Anyone who knew St. Anselm as a typical pleasure loving youth might have been surprised at just how far — and in what direction — this young man would travel. Not only would he confront kings and actively oppose slavery at a time when others did not, he would also become one of the Church’s greatest theologians, earning the title “Father of Scholasticism.”

Anselm was born into Italian nobility in 1033 and would come of age in a Church that was dealing with both great upheaval and great movement forward. The tragic schism between the Church at Rome in the West and the Church at Constantinople in the East, a breech that persists even to this day, took place in 1054; Pope Urban II, in an attempt to free Jerusalem from the Turks and ensure the safety of pilgrims to its holy sites, launched the First Crusade in 1095. Church reform had been advanced by the founding of such orders as the Camaldolese and the Carthusians, while at the same time Church leaders still struggled with kings and emperors over the practice of lay investiture, in which secular leaders claimed the right to appoint Church leaders, up to and including the pope.

Against this backdrop, Anselm entered the monastery at Bec, France, in 1060. It had been a dream deferred for him; an attempt to enter religious life at the age of 15 had been thwarted by Anselm’s father, and the young man afterward drifted away into a life of worldly pleasure and a general disinterest in religion altogether. By the age of 27 however, he had found his way back and would spend three years as a simple monk before being appointed prior of the abbey three years later. Fifteen years after that, he was unanimously elected abbot.

During this time, he would embark on the theological work that would eventually see him declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Clement XI in 1720. Scholasticism, in which reason was used as a means to understand the mysteries of the faith, was just beginning to be developed, and Anselm was one of its leading exponents. Considered to be one of the most influential theologians between St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, his most famous work is the book “Cur Deus Homo” (“Why God Became Man”).

Though he would have been very content to remain in the monastery, Anselm, much against his will, was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in England in 1093. Here he sparred with both King William Rufus and later King Henry I over the practice of lay investiture. Refusing to back down, Anselm instead went into voluntary exile until 1107, when the king finally relented.

Always a champion of the poor, Anselm also obtained a resolution in 1102, prohibiting the sale of human beings — slavery— at a national synod at Westminster.

Anselm died peacefully in 1109; his feast day in April 21.

Sources for this article include:

Kent, William. “St. Anselm.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.

“Saint Anselm of Canterbury“. CatholicSaints.Info. April 23, 2018.

Schreck, Alan. “Catholic Church History from A to Z.” Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Publications, 2002.