greet them. At length, Becket gave the visitors a long stare and spoke, calling FitzUrse by his name. The latter said that they came from the king and demanded that Becket lift the excommunications. He said that Thomas had broken the Fréteval peace agreement, which he denied. The knight continued that Becket was also threatening to undo the recent coronation, which he also denied. They were soon shouting at one another, Becket threatening further excommunications and FitzUrse saying that Becket was speaking at the peril of his head. ‘Have you come to kill me? You will find me here, a foot soldier in the Lord’s army.’ The knights ordered the archbishop’s servants to guard Becket, while they went to retrieve their weapons. At the mulberry tree they uncloaked themselves, revealing coats of mail, and then put on their hauberks, ready to return to Becket. A loyal servant of the archbishop had bolted the door of the archbishop’s hall against them. The knights found a rear entrance up a flight of stairs, but it was being repaired and only by battering through a window with axes did they gain entry. Meanwhile, Becket was seated on his bed, being advised what to do next. At the sound of the axes, a move had to be made, and Becket reluctantly agreed to enter the great cathedral, where vespers (evensong) was being sung. Since the knights had assigned armed men to surround the buildings, another way had to be found for the archbishop’s party. An unused passageway which led to the cloister was opened, and Thomas with conscious dignity followed his cross-bearer through the cloister into his cathedral by the north transept entrance. His monks bolted the door of the cathedral behind them, but at his command – ‘the church is not a fortress’ – they unbolted the door. The monks tried to hurry him up the steps towards the choir, but by then the knights, with FitzUrse in the lead, with bared swords and axes in their hands, had entered the darkening cathedral. ‘Where is the traitor Thomas Becket?’ Halfway up the stairs, the archbishop turned and said, ‘I am here, not a traitor to the king but a priest of God.’ He came down the stairs and was standing now in the transept. One of his attackers hissed, ‘Run away; you are as good as dead.’ But he refused to run. The knights attempted to put the archbishop on William de Tracy’s back in an effort to remove him from the church, but Becket resisted, almost throwing FitzUrse to the ground, calling him scornfully ‘a pimp’. Now enraged, FitzUrse was the first to strike the archbishop. He struck a blow with his sword at Becket’s head, knocking off his cap and taking a slice of his scalp. ‘I embrace death in the name of Jesus and the church,’ said the archbishop. Another blow and still another blow, both from William de Tracy, felled the archbishop to the stone floor. There with Becket fully prostrate Richard le Breton with a powerful stroke of his sword cut off the crown of Becket’s head and broke the sword in two on the pavement. One of their companions, in an act of cruel barbarity, with the tip of his sword scattered the archbishop’s brains on the floor. ‘This traitor won’t get up again,’ he boasted. The murderers then fled the cathedral, shouting in shameful triumph, ‘King’s men, king’s men.’ And after ravaging their victim’s quarters, they left Canterbury, while the stilled body of the archbishop lay where he had fallen, in his own blood and brains. Gradually his friends, scattered during the turmoil, returned, and, as they prepared the body for burial, thunder burst above Canterbury. The king’s men had created a martyr.

Plate 10 Saint Thomas Becket; Suffrages © Acquired by Henry Walters.

The revulsion of Christendom was as immediate as the news was passed. Henry II learned of the deed three days later and appears to have sincerely grieved. The pope went into a week’s mourning and soon imposed a personal interdict on Henry. The French, who had given refuge to Becket in exile, harboured deep suspicions of the role of the English king. The archbishop of Sens, supported by the whole French hierarchy, imposed an interdict on all Henry’s continental lands. The king quickly made his peace with the church. At Avranches in 1172, he agreed to the demands of the pope. He would allow appeals to Rome in ecclesiastical cases; he would restore to the see of Canterbury all its properties; he would take the cross and go to the Holy Land; he would abrogate the customs which he had introduced against the liberties of the church. Later he agreed to exempt clerics from secular courts. In fact, Henry never went on crusade and stated privately that he did not know of any customs like those referred to. Personally, he allowed that, although he did not send the murdering knights to Canterbury, his intemperate and inflammatory words might have provoked his men to commit the murder of Becket. Despite what might sound like self-serving disclaimers, Henry II had capitulated; Becket had won the day.

