Wednesday, 6 April 2016

A Ninth-Century Antiphon and its Composer

Although he is not actually an Irish saint, I cannot resist marking the feastday of the blessed Notker Balbulus of the Irish abbey of Saint Gall, which falls on April 6. Below is an extract from an 1884 paper on his life and authorship of the beautiful antiphon Media Vita, even though modern scholarship seems to question this.

Media vita in morte sumus ; quem quaerimus adjutorem, nisi te Domine, qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris? Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et misericors Salvator, amarae morti ne tradas nos.

In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succor, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased? Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.


St. Gall, an Irish monk and disciple of St. Columbanus of Bangor, who had declined to follow his apostolic countryman into Italy, founded near Lake Constance, in Switzerland, the celebrated monastery which bore his name. A few humble huts, constructed on the confines of vast forests haunted by bears and wolves, at first sheltered the little community from the inclemency of the seasons, but in time they disappeared, and in their stead arose the walls of that magnificent monastic school, destined to live in history among the great abbeys of the middle ages, with Bobbio and Fulda, with Monte Cassino and Cluni, which conferred such incomparable benefits on literature and civilization..

Mediaeval history has preserved the fame and grandeur of its early name, around which are gathered associations, traditions, and legends whose diverse and complex interests are full of fascination for the antiquary and of affection and awe for the hagiologist. Before the death of its saintly founder, in the early part of the seventh century, St. Gall had become a centre of Christian life and thought in the Germanic world. No less than five monks named Notker are numbered among its illustrious scholars. Some writers have so confounded one or other of these with the author of Media Vita, who was canonized by Pope Innocent III., that it is important to give a list of the four who also bear the name of Notker, in order to guard against the mistakes which others have made. They are Notker, surnamed Physicus, who was both painter and musician, and for a time physician at the court of Otho I.; another, of whom little is known, is said to have been abbot of St. Gall; a third, Notker Provost, or Notger, who flourished about the year A.D. 1000, was bishop of Liege and author of a Life of St. Remains; a fourth, called Notker Labeo, or Teutonius, who died about A.D. 1002, was the most celebrated of all these, save the author of Media Vita. He excelled in many branches of learning- and enjoyed great repute as painter, poet, astronomer, and mathematician. Possessing the diligence and industry of the cloister, he made many translations of the sacred and profane writers. The manuscript of his translation of the Psalms into High German is still extant, and is regarded by bibliographers as one of the most valuable monuments of the oldest German prose....

St. Notker, author of the antiphon Media Vita, one of the most interesting characters in the history of the old abbey of St. Gall, whose figure is seen high among the lights which shone above the intellectual horizon towards the sunset of the ninth century. .. The exact date of his birth is uncertain, but the majority of writers whose opinions on mediaeval subjects are worthy of consideration represent him as the senior in age by some months of his friend and patron, Charles le Gros, the last emperor of the Carlovingian dynasty. They agree in dating his birth about the year A.D. 830. His native village was situated in the old province of Thurgovia, in Helvetia, which, at the disruption of the vast empire founded and held intact by the splendid genius of Charlemagne, was divided, and the present canton of Thurgau became a part of the dominion of Louis of Bavaria, So St. Notker was, in the parlance of our day, a German Switzer. His lineage was both ancient and noble. Following the custom of his age and country, St. Notker was trained from youth in a monastic school. Dedicated to the service of God from childhood, the neighboring monastery of St. Gall, but a short distance from his ancestral estate, was his home from the period at which he left the paternal roof until called, at the advanced age of eighty-two, to sleep in everlasting rest with the soft tranquillity of an innocent child. Divers were the out door occupations which filled up the hours of recreation among the monks of St. Gall. Fruit-trees were to be planted or pruned, gardens to be seeded or worked, and nets to be woven or tended when spread for fish or birds. In these various pursuits the monastic disciples assisted their masters, who combined, as in our industrial and agricultural schools, both mental and manual labor. ..Gray-headed monks too old for work, who crept with infirm step about the cloisters of St. Gall, noticed the demure little boy of quiet manners and studious ways, whom they surnamed Balbulus the stammerer from an impediment in his speech. Some, of larger insight into human character than their aged brothers whose faculties were dimmed by weight of years, discovered in the sensitive boy a poetic fervor, supplemented by a humility of spirit almost preternatural in one so young. Under the direction of Ison and Marcellus, his instructors, and in communion with pure souls bound to each other by that most enduring and ennobling of all ties, the profession of a higher theory of life than that which prevailed in the world, St. Notker advanced in the sphere of human knowledge and in the wisdom of the saints. Among his fellow-disciples, who always held him in tender affection, was Salomon, afterwards bishop of Constance. When the period had arrived for the fulfilment of the special purposes of his monastic training he made his religious vows, and from that time forward we find him pursuing with ardor and devotion the every-day duties in the life of a monk of the ninth century. Possessing talents of a high order, which claimed greater scope for development than that afforded in the mere routine of transcribing sacred or profane writers, he spent much of the time usually given to that kind of labor in original composition, and became distinguished as a scholar, poet, and musician.

