Translation and analysis of St. Norbert of Xanten. A 12th-century Christian who is claimed to have spoken in tongues.
The medieval biography of the Saints called Acta Sanctorum only includes a brief reference to him and it is not clear whether it was a miraculous act. Perhaps it was a description of St. Norbert as a very charismatic and intelligent communicator. Great eloquence and showmanship can cross linguistic barriers even if the audience doesn’t understand the language being spoken.
Pope Benedict the 14th does not include St. Norbert in his historical examination of tongues in his 18th century treatise, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione. The Acta Sanctorum text suggests this as a miracle, but it is not a strong argument.
If the passage translated below is to be taken as a miraculous intervention, then this incident would be credited as a miracle of hearing.
St. Norbert name lives on as the founder of the Prémontré community – a Catholic organization that still exists throughout the world today. The official Prémontré website gives a brief biography as one who was very ascetic and sought for reforms within his original Xanten community but was rebuffed. He chose then, at the approval of the Pope, to become an itinerant preacher.1 He must have been a charismatic and passionate person because his preachings resulted in numerous monasteries, a substantial following and founder of a movement.
St. Norbert would have been relatively forgotten in the greater annals of history outside of the Prémontré community, but his narrative began a different discussion. His name resurfaced regarding which principle language was spoken in Belgium during the 12th-century. The debate brought in the miracle of tongues, not out of a theological enquiry, but collateral baggage in answering the above question. Fortunately, this discussion brought information on how the gift of tongues was applied and understood within the Church.
Xanten is a city situated in the north-east part of modern Germany. Valenciennes is a city found in northern France near the Belgium border. Valenciennes has traded territories throughout history. It was ceded to France under King Louis the XIV in the mid to late 1600s2
The Valenciennes language of the 12th century was covered by Philip Mouskes in his 1836 work, Chronique rimée de Philippe Mouskes. This is a historical account of Belgium which included a brief description of city of Valenciennes through the lens of St. Norbert’s life. This is a French work with a good outline of St. Norbert. It is better to translate Mouskes, along with the Latin passage from Acta Sanctorum than to begin an entirely new exposition on the subject.
The following translation is from the Latin found in Acta Sanctorum. AASS, June I, 815 v. 24
When the three came to Valenciennes on Palm Sunday. On the next day then he gave a sermon to the people, clearly hardly knowing or understanding of this Romance language until now,(k) because he never learned it. But then he was without despair, so he began to address in his mother tongue. The Holy Spirit which had formerly taught the 120 people3 different languages, then made the uncivilized of the German4 language and the difficulty of the eloquent Latin language suitable to be understood by the hearers. And therefore, through the grace of God, became acceptable to everyone that they compelled him to carry through to the end of the feast days and somewhat revive parts of the body. While to such an offer he did not wish to relax, in fact his face was of going to the Cologne Episcopate, on account of the people and language which he had familiarity with.
The footnote listed as (k) in Acta Sanctorum states “He understands the poor, the ignorant, unlearned, and the Rustic. It was the Romana language which is presently called Gallican or French.”
The Romana language was interpreted in the 1800s to mean a mixture of Latin and Celtic. Some writers preferred to use Rustic as the definition instead of Romana though the interchangeability between these two words is confusing. The Gallican language was styled after the Romana language.5
As shown above, the text itself alludes to St. Norbert speaking in languages as the 120 did in the Book of Acts, but the example afterwards lacks strength. However, a Medieval theological portrait can be gleaned about speaking in tongues. When St. Norbert spoke in either German or Latin, the audience understood him speaking in their own Romana language. The author of Acta Sanctorum understood this was a miracle of hearing.
The following is translated from the book: Philip Mouskes. Chronique rimée de Philippe Mouskes. Vol. 1. Bruxelles: Le Baron De Reiffenberg. 1836. Pg. CXXVIff.
Note that the text was written in French but he sometimes left quotes in the original Latin, which are translated into English too.
