From Medieval

by Eva Odelman

Rimbert, archbishop of Hamburg–Bremen 865–888, is mainly known for having written the biography of his predecessor Ansgar, the first missionary to Scandinavia.


The main source for Rimbert’s life is an anonymous biography, Vita Rimberti. Adam of Bremen, in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (Deeds of the bishops of the Church of Hamburg), book I, chapters 34–44 (eleventh century), amply quotes this work in writing the history of Rimbert; moreover he uses information from an account (compotus) from Corvey in Westphalia, the daughter monastery of Corbie in Picardy, as well as from various annals, e.g. the Annales Fuldenses and Corbeienses. Ansgar had been teaching in both these monasteries, and they became decisively important also for his successor. As a boy, Rimbert lived near Torhout, a small monastery in Flanders, which was to serve the newly-founded archbishopric of Hamburg, and the archbishop, Ansgar, on a visit to that place, noticed him and persuaded his parents to let him become a priest. After finishing his education – in Torhout and probably in Corbie –, he went with Ansgar to Hamburg and became his special friend and helper. He assisted Ansgar on journeys, for example to Denmark and possibly also to Sweden. Ansgar had designed Rimbert to be his successor, and when Ansgar died, on 3 February 865, Rimbert was elected archbishop of the united see of Hamburg and Bremen, the archbishop’s residence having been transferred to Bremen after the Vikings had plundered Hamburg in 845. Immediately after his consecration he went to Corvey, where he took vows. Rimbert died in 888; his burial took place on 11 June.

Vita Anskarii

The biography of Ansgar, Vita Anskarii (Life of Ansgar) was written after Ansgar’s death in 865 and before the death of King Louis in 876 (it is clear from chapter 22 that the king was alive). The author’s name is not mentioned in the book, but Adam attests (I 34) that it was written by Rimbert, and so does the Vita Rimberti (chapter 9), adding, however, that there was a co-author, a condiscipulus – another disciple of Ansgar’s. The book is a traditional specimen of hagiography, both descriptive and laudatory. Great attention is paid to Ansgar’s two missionary journeys to Birka, in 829–831 and around 850 respectively, and interesting information is given on conditions and events in this very early Swedish town.


The full title given in the principal manuscript (A 1) is: Incipit libellus continens vitam vel gesta seu obitum domni Anskarii primi Nordalbingorum archiepiscopi et legati sanctae sedis apostolicae ad Sueones seu Danos necnon etiam Slavos et reliquas gentes in Aquilonis partibus sub pagano adhuc ritu constitutas.


Dominis sanctissimis et in Christi amore praecipua veneratione recolendis ...

...et regnat Deus per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.

62 pages.


  • (DUCHESNE, F. 1641: Historiae Francorum sanctorum, vol. 3, Paris, 395–409 (excerpts).)
  • CAESAR, PH. 1642: Triapostolatus septemtrionis. Vita et gesta S. Willehadi, S. Ansgarii, S. Rimberti ... , Cologne, 40–125.
  • LAMBECIUS, P. 1652: “Vita S. Anscharii primi archiepiscopi Hamburgensis conscripta a S. Remberto ejus successore,” in Origines Hamburgenses, Hamburg, 167–240 (new edition by J.A. Fabricius 1706, 51–78).
  • HENSCHEN, G.F. 1658: ASS, Febr., vol. 1, Antwerpen, 408–27; 3rd ed. 413–33.
  • ARRHENIUS, CL. 1677: Sancti Anscharii primi Hamburgensium archiepiscopi ... vita gemina, Stockholm, 12–154 (with medieval Swedish translation, see Medieval reception and transmission).
  • MABILLON, J. 1701: Acta Sanctorum ordinis sancti Benedicti saeculi IV, vol. 2, Paris, 78–114; 2nd ed. 81–116 (mainly reprint of HENSCHEN 1658).
  • STAPHORST, N. 1723: “Vita S. Anscharii, beschrieben von S. Remberto,” in Historia ecclesiae Hamburgensis diplomatica, das ist Hamburgische Kirchen-Geschichte, vol. I:1, Hamburg, 85–123.
  • LANGEBEK, J. 1772: “Vita Sancti Anscharii,” in SRD 1, 429–95.
  • FANT, E.M. 1828: “Vita Sancti Anscharii per S. Rembertum. Latine et Svetice,” in SRS II:1, 175–258 (with medieval Swedish translation, see Medieval reception and transmission).
  • DAHLMANN, F.C. 1829: “Vita Sancti Anskarii a Rimberto et alio discipulo Anskarii conscripta,” in MGH SS 2, Hannover, 687–725 (the first critical edition).
  • MIGNE, J.P. 1852: “Vita Sancti Anscharii auctore S. Remberto ...,” in PL 118, Paris, col. 959–1012 (reprint of DAHLMANN 1829).

