Sanctus Wilhelmus Abbas
by Jonas Wellendorf
Wilhelm (†1203) was a regular canon from Paris. In 1165 he was called to Denmark in order to reform and take charge of an Augustinian community on Eskilsø, which was later moved to Æbelholt. He worked miracles while he was still alive, and when he died he had gained the reputation of a holy man. He was worshipped as a saint and pilgrims gathered at the site of his burial where many miraculous healings occurred. In 1224 pope Honorius III canonized Wilhelm. A preserved collection of Wilhelm’s letters (Epistolæ abbatis Willelmi de Paraclito) shows that he played an important part in the political affairs of his day, in particular in field of diplomacy, but his long vita is primarily concerned with his career as a holy man and follows in this way the conventions of the hagiographic genre, leaving politics and diplomatics aside. Wilhelm was celebrated on his day of translation, June 16th,, when his earthly remains were moved to the new stone church at Æbelholt. The translation supposedly took place in 1238. He was venerated throughout Denmark but mainly in the diocese of Roskilde. In the breviary of Roskilde a whole office in his honour is preserved, whereas other Danish liturgical books have lessons for his feast day. A short sequence is preserved as well. Wilhelm was a prolific writer, and in addition to the important collection of letters, a short Tractatus de revelatione capitis et corporis beate Geneouefe and a Genealogia regum danorum are preserved. Much scholarly attention has been paid to his letters (see separate article), and even though many summaries of the vita can be found, it has not been an object of study since the edition was published in 1908–1912.
Sancti Willelmi Abbatis vita et miracula (The life and miracles of St Wilhelm the Abbot). BHL 8908. GERTZ printed the text under this title. In the mss the titles is given as uita sancti Guillermi abbatis de Datia.
“Beatus Willelmus, ex nobili ortus prosapia,…”
“…a mortuis reuocatum meritis sancti Willelmi confessa est.”
69 pp. in the edition of GERTZ
- LAURENTIUS SURIUS, De probatis Sanctorum historiis II pp. 567–585 (1571), II pp. 606–616 (1578), De probates sanctorum vitis IV 98–113 (1618), Historie seu vitae sanctorum IV 218–233 (1876) [all much abbreviated].
- PAPEBROCH, Acta Sanctorum mensis Aprilis I pp. 625–643 [following ms V]
- SUHM/LANGEBEK, Scriptores rerum danicarum V, 458–495 [the text is copied from Acta Sanctorum but is inferior]
- • GERTZ, Vitae sanctorum danorum pp. 300–369
- • OLRIK, Danske Helgeners Levned pp. 179–286. Translated from the edition of LANGEBEK, but with some emendations by GERTZ.
A number of explanatory footnotes are to be found in the translation of OLRIK, but no proper commentary exists.
Date and place
In a letter dated May 28 1218 Honorius III appointed a committee consisting of the archbishop of Lund, the bishop of Roskilde and the abbot of Herrisvad to perform an inquiry into the life and miracles of abbot Wilhelm and report their findings to Rome. GERTZ thought it probable that this inquiry was the cause of the composition of the vita, which accordingly must have been written at some time after 1218 but before his canonization in 1224, since the vita itself makes no mention of a canonization. He did however not think the vita as it is now known was sent to Rome since he regarded is as being in some ways unsuitable for a canonization procedure (p. 289). OLRIK sets the terminus post quem to 1210 because a church completed in that year is mentioned in the text (p. 351). The text appears to have been written by one of the local canons at Æbelholt who had known the abbot while he was still alive (see e.g. p. 341), and the author seems to have been present when one of the miracles took place near the shrine (pp. 354–5). It has been suggested that the author was French because of the emphasis the vita puts on Wilhelm’s youth in Paris and because the Latin occasionally bears the imprint of a French substrate (see GERTZ 290–291).
Summary of contents
The text opens with a description of Wilhelm’s childhood and youth. His uncle, who was the abbot of St-Germain-des-Près, raised him and he early acquired a liking for studies. He became a subdeacon among the secular canons at the church of Ste-Geneviève, but the other canons soon began to envy him because of his pious life and assiduous reading. At one occasion they unsuccessfully attempted to lure him away from the church. The controversies with the canons come to an end when pope Eugene III visits the church of Geneviève accompanied by King Ludwig VII. As the result of a corporal fight between the local canons and the servants of the pope the house is turned into a house for regular canons and a prior from St-Victor is appointed abbot. Wilhelm now becomes a regular canon at Ste-Geneviève.
