Order of Premontre, Premonstratensians, Norbertines, and White Canons

02 Introduction

02 Introduction

The “Vita-B” of St. Norbert

also known as 

"The Origins and Spread of the Premonstratensians"

Section 2: Introduction

The Vita or Life of St. Norbert which is translated here was thought to be the only extant 12th century Life of St. Norbert until Roger Wilmans in 1853 discovered another parallel Vita in the Royal Library in Berlin[I-1], Wilmans claimed that the Vita of St. Norbert which he discovered predated the Vita which was already known and thus named his discovery Vita A and the previously known Life of St. Norbert Vita B.

Since the discovery of Vita A the dispute over the primacy of Vita A over Vita B or vice versa continues off and on. At the present time it is impossible to make a fully satisfactory comparison between the two Vitae inasmuch as we only have one complete manuscript of Vita A which dates from the 14th century. There are about 25 extant manuscripts of Vita B[I-2]and there are some major differences among them, For instance, the conversion story is found in only four manuscripts of Vita B and in only one of the five manuscripts extant from the 12th century (Soissons 12), The story is also found in the one manuscript of Vita A. Perhaps if we had several manuscripts of Vita A there would be differences among them also. But more manuscripts of Vita A would give us a better idea of the relationship between the two Vitae, Present scholarship would place the composition of Vita A between 1145-1161/64 and of Vita B between 1152-1161/64.[I-3]

While a good number of passages of both Vitae are identical, there are major differences between them. The most obvious difference is the length. Vita B is almost twice as long as Vita A. Vita B, as compared with Vita A, begins with a prologue in which the author states the purpose of his writing. Many have written, he says, about the life and deeds of Norbert but none have done it well.[I-4] Therefore, in order to put together a correct and orderly account of Norbert's life he met with those who had been with Norbert from the beginning and wrote down the events as they agreed on them.

There is also a lengthy fifth chapter in which is discussed the reason why saints suffer. This chapter is only found in four manuscripts and in only one of the 12th century manuscripts (Ghent 477). Vita B tends to be more moralizing, hagiographic and edifying. At certain points in Vita B the author appears to be intent on portraying Norbert as a martyr. Perhaps this is the intent of Chapter 5 which follows Norbert's rejection at Xanten. However, the word "martyr" is actually used during the description of the uprising at Magdeburg[I-5] and in the events that took place later.[I-6]

The author also makes an effort to compare Norbert with Christ. When an attempt is made on Norbert's life on Holy Thursday, Norbert tells those present not to be surprised because this was the very day on which Satan worked to betray Christ. After another failed attempt on his life, Norbert remarks that "my hour has not yet come".

Whereas Vita A ends with the burial of St. Norbert, Vita B adds a further chapter (Chapter 54) which tells of three visions which confreres had of Norbert after his death. These visions are recognizable in some of the iconography of St. Norbert.

Vita A bears the title "The Life of Lord Norbert, Archbishop of Magdeburg", while the title of Vita B in the earliest manuscripts reads "The Origins and Spread of the Premonstratensians". This latter title seems to indicate that the author of Vita B had intended to write a history of the Order and began with the life of the founder.

The author of Vita B, though we don't know his name, was apparently a Frenchman. In Chapter 28 which describes the building of the church at Prémontré, the author says that some of the masons were Germans from Cologne while others were "our men" (nostrates).

Vita B wasapparently meant to be read aloud to an audience. Occasionally the author will refer to the "listener". Norbert is frequently referred to as "The Man of God" or "The Priest of God", sometimes as "The Holy Priest" or merely "The man".

Attached to the end of Vita B are the "Additions of the Confreres of Cappenberg". The completed text of the Vita had been sent to Cappenberg to see if there was anything to be added. The confreres there appended ten short chapters which contain events from Norbert's life or their remembrances of him. Finally there is the poem "Felix Norbertus". It consists of 24 lines of hexameter and is found in eight manuscripts. It is found in only two of the 12th century manuscripts(Prague, Lobkowitz 484; Lobkowitz 513).

From the contents of the poem it is clear that it was composed during the lifetime of Hugh of Fosses, before 1164. It was probably written shortly after the Vita but by an author other than those of the Vita and the Additamenta Cappenbergensium. The poem is addressed to Abbot Hugh and in praise of Norbert. The 20th verse of the poem is taken from Horace, Epistolae, Liber 1, 1, verse 61.

This translation is based on the Latin edition of Vita B as found in the Acta Sanctorum[I-7] and the Patrologia[I-8] of Jacques Paul Migne which is copied from the Acta Sanctorum. These editions are both faulty. A new Latin edition is needed. There is only one other modern translation, that in Dutch done by Father Wilfried Grauwen.

There is an earlier Old Dutch translation done in 1630 by Dionijs Mudzaerts. Scripture references in this translation are to the Vulgate Edition of the Bible.

For information on Vita B I have relied on the Introduction to the Vita Norberti B written by Father W. M. Grauwen, O. Praem. of Postel[I-9] and the notes to his translation of Vita B.[I-10]

The division of the text into fifty-four chapters is original. The five 12th century manuscripts list the titles of the chapters before the prologue. The Bollandists, however, in preparing their edition for the Acta Sanctorum divided the text into nineteen chapters (an apparent attempt to gather events into larger groupings) and 118 numbers. They then placed the list of fifty-four chapters between the prologue and chapter I.

The entire text of Vita B is here. Frequently the name "Norbert" has been added either for clarification or to avoid the monotony of "he" or "him". This was done in like fashion for some other names if it helped to clarify the meaning of the text.

I would like to thank Abbot John E. Neitzel, O. Praem. and Father Joseph P. McLaughlin, O. Praem. who generously agreed to read this translation and offer suggestions before it went to print.

Theodore J. Antry, O. Praem.

Daylesford Abbey

Easter, 1999

Other Categories:
Library » Documents » Life of St. Norbert (Vita B) - Translation of 12th Century Manuscript