The Age of Abbot Desiderius?

Despite being elected Pope Victor III, Desiderius is remembered primarily as an abbot.

Vincenzo Carducci, ‘Visión del Papa Víctor III’, ca. 1629
Vincenzo Carducci, ‘Visión del Papa Víctor III’, ca. 1629 (photo: Register Files)

One of the many pleasures of visiting an independent bookstore—and here I prefer the Canadian/British moniker “book SHOP” as it connotes something much more homey, intelligent and inexpensive than one of the big-box chain-stores, let alone the algorithm-driven Amazon—is that (a) they usually have a used-book section, and (b) one invariably leaves with a book you’d never known you’d wanted, or for that matter, even existed.

Such was the case when I encountered Professor H.E.J. Cowdrey’s The Age of Abbot Desiderius: Montecassino, the Papacy, and the Normans in the Eleventh and Early Twelfth Centuries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983). Though not exactly a long, it doesn’t make for what one would call “easy reading”.

Nor was it meant to be. This is obviously a scholarly tome, written by an Oxford Don for other ecclesiologists—though I’m always a bit amazed and bemused by English Churchmen (another example of one is J.N.D. Kelley) who are seemingly more interested in the history of Catholicism than their own Anglican Church. Still, no one can fault them for almost taking the leap of the earlier “Oxford Movement” featuring Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Cardinal Henry Newman, and later, “The Catholic Renaissance” British writer-converts Francis Thompson, Baron Corvo, David Jones, Eric Gill, and the great translator of Marcel Proust, C.K. Scott Montcrieff.

Still, despite the obvious scholarly tone (at times the book reads like a thinly veiled doctoral dissertation), and an endless array of footnotes and endnotes, this book did introduce me to, and made a compelling case for “The Age of Desiderius”… even if I’d never heard of Desiderius before.

My academic background is in English Literature, so we throw around phrases like “The Age of Yeats” or “The Age of Eliot” or “The Age of Pound” (and that’s just concerning the first half of the 20th-century) and then try to make a case for our man or woman and why he or she was the most important poet of the age.

Cowdrey’s up against something else entirely in his book: Abbot Desiderius, whose birth name was Dauferio, and whom Catholics may know better, if they know him at all, as Blessed Pope Victor (1026-1087), lived and died just prior to two giants in Church history, namely, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Norbert of Xanthan, both of whom were born the year Desiderius died. Bernard would go on to preach the Crusades and help found the Cistercians (and in the process reform Western Monasticism), and Norbert would shake up the French and German clergy and found the Canons of Prémontré, whose observance of The Rule of Augustine would meld the active and contemplative lives.

Desiderius was, per professor Cowdrey, nothing if not a prodigy, and from a young age destined for high rank in the Church, despite his parents’ desire that he marry, as he was their only child.

While Desiderius was to the manner born (his father was a duke), it’s worth keeping in mind, as Sir Kenneth Clark rightfully pointed out in Civilisation, that the medieval church was, essentially, a democratic institution: anyone who was willing to work hard and study diligently could work his way up the ecclesiastical ladder.

But in addition to a having a strong work ethic, and being a bit of a polymath, Desiderius had something else that was lacking in much of the Middle Ages: a forward-looking vision. He was not content on being the smartest man in the room (or in his case the Abbey of Montecassino), he wanted to make others around him more intelligent, more well-informed as well. There was really only one way to ensure this, and that was by the procurement of books.

I began by saying that I prefer bookshops to bookstores, but I’d take a library over either any day. And this is what Desiderius proceeded to do at the Motherhouse of all Benedictine Abbeys: grow a library at Montecassino that would be the glory of Christendom.

Montecassino, it must be remembered, was the Benedictine Abbey par excellence: it was founded by the Father of Western Monasticism himself, St. Benedict of Nursia, whose Rule became the basis of nearly all monks in Europe, right up until the reforms of St. Romauld (the Camaldolese) and St. Bernard (the Cistercians).

It was also, by any standard, staggeringly rich, having been endowed by patrons of all sorts. As the Carmelites were to find out centuries later under St. Teresa of Ávila, money and monasticism don’t always mix well (unless, of course, one excepts the famous Abbey of Cluny), and Desiderius possibly the only man who had the will, let alone the ardor, to keep Montecassino from becoming complacent while at the same time making it even more profitable, powerful, and in short, second only to Rome. As Professor Cowdrey points out, Desiderius was the Abbey’s second founder, second only to Benedict himself.

Another aspect to Desiderius vision (in addition to building a massive library) was to understand, and not merely believe. To this end, as mentioned above, the Abbot Desiderius bought and brought in books not merely to have a “can-you-top-this” book collection, but so that his own monks would understand what they believed. He imported in texts from all the Church Fathers of both the West and East, as well as the Venerable Bede (from England) and the great St. Basil.

It’s worth noting here that being an Abbot in the late 11th century was, in a sense, to be a temporal as well as spiritual ruler: there were lands—known as “terra sancti Benedicti” and this term is chapter-length material in Cowdrey’s book— to be groomed and farmed, and, if at all possible, expanded (which Desiderius unashamedly did throughout south-central Italy). And it was not uncommon for a high-ranking abbot to also be a bishop—a good example of this is the aforementioned Norbert who was both the first Abbot of Prémontré and the Archbishop of Magdeburg.

So it should come as no shock that the Abbot Desiderius was also a cardinal— and a papal legate to Constantinople as well. But what is perhaps a bit surprising—at least to 21st-century Catholics—is the role Desiderius played not only in Church politics, but in politics, period. Desiderius was called on repeatedly by both Pope St. Gregory VII (formerly the Benedictine monk Hildebrand), and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry to get the other to heel. This was of course an impossible feat to some degree and Pope Gregory viewed his fellow Benedictine with some suspicion, while the Emperor never fully trusted him either. The fact that Desiderius remained in both the favor of the pope and the emperor is a tribute to his genius in the world of realpolitik.

The irony of all this was that, despite being elected Pope Victor III, Desiderius would be remembered as an abbot, and not as a pontiff—though this makes a bit more sense when one considers his pontificate was one of the briefest on record: he died after only 14 months on the throne of Saint Peter.

Professor Cowdrey’s book certainly doesn’t make for dog-day summer beach reading, but it does make a convincing case that the late-eleventh and early twelfth centuries were indeed “The Age of Abbot Desiderius”, though it’s tough to argue with the concept of “The Age of Pope Gregory VII” as an alternative.