A major event of the following period happens when the false rumour appears that the head of Ste-Geneviève, the main relic of the church, had been stolen. Everyone, in particular Wilhelm who at the time was sacristan, are dismayed, and the king summons the archbishop, and all bishops, abbots and priors of the archbishopric to Paris to inspect the shrine. The head turns however out to be in its proper place.
In 1161 bishop Absalon of Roskilde writes to the abbot of Ste-Geneviève and ask him to send Wilhelm, whom he had met while studying in Paris, and three brothers to Eskilsø to reform the community of canons there. When Wilhelm arrives at Eskilsø there are only six local canons, and two of them leave when Absalon makes Wilhelm abbot of Eskilsø. After some time the three French canons obtain permission to go home, and Wilhelm himself asks for leave as well, but the bishop convinces him to stay.
The vita now reports a series of unsuccessful attacks of the devil on Wilhelm, and the local canons plan attempts at his life because of his sternness and strict adherence to the rule. After some time the convent is moved to a place which was called Paraclitus (Æbelholt). A short section with miracles that Wilhelm performed while still alive follows before the vita describes his death at the probably much exaggerated age of 98 years on Easter Morning 1202, 40 years after he came to Denmark. He is buried in front of the altar of St Thomas on Easter Monday. A great number of miracles follow. All in all 31 miracle stories are related, and one story about a priest who was cured of facial erysipelas, but became sick again because he did not keep the vow he made. Most of the miracles take place at the grave of Wilhelm, but there are some ‘distance miracles’ as well. The main relic is a tooth of Wilhelm. The washing water of the tooth has healing powers and it is given the sick to drink. Nearly all miracles are healings, but a man who has lost his falcon regains it as well after prayers to the saint. A the very end of the vita two resuscitations are told, in both cases boys are brought back to life as a result of the prayers of their parents to Wilhelm.
Composition and Style
The vita can be divided into four parts: 1) childhood and youth in Paris, chap. 1–9, 2) Life as abbot in Denmark, chap. 10–24, 3) Death, chap. 25–30 and 4) Miracles, chap. 31–63. The three latter parts are much in tune with what one would expect of the life of a confessor, whereas the first has been characterised as a ‘chronique scandaleuse’ about the church of Ste-Geneviève (GAD p. 175). The posthumous miracles are primarily arranged thematically even though there seems to be a chronological progress as well. The author of the vita must have been a competent as well as an ambitious writer and the vita et miracula of Wilhelm is the longest of the medieval Danish saints’ lives. The language of the text has been characterized as in the main ‘plain and natural’ (GERTZ P. 292), even though some sections are held in a markedly higher register than others. No thorough stylistic analysis has been carried out, but a great number of unmarked biblical citations show that the author was well versed in the Scripture. The author quotes a distich from Ovid’s Remedia amatoris as well.
The text does not refer to specific written sources and it is likely that the information provided by the author on the life of Wilhelm derives from oral narratives circulating in the convent, even though other sources might have been utilized as well. A number of informants are mentioned in the text, in particular a certain Saxo (not Saxo Grammaticus). If the author had known Wilhelm personally, some of the information on Wilhelm’s youth might be derived from conversations with him as well. When episodes in the life can be compared with other sources there are marked differences in trail of events. One example is the affair with the head of Geneviève, about which Wilhelm wrote a short Tractatus; a comparison between Wilhelm’s own exposition of the events and the presentation in the vita shows that the hagiographer is unlikely to have used the Tractatus as his main source, as there is a number of factual differences.
The places of origin of most of the beneficiaries of the miracles are mentioned and many of them are named as well. This indicates that the author had access to a written record or protocol of the miracles worked by the saint at the shrine, as it was customary to keep such local records. In the opening of the miracle section the author, however, makes no mention of such a record, but only refers to what he has himself heard and seen: Veniamus ad miracula, que uel audiuimus uel uidimus in civitate dei nostri, id est Paraclito, ubi requiescit gloriosus confessor dei Willelmus ‘Let us turn to the miracles, which we either heard about or saw in the city of our God, that is Paraclitus, where the glorious confessor of God Wilhelm rests.’ (p. 344).