On 21 February 1173, just over two years after Becket’s death, he was declared a saint, St Thomas of Canterbury, martyr, with his feast day to be observed on 29 December. In July of the following year the king approached Canterbury as a penitent pilgrim. Removing his boots at the city gates, he walked barefoot to the cathedral and to the tomb of his once friend. There he prostrated himself, admitted his unwitting role in the murder, and begged the monks of Canterbury to punish him. Each of the 80 monks administered three strokes to the back of the king. He remained there at the tomb throughout that day and the ensuing night. Who knows how calculated this act of penance was? Henry II was beset at this time by a rebellion of his queen and sons, his crown not securely in place. Yet it was a humiliating act for a very proud man. The tomb was fast becoming a shrine, and the long line of pilgrims was to reach into the 1530s, when Henry VIII destroyed the shrine of a priest who dared to challenge the power of the state.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)

Only in very recent times has the attention of historians been drawn to the remarkable Hildegard of Bingen. One wonders why the delayed recognition. Has she been the victim of a historical establishment dominated by men and largely blind to the accomplishments of women? Or is she now little more than a poster-girl for modern feminists? In a life that spanned much of the twelfth century, Hildegard witnessed the great movements of the time and was in correspondence with the most powerful men of the century. One neglects an examination of her accomplishments at the risk of gaining only a limited and incomplete view of twelfth-century history. Two matters should be cleared away before looking at her life and its historical meaning. She is often called an abbess and a saint. Strictly speaking, she was neither. Hildegard was the head of a religious community, but she was not called abbess but mistress (magistra) of the nuns in her community. And for reasons which are now obscure attempts to have her canonized did not succeed, but it should quickly be added that a local cult to ‘St Hildegard’ survives in parts of Germany with 17 September as her feast day. Only the pedantic would object to her being called ‘abbess’ and ‘saint’, although the terms require some stretching.

Hildegard was born at Bermersheim not far from Mainz in the German Rhineland, a daughter of the minor nobility. When she was about eight, Hildegard joined the anchoress Jutta, daughter of a local count, at the male Benedictine monastery of St Disibod (Disibodenberg). They, and other girls who soon joined them, lived in an enclosure perhaps to the south of the monastic church. There, in about 1112, Hildegard professed as a nun and was taught by Jutta to read the holy books. At the death of Jutta in 1136 Hildegard became head of this community of Benedictine nuns. Events were soon to transform her from an almost anonymous mistress of an almost unknown community to a person of Europe-wide fame.

In the preface to her most famous work, Scivias, Hildegard described how these events began.

When I was 42 years and 7 months old, in the year 1141, the heavens opened to me and my brain was flooded by an exceedingly brilliant light. It warmed my whole heart and being in the same way that sun gives warmth. And I instantly understood the meanings of the holy books – the Psalter, the Gospels and the other catholic books of the Old and New Testaments. It was not that I understood the grammar and syntax.

She wrote that she had been experiencing visions since early childhood but that she had not made them known.

I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Therefore, tell others of these miracles and write them down.’

And, although the voice said, ‘I am the living light, who sheds light on hidden things’, Hildegard did not heed the call to write and fell ill. She told her secretary, the monk Volmar, about her visions and the command to write them down. He encouraged her, and in the course of the next 10 years Hildegard described, in Latin, 26 visions. The work was given the name Scivias, a shortening of Scito vias (‘Know the Ways’). The abbot of St Disibod knew and approved of her writings and informed the archbishop of Mainz, who also approved. Then, in a momentous leap, her work was brought to the attention of Pope Eugenius III (1145–53), who actually read aloud a portion of the yet unfinished Scivias to the fathers of the Council of Trier (November 1147 to February 1148). St Bernard wrote to his former disciple and now pope a letter urging Eugenius to encourage Hildegard to continue her writing. This he did, and within three years her account of her visions was completed. Hildegard was fast becoming a celebrity. All was not to be smooth sailing.

