Goscelin of St. Bertin's Book of Consolation for the Anchoress Eva
oscelin of Saint-Bertin (1035-1107) is an obscure figure, even to scholars. The compilers of the English-language standard Catholic Encyclopedia (1917) only knew him as a writer of saints' biographies and did not mention his Liber Confortatorius. But perhaps this was so because they knew that the book was not very edifying.
Goscelin was Flemish by birth, a monk of the abbey of St. Bertin, who accompanied Herman, the appointed bishop of Ramsey, to his new post in England in 1058. For a while Goscelin was chaplain at the royal nunnery of Wilton. Twenty years later, the death of Herman broke up the entourage, and Goscelin was apparently forced to travel among monasteries (six have been identified) before settling at St. Augustine's in Canterbury. During these years he composed the many biographies and hagiographies now credited to him.
The Liber Confortatorius or Book of Consolation, was composed as one of his first works, in 1082 or the following year, when Goscelin was about forty-seven years of age. It is probably the first work addressed to an anchoress and composed in England, anticipating the more celebrated guides by Aelred of Rievaulx and the anonymous author of Ancrene Wisse. However, Goscelin's work remained obscure, neither influencing the later guides nor circulating far. However, this is not due to of a lack of style or erudition in the Liber Confortatorius, as well be seen.
Goscelin is familiar with both the genre of advice guides to women based on the letters of St. Jerome and the confessional style established by St. Augustine on the other. Underlying these sources is Goscelin's thorough familiarity with the Bible and the inspiration of the lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers.
The book is addressed to the anchoress Eva, born of Continental parents in 1058, the year Goscelin arrived in England. As a child brought to England, Eva entered the convent of Wilton, where Goscelin became her tutor and mentor. He oversaw her progress from childhood oblate to her eventually becoming a nun at an early age. When the death of Bishop Herman in 1079 forced Goscelin away from Wilton and Ramsey to reluctant wanderings throughout ecclesiastical England, Eva abruptly left Wilton as well.
Without informing anyone -- including Goscelin -- Eva went to Angers, France, to the church of St. Laurent, there to join a small enclave of anchoresses. Here Eva remained for twenty years, eventually moving to Vendome and a more secluded reclusorium. She became a model of sanctity and anchoritism in France, celebrated by respectable abbots, and even the subject of a poem by the teacher of classics Hilary of Orleans.
But when he learned that Eva had left Wilton, Goscelin was devastated. Two years later he completed the Liber Confortatorius (in 1082), written as much for his own solace and consolation as for Eva's unsolicited guidance. Book I opens thusly:
O my soul, dearer to me than the light, your Goscelin is with you, in the inseparable presence of the soul. He is with you, undivided, in his better part, that part with which he was allowed to love you, that part which cannot be hindered by any physical distance. ... Since your soul mate cannot and does not deserve to visit you in the flesh, he now seeks you out with anxious letters and long laments. ...
God's provident mercy has afforded us the consolation that, though distant in space, we can be present to each other in faith and in writing. Despite these torments of separation, which I deserved because of my crimes, a letter shuttling back and forth can reconnect us and keep us warm. ...
You have relinquished me and banished me from your sight, but your love will be able to see me in your reading and to take in my voice and my sighing words, using your eyes for ears ... Therefore do not think me cut off from you.
Goscelin goes on to speak of the sorrow that wells up in him as he writes, of the tears and moans that overtake him. He recalls Eva as a child who "won me over" and of his weeping when she took the veil of consecration at twelve (or perhaps of her oblation at seven). He recounts how she wrote to him often and he frequently spoke with her, even rushing to converse with her in sighs and anticipation "with the inaccessible love of my most desired soul." He recounts Eva's dream about Goscelin feeding her bread, and confesses that her pursuits "smelled sweet to me like nectar and balsam."
What is going on here? Is Goscelin simply using an elaborate and rhetorical vocabulary inspired by his knowledge of Ovid and the "Song of Solomon"? Or is he being quite literal in revealing his morbid affection, writing in the belief that no one but Eva will read his words? If the latter, what is the extent of the "crimes" Goscelin admits? Why did Eva apparently take the first opportunity available to flee no only Wilton but England? We know that Eva never responded to the Liber Confortatorius nor communicated with Goscelin at all. There is no evidence that she read or even received the book.
