EARLY IN the ninth century, a Saxon nobleman gave his son, Gottschalk, to the Benedictine abbey of Fulda in western Germany. The youth was offered oblatus in medieval Latin to Jesus Christ as a sort of living sacrifice.
Gottschalk's parents hoped their generosity would reflect well on them in the world to come, but it also served a purpose in this world. Giving Gottschalk to the Benedictines provided for his immediate needs, while extinguishing all claims to his inheritance.
Thousands of children found themselves in this predicament during the Middle Ages. “When they have got their houses full of sons and daughters,” the monk Udalricus wrote of medieval nobility, “if any of them is lame or infirm, hard of hearing or short of sight, they offer him to a monastery.”
Some were dedicated to corporate servitude because, as younger sons and daughters, it was difficult to provide a dowry or inheritance for them. Still others were forced into monasteries by unwanted pregnancy, general rebelliousness, and even incidents as trifling as dreaming about a saint.
Wrenched from their families and cast alone into the strange world of the cloister, most oblates were easily bent to the will of their corporate masters. The thing that set Gottschalk apart was the way he struggled all his life to regain the freedom that his father and the Benedictine Order took from him.
In 829, when he was still a very young man, Gottschalk appealed to a synod at Mainz. How, he asked, could the free-born son of a Saxon noble be doomed to a life of servitude, when the decision was made before he had come of age, and against his will? Touched by the fervor of the young man's plea, the synod released him from his vicarious vow.
But even as the young man savored the prospect of a normal life, the ageless corporation abhorred the precedent that freeing Gottschalk could set. Acting on behalf Fulda and the Benedictine Order, Abbot Rabanus Mauras sued in ecclesiastic court to block Gottschalk's release.
Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, Jephtha's vow and Samuel's dedication were presented as evidence of Biblical sanction for child oblation. A distinguished scholar, Abbot Rabanus had no difficulty proving that the oblate system was genuinely Benedictine, since St. Benedict himself had admitted a Roman senator's son to Monte Cassino at age seven.
By the ninth century, oblates were a crucial source of human power for many monastic houses, like the nunnery described by pious Caesarius of Heisterbach where “by ancient custom, no girl is received after the age of seven years.” This dependency on unwilling conscripts made Gottschalk's plea for freedom a direct threat to the ecclesiastic corporations.
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About the Author: Bruce Brown is the author of eight books, including Mountain in the Clouds, an environmental classic, and The Windows 95 Bug Collection, which was put on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
He has done investigative reporting for the New York Times (the Karen Silkwood story), foreign correspondence for Atlantic Monthly (baseball in Cuba), and book reviews for the Washington Post Book World, as well as script-writing for PBS-TV (The Miracle Planet).
He is also a successful businessman and CEO, having created BugNet and built it into the world’s largest supplier of PC bug fixes before it was acquired by a Fortune 500 company at the height of the dot com boom.
The Benedictines especially clung to the iron regime they had developed over the centuries, and set forth in detailed codes of punishment. Medieval chronicles reveal that the oblate's life to be a relentless round of prayer and brutality, each administered religiously. If the boys offended in psalmody or chant, or fell asleep, or indulged in natural childish play, they were immediately stripped and beaten with “smooth and supple osier rods kept for this single purpose,” as one monastic constitution stipulated.
For a fortunate few who were able to appreciate the education available in monastery schools, child oblation offered marvelous opportunities that did not exist in the secular world. England's proto-historian, St. Bede, for instance, was educated at the Benedictine monastery of Wearmouth, where he was sent as a boy in 684.
Another notable seventh century oblate was St. Gall, a wandering Irish monk who founded the important abbey near Lake Constance that bore his name. Ironically, the monastery of St. Gall eventually burned down when a latter-day oblate thrust a red-hot brand under shingles on the roof to divert attention for some minor transgression in school.
Gottschalk was not a trouble-maker of this sort. He became adept at Latin, and even wrote poetry in the early years of his confinement. “Why do you order me to sing a sweet song when I am exiled far away across the sea,” one of his poems implored, “O why do you order me to sing?” And the refrain repeated, “O why do you order me to sing?”
There is a note of innocent pathos in these lines that quickly burned off in his battle with the Benedictine Order. Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims and the most powerful prelate in northern Europe, described Gottschalk as a wild beast at heart under his cowl, furious and impatient with correction. Despite such condemnations, the unwilling oblate developed a following among the younger monks who were mesmerized by his fervor for freedom. Gottschalk's influence was so strong that he was able to enlist brethren to break the Rule by carrying letters for him, even to Rome.
From the fragments that survive of his tale, it is clear Gottschalk was an exceptional person who inspired the younger monks as no corporate expression of religion ever had. His adversary, however, was no ordinary religious corporation. It was something new, glittering in the light like a freshly pupated dragonfly. Despite their appeals to ecclesiastic tradition, the Benedictines who shackled Gottschalk were actually great innovators. They created the strongest and most well coordinated corporation the world had yet seen, the first religious order in the modern sense of the word...
"The History of the Corporation, Volume One" © Copyright 2003 Bruce Brown
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Key words from the remainder of Chapter 4 of
The History of the Corporation, Volume One
St. Benedict of Aniane
Count of Maguelonne
Monastery of Saint-Seine
Louis the Pious
Pope Gregory IV
Gottschalk the Predestinarian
Council of Chiersey
Abbey of Hautvillers
first corporate trust
John D. Rockefeller
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