Hildegard claimed that God had ordered her to move her nuns to a new place. From a practical point of view this made admirable sense: her growing reputation had led to an increase of young women coming to St Disibod with a consequent overcrowding. The abbot opposed this move since his monastery shared in the fame of their visionary nun and, more practically, since the finances of the two communities, particularly the endowments, had become somewhat commingled. In face of this opposition, Hildegard once again took to her bed. The abbot withdrew his opposition, perhaps being pressured to do so by the archbishop of Mainz. In any case, in 1150, accompanied by 20 or so nuns, Hildegard journeyed the 20 miles to Rupertsberg, where, on a hill overlooking the Rhine where it is joined by the River Nahe, she established her new house. It was near Bingen, which name has been associated with Hildegard since the twelfth century. The abbot of St Disibod’s monastery appointed a provost to care for the spiritual needs of the nuns, and he chose Volmar. Hildegard remained ‘mistress’. She subsequently experienced long periods of illness, particularly in the late 1150s and late 1160s. A particularly difficult crisis occurred soon after arriving at Rupertsberg, when her favourite nun, Ricardis of Stade, was appointed abbess of Bassum. She was the daughter of the marchioness of Stade and, with Volmar, had assisted in the writing of the Scivias. Hildegard’s response reveals a very human side of her character. She wrote to the nun’s mother in an attempt to thwart the appointment: ‘Do not disturb my soul; do not cause tears of bitterness to fall from my eyes; do not wound my heart so severely.’ Since she claimed to know the will of God, Hildegard could say with no obvious self-doubt that God did not will Ricardis to become abbess. She insisted on this point in letter after letter. To the archbishop of Mainz, she wrote, ‘the clear fountain, truthful and just [God], says, “These legal pretexts for the appointment of this girl mean nothing in God’s eyes, for I did not choose them.”’ When others in Germany failed to see God’s will in Hildegard’s will, she wrote to the pope, but Eugenius, understandably not wanting to get involved, referred the matter of Ricardis to local officials. Hildegard’s will did not prevail. Hildegard then wrote to the new abbess what, to many, may appear to be a love letter:

My grief rises up to heaven. My sorrow destroys my confidence in mankind. I loved the nobility of your behaviour, your wisdom, your purity, your soul and every part of your being. May all who have sorrow like mine grieve with me, all who, like me, have ever, in God’s love, so loved a person in heart and soul only to have that love snatched away from them as you were from me.

Within a year Abbess Ricardis died, and with her death closes this chapter in Hildegard’s life, a chapter raising questions of human feelings and emotion that the historian’s limited abilities cannot answer.

On another occasion Hildegard’s conduct as head of Rupertsberg came under criticism. Another abbess complained that Hildegard allowed her nuns on feast days to appear in church with their hair flowing unbound, wearing long white silk veils that touched the floor and, on their heads, golden crowns, whereas they should dress with the modesty enjoined by St Paul. Far from denying this practice, Hildegard defended it as the appropriate way for virgins to approach the High Priest. Elsewhere she claimed that it was from a vision that she knew that a virgin’s head should have only a white veil and a crown. In addition, the same abbess registered surprise that Hildegard admitted only noble women into her community, whereas the Lord chose lowly fishermen and poor people as his companions. She replied that God created a layered society with a higher and a lower order and that the lower order should not rise above the higher order.

What farmer would indiscriminately put in one enclosure all his animals – cattle, asses, sheep, goats? It is necessary to be discriminating about people, lest people of different status, herded together, be disturbed in the pride of their elevation or in the ignominy of their decline.

Yet, in Hildegard’s defence, it should be said that religious orders over time, by self-selection of entrants latterly, have tended to produce communities which are fairly homogeneous in terms of social class. Such criticisms scarcely distracted Hildegard; she was busy about other things.

