Saint Bruno's Childhood

The six companions called him "Master Bruno". It was not only because he was older or because he had once been their teacher at Rheims, but because they regarded him highly, and respected him. Over them he had a moral power, which radiated constantly from his whole character and could not be explained simply by their past. If they had come to the Wilderness of Chartreuse, if they had joined this bold project, it was because he led them, because they were drawn to follow him on account of the way he had clarified God's call for them and inspired confidence in them. The goodness, the balance, the desire to seek God in absolute and total love that they saw in him captivated. And they were still captivated. He was the one who had formulated the project and carried it forward to its conclusion.

So, who was this man who had such an effect on his companions? Practically nothing is known of his beginnings. Only three facts are certain. He was born at Cologne — so he was a German — and his parents were not without nobility, or at least not without some good reputation in the city. Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, it was said that he belonged to the Hartenfaust family, even that he was descended from the "gens Æmilia", but there seems to be no foundation for that claim. It was based merely on an oral tradition at Cologne. In a document of August 2, 1099, whose authenticity unfortunately is contested, Bruno is said to have refused an important donation from the Count of Sicily and Calabria. "He refused," runs the text, "telling me he had left his father's house and mine, where he had held the first place, for the purpose of being able to serve God with a soul completely unencumbered by the goods of earth." The lack of authenticity in false documents is often camouflaged by some details that are true. Is that the case here?

What is the date of Bruno's birth? We do not know that, but, calculating from the date of his death — which was October 6, 1101 — and from the events of his life, there is no great risk of error placing his birth between 1024 and 1031. The year 1030 best agrees with the events that mark his life.

Bruno lived the first years of his childhood in Cologne. No document dating from that period has come down to us.

Cologne! Ancient Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis, which the Romans had founded between the Rhine and the Meuse, had been independent of county organization since the time of Otto the Great, who had placed his own brother Bruno (953–65) upon the archiepiscopal see. He had transferred the administration of justice to him and, to him and to the archbishops who would succeed him, the rights of a count. When Bruno, the future founder of the Carthusian, was born, the name of the archbishop was Peregrinatus. He was the one who crowned Henry III at Aachen in 1028 and thereby acquired for the archbishops of Cologne the right of crowning the emperor. When Bruno lived, there was a historical connection between Cologne and Rheims, which might be of some interest here. He found himself tragically involved in the grave disturbance Archbishop Manassès had stirred up at Rheims by his simoniacal election and by his conduct, while at about the same time the Church of Cologne was experiencing a similar situation. Archbishop Hidulf (1076–78) sided with Emperor Henry IV of Germany against Pope Gregory VII in the struggle of Investitures. Hidulf's successors, Sigewin (1078–89) and Herimann III (1089–99), continued his policy. At least during the period from 1072 to 1082 Bruno surely maintained some communication with his people at Cologne. He would have been aware of what was going on in his hometown. If this conjecture is correct, the great trial of conscience, which prompted him to leave Rheims and join the resistance to Archbishop Manassès, would have come from the two churches that were the most dear to him.

But to return to Bruno's childhood. Archbishop Bruno I, through his talent for organizing, made Cologne not only the first city of Germany but also one of importance in the world. This civic-minded man was also a spiritual man: he promoted the eremitical and the monastic life, built churches, and founded cathedral chapters, so that the city was called "holy Cologne" or "the Rome of Germany". When Bruno, the future Carthusian, was a child, Cologne was still experiencing the intense spiritual life that Archbishop Bruno I had given it. It had no fewer than nine collegiate churches, four abbeys, and nineteen parish churches. At this time, the only schools where children could be introduced to classical studies were in monasteries and churches. To which of those schools was Bruno entrusted? That will never be known with certainty. But, since he was named a canon of the cathedral church of Saint Cunibert, we can with reason deduce that he had had a particular relationship with that church. Was he sent to that school because his family belonged to that parish?

One fact seems beyond any doubt. Even in his first studies Bruno gave evidence of striking intellectual gifts, because while still young (tenerum alumnum, as the canons of Rheims will later say) he was sent from Cologne to the famous cathedral school of Rheims. That is where he would live from then on. While he stayed at Paris, Tours, or Chartres, the story was the same. It was Rheims that especially left its mark on him, with the result that, though he was of German origin, people later called him Gallicus, the Frenchman.

The schools of Rheims, and especially the cathedral school that Bruno attended, had been renowned for several centuries. Gerbert, who was one day to become Pope Sylvester II, was their rector from 970 to about 990, and they had been enlightened by his talent. In the eleventh century Archbishop Guy of Chastillon gave a new impetus to learning. When Bruno came there to study, the schools of Rheims had attained some prominence, with students coming from Germany, from Italy — in fact, from all over Europe. Among all these young people it was the personality of Bruno that attracted the attention of the teachers.

