Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mariology of St Anselm (vi) - Canon Robin Ward

The liturgical celebration of the conception of the Virgin Mary was politically as well as theologically sensitive at the time when Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury. The event of Mary’s conception receives legendary attention in the Protevangelium, which is thought to be of second century origin, and there is some evidence for liturgical commemoration in the East from the end of the seventh century and shortly afterwards in Ireland. However, it is in eleventh century England that the feast of the Virgin’s conception first appears as a well established observance on the 8th December [Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique 7.1, cc. 989-993]. Following the conquest, Archbishop Lanfranc, Anselm’s predecessor both at Canterbury and as abbot of Bec and his teacher in youth, embarked on a reform to suppress certain perceived peculiarities which had emerged in the English church regarding liturgical observances and the marriage of the clergy, and the feast of the conception of the Virgin was among those lost. The English fought back with some guile and persistence to rescue their rich liturgical inheritance of saints and commemorations, and by the second decade of the twelfth century much had been done to restore the salient features of this pre-conquest insular cultus. This was most notable in the great monastic centres such as Westminster, Ramsey and Bury: indeed, Anselm’s own nephew and namesake was instrumental in restoring the feast of the Virgin’s conception when he became abbot of Bury [Richard Southern, Anselm of Canterbury, A Portrait in a Landscape, p. 434].

Two literary sources in particular stand out: the first is a letter dating from about 1085 describing how Elsi, the abbot of Ramsey, was rescued from a storm at sea by the Virgin on condition he promote the feast of her conception [J P Migne, Patrologia Latina 159, cc. 323-6]; the second is the treatise De Conceptione Beatae Mariae by Eadmer of Canterbury, monk, hagiographer of the old English saints and author of the Vita Anselmi. The names Elsi and Eadmer betray the English origin of the principal protagonists here and indicate the limited ambition behind the conduct of the controversy: this is an attempt by the conquered to justify the immemorial usages of their churches. Eadmer was both an assiduous compiler of all that pertained to the pre-conquest saints of Canterbury and a querulous critic of the exclusion of his countrymen from ecclesiastical office in favour of foreigners. However, what began as a rearguard action to defend the local English tradition of Marian piety soon became part of an international theological controversy about the Virgin’s exemption from original sin, a controversy which the attachment of Anselm’s name as author to both the letter and the treatise momentously transformed. This was because S. Bernard, mellifluous doctor of the Virgin’s privileges even as he was, specifically denied that Mary was preserved from original sin at her conception when he heard that the canons of Lyons had introduced the celebration of the festival into their church in 1138 [Bernard of Clairvaux, Ad Canonicos Lugdunenses Ep. 174, PL 182, c. 332]. What had begun as an exercise in English ecclesiastical antiquarianism now became a fissure within the new Marianism which was to persist throughout the scholastic period and in which the name of Anselm quoted as an authority was to carry great weight even into the nineteenth century.

Anselm himself appears not to have accepted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception insofar as it had a concrete formulation in his day, and he treats it only incidentally. In Cur Deus Homo he states clearly: the Virgin of whom he was taken was conceived ‘amid iniquities’ and her mother ‘conceived’ her ‘in sin’, and she was born with original sin since she sinned in Adam ‘in whom all have sinned’ [Cur Deus Homo 16, in Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works, p. 337]. However, in De Virginali conceptu et de peccato originali, he describes the virgin as having been cleansed by faith before conceiving her divine Son, and also states that although it is true that the Son of God was born of a spotless Virgin, this was not out of necessity, as if a just offspring could not be generated by this method of propagation from a sinful parent, but because it was fitting that the conception of this man should be of a pure mother [De Virginali conceptu 18, in Anselm, Major Works, p. 376]. This argument from fittingness subsequently becomes one of the principal tools used by Eadmer and those who succeed him in defence of the full doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to justify their position. Anselm understood original sin as an absence of original justice in consequence of Adam’s disobedience, which meant that human free will has an impeded capacity to choose the good and a propensity to choose evil which exists in potentiality from conception but does not actually come into effect until the age of reason. This account of the doctrine is more patient of an immaculist interpretation of the Virgin’s privilege at conception than the Augustinian emphasis on the transmission of original sin by the concupiscent process of procreation.