But although so richly endowed with mental gifts differing from, or superior to, those of his associates, St. Notker was never neglectful in the performance of his full share of work, both in the garden and in the scriptorium. Like the true monk as well as the true poet, he loved nature and understood the tranquillizing power which lives in her majestic symbols. Her book, wherein he read the mystical meaning in which things earthly prefigure things heavenly, lay open to his mind and heart. After the manner of St. Ephrem, who saw the sign of the cross in the outstretched wings of the tiniest bird, or of St. Dunstan, who heard the melody of the antiphon Gaudete in Caelis when the wind swept the strings of his harp suspended on the wall, St. Notker, moved by the sound of the slow revolutions of a millwheel in midsummer when the water was low, wrote the words and music of his hymn, Sancti Spiritus adsit nobis gratia. When a messenger of his friend and admirer, Charles le Gros affectionately called "our Charles" by the monks arrived at St. Gall on a spiritual mission in behalf of the emperor, he found St. Notker weeding and watering the herbs in the garden. The interview was brief and the lesson taught suggested by the lowly occupation in which he was engaged. "Tell the emperor to do what I am now doing," was the saint's reply. Hearing the advice, Charles at once caught its import and said: "Ah! yes, that is the sum of all: destroy the weeds of vice and water the herbs of grace." On another occasion during a visit of Charles le Gros, who delighted in the companionship of the monks, the evidence of confidence and love shown towards St. Notker excited the envy of the chaplain who attended the emperor, and he determined to revenge himself by jeering at the stammering speech of the saint and by perplexing him with knotty questions. Approaching St. Notker, who was composing sacred melodies on his psaltery, the chaplain of Charles addressed him : "Master! solve for us a point in theology, we pray you. What is God doing now?" The attendants of the jealous and conceited inquirer, knowing the secret purpose of the question, were astonished at the promptness and wisdom of the reply : "God is doing now," said the saint," what he has done in all past ages, and what he will continue to do as long as the world lasts: he is setting down the proud and exalting the humble."

St. Notker was a central figure among the transcribers and illuminators of manuscripts in the spacious scriptorium of St. Gall, in which quiet reigned because all the busy monks were intent upon their special work... As a collator St. Notker was zealous and accurate, and his services were of incalculable value to the library of St. Gall. Through intercourse with the learned men of his times he became acquainted with the character and contents of other libraries than that of his own community, and by such knowledge he was enabled to procure copies of scarce manuscripts or to borrow them for transcription. From Liutward, Bishop of Vercelli a Ghibelline city of northern Italy, whose episcopal see dates back to the fourth century, and whose cathedral library is rich in ancient manuscripts he received a copy of the Canonical Letters in Greek, which he copied with his own hand.

