Order of Premontre, Premonstratensians, Norbertines, and White Canons

01 Introduction

01 Introduction

Life of Lord Norbert, Archbishop of Magdeburg


Translated and Edited by Fr. Theodore J. Antry, O. Praem.[1]


In 1853 Roger Wilmans discovered in the Royal Library in Berlin, in a 14th century manuscript[2] originating in the former Norbertine Abbey of St. Peter in Brandenburg, a life of St. Norbert which was hitherto unknown. Three years later, in 1856, this Vita was published in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica series.[3] Wilmans believed that this Vita which he discovered predated the Vita which was already known and which was published by the Bollandists in the Acta Sanctorum.[4]  He therefore named his discovery Vita A and called the previously known Life of St. Norbert Vita B.

Until 1972, when a fragment of a manuscript[5] in Hamburg was identified as a section of Vita A, Wilmans' discovery remained the only copy of this Life of St. Norbert and it remains to this day the only complete edition. The identification of the Hamburg fragment, however, informs us of the fact that there was at least one other copy of Vita A in existence. This fragment also dates from the 14th century. It is slightly damaged since it had been used for binding a book.

The following translation is based upon the 1856 edition of Roger Wilmans as found in the Monumenta series. For information on Vita A and its interpretation, I have relied on the Introduction to the Vita Norberti A[6] written by Father W. M. Grauwen, O. Praem. of Postel. This Introduction has been translated into English by Father O. Michael Meeusen, O. Praem. of Tongerlo. It contains the most recent and up-to-date material on the subject.

Since the discovery of Vita A in 1853 there has been an ongoing dispute concerning its primacy over B and vice versa. Richard Rosenmund,[7] in 1874, concluded that both A and B depended upon a lost vita which he called "alpha". Father Grauwen supports the primacy of A, arguing, among other things, that medieval authors added scripture citations and miracle stories rather than remove them. Vita B is a much longer text due to the multiplication of scripture quotes and moralizations. The length of B, however, does not imply additional factual data. From internal evidence Father Grauwen concludes that Vita A was written first and probably between 1145-1161/64. Vita B was most likely written between 1152-1161/64.[8]

The author, though internal evidence is not sufficient to attribute authorship to a definite person, was most likely a German who had taken part in the Rome expedition of 1132-1133 and therefore knew Norbert personally.[9] As to his being a German, the author of Vita A, when speaking about the construction of the church at Prémontré in Chapter 12, speaks of competition between the German (Teutonici) and French (Gallici) workmen, whereas the author of Vita B refers to German (Teutonici) workmen and "our men" (nostrates). In Chapter 21, the detailed description of the approach to Rome and the sites of the encampments appears to be that of an eyewitness.

At one time it was thought that there might be more than one author involved. Chapters 1-17 were originally believed to be written by a Frenchman from Prémontré, and Chapters 18-23 by a German from Magdeburg. In the one extant manuscript, Chapter 18 begins with a large illustrated letter A. Perhaps this is because the 14th century scribe rightly sensed that there was an important break in the narrative. However, by comparison of the style and vocabulary used in both parts we can safely accept single authorship.[10]

Vita A is much shorter than B. Vita A, whose title is "The Life of Lord Norbert, Archbishop of Magdeburg", was most likely intended to be a biography stressing the virtues of the author's hero. Probably Vita A stems from Magdeburg or some place close by. Vita B, it seems, may have been intended as a history of the Order beginning with the life of the founder. The continuation or second part was either never written or was lost. Its title as found in the earliest manuscripts is "Concerning the Origins and Spread of the Praemonstratensians". Vita A is a rather concise text of a relatively high density of historical facts. Vita B is more hagiographic and moralizing than Vita A and for this reason perhaps more adapted to monastic listeners and readers. Possibly this is the reason for the survival of twenty-five copies of Vita B as opposed to the single known copy of Vita A.

The Chapter divisions were added by Wilmans when he edited Vita A. The Chapter titles are the translator's addition intended, as possibly Wilmans' divisions were, to break up what would otherwise be one solid unit of text.

I have tried to give an accurate translation of the Latin while allowing for a readable English text. On a number of occasions I have added the name "Norbert" either for clarification or to avoid the monotony of reading "he" or "him". Sometimes the author refers to Norbert merely as "the priest", "the man of God", "the servant of God", etc. The devil is frequently referred to as "the old enemy" or "the evil enemy". Nothing has been left out due to tedious repetition. Thus the complete text of Vita A is represented here.

I would like to thank Abbots John E. Neitzel and Jerome G. Tremel as well as Fathers Hubert N. Beaudoin and Joseph P. McLaughlin who were generous enough to take the time to read this translation and offer suggestions before it went to print.

--Theodore J. Antry, O. Praem.

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