Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume IX: September. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Bertin, Abbot
THIS illustrious saint, and excellent model of monastic perfection, was nobly born in the territory of Constance, in Switzerland, about the year 597. He learned from his infancy to love and esteem only virtue, and to contemn the world, and whatever did not directly tend to unite his heart more perfectly to God. Excited by the example of his kinsman, St. Omer, who embraced the monastic state in the great abbey of Luxeu, in Burgundy, he and two individual companions, named Mommolin and Ebertran, or Bertran, consecrated themselves to God in the same house. Bertin was then very young, but he distinguished himself in the fervent exercise of all virtues among five hundred religious brethren, under the direction of the holy abbot Walbert, who governed that monastery with great reputation after the death of St. Eustachius, the immediate successor of St. Columban. This abbey had been established by its holy founder an excellent seminary of sacred literature, and soon became so famous as to furnish many countries with learned and zealous prelates. St. Omer, St. Mommolin, and St. Bertin did honour to this school by the progress which they made in their studies; for they all became very learned in ecclesiastical discipline, and in the holy scriptures.1 Their studies were sanctified by an eminent spirit of mortification and prayer, and by being referred to the same end to which these holy men directed all their actions. St. Omer being made bishop of Tarvanna, the ancient metropolis of the Morini, in Artois, about the year 637, laboured with wonderful success in cultivating a vineyard which had long lain wild. The abbot of Luxeu, understanding how much he stood in need of assistants endowed with the spirit of apostles, sent to him, about the year 639, St. Bertin, St. Mommolin, and Ebertran.
The country of the Morini had formerly received the seed of divine faith, but only superficially and imperfectly, and had then for almost a whole century been as it were an abandoned field. Incredible were the fatigues, persecutions, and sufferings of these holy men in rooting out vice and idolatry, and in civilizing a people who were at that time in a great measure barbarians. Powerful in words and works, they reaped, by the divine blessing, a most abundant harvest. St. Mommolin, St. Bertin, and Ebartran, built their first small monastery on a hill on the banks of the river Aa, a league from Sithiu, being half way to Watten. This church is still a place of great devotion, and is still called St. Mommolins or the Old Monastery. This place being very narrow, confined by the river and marshy grounds, soon grew too narrow for the numbers that flocked thither to take the religious habit. Whereupon the holy founders, mounting the river in a boat, came a league higher, to the place where now St. Bertins monastery stands. The ground, which was part of the estate of Sithiu, St. Omer bestowed on them, being larger than St. Mommolins-hill, and then encompassed with marshes. St. Mommolin was the first abbot both of the Old Monastery and afterwards of St. Peters (now St. Bertins) in Sithiu. But upon the death of St. Acharius, bishop of Noyon, St. Mommolin was chosen to fill that see about the year 659, and, taking with him Ebertran, appointed him abbot of St. Quintins. St. Bertin who had formerly declined that dignity, was left abbot of Sithiu. Under the government of our saint the reputation of this monastery (first dedicated in honour of St. Peter, but now from him called St. Bertins) seemed to equal, if not to surpass, that of Luxeu.2 Rigorous abstinence and fasting was one of the first articles of the discipline established in this house; the subsistence of one hundred and fifty monks who were here assembled, consisted chiefly of roots, herbs, bread and water. Their prayer was almost continual; and they were taught to sanctify by it all their exterior employments; the singing of the divine praises was never interrupted in their choir either day or night, the monks therein succeeding each other in different companies; the most painful labour never excused any from this duty, or from any part of their nocturnal watchings. The number of the monks increasing, St. Bertin obtained of St. Omer the church of our Lady, which the bishop had built on a hill at a little distance from the first monastery; this second abbey was called New Sithiu. When the bishopric was erected at St. Omer, this church, dedicated to God under the patronage of our Lady, was made the cathedral.3
St. Bertin had the comfort to see his monastery flourish with illustrious examples of penance and monastic regularity, rivalling those which had formerly edified the world in the deserts of Egypt. Many noblemen renounced the world to pass their life under his direction in the fervent exercises of holy contemplation and penance. Whatever donations were made to the monastery, they were only received by Bertin as the patrimony of the poor, to whose relief he faithfully applied the greater part of the revenue of his house, very little sufficing for the abstemious maintenance of the monks. A certain rich lord called Heremar, having given him his estate of Warmhoult, on the river Peen, the saint erected in it another monastery, the church of which he caused to be dedicated under the patronage of St. Martin; and St. Winoc was appointed by him the first abbot in 695. St. Bertin, finding himself sinking under