It is painful to think that such a man as St. Notker, whose simplicity of character and sweetness of disposition are the themes of panegyric with the historians of the abbey of St. Gall, did not escape the envious promptings which stirred the bosom of Sindolphe, a brother of the same community. Allowing for the natural glow of enthusiasm which would animate the portraiture drawn by a monk of St. Gall three centuries after the close of the earthly career of the saint, other evidence is not wanting in confirmation of the testimony of Eckehard, who says that "no one ever saw him unless either reading, writing, or praying; he wrote many spiritual songs; he was the most humble and meek of men, and most holy." We sometimes find in the cloister, as in secular life, that men of dissimilar tastes and talents are often attracted to each other by the very dissimilitude which at first sight appears incompatible with the ordinary notions of gravitation in the moral and intellectual world. Associated with St. Notker from the date of his novitiate were Ratpert and Tutilon, two monks wholly unlike the saint in temper and character, yet among them there had grown an affectionate regard for each other which had never been chilled by open strife or secret distrust. Common aims and common dangers shared together seem to have softened those little asperities, frequently united with quick feelings, which are yet not inconsistent with holiness of life. But this union of confidence and affection awakened in Sindolphe a suspicion that it had some other motives than those which appeared on the surface. In his ignorance and jealousy he attempted to poison the mind of the abbot against them, but the latter had sounded the shallowness of Sindolphe's undisciplined will, and took no heed of his insinuations. Tutilon, learning of these wayward acts, was watchful of his foolish brother, and soon found means to administer a wholesome lesson. St. Notker and the two monks had repaired together on one occasion to the scriptorium for study, and Sindolphe, believing that he might overhear something which would convince the abbot of their unworthiness, secreted himself under the window outside and placed his ear close to listen to their conversation. Tutilon, keen-eyed and alert, observed the action, and, sending the sweet-tempered Notker into the chapel, persuaded Ratpert to take a whip, and, coming up softly to the unsuspecting Sindolphe, to beat him severely; while Tutilon, opening the window, seized him by the head, calling for lights that he might see the face of Satanas, who had come hither with evil intent. Besides his bodily chastisement, which amused even the grave abbot, the unamiable monk had to endure a still further penance in the well-merited raillery of the community of St. Gall. But whatever may have been the peculiar trials to which the conduct of Sindolphe subjected St. Notker, it is pleasant to believe that they were unable to destroy his high serenity or to tarnish his purity of soul, as in later times the advocatus dioboli was unable to present evidence which in any way interfered with his being a saint. In his long career many honors commensurate with his talents and vocation came to him, but in meekness of spirit he turned away from them all, even the episcopal dignity more than once pressed upon him, to pursue the humble path of a simple monk. As an author his fame spread abroad, and he was remarkable for the variety and extent of his erudition.

On this account certain writings continue to this day to be wrongly attributed to him, notably among these the Gesta Caroli Magni. He compiled a life of St. Gall in verse, and wrote a martyrology "which he chiefly collected," says Butler, "from Ado and Rabanus Maurus, and which was for a long time made use of in most of the German churches." His skill in music found expression in many sequences and proses which established his reputation as a master of ecclesiastical chant, and his small treatise on the value of letters in music is still extant in the Scriptores of Gerbert. Ruodbert, Archbishop of Metz, requested him to compose a hymn in honor of St. Stephen to be used at the opening of a church dedicated to the proto-martyr. He complied, and accompanied it with these words: " Sick and stammering, and full of evil, I Notker, unworthy, have sung the triumph of Stephen with my polluted mouth, at the desire of the prelate. May Ruodbert, who has in a young body the prudent heart of a venerable man, see a long life full of merits!"

The voice of the thoughtful monk, who had chastened his soul in solitude and turned a deaf ear to human applause, has gone out into all the earth and his words unto the ends of the world. The antiphon Media Vita in morte sumus, which commemorates the insecurity of life and the certainty of death, has preserved the name of the severe ascetic in the literature of the church and among those who have ceased to be partakers of the lot of the saints. It was sung for centuries at St. Gall, and formed part of the solemn supplications every year in Rogation week during a religious procession to an awe-inspiring region situated between two mountains and spanned by a bridge beneath which the roaring torrent dashed over the sullen rocks. Peak to peak reverberated the penitential song of the monks, until its last echoes died away among the lofty summits, of Alpine solitudes. The antiphon soon spread over Europe and thrilled the hearts of pilgrims from the stern regions of the inhospitable north and from the vine-clad shores of the blue Mediterranean. Sung by Crusaders, it stirred the most listless and apathetic on the eve of conflict, and at the close of day it was a prayer for protection through the awful perils of the night. So profoundly had it moved the mediaeval world that it was heard in the ranks of opposing armies going to battle. But by and by the imagination of the ignorant began to invest it with a sort of superstitious charm, which led the Synod of Cologne, in 1316, to inhibit its use except by express permission of a bishop. Two accounts of its origin, slightly differing in detail, have been given by monastic annalists..

