The year is 1013, and we are in the castle of the Count of Altshausen, in Swabia.
The countess lies in her bed, weeping freely. In her arms she cradles a newborn lump of humanity covered with blood, a boy child. His face seems jolted out of shape, and his body — it is a body, somehow. "You are so pitiful," she cries, "my poor little boy."The count looks on. "Fetch the priest," he says to one of his servants. And the thought passes through his mind that it might be a mercy if the child died after he had been baptized. He fights the thought with prayer.
"My dear," he says, "we will give this child to God. He will do what is best."
The priest comes, and they christen the boy Hermann, "fighting man" in the old German tongue. He will be one of fifteen children, and Werner, one of his brothers, will indeed be a fighter at the side of Hildebrand, the great reforming Pope Gregory VII.
Carried to school for life
It is 1020. The boy can hardly grunt out his words, though his mind is sharp as any sword. He cannot move even a few feet without help. He must be carried or wheeled about. People will give him the nickname "Contractus," or "doubled over."
The count and countess have taken the boy to the island of Reichenau, in Lake Constance, to meet Berno, the saintly abbot of the monastery there.
"Our Hermann cannot read or write, my lord," says the count, "but he can see things I can't, and he can explain the Latin of the Mass to me, and he can make great reckonings by searching for them, like this. Watch. Hermann," he says to the boy, laying his hand on his head, "Our good lord the abbot has forty-three sheep he wishes to sell at twenty-nine silver pieces a head. How many…" — but before he finishes the boy twists his head to one side, looking up, and groans happily.
"What does he say?"
"One thousand two hundred forty-seven. Is that right?"
"I'll see," says the abbot, scratching upon a scrap of parchment. They don't yet have arabic numerals in those days, so the calculation is cumbersome. "Remarkable," says the abbot. "Hermann," he says to the boy, "do you wish to live with us here, and serve God? I will teach you all I know."
"Yes!" the boy cries, with a contraction of his muscles.
And so Hermann the Cripple came to the place where he would live many years full of intellectual and spiritual work, for the rest of his life.
The music of heaven
"The earth is a globe, as you know," says the hunchback in the chair, moving a slide along the side of a cylinder covered with a variety of curved lines. A group of young men gathers about. They have come from far away, so they and their teacher speak in Latin, the language they all know. He could speak to them in Hebrew, but they would not know what he was saying.
"The sun travels around our globe, but where? That depends on how far north you are from the celestial equator, and what day of the year it is," he says, and he goes on to explain to the young men how the path of the sun makes a spiral across the sky from the spring balance of equal day and night to its summer standstill, whereupon it reverses direction.
The men knit their brows, and one of them says, "Master, it's the eleventh of May. Show us the path." At which Hermann smiles and moves the slide.
"See," says Hermann, "the sun at noon today will be at sixty degrees from the horizon here at Reichenau," and he explains why. "If you take the sundial out, you will see the shadow reach to this point," which he indicates with a crooked finger.
"The shadow will be short, Master," and Hermann answers his pupil's question before he asks it. "Yes," says Hermann. "It will be the third part of the root of three."
"Master," says the lad, "this machine you call the astrolabe is a wonderful thing. It's as if it played silent music."
"Numbers are silent music, and music is number for the ear," says Hermann, and then the bells toll the hour of prime. The monks leave for the chapel, with one of them wheeling Hermann along.
Orders of mind and deed
Hermann the Cripple was a polymath who attracted scholars from far and near. He wrote two treatises on the astrolabe; they were the first such in Europe. He made his own astronomical devices, too. He wrote a long treatise on the mathematics of the eight musical modes, describing their harmonies according to precise ratios. You'd better get out your calculator to read it. He invented a variety of musical instruments.
Why should a monk do that? Why not? Hermann saw himself in that long tradition coming from the mystic and mathematician Pythagoras, through the philosophers and the Church Fathers to Boethius, another polymath who wrote about everything under the sun, including music. Hermann does not seem to have been aware that Guido of Arezzo, whose life overlapped with his, developed a system of musical notation. Hermann invented his own. He wrote a chronicle of important events occurring each year from the time of Christ to his own day, subsequently continued by his best student, Berthold.
He probably suffered from a cleft palate and cerebral palsy, though some suggest that it was a slowly degenerative form of Lou Gehrig's disease. By all accounts he had a sunny personality, and he often joked about his ugly and ungainly body. He was called hilarissimus — cheery, we might put it. People sometimes say that when you cannot enjoy what ordinary people do, you become sour and resentful. With Hermann it was the other way around. Because he could not enjoy those ordinary things, he did not take himself too seriously, nor did he miss the pleasures of this world. "If things don't suffice for you," he quipped, "make yourself sufficient for things, and you'll be all the greater for not desiring more than you have."
He kept in order what was good. You can see it in a wonderful poem he wrote at the request of a convent of sisters to whom he ministered. They were his "little sisters," very dear to him, and he was their "Herimannulus," their Little Hermann. He begins by begging his friend the Muse to sing something that would delight the sisters, mingling the comical with the serious, as was the habit in the Middle Ages. We have only the first book, 1,720 lines long, written in a staggering variety of meters, with Hermann, the Sisters, and the Muse Melpomene all having their speaking parts. It's a delightful foray into the vanity of worldly desires, with Melpomene devoting quite a while to eight deadly vices — yes, eight: pride, followed by vainglory, envy, wrath, sadness, avarice, gluttony, and lust.
Notice the one in the middle: tristitia, sadness. We call it sloth now, but it has to do with sluggishness of soul, a failure to delight in what should delight us. It all begins, Hermann says, with our care for caducis nugulis, foolish little things that fall away. That leads to care, anxiety, weariness, strife, sorrow, and madness, and causes us to sin unto death against God. Hermann himself did not worry about what others had and he did not. When his beloved teacher Berno died in 1048, the monks of Reichenau made Hermann the Cripple their abbot. It is a fine testimony to what they thought of his misshapen body and his fine and robust soul.
And he too shall sing
"Hermann," he identifies himself in one of his works on the astrolabe, "the rubbish of Christ's poor ones, among the recruits of philosophy slower than a donkey or a snail." Donkeys and snails don't sing, nor could Hermann, not with his voice anyway. But he not only wrote about music. He composed it, too. Two of the hymns often attributed to him have come to be loved throughout the Catholic world, the Alma Redemptoris Mater and the Salve Regina. Yes, whenever you say the last prayer of your rosary, remember that it was composed by the little man who could not walk, the lover of music who could not sing. It's possible also that he is the author of Veni Sancte Spiritus: "Come, Holy Spirit."
Had Hermann been born in pagan times, they would have given him back to the gods or the wild beasts by exposing him on a hillside. We are even less pious now. He might not have been born. Let us thank God that Hermann lived at the bright dawn of the high Middle Ages, and that his mother and father were good Christians, and that the abbot Berno understood that the gifts of God come in ways the world will not see. Consider that Blessed Hermann now stands upright in the presence of God, and that when the saints sing of the glory of our Savior who was born in poverty, his voice will keep pace with the racing of his heart, nor will it sound like the braying of a donkey. May we someday sing as well!
Anthony Esolen. "God Makes No Mistakes." The Catholic Thing (January, 2021).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: email@example.com.
Anthony Esolen is writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts and serves on the Catholic Resource Education Center's advisory board. His newest book is "No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men." You can read his new Substack magazine at Word and Song, which in addition to free content will have podcasts and poetry readings for subscribers.Copyright © 2021 The Catholic Thing
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