Your RDA of Irony

Anonymous Domini

I have an Irish sister-in-law; there is one in every Jewish family. She attended a parochial school named for a St. Norbert, but all she apparently learned there was how to smoke. In an ecumenical attempt at conversation, I asked her about the school’s namesake. She had no idea. The nuns never told her.

That seemed a surprising sin of omission. I am the product of Chicago’s public schools; I never had a day of chemistry, but I did learn that my grade school was named for an alcoholic poet, and my high school for an unindicted city politician. Why were the students of St. Norbert spared the life of their saint? Perhaps Norbert had never existed. The early Christian missionaries often were better at marketing than theology. To convert pagans into parishioners, an eager evangelist might grant the local deity a complimentary sainthood. A number of gods made this leap of faith; Ireland’s St. Bridget is the altar ego of the goddess Bridget. What if the heathen Visigoths had a favorite troll named Norbert?

Of course, Norbert also could have been embarrassingly real. The medieval idea of a saint may be the modern definition of a psychopath. Spain particularly encouraged pyromaniacs to enter the clergy. If Norbert were an apostle of the Inquisition, that would be difficult to reconcile with the right-to-life movement. The saint’s anonymity intrigued me. I enjoy history for its gossip, and I expected that Norbert had some to offer. Since I was not prepared to decipher Latin or infiltrate the Jesuits, I confined my research to whatever I could find in my Britannica. It is an older edition, where the subjects are arranged alphabetically rather than by the University of Chicago’s notion of macropedia and micropedia. In Volume 16, mushroom to ozonolysis, Norbert awaited me.

I already had a vicarious knowledge of saints, the sum of college courses, European museums and Hollywood movies. The earliest saints are the most fascinating, if only because Rome went to such creative lengths to accommodate their martyr complexes. Being ripped apart by lions, flayed alive, or sauteed could make anyone interesting. If the Emperors had condemned the Christians only to dodge traffic on the Via Appia, no one would have aspired to so embarrassing a death. The sect might have been remembered as a circumcision-free Judaism.

With the triumph of Christianity, however, there was no one to persecute aspiring saints, so they had to do it to themselves. Medieval annals recount the epics of hermits who were able to subsist for fifty years on their own bile. The Church, though, had outgrown its preoccupation with religion and had discovered its true vocation: management. Even in the Middle Ages, someone was needed to count the silverware on the Round Table. As the sole source of literacy in western Europe, the Church produced the bureaucrats that made Alfred the Great and Char le magne.

One of these indispensable bureaucrats, with their pinstriped habits and button-down cowls, was Norbert. In the late 11th century, a younger son of German nobility had a choice of two vocations: the Church or to wait for his older brother to die. Norbert showed considerable patience. Since the eldest son was required to be a warrior, the first born often was the first dead. Norbert placed his faith in the Crusades and the constant feudal wars, but his brother selfishly survived them. Many German knights did not; however, Norbert lacked the charm or the inclination to marry a rich widow.

In 1115, at the age of 35, Norbert reconciled himself to entering the Church. As an aristocrat, he was spared an apprenticeship of parish work and anointed the medieval equivalent of a management consultant. He inspected monasteries in France and Germany and wrote critical reports on the monks’ lack of discipline. No one would have found a hairshirt in Norbert’s wardrobe, but that was not the point. He was a consultant, not a role model.

As an alternative to piety, Norbert preferred to ingratiate himself with the Pope. The Pope was praised as the true and supreme ruler of Christendom. Norbert also gave the same assurances to the Holy Roman Emperor, the Pope’s worst enemy. The Holy Roman Emperor, who actually was a German king with a pretentious title, had the ethnic tendency to invade other countries, and papal Italy was on his itinerary. His Holiness wished to keep his kingdom in this world as well as the next, so he would choreograph rebellions in Germany. This developed into a monotonous cycle of invasion, excommunication, civil war, and insincere treaties. Christendom could not accommodate both the Pope and the Emperor, but Norbert could. He applied extreme unction as a first impression rather than as a last rite.

Whether he was trusted or tolerated, the very civil servant was rewarded in 1126. Both Rome and the Emperor agreed that Norbert was an innocuous choice to be Archbishop of Magdeburg. Norbert died in 1134, but the Church did not bother to canonize him until 1582. Rome had not belatedly discovered his sanctity; it simply wanted to irritate Magdeburg for becoming Protestant. The Lutherans, though, could not have been as offended as Norbert would have been. As a prudent careerist, he never would have committed himself or his relics to a particular dogma. There were two sides to the Reformation, and Norbert would have been on both of them.

St. Norbert was remarkable. Unscrupulous yet boring, he deserves to be the patron saint of middle management. Today St. Norbert is best remembered for his anonymity; but if you seek his shrine, just go to any corporation and count the number of vice presidents.


  1. Steve Katz says:

    My goodness, I stand corrected. St. Norbert College in DePere is best known for its role as “camp” for the Green Bay Packers. Until this blog entry educated me to the contrary, I always thought that St. Norbert was named after some crazy football player who saw the light. Many thanks to Finerman Works for once again clearing my head of noxious fumes.

  2. Joan Stewart Smith says:

    My friend Wolfgang’s little brother from Aachen, Germany was named Norbert. I always wondered about that name, which did not seem as glamorous as Albert.

  3. Michele says:

    For your future saint-related needs I recommend “Saints Preserve Us!: Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You’ll Ever Need” by Sean Kelly and my friend Rosemary Rogers. It delivers the goods and will also make you laugh.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      I don’t dare read “Saints Preserve Us”. If I knew that THE Sean Kelly had written about St. Norbert, I might be too depressed and intimidated to transpass on the same topic.


  4. Rene says:

    You can never have too many vice presidents!

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      To quote William S. Gilbert (with a little musical accompaniment from his friend Arthur Sullivan), “If everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody.”


  5. Rafferty Barnes says:

    The only Norbert I know is Hagrid’s pet dragon from Harry Potter.

    I am always astonished how uncurious people are about the history of the namesakes around them.

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