Blessed Hermann of Reichenau

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 1013 was born one of the greatest scholars of the Middle Ages, the Benedictine monk now known as the Blessed Herman. In English, he is usually called “Hermann the Cripple” or “the Lame”, but his Latin appellation “contractus – the deformed” (literally ‘the contracted one’) is really more accurate, as is so often the case with Latin. The combination of congenital defects from which he suffered (cerebral palsy, cleft palate, possibly also spina bifida), and an unspecified paralyzing illness in early childhood made him “not simply a cripple, but … practically helpless”, writes Alban Butler. He may also have suffered from spinal muscular atrophy or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease.) After surviving his first years by some miracle of God’s providence, his family, the noble house of Altshausen in Swabia (southern Germany), entrusted him at the age of seven to the Benedictine abbey on Reichenau Island on the lake of Constance. He was professed at the age of twenty, and lived as a monk for twenty years more.

Although he was barely able to move without assistance, he was a polymath and a genius, well-versed in theology, music, astronomy, mathematics, Latin, Greek and Arabic. Students came to learn from him from many parts of Europe, and his intellectual achievements were such that he was known as the wonder of his age. Among his works are the earliest surviving medieval chronicle of the whole of human history, and a treatise on mathematics and astronomy; he was also able somehow to build both musical and astronomical instruments. His treatise on the construction of astrolabes was so well known that he came to be held as its inventor.

(A manuscript illustration of one of Bl. Herman’s treatises on astronomy.)

He was also well known as a poet and composer of liturgical texts; he wrote the Divine Office for the feasts of two Saints who were very popular in his region, St Afra, a martyr of the persecution of Diocletian, and patron of the city of Augsburg, and a 10th century bishop of Regensburg named Wolfgang.

Above all, however, his name will live in blessed remembrance as that of the composer of the Marian antiphons Alma Redemptoris Mater and Salve Regina. His cultus was officially approved by the Holy See in 1863. Beate Hermanne, ora pro nobis!

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