From about 1150 Hildegard had a public life, which began soon after the pope held aloft her Scivias at the Council of Trier. Over 350 letters are extant from this period. As collected, they are unfortunately not arranged chronologically but in order of the importance of her correspondents. Although she probably dictated them to a secretary or left her secretary with the gist of what she wanted to write, she was as much the author of her letters as St Bernard was of his. In fact, she wrote to the great abbot of Clairvaux, and this letter takes first place in the collection. Hildegard told Bernard that she had a vision and needed his advice. In reply, he encouraged her, but his reply has the ring of a stock letter of spiritual encouragement. She wrote Pope Eugenius III four letters that survive and at least one other. Writing in 1151, the pope remarked that ‘your reputation has become widespread’. Likewise, she wrote to Pope Anastasius IV (1153–54) – ‘you allow evil to raise its wicked head’ – and to his successor the Englishman Hadrian IV (1154–59) – ‘you are sometimes at odds with your better self.’ She was equally severe with the German emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, at the time (1164) when he, for a second time, supported an anti-pope. She told him that he was acting ‘like a little boy, like one that has lost his mind’. Nun and emperor had met under more pleasant circumstances in 1152, when Frederick had invited Hildegard to the royal palace. To King Henry II of England she gave stern warning that he should not listen to the devil. And one may wonder what that other great woman of the age, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife successively of two kings and mother of two kings, made of Hildegard’s remark that she was too busy about too many things: ‘You have not found rest.’ The translators of her letters tell us that she wrote not only to the great and the important but that she also wrote to ‘regular, everyday people of no historical consequence whatsoever (nuns, lapsed nuns, distraught wives, excommunicants, just ordinary folk)’.

Much of Hildegard’s correspondence took the form of spiritual direction, replies to religious men and women and to priests and prelates who asked her advice or perhaps only her prayers. A monk wrote asking her to intercede with God for his wicked and perverse sins and ‘please send me a response by this messenger’. In truth, most of her letters of spiritual direction were written to heads of houses, who, in the face of the changing modes of religious life, felt uncertainties and some even considered resignation. An unnamed abbess wrote, ‘I stand in need of your advice concerning my office; how and when will this burden be lifted from me?’ Hildegard replied, ‘Do not put aside your office because you feel overburdened and weary.’ To one severe abbot she advised, ‘Impose lighter burdens on those who are unable to carry heavy ones.’ To an abbess, impatient with her nuns, she cautioned, ‘When you are stirred to anger, put your eyes on the font of patience, and the anger will pass and the storming waters will abate.’ Scores of other such letters survive, testimony to her innate wisdom and to the confidence placed in her by a large circle of clients.

In another significant aspect of her prophetic role Hildegard embarked on as many as four preaching expeditions, which took her mostly to monasteries but also, on occasion, to great German cathedrals. At Cologne cathedral she lamented that the clergy by their negligence were responsible for the successes of the Cathars (see chapter 11). At Trier, at Pentecost, 1160, using her most powerful rhetoric, she upbraided the bishops and priests for their laxity. Wherever she went, Hildegard repeated the same message: repent and reform. Her message was fully consistent with the monastic reforming movement of the times.

Her speaking out in monasteries and cathedrals underlines, as do her letters, her self-described role as a prophet, meaning an inspired and fearless speaker of the word of God, although some people, including Barbarossa, expected her to reveal future events to them, which was not the essence of her prophetic role. Like Ezechiel and John the Baptist, she spoke the truth of the divine message, caring not who might be offended and become wrathful at her uncompromising forthrightness. She said that God spoke through her mouth. At the famous Trier sermon she began by saying, ‘I am but a poor little one with no claim to learning or courage, but these are the words I have heard’, and the sermon, God’s words, then followed. The ‘words’ must have been accompanied by an unflinching sense of self-confidence.