At that time learning was encyclopedic, and the humanities were said to serve as a preparation for theology. After studying grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium), the student applied himself to arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy (the quadrivium). Only after that came theology, like the crown of all human learning. But if — as it often happened, and a notable example was Gerbert, who excelled in mathematics as well as theology — if one teacher were to go through the whole cycle of studies with the same students, he was allowed a certain freedom in the distribution of the studies. The method of teaching was the lectio — a lecture with a commentary from ancient writers who were authorities on the subject. Theology followed the same method, consisting principally of reading the Bible along with the master's commentary, which was based on the Fathers of the Church.

Bruno's studies went like that. Hérimann or Herman was then director of studies (l'écolâtre) at Rheims. He did not have the same breadth of talent as Gerbert, but he was known to be a theologian of great merit.

If we can believe the Eulogies (Titres Funèbres), it was in philosophy and theology that Bruno excelled. But extant letters written by him provide evidence that he was not ignorant of rhetoric. The Chronicle Magister, too, asserts that "Bruno . . . was firmly grounded in human letters as well as in divine learning." If we can believe a tradition that seems trustworthy, it is from this period of studies that he wrote a short elegy entitled "On Scorning the World", which would for the first time reveal his gift for reflection. This is written in elegant, balanced, and metrical couplets, in the manner of exercises in poetry that are practiced during the study of the humanities. But just now the thought is of more interest than the form. This elegy, for example:

The Lord created all mortals in the light, offering the supreme joys of heaven according to their merits.

Blessed is the one who without straying directs his soul toward those heights and is vigilant to preserve himself from all evil.

Blessed again is the one who repents after sinning and often weeps because of his fault.

Alas! People live as though death did not follow life, as if hell were only an unfounded fable, though burning embrace.

Mortals, have a care that you live, all of you, in such a way that you do not have to fear the lake of hell.

Bruno was about twenty years old and still a student of the cathedral school when an event occurred that had to make a profound spiritual impression upon him: Pope Leo IX came to Rheims and held a Council (Leo IX visited Cologne in the same year), arriving at Rheims on September 30, 1049. On October 1 he effected the transfer of the relics of Saint Remi, which Hincmar had caused to be taken to Epernay during the Norman invasions. Now they were returned to the famous abbey. On October 2 Leo IX consecrated the new church of the abbey of Saint Remi. Saint Remi! Bruno's devotion for him is revealed in a letter to Raoul le Verd. When Bruno wrote this letter, he was in Calabria, nearing the end of his life. He had left France and the Chartreuse some ten years earlier. The letter to his friend concludes with these words: "Please send me The Life of Saint Remi, because it is impossible to find a copy where we are."

On October 3, as soon as the festivities for Saint Remi were concluded, Leo IX opened the Council. Numerous archbishops, bishops, and abbots participated in it. They were particularly concerned with simony, which was then threatening the Church and urgently needed to be eliminated. Several bishops who were accused of having bought their bishoprics were summoned. The Pope and the Council deposed and excommunicated them. Then disciplinary decisions were made to put an end to that evil. Because he was participating in the ceremonies, Bruno was aware of the measures and decisions that the Council took, the presence of the Pope giving them authority and extraordinary solemnity.

So, at the beginning of his productive life, Bruno was confronted with the great problems of the Church. Profoundly religious and honest, formed by Holy Scripture and the great principles of the Faith, he was drawn to reflect on the situation of the Church, the needed reforms, and the direction his life had to take to reach its fullest worth and integrity. For the moment it seemed the Lord was inclining him to religious studies here at Rheims. There was nothing to indicate he was dreaming of a hermitage at that time. On the contrary, while he was pursuing sacred studies, he was deeply involved in the life of the diocese. The events of the next thirty years would plunge him into an emotional crisis in which what he had seen Leo IX and the Council accomplish would enlighten and direct the choices he would make.


- Prologue ->
- I Bruno's Childhood ->
- II Master Bruno ->
- III Bruno Confronts Archbishop Manassès -_
- IV From the Garden of Adam's House to Sèche-Fontaine ->
- V The Solitude of Chartreuse ->
- VI Solitude in the Court of Pope Urban II ->
- VII Calabria: Return to Solitude -_
- VIII The Contemplative Life in Bruno's Letters ->
- IX Calabria and Chartreuse ->
- X The Death of Bruno ->
- Epilogue: Bruno after Bruno ->

 

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