But scholars -- including women -- have been willing to study Goscelin's book in its historical context for what it reveals about society, gender, and religious life -- and we have a like obligation to pursue it.
"The Book of Encouragement and Consolation," as translator Otter puts it, consists of four sections, outline by Goscelin himself in his Prologue:
Book One speaks of complaint and comfort.
Book Two confronts our lusts and prevails in the battles.
Book Three inflames desires and conquers dejection.
Book Four, in humility, heads for the stars in a chariot.
1. Book One evokes the theme of the lover's lament, redirecting Eva's attention to the greatness of Old Testament figures of faith and godly constancy. But it is very much a consolation for Goscelin himself, convincing himself that Eva has chosen the nobler path while he remains shaken and forlorn. Goscelin sets himself as the victim of circumstances, lamenting his fate and abandonment in the style of the Psalmist, or alternatively reminding Eva (that is, himself) that this world is vain and empty. He always lapses into personal feelings.
Knowing your heart, the cradle of love, I believe that nothing must be harder for you to bear than being so far from your loved ones and friends. ... The more you were wounded with love for your loved ones in Christ here on earth, the more joyfully will you gather them about you in the eternal mansion. And, finally, there is one who once was special to you, the only one against whom you seem to have had no trouble hardening your heart, whom you had removed so far from your heart and consigned to oblivion, as if he had died. ...
When your earlier love awakens and the storm of desiring emotions arises, it will be Christ to whom your very bones cry out, to whom our hearts, sealed with his sign, calls.
2. The exhortations of Book Two are based on rather commonplace (for the era) but violent images of martyrdom and the martial images of spiritual combat. Eva is advised to contrive "games of war" to avoid spiritual lethargy, to take on "the armor of prayer on the ramparts of your confinement." Christ is the king of glory smashing the enemy and chaining his leader. Goscelin weaves eschatological images of earth as flesh, the slaughter of demons by "long, confusing, and noisy war" of the senses. He compares himself to the non-combatant trumpeter of an army versus Eva the warrior. He depicts his own soul as female while Eva's is the masculine-like fighter, whose exploits make "a cold shiver run through my innermost bones." Goscelin cites the exempla or model hagiographic stories of Agnes, Perpetua, Blandina, Germaine, and an English anchorite Brithric.
3. Book Three opens with a discussion of acedia, which Otter translates as "depression," noting that the cultural connotations are quite different:
To begin with, modern depression is thought of as an illness or (in less serious cases) an everyday mood disturbance; medieval acedia is a sin, albeit a common and understandable one.
In any case, Goscelin has no original prescriptions to offer. "To combat these whisperings of the coiled dragon," he writes, "think that you might die any day."
Goscelin quotes Horace on the virtue of scarcity, Seneca on the sufficiency of one room for living and for his advice on avoiding idleness, and Prudentius on freedom from both hope and fear. Goscelin's advice is to read widely, and he offers an exhaustive list of Christian authors, distinguishing this "learned sanctity" from the "holy simplicity" that is the fruit of prayer.
All of these recommendations are intended for Eva's encouragement against acedia. He advises her not to resent her unworthiness before God, or the sparseness of her dwelling, or her aloneness in contrast to others in the world.
4. In Book Four, Goscelin acknowledges the spiritual good fortune Eva doubtless enjoys at Angers. He elaborates on humility as the strong foundation of virtue and points to pride as its insidious counterpart. Goscelin cites the standard hagiographies of women and virgin martyrs with their emphasis on violence. His presumptions are rhetorical but somewhat aloof, chiding Eva: "With these meditations, unpolished in style but shining in faith, I have endeavored to give you, o sweet child of my soul, a bulwark of all virtue."
Next, Goscelin relates the story of St. Alexander, an anchorite living a solitary life in a forest wilderness, a story he says was related to him and is not found in books. True enough, there are no written sources mentioning this Alexander, and Goscelin's oral hearing of it may be a hint that he himself composed this story. There are marked similarities to the familiar story of Mary the Harlot and the hermit Abraham, but Goscelin's version takes a bizarre and suggestive twist. Here is the story:
The Story of Alexander the Hermit
The devil ("with divine permission") kidnaps the infant daughter of a king and comes to Alexander disguised as a monk and carrying the child. He pleads with Alexander to take the child into his custody, for the child is the orphan of the monk's dead sister and the abbot, not permitting the child in the monastery, leaves the monk no recourse but to find a holy and virtuous man to raise her. So Alexander accepts and raises the child.