the weight of decrepit old age, resigned his dignity in the year 700 in favour of a beloved disciple, whose name was Rigobert, that he might have the advantage and pleasure of closing his life in the humble state of obedience and dependence. From that time he shut himself up in a little hermitage dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, near the cemetery of his monks, in which place he passed the nights and days in almost perpetual prayer, observing all the exercises of regular discipline with the fidelity and humility of the most fervent novice. Having always a singular devotion for St. Martin, he got Rigobert who succeeded him in the government of the abbey, to erect a chapel under the invocation of that saint in the most honourable part of the church. The modern authors of the life of St. Bertin say that he died at the age of one hundred and twelve, on the 5th of September, 709. He was buried in the chapel of St. Martin which Rigobert had built by his directions, though it was not completely finished till after his death. His relics are exposed in a silver shrine, enriched with gold and precious stones. This famous monastery was much enriched by Walbert, count of Ponthieu, and lord of Arques, who, taking the religious habit in this house about the year 700, bestowed on it a considerable part of his estate, and died abbot of another house. St. Bertin is named on this day in the Roman Martyrology. See in Mabillon, (Act. Ben. t. 3, p. 105,) two lives of St. Bertin, the first short, the other longer, both written by Folcard, a monk of St. Bertins, who, being invited into England by the Conqueror, was made abbot of Thorney in Cambridgeshire. See also other short lives of this saint in the Bollandists, t. 41, or 2nd of September, p. 549, with their curious notes, and those of Mabillon, by which the chronology of Duchesne and Miræus is to be corrected; also Martenne, Anec. t. 3, p. 446, et Vet. Monum. t. 6, p. 614.
Note 2. St. Bertin, following the example of St. Columban, St. Fursey, St. Fiacre, &c., never suffered women to come within the precincts of his monastery, or even into his church. This law was religiously observed until the year 938, when it was dispensed with in favour of Adele or Alice, wife of Arnulph, sovereign count of Flanders. This pious princess having long languished under an incurable illness, ardently desired to pray in St. Bertins church, not only to implore the saints intercession, but to taste the sweets of solitude in that holy place. She applied to Wicfrid, bishop of Terouanne, and to Folbert, bishop of Cambray, who, with the consent of the abbot granted the necessary dispensation, and conducted her themselves into the church on Easter-Monday, in the year 938. Here, prostrate before the shrine of St. Bertin, she offered up her fervent prayers to God; and a perfect cure was the reward of her piety and her faith. In grateful acknowledgment of this blessing, she enriched his shrine, and made considerable presents to the church. This miracle is represented in the choir by a group of marble figures of exquisite workmanship. The relation of it in MS. is kept in the archives of the abbey, and was published by John of Ipres, (Chron. S. Bert. p. 2, c. 23,) and by Erembold (De Ingressu Athalæ Comitissæ in templum S. Bertini.) [back]
Note 3. The Emperor Lewis le Debonnaire in the eighth year of his reign gave the abbey of St. Bertins (which then contained in both monasteries, of St. Peter and of our Lady, one hundred and thirty monks) to Frigugis, an English secular priest, abbot also of St. Martins at Tours, and chancellor of the empire. Frigugis, in the year 820, placed eighty monks in St. Bertins, and thirty secular canons in our Ladys, as is related by St. Folquin in his charter, A. D. 850, by Folquin, the monk and deacon of St. Bertins, by John of Ipres, c. 11, &c. Hugh, abbot of St. Bertins, successor to Frigugis, by the authority of his brother, the Emperor Charles the Bald, and St. Folquin, bishop of Terouanne, restored our Ladys church to the monks of St. Bertin. St. Folquins charter by which this is ordered, is rejected by le Cointe ad an. 839, n. 15, but maintained by Mabillon, Stilting, &c. It is, however, incontestable from a series of most authentic monuments of every succeeding age, that this church of our Lady from the tenth century was independent of St. Bertins, and served by secular canons, under a provost, and for some time immediately subject to the holy see by the bulls of Gregory VII. in 1075, Calixtus II. in 1123, Gregory IX. &c. In the year 1495, in the reign of Charles VIII. the Parliament of Paris, after the strictest examination of St. Bertins shrine and relics, and of the monuments and historical proofs, declared that the church of our Lady possessed that treasure, not the abbey of St. Bertin, which is incontestable from the discovery of the relics there, and from history. This church being made the cathedral at the erection of the bishopric in 1556, by the prerogative of this dignity enjoys the rights of honour, precedency, and jurisdiction over all the churches of the city and whole diocess, even though it should have been at any time formerly subject to that of St. Bertin, before it was secularized in the ninth century. The abbey of St. Bertin was plundered by the Normans and Danes in 845; again in 861; burnt by them in 880; burnt again in 1000, 1031, 1081, and 1152. It bore the name of St. Peter for above four hundred years; at last was called St. Bertins, whose relics rendered it famous. [back]