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Herman of Reichenau

December 18, 2011

Herman of Reichenau 1013-1054

I noticed this name because of its dates. We were singing the Salve Regina, and I noticed that the author was from the Middle Ages, a period I have been teaching this semester. Besides, his name was Herman Contractus, a name I recognized from my sister’s book, 1000 Years of Catholic Scientists. So I decided it was time to learn more about him.

Meantime also, a little girl with Apert’s syndrome, and therefore profound needs of many kinds, was born into our family. Herman Contractus is about that too. Here’s the story:

Herman of Reichenau, also called Herman Contractus, was born to a noble family in Althausen, in 1013, just ten years after the mathematician-Pope Sylvester died. Herman was profoundly disabled, with a cleft palate, spina bifida, and cerebral palsy or something like that. (It’s hard to know exactly what was wrong at this distance in time.) Anyway, he was very badly formed (Contractus means twisted) but also a very determined little child, and his family provided for him as best they could until he was seven. Then they entrusted him to the local Benedictine monastery in Reichenau. Noble families often entrusted their sons to monasteries for education, but in this case, it meant the added responsibility for all his physical care. The abbot was willing and was a gifted teacher.

Herman throve in the monastery. He learned Latin, Greek, and Arabic. He learned math and wrote about multiplication and division – using Roman numerals, mind you. He invented a math game.

He learned astronomy, and wrote about the astrolabe. (Who knows? Maybe he read Pope Sylvester’s work on this topic!) He invented a portable sundial called the Shepherd’s sundial. He suggested dividing the hour into minutes – a simple enough idea, but when all you have is a sundial, it is not so easy, and only a mathematician would think of it.

He learned music and wrote poetry and songs. He seems to have written the Salve Regina which is sung every evening in monasteries all over the world, and he wrote the Alma Redemptoris Mater and other hymns as well.

When he had read as much as he could, he decided to write a history of the world, so he did that.

Then he wrote some theological reflections for the local nuns and a witty little essay on the 8 principal vices.

And he was himself a teacher. He did not travel of course, but people came to the monastery on the Island of Reichanau, because he was really a good teacher with a sweet spirit, and that was enough to make a man famous in those days.

For some people, Christmas this year will be challenging because children are born who are not strong in every way that we would hope. God has a plan for each one.

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