On July 18, 1013, a baby boy was born to the Duke of Altshausen in Germany. At some point in the boy’s childhood a crippling condition rendered him unable to fulfill his expected role as the eldest son. Historians believe that the boy suffered from a degenerative motor neuron disease, such as spinal muscular atrophy. The condition resulted in restricted use of his limbs. He could not move about easily and had difficulties speaking clearly. Young Hermann required someone to carry him about. Due to both his physical maladies and the historical context of his life, he acquired the name Hermannus Contractus, meaning “Hermann the Twisted” or “Hermann the Cripple.” At the age of seven he was sent to school, likely the monastery at Reichenau.
Hermann probably struggled initially to read and write because of his infirmities. We can imagine attempting to write with painful, palsied hands, or speak sounds with a mouth that could not utter them clearly. Nonetheless, Hermann evidenced a strong mind and received a formal education. Unable to participate in hearty physical pursuits as could other young men his age, Hermann is said to have stated: litteris traditus sum (“I am consigned to letters”).
Over time, a life of letters served him well. Hermann wrote in German, became proficient in Latin, and had some knowledge of Greek. Within the monastic setting he devoted himself to mathematics, music, history, and the sciences, including theology. Hermann became best known for his Chronica, a large work of great historical detail, especially regarding the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. He wrote on astronomy, is credited with mastering the astrolabe (an astronomical tool), prepared a computus for determining the date of Easter each year, and wrote on theological topics with great spiritual depth. His treatise On the Eight Principal Vices in poetic form became widely known in the medieval Church. Hermann penned the hymn “Salve Regina,” which is still sung in the Catholic Church today.
Despite his physical afflictions—made more daunting considering the age in which he lived—”Hermann the Cripple” received a classical Christian education. His life of letters was made whole by the mercy of God and encourages us today from a place in time over one thousand years ago.
In his poem “Hermann the Cripple,” William Barton Hurlbut gives us these stanzas, as if from the voice of Hermann himself:
I am least among the low,
I am weak and I am slow;
I can neither walk nor stand,
Nor hold a spoon in my own hand.
Like a body bound in chain,
I am on a rack of pain,
But He is God who made me so,
that His mercy I should know.
Brothers do not weep for me!
Christ, the Lord, has set me free.
All my sorrows He will bless;
Pain is not unhappiness.
From my window I look down
To the streets of yonder town,
Where the people come and go,
Reap the harvest that they sow.
Like a field of wheat and tares,
Some are lost in worldly cares;
There are hearts as black as coal,
There are cripples of the soul.
Brothers do not weep for me!
In His mercy I am free.
I can neither sow nor spin,
Yet, I am fed and clothed in Him.
We can only imagine how Hermann’s humble life, writings, and presence impacted others in his time. Research on the man is limited (and sometimes conflicting), but some attribute to Hermann the hymn “Alma Redemptoris Mater” (“Loving Mother of Our Savior”). Maybe you don’t know this hymn, but you may know The Canterbury Tales. In “The Prioress’ Tale,” a student learns to sing the hymn in school:
This little child, while he was studying
His little primer, which he undertook,
Sitting at school, heard other children sing
“O Alma Redemptoris” from their book.
Close as he dared he drew himself to look,
And listened carefully to work and part
Until he knew the opening verse by heart.
The boy in the tale sings the sacred words with fearless reverence in the streets. Irritated, angry onlookers capture the boy, harm his throat, and cast him in a pit. Undeterred by persecution, the boy miraculously sings on in praise. The tale continues:
Great God, that to perform Thy praise has called
The innocent of mouth, how great Thy might!
This gem of chastity, this emerald,
This jewel of martyrdom and ruby bright,
Lying with carven throat and out of sight,
Began to sing “O Alma” from the ground
Till all the place was ringing with the sound.
Historians presume that Hermann’s condition was degenerative. As he experienced progressive immobility and suffering upon suffering, in his life we see an echo of Job from the Old Testament: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15). We would do well to contemplate the ongoing faithfulness of one so afflicted.
On September 24, 1054, at the age of forty-one, Hermann—historian, astronomer, poet—died from the effects of his many afflictions. Once known only as a little boy with a paralytic condition, today Blessed Hermann is remembered as a man who shared freely of himself, persevered daily through trials, and found mercy in his Savior. September 25 is the feast day for Blessed Hermann in many traditions, and he is considered a patron saint for both the unborn and the disabled. His education and his life can remind us to tend unflinchingly to both the intellect and faith of every child we encounter.