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Anselm of Canterbury

c.1033-1109. Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093. Born in Aosta, Italy, he quarreled with his father as a youth and left home. After years of wandering, at the age of twenty-six he settled in Normandy at Bec, becoming a monk under the influence of Lanfranc. When he was sixty years old he left the abbey and was made archbishop of Canterbury, a post he held until his death. Anselm took part in the intellectual development of eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe when, due to the increase in wealth and the challenge of new ideas, the Scholastic* tradition was formed. At the beginning of this process, the monastic communities took the lead. They had various advantages over the secular schools, the greatest of these being the close and continuing contact between the teacher and the student. Given a bright teacher, a tradition of learning, and the unhurried pace of a monastic community, the results could be very impressive. This was the situation at Bec while Anselm was prior and then abbot. Most of his works take the form of dialogues with students as he attempted to answer the worried questions of the young men in his care.

While archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm worked to apply the Hildebrandine reforms to the English Church. This led to conflict with William II (Rufus). Anselm refused to cooperate with lay investiture and so was forced to leave England. At the death of Rufus in 1100 Anselm was asked by Henry I to return to England, but he argued with the English monarch and so went into exile once more (1103). Finally, by 1107, a compromise was reached between the pope and the English king, and Anselm returned to his see. The remaining years of his life were spent in enforcing clerical celibacy and other Gregorian reforms on the church in England.

His writings are divided into (1) systematic works, (2) prayers and meditations, and (3) letters. In the first category one should note the Monologion, the Proslogion, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), On the Virginal Conception and Original Sin, On the Procession of the Holy Spirit, and De Concordia. Although he did not work out a complete system of theology as the later medieval scholars were to do, his treatises cover much of Christian thought. Anselm believed that faith was a necessary foundation and support for philosophic speculation. As he wrote, “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand: for this I also believe, that unless I believe I will not understand.” He proceeded to formulate the “ontological proof” for God's existence. He held also that the Atonement was necessary to satisfy the majesty of God rather than the older view held since Origen's time that Christ died to pay a ransom to the devil. Anselm's dependence upon Platonic thought made him a leader among the medieval realists.

The most recent edition of Anselm's works is F.S. Schmitt, S. Anselmi Opera Omnia (5 vols. and index, 1942). For excellent biographical detail see R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm and His Biographer (1963).