And so she lived her life, preaching and writing. Yet, when death came in 1179, it was preceded by the most troubling episode in her long life. At Rupertsberg, Hildegard had encouraged local rich families to bury their dead in the monastic grounds, a practice not uncommon for religious houses, a practice with spiritual benefits for the deceased from the prayers of the nuns and material benefits for the nuns from the gifts of the deceased’s family. In 1178 she allowed the burial of a local nobleman who had been excommunicated. The canons of Mainz cathedral, within days of the burial, ordered his exhumation under pain of interdict, because an excommunicate was by canon law forbidden burial in consecrated ground. She refused to have his body exhumed, claiming that her vision would not allow it. By so doing she cast her community into the consequences of an interdict, which meant that the nuns could not receive communion nor could any liturgical ceremonies be held except in the simplest of forms and never with music or singing. It would be incorrect to see this as a collective excommunication, since excommunication by definition is a casting out from the Christian community, which clearly is not the effect of interdict. Hildegard, besides citing the irrefutable authority of her own vision, argued that the nobleman had confessed his sins and received the last rites before his death. The cathedral canons were moved neither by her claim of a divine imperative to disobey them nor by her description of the deceased’s alleged reconciliation, and they refused to budge. According to one account, Hildegard took measures to conceal the grave. Without any apparent jurisdiction the archbishop of Cologne intervened, producing alleged witnesses to the nobleman’s absolution, and ordered the interdict lifted. The archbishop of Mainz, in Italy attending the Third Lateran Council, was no doubt displeased by the intrusion of the archbishop of Cologne in a matter beyond his jurisdiction, and he thus confirmed the interdict and remonstrated with Hildegard:

The church maintained that the man buried at your monastery had in his lifetime incurred excommunication and, although some question remains about his absolution, you acted dangerously when you refused to obey the canons and you were insensitive to the scandal that would be caused.

Nonetheless, the archbishop ordered his cathedral clergy to withdraw the interdict, if suitable witnesses testified to the man’s reconciliation. And the crisis ended. Hildegard was then 80 years old and had only six more months to live. She died on 17 September 1179 at Rupertsberg. Her body now rests at Rüdesheim, across the river from Bingen.

If during her lifetime Hildegard was best known as a visionary prophet, she is best known to the modern world as an author. To mention her writings raises instantly the question of authenticity of the writings attributed to her. Within a decade of her life a dossier of writings, which the compilers attributed to Hildegard, was assembled at Rupertsberg. We cannot be equally certain of the authenticity of all the works in this codex and in other collections. Accepting that she used secretaries and scribes, there can be little if any doubt that she was the author of the Scivias and the considerable correspondence. The Liber divinorum operum (‘Book of Divine Deeds’), a description of later visions, raises some questions. Examination of the earliest extant manuscript (at Ghent) suggests to different scholars distinct alternatives, one being her non-authorship, although the evidence for this position seems not compelling. With scholarship divided about some of the works attributed to her, one might put aside for now books of questionable authenticity. These would include a book on medicine. Also, over 70 compositions of sacred music with words and music which are attributed to her clearly came from her monastery at Rupertsberg but might have come from her supervision rather than directly from her hand – still a notable achievement – although her amenuensis wrote, while away, how he missed ‘the voice of her melodies and a tongue not heard before’. When the air is cleared of mist, all doubt may well be dissipated and Hildegard’s achievement seen in an even brighter light. Yet were she to have written nothing but her letters and the Scivias, her place would be absolutely firm as a luminous figure of the twelfth century.

Two copies of the Scivias which were made during her lifetime at her monastery have survived, one, lost in 1945, now only in a photographic copy. They contain her visions in three books of unequal length. Each section describes a vision and then presents Hildegard’s interpretation. They cover a wide range of topics concerning the Christian life for religious and laity alike.