"To make a long story short," when the girl comes of age, Alexander seduces her and makes her pregnant. At that moment, the devil ("author and instigator of all iniquity") returns, still disguised, and demands his niece. "The hermit, sighing sorely with pain and contrition, confesses his terrible crime to the malevolent traitor." The monk-devil berates Alexander, all the more that he enjoyed a saintly reputation but was no more than a disgusting old sinner. The monk warns him that if knowledge of what he has done should reach the world, not only would Alexander be a source of infamy and scandal, but by his actions he would bring disrepute and ruin to all holy men, who would never again be trusted or respected. There was only one recourse, the monk insists. Alexander must kill the girl and forever hide the evidence, then spend the rest of his life in penance.
"The hermit, relying on this excellent teacher of perdition, did all that he said." No sooner had Alexander buried his murdered victim than the supposed monk revealed himself to the horror of Alexander, who wept bitterly for three days, begging God's mercy and protection. When he at last looked up he found before him an oak tree split open. Out of curiosity, Alexander puts his hands into the opening and the tree closes round him, where he remains for fifteen years, standing trapped, occasionally drinking dew and rain, eating a fallen acorn or leaf.
It happened that the king, father of the slain girl, happened to be hunting in the forest and came across the trapped hermit, who explained his circumstances. With a nod, the hermit indicates the grave site. The king, wondering, then uses his sword to exhume the incorrupt body of his daughter. In a forgiving gesture, the king places the finger of the body on the hermit. The tree releases him. The king eventually builds a monastery on the spot, renouncing his throne to become a monk. Goscelin concludes that "the hermit, the girl, and the king are all venerated as saints."
Although hagiographic writing was to be Goscelin's specialty, this story is troubling because of its excess and suggestiveness. Is it an allusion to what was Goscelin's "crime" with Eva? Is it what nearly happened between them? Or is it Goscelin's fantasizing of sin, forgiveness, redemption, and heavenly union? We will never know, but put together with the tone and content of the rest of the letter, this tale makes for a disturbing psychological production.
A few more stories of infant deaths with a consolation about perfect restoration in heaven, follow this tale of Alexander the hermit. The stories are a series of unnerving theological speculations.
Yet this is a prelude to Goscelin's conclusion to Book Four, consisting of eschatological descriptions of heaven and the last things. Goscelin's heaven includes further allusions to his relations with Eva:
Everyone's thoughts and everyone's hearts will be clearly visible to all. Everyone will openly speak his innermost thoughts and the Lord will unlock all breasts and open them to his light, and the sweet tokens of affections will speak directly to each other and respond to each other, with no cloud of sinful thoughts interposing itself; for all suspicions and all stumbling blocks have been drowned in Styx.
Goscelin repeats the desire for a chaste and licit reunion with Eva, first suggested in Book One, following here the same sentiment of abandonment . Here is the final paragraph of the Liber Confortatorius:
Take pity on your bereaved Goscelin, whom you loved as your soul's abode in Christ, but whom you have shaken to the foundations with your departure, and evicted from all consolation of the present life. ... Please pray for me that I may receive God's forgiving mercy forever, and pardon for my sins. Even though you are far remote from my worthlessness now, may I be so happy one day to see you in the blessed light, full of joy.
Although historians identified Goscelin of St. Bertin's Liber Confortatorius as the first guide to anchoresses in medieval England, the book clearly has more in common with the confession genre of St. Augustine, but even more in common with the writings of Abelard and Heloise -- if there is any true counterpart. The work is significant for what it suggests about women anchorites and reclusion, and for what it tells about the status and roles of men and women religious of the period.
Despite his scholarly erudition, Goscelin's advice is unoriginal and a poor representative of the genre of anchoritic guides. Moreover, the unctuous tone, restless subtexts, bizarre anecdotes, and unhealthy relationship to Eva make the work unattractive and even unnerving. The recluse Eva's character and point of view is lost to history, subsumed to Goscelin's smothering voice and -- as translator Otter puts it --- "that makes her silence in this dialogue even more poignant."
Goscelin of St. Bertin: The Book of Encouragement and Consolation (Liber Confortatorius) - The Letter of Goscelin to the Recluse Eva. Translated from the Latin, with introduction, notes, and interpretive essay by Monika Otter. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer; Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2004.