Bl. Notker Balbulus

(c. 840-912)

Notker was the son of noble Swiss parents. His father and mother sent him, when he was a child, to be educated in the Benedictine Abbey of St. Gall, Switzerland. In medieval times Benedictine monks often accepted youngsters as boarding students in their monastery schools. There may have been an additional reason for entrusting Notker to these monks. He was frail in health and stammered. (That is the meaning of his nickname “Balbulus”.)

When he was a teenager, Notker decided to stay on at St. Gall as a monk. Frailty of body did not keep him from becoming a leader in this religious community. It was later said of him that he was “weakly in body but not in mind, stammering of tongue but not of intellect, pressing forward boldly in things divine–a vessel filled with the Holy Ghost without equal in his time.” Notker, a brilliant student, was appointed librarian of the monastery in 890, and held the post of guest master in 892 and 894.

But the stammering little monk gained fame mostly through his own literary work. Having been trained by such able monastic scholars as Iso and the musical Irishman Marcellus (Moengal), he himself became a noted teacher in the monastic school. Notker was probably the anonymous “Monk of St. Gall” who composed the book Gesta Caroli (The Deeds of Charles), a collection of folk stories about the Emperor Charlemagne. This popular work did much to make Charlemagne a colossal legendary figure among the German peoples.

In addition to prose, Father Notker, a good theologian, also wrote poetry and composed music, with talent and taste. In fact, he is considered the first musical composer of German stock. Some of his musical compositions are hymns in honor of saints. Most of his fame, however, is based on his two-score sequences.

The sequence is a type of liturgical hymn that originated in the ninth century. It is a hymn sung after that Alleluia of the Latin Rite Mass that comes just before the singing of the Gospel. Our liturgy used to have many of these sequences, but today the Church retains only the Victimae Paschali (Easter); the Veni Sancte Spiritus (Pentecost); the Lauda Sion (Corpus Christi); and the Stabat Mater (Seven Sorrows of Mary). (A fifth sequence the Dies Irae for funerals was dropped only after Vatican II). Now, none of these five sequences was written by Notker, but the pattern he gave to the format by his own popular compositions was decisive among later composers.

Notker the Stammerer was so much loved by the monks of his abbey that for a long time after his death, they could not speak of him without shedding tears. They venerated him as a saint. The Holy See confirmed this cult of Blessed Notker in 1512 by permitting a Mass to be celebrated in his honor at the Abbey of St. Gall. The permission was extended to the diocese of Constance in 1513. His relics were enshrined in the cathedral of Sankt Gallen in 1628.

Blessed Notker has been declared by some to be the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. Being tongue-tied may impair the speech, but it cannot inhibit the soaring imagination.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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