The nature of these visions interested her contemporaries as it indeed interests moderns. The insistent Guibert of Gembloux, a Walloon monk who later became her secretary, asked Hildegard about how she experienced her visions:

Is it true that you do not remember at all what you have spoken in a vision once your secretaries have written it down? Do you dictate them in Latin or in German with someone translating the German into Latin? Have you become learned in the scriptures by study or by divine inspiration?

When she failed to answer, Guibert wrote again,

Do the visions come in a dream while you are asleep or do they come as a trance while you are awake?

Yielding to Guibert’s demands, Hildegard gave him (and us) her own explanation of her visions:

Since I was an infant, I had this visionary gift in my soul, and I have it to this very day. In these visions my spirit is raised by God up to the heavens and into the winds, and it meets a wide range of people, even those far distant. Since this is the way that I see, my sight is dependent on moving clouds and other conditions. No, I do not hear what I hear with bodily ears nor with the feelings of my heart nor with my five senses. I see them in my spirit with my eyes wide open. Never do I experience a trancelike state in my visions. I am fully awake and see visions both day and night. Still, my body experiences such pain that I feel I might die. Yet with the help of God I am sustained.

The light that I see is not specific and limited. It comes more brightly than the sun shines through a light cloud. Neither the height, length nor breadth of that light can I determine. I have named this light ‘the Shadow of the Living Light’. Sun, moon and stars can be seen reflected in water; similarly, writings and words and deeds are seen by me reflected in this light.

The things that I see or learn in vision I keep stored away in my memory for a long time. My experience of sight and hearing and understanding occur all at once. Since I am unlearned and have no other knowledge than my vision, the things that I write are what I see and hear in my vision with nothing of my own added. They are expressed in inelegant Latin, for I hear my vision in that way, since the vision does not teach me to write in the Latin of the philosophers. I should add that the words which I see and hear in vision do not resemble the words of human speech; they are, rather, like a fiery flame and a cloud moving through empty space. There is no way that I can perceive the shape of this light, just as I cannot stare into the sun.

And occasionally I see a light within that light, which I call ‘the Living Light’. I can no more explain that light than the other. When I do see it, my sufferings and pains disappear, and I feel like a young girl rather than the old woman that I am.

To this she added that she had the first light which she described, the Shadow of the Living Light, with her always:

It is like looking into the heavens when there is but a light cloud on a starless night. I see in this light the things that I speak of and I hear the responses that I give to those seeking my advice.

This is as full a description as any medieval visionary has given of the visionary experience.

What is the modern reader to make of this? What must be confronted is the question of the historical nature of Hildegard’s visions as found in her Scivias. Put squarely, did Hildegard actually experience visions from God? If one believes in a God who at times appears to human beings, then the possibility of visions poses no problem. Yet if one cannot intellectually accept the possibility of divine visions or if one feels that it is not proven that Hildegard actually had visions, what then? There seem to be two possibilities. One can say that they were pure fabrications of her imagination, created for personal reasons; this could be true but on the evidence seems unlikely. Or one can say that she experienced something which has a natural

Plate 11 Hildegard of Bingen’s vision of extinguished stars. Reproduced by permission of Brepols.

explanation but which she felt was divine in origin. The visionary Hildegard could have suffered from migraine episodes, since what she describes fits a classical description of migraine attacks. We often mistakenly think of such attacks solely in terms of headaches, which is not strictly speaking the case. Frequently migraine experiences affect vision. Most commonly, when this happens, one sees a connected series of inverse v’s or lightning-like flashes across the field of vision, which do not disappear when one closes the eyes. They are sometimes called ‘scintillating scotomata’ or ‘fortification spectra’ (because they can resemble crenellated structures). ‘Floaters’ often appear in migraine incidents and look like clouds. Hildegard’s ‘extinguished stars vision’, which was illustrated in a contemporary manuscript, closely resembles a form of migraine experience. An aura frequently occurs in the early stage of a migraine attack and can include hallucinations, which the subject can be convinced are entirely objective. The sicknesses which Hildegard experienced frequently in her life are consistent with severe migraine attacks, from which one typically recovers, as did Hildegard, with renewed vigour. Dr Oliver Sacks, long a specialist in the subject, concludes, ‘The visions of Hildegard … [were] indisputably migrainous’. That her visions may be explained in a neuro-psychological way should not diminish the importance of their content. In such a state with unusual visual experiences occurring, Hildegard might quite understandably have thought them experiences from God and that, consequently, what she was thinking while having such experiences came directly from God. Her Scivias, then, could be seen as the outpouring of Hildegard’s soul as the result of these experiences. It provides a view, at times brilliant, of the Christian view of life from the fall of Adam and Eve to the Last Judgement and emphasizes the coming of Jesus and his church and its sacraments as well as other themes such as angels, Lucifer and the anti-Christ. Whatever its source, theSciviasstands in a commanding place in medieval religious literature and its author in the first rank of remarkable women of any age.