“The life of saint Norbert, founder of the order of the Premonstratensians,6 is written by one of his contemporaries and gathered by the Bollandistes, gives us a subsequent and overabundant proof, that in 1119, the only common language in Valenciennes7 and in Fosse,8 near Namur, was the Romance language, and that the German language was entirely unknown by the people there.
Norbert was born in Xanten, in the land of Cleves. After his conversion, he embraced the austere missionary life. Having travelled in Germany, Italy and crossed a part of France, he arrived at Valenciennes with three companions, the eve of Palm Sunday, in 1119, with the intention of going to Cologne in order to preach there. Although he did not know how yet to speak the Romance language, which was the language of the land which he had not learned, the strength of his zeal gave him the determination to preach the following day in the presence of the people. He was so favourably received by the entire public that they vigorously solicited him to stay for the Easter celebrations at Valenciennes, and to rest there of his tiredness; to which he did not want to agree, (his intent was to go to the diocese of Cologne because he knew the language and the inhabitants), it happened through the dispensation of God, that his companions having been fallen upon with a sudden illness, that he could not then depart any further at that time.
[Translation from the Latin] When the three came to Valenciennes on Palm Sunday. On the next day then he gave a sermon to the people, clearly hardly knowing or understanding of this Romance language until now, because he never learned it. But then he was without despair, so he began to address in his mother tongue. The Holy Spirit which had formerly taught the 120 people9 different languages, then made the uncivilized of the German10 language and the difficulty of the eloquent Latin language suitable to be understood by the hearers. And therefore, through the grace of God, became acceptable to everyone that they compelled him to carry through to the end of the feast days and somewhat revive parts of the body. While to such an offer he did not wish to relax, in fact, his face was of going to the Cologne Episcopate, on account of the people and language which he had familiarity with.[end of Latin and back to French]
This preaching probably consisted in a fervent elocution, of multiple gestures and expressions and these shouts, these vivid accents which rarely miss their effect on the multitude. It was a lively expressive gesture of some tonic phrases and where the enthusiasm of the actor connects with the spectators.
Norbert, despite his resistance, nevertheless had been forced to spend some time at Valenciennes because his associates had fallen sick and all three died in this city. Meanwhile, Burchard, Bishop of Cambrai, arrived there and Norbert, who had known him at the court of the emperor, thought that he ought to make a visit with him. He presented himself there under the most modest attire of a poor missionary who travelled by bare feet despite the hardship of the season.
The Bishop had a priest named Hugh for a chaplain, native of Fosse, near Namur, and who had been a student of the monastery of this city. Hugh showed Norbert into the mansion of the Bishop who had difficulty recognizing his old friend in a raiment so different than those which he formerly wore at the Court. But when he recognized him, he tenderly kissed him and showed him the most affectionate feelings. Hugh the priest, who was standing and present about their conversation, however, understood nothing from it because they were speaking in German, but astonished about the ways of the Bishop towards this singular character. He took the liberty to step forward near the Dignitary and asked him who this stranger was. Then the Bishop related to him the story of St. Norbert. Hugh was so touched by all this which he learned about this subject that, after a few days, he formed a resolution to follow the missionary and become his most faithful companion, the same one who many authors attribute the life of Saint Norbert and where they draw these details from.
[Translation from the Latin] In fact, while the previously mentioned cleric who introduced him stands and saw the affection of the Bishop towards the man, yet hardly understands at all their conversation because they are speaking in German, dared to venture closer and asked who then is this person? Immediately the Bishop says, etc.,11[end of Latin and back to French]
This account is a little long, but nothing of being boring. We have already documented the outcome that we claim to draw such out of.
Another point of interest that is yet longer, of where the result clearly is that at the City of Liége, the people did not speak German between each other. At the end of 1146 and what was the demarcation of languages the same as today – a state of affairs which might have been spontaneously realized and which the time had inevitably prepared.”