The life supplies a number of dates, and scholars writing on Wilhelm have rejected most of them, excepting the day of his death, the 6th of April. According to his vita Wilhelm was born in 1105, but scholars rather think that he was born around 1127. His vita states that Absalon called him to Denmark in 1161 whereas scholars think it was around 1165. Finally his year of death is in the vita given as 1202, whereas scholars think that he died in 1203. The arguments for these redatings are given by OLRIK (p. 215 & 243–244); they seem to have been generally accepted and reappear in later scholarly literature (e.g. DAMSHOLT 2001).
The vita in the main follows the typical model of a confessor’s life. This is most clearly seen in the section describing his death, to which a number of parallels can be found. A canon is in a vision led to a locus amœnus where he sees an impressive marble house, inside there is an empty throne of gold decorated with precious stones. This place has been reserved for Wilhelm after his death (cf. e.g. Visio Tnugdali). Seven years before his death he is informed in a vision that he has only seven days left to live (cf. e.g. Vita Fursei), his death during Easter is partly and explicitly staged as a re-enactment of the last days of Christ: On Maundy Thursday Wilhelm holds a last supper with his disciples, and afterwards he intends to wash their feet. On Good Friday he suffers great pain and finally on Resurrection Day, while the responsory about the ointment of the Lord is sung, Wilhelm receives his last ointment and dies. In the same moment at a great distance a disciple of Wilhelm sees a person clad in white ascend to heaven ‘just like the ascension of the Lord is represented in paintings’ sicut in picturis solet fieri, in quibus domini ascensio memoratur (p 342).
Purpose and Audience
GERTZ (P. 290) thinks it unlikely that the vita was sent to Rome in connection with the preparations for Wilhelm’s canonisation, and believes it has been written for the edification of the local community. A copy must have been sent to Wilhelm’s old convent in Ste-Geneviève quite early as well, since an old manuscript (G) is preserved there.
Medieval Reception and Transmission
As far as is known the text is only preserved in the two medieval manuscripts labelled G and V. G is to be found in Paris, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève MS 558 and dates from the middle of the 13th century. G mainly contains Saints’ lives and passions, but Wilhelm’s own Tractatus on the head of Ste-Geneviève is to be found there as well. Wilhelm’s life is written on fol. 151va–186ra. The other manuscript, V, from the 15th century, belonged to St-Victor, but is now to be found in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Lat. 14652. The text is on fol. 242r–261r. GERTZ, from whom the data on the manuscripts are extracted, regarded V as a copy of G. No medieval Danish manuscripts of the vita are preserved, so the main evidence for a medieval Danish circulation of the text is to be found in the early printed liturgical books which contain text related to the vita. The six lessons in Breviarium Ottoniense (1482) reproduce text from the introduction of the vita (chap. 1–2) of the life, the manuscript AM 670b 4° (beginning of 18th century) contains excerpts from the sequence narrating the death of the saint (chap. 25–28) also in the form of a breviary. GERTZ printed readings from these two texts in the critical apparatus to edition of the vita.
Further more six lessons from Breviarium Slesvicense (1514) and six other lessons from Breviarium Lundense (1517) seem to be loosely based on the text of the life and cover his whole life. Diurnale Roschildense (1511) and Breviarium Roschildense (1517) contain a complete office, with a text that is only loosely (if at all) based on the vita. In Missale Hafniense from 1510 a short sequence of four stanzas on Wilhelm is preserved. The relevant sections of these books are all printed by GERTZ. In addition to these textual witnesses the manuscript Uppsala, Universitetsbiblioteket, C 447, a breviary from Lund, contains a short miracle tale about the healing of a cow that is not found elsewhere (ed. GERTZ p. 449) [BHL 8908d].
- DAMSHOLT, N . 2001: ‘Abbot William of Æbelholt: A Foreigner in Denmark’ pp. 4–19 in Medieval Spirituality in Scandinavia and Europe; A Collection of Essays in Honour of Tore Nyberg (ed. L. Bisgaard et al.), Odense.
- GAD, T.: Legenden i dansk middelalder, København 1961.
- GERTZ, M. Cl.: Vitae sanctorum danorum, København 1908–1912.
- OLRIK, H.: Danske helgeners levned, København 1893–1894.