Further reading

The correspondence of Abelard and Heloise, including the Historia calamitatum, is available in a Penguin paperback, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (tr. Betty Radice; Harmondsworth, Mddsx, 1974). The best book on Abelard, comprehensive, well-informed, brilliantly incisive, is Michael T. Clanchy, Abelard: A Medieval Life (Oxford, 1997). A book that contains more than the title suggests is John Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (Cambridge, 1997). For Bernard’s letters see Letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux (tr. Bruno Scott James; Stroud, Glos., 1998). Constant J. Mews claims that letters found in a collection at the municipal library at Troyes belong to our subject: The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France (London, 1999), which also provides a translation of these letters; Dr Mews also dicusses the Council of Sens in ‘The Council of Sens (1141): Abelard, Bernard, and the Fear of Social Upheaval’, Speculum 77 (2002) 342–82. A series of essays, mostly (although not entirely) from a feminist perspective, is Bonnie Wheeler, ed., Listening to Heloise: The Voice of a Twelfth-Century Woman (Basingstoke and London, 2000).

Three essential books on Becket are David Knowles, Thomas Becket (London, 1970), Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (Berkeley, 1986) and Anne Duggan, Thomas Becket (Oxford, 2005). In a work of exemplary scholarship Anne Duggan has produced an edition (with English translation) of the letters to and from Becket, The Correspondence of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1162–1170 (2 vols; Oxford, 2000). She has also written a fascinating piece of detective work in reconstructing the text of Henry II’s reconciliation, ‘Ne in dubium: The Official Record of Henry II’s Reconciliation at Avranches, 21 May 1172’, English Historical Review 115 (2000), 643–58, which, with other relevant papers of hers, is reprinted in Thomas Becket: Friends, Networks, Texts and Cult(Aldershot, Hants., 2007). An interesting account about the remains of Becket is John Butler, The Quest for Becket’s Bones: The Mystery of the Relics of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury (New Haven and London, 1995). Written for a general audience by former Canterbury librarian and Oxford don William Urry and published posthumously is Thomas Becket: His Last Days (Stroud, Glos. 1999).

An excellent introduction to Hildegard of Bingen is Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen, 1098–1179: A Visionary Life (2nd edn; London and New York, 1998). Dr Flanagan has also provided a selection of writings in Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen (Boston and London, 1996). A sine qua non for a study of her life is Anna Silvas, tr. and intro., Jutta and Hildegard: The Biographical Sources (University Park, PA, 1998). Other useful titles include Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (†203) to Marguerite Porete (†1310) (Cambridge, 1984); Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley and Aldershot, 1987) and, under her editorship, Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and her World (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1998). The text of her major visions has been translated into English by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop: Scivias (Bethlehem, CT, 1990). Extremely valuable is the English translation of Hildegard’s letters, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen (3 vols; trs J.L. Baird and R.K. Ehrmann; Oxford, 1994–2004). Penguin Classics has produced Hildegard of Bingen, Selected Writings (tr. Mark Atherton; London, 2001). Dr Oliver Sacks discusses Hildegard’s symptoms in Migraine (rev. edn; London, 1995).

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