An admirable prior

Daily Reading for January 19 • Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, 1095

It was a rule with Wulfstan to do with his might what his hands found to do, and he discharged with honor to the monastery the duties which now devolved upon him. The first office which he filled was that of scholasticus, or keeper of the schools.

Unless Wulfstan had made himself a scholar at Peterborough, he would not have received this appointment. That he was qualified for it is asserted by Malmesbury, who states that he read deeply, and was thoroughly acquainted with Holy Scripture. Florence of Worcester remarks that he now devoted himself to a contemplative life, passing nights as well as days in the prayerful study of the Bible. He states a fact which he says that he should hardly have believed, if he had it not from high authority, that Wulfstan would sometimes pass four days and four nights without sleep. A story like this has been told of one of the most eminent men of our own day, Lord Brougham. In either case, the truth probably is, that something like this occurred once in the life of each, under an unusual pressure of business, and consequently under circumstances of intense excitement. We may add here, that the greatest friend of Wulfstan, at a later period, was Robert, Bishop of Hereford, a man of universal information, a divine, a lawyer, a mathematician, a man of science. He would pass days in the society of Wulfstan; and he was not likely to choose for his friend and companion a man devoid of literature. I mention these circumstances because, in modern story, Wulfstan is spoken of as a well-meaning, well-conducted ignoramus, and Malmesbury tells us, in his treatise De Gestis Pontificum, that Lanfranc had spoken of him as an unlettered man. This was probably said before Lanfranc had become well acquainted with him, and because Wulfstan contemned the kind of knowledge in which Lanfranc excelled. He despised the learning, says Malmesbury, which consisted in the study of poetic fables and the crooked syllogisms of the Dialecticians (the new scholastic system lately introduced on the Continent); and he spoke Norman-French imperfectly. But Malmesbury truly observed that no man could have preached with such power, elegance, eloquence, and effect as Wulfstan did, and that too very frequently without premeditation, and not be a man of cultivated intellect.

Of Wulfstan’s mode of teaching I have nothing to report. Of his discipline we have the following instance. He was not only liberal in his alms-deeds, but very considerate in his mode of administering to the wants of others. This was one secret of his popularity. Wulfstan would arrange his poor on seats, and employ the young men of his school to carry their repast. They were made to place the food with bended knee, as was the custom then with servants, upon the table, and to pour water upon the hands of his pauper guests. If any one, conscious of his high birth, evinced an unwillingness to obey, Wulfstan would chide him as contumacious. He would abase the proud and exalt the lowly.

Wulfstan, after a time, accepted the office of precentor. He was a good musician, and the Anglo-Saxons were fond of music. Nevertheless, I greatly fear that the manner in which Wulfstan performed this part of his duty must have been peculiarly annoying to the choir. Of his mode of proceeding we happen to have an instance. When the Bishop of Worcester made his visitations, himself on horseback, he was attended, as he travelled through a thinly populated and only half-cultivated country, by a large cavalcade. To make the time pass pleasantly, as the cavalcade wound its way through the straggling village or the streets of a town, along the banks of the Severn or skirting the heights of Malvern, the bishop would call upon the precentor to intone a psalm, and all the company would join in a mighty chorus. This suggests pleasant ideas. But Wulfstan was a very absent man; and one habit of his must have tried the patience and temper of his choir. When some verse occurred which spoke to his heart or caused a special excitement to his devotional feelings, that verse, instead of proceeding to the next, he would repeat over and over again, with eyes uplifted and extended hands. This he would frequently do whenever the prayer-verses recurred; as Malmesbury says, “usque ad fastidium concantantis.” But if Wulfstan was a bad precentor he became an admirable prior.

From “The Life and Times of Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester” by Walter Farquhar Hook, in The Archaeological Journal 20 (March 1863).

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