The monks of St. Gall made frequent excursions into the neighboring country, some for recreation, some on missions of mercy, and others for herbs and flowers which clung about rocky projections or grew in mountain recesses perilous of ascent. Their circuit of ordinary travel, hedged in by a snowy palisade of Alps, abounded in scenery of infinite variety and grandeur. The earliest version of the origin of the antiphon is that, during one of these rambles in the wild region of the chasm of Martistoble, St. Notker was drawn thither by the sound of the hammers of workmen engaged in the construction of a bridge across the yawning abyss. The spectacle of the masons suspended over this awful gulf on movable scaffolding, adjusted by means of ropes which swayed to and fro by the very motion of their bodies, presented to the mind of the saint a realistic picture of the uncertainty of life, and suggested the train of pious thought elaborated in his great antiphon.

The flora of the mountain ranges and the outstretching valleys was pretty well understood by the monastic herbalists, who had traversed the whole region on foot and given to some of the plants and flowers the names which they retain, although in a corrupted form. Between the pages of well-used manuscripts preserved in the libraries of religious houses are still traceable the dim, faint outlines of the rare flowers gathered, perhaps, from rocks and ravines seldom touched by human foot save that of the monk, and in this way the delicate petals and stems were dried for the hortus siccus of the monastery. The monks were physicians of both body and soul. They made many discoveries in the medicinal properties of herbs which entered largely into the practice of the healing art.

The sampetra, or samphire plant, well known in Great Britain, was highly esteemed for its aromatic and curative qualities. It grows on rocky cliffs and promontories the sight of which almost confuses the vision and makes the brain reel... The second account of the composition of Media Vita relates that the clinging form of an adventurous gatherer of the plant, hugging, as it were between life and death, a precipitous rock which juts over the very edge of the torrent below, his body at one moment wrapt in a violet mist, then apparently within -the full sweep of the foaming spray, so pierced the imagination of St. Notker that not only the words but even the measured movement of the original melody of the antiphon sprang spontaneously from his awe-struck soul.

Of the career of its composer but little more remains to be told. St. Notker was now an octogenarian and the weariness of years weighed heavily upon him. The animation that had lighted up his face in the flush of manhood was gone, his eyes were hollow, and his flesh was wasted with the long conflict of life. His body, frail and shrunken, was scarcely equal to its functions, and the intellectual fibre, once so strong and vigorous, was worn out. The candle was burnt to the end and its dying light fluttered in the socket. In his own person was fulfilled the prophecy of old:

" The days of our age are threescore years and ten; though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years, yet is their strength then but labor and sorrow." The verdure of spring, so grateful to the languid eyes of the sick man, had now begun to clothe valley and hill with its richness. Winter was relaxing its icy hold, and nature, like a young giant refreshed with sleep, was putting forth the strength and fulness of life. Even the coldness of the snow-crowned Alps seemed to decrease under the lustre and warmth of a vernal sun. The quickening influences of reawakened nature, which touched all visible forms with the glory of resurrection, made no impression on the attenuated frame of the saintly ascetic stretched on his narrow couch. His mission was nearly accomplished, and only the feeble pulsations showed that life was not quite extinct. The morning of the 6th of April, A.D. 912, wore away as usual in the cloisters of St. Gall, and no change was apparent in the face of the dying monk; but when silence and night settled over the sorrow-stricken community the joy of eternal day had dawned on the vision of the saint. So quietly and peacefully came his release from the earthly tenement that none knew the moment when he ceased to breathe. ..

Catholic World, Volume 38, (1884), 13-28.

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