• WAITZ, G. 1884: “Vita Anskarii auctore Rimberto,” MGH SRG, Hannover, 13–79.

  • TRILLMICH, W. 1961: “Vita Anskarii,” in Quellen des 9. und 11. Jahrhunderts zur Geschichte der hamburgischen Kirche und des Reiches, Darmstadt, 16–132 (reprint of WAITZ’s edition, with a German translation and an elaborate introduction, see Translations).



  • LEY, C.S. 1837: Ansgars Levnet beskrevet af Erkebiskop Rimbert og en anden Discipel ... Danske Læsere tilegnet ved C. S. Ley, Copenhagen, 1–106.
  • FENGER, P.A. 1863: Ansgars Levnetsbeskrivelse af Erkebiskop Rimbert oversat paa Dansk, Copenhagen, 2–115 (new editions 1885, 1910, 1911 and 1926:)
  • • OLRIK, H. 1926: Rimbert, Ansgars Levned, oversat af P.A. Fenger. Gennemset og forsynet med oplysende Noter af H. Olrik, 5. ed., Copenhagen, 15–204.


  • ROBINSON, C.H. 1921: Anskar, the Apostle of the North 801–865. Translated from the Vita Anskarii, London, 25–130.


  • MIESEGAES, C. 1826: “St. Ansgars Leben, beschrieben von St. Rembert,” in Leben des St. Willehads und St. Ansgars, Bremen, 53–184.
  • LAURENT, J.C.M. 1856: “Rimbert, Leben des Erzbischofs Anskar,” in Leben der Erzbischöfe Anskar und Rimbert. Nach der Ausgabe der Monumenta Germaniae übersetzt, Die Geschichtschreiber der deutschen Vorzeit, Lief. 28, Berlin, 1–91 (revised by W. Wattenbach 1889; 3rd edition in Die Geschichtschreiber der deutschen Vorzeit, vol. 22, Leipzig 1939, 3–102).
  • DREVES, L. 1864: Rembert, Leben des heiligen Ansgar. Zu dessen 1000jähr. Todesfeier aus dem Latein. übers.und mit erläut. Anmerkungen und einem hymnolog. Anh. begleitet, Paderborn, 1–156.
  • • TRILLMICH 1961 (see Editions) 17–133.
  • SCHAMONI, W. 1965: Das Leben des heiligen Ansgar von seinem Nachfolger Rimbert, Düsseldorf, 51–124 (reprint of TRILLMICH’s translation).
  • RIEPER, H. 1995: “Das Leben des heiligen Ansgar aufgeschrieben von Rimbert,” in Ansgar und Rimbert, die beiden ersten Erzbischöfe von Hamburg–Bremen und Nordalbingen, Hamburg, 26–95 (reprint of TRILLMICH’s translation).

(Swedish) For medieval translation see Medieval reception and transmission.

  • BERGGREN, P.G. 1901: “Ur ‘Ansgars lefnad’ af Rimbert,” in Svensk historia enligt samtida skildringar, ser. 1, Stockholm, 9–39 (excerpts: the parts about Sweden).
  • RUDBERG, G. 1926: Rimbert. Ansgars levnad. Med historisk inledning av N. Ahnlund, Stockholm, 53–151 (repr. 1965).
  • • ODELMAN, E. 1986: “Rimbert. Ansgars liv,” in Boken om Ansgar, ed. A. Ekenberg et alii, Stockholm, 13–77. (Parts of this translation are reprinted, together with the Latin text, in Röster från svensk medeltid, ed. H. Aili, O. Ferm, H. Gustavson, Stockholm 1990, 244–61.)



  • OLRIK 1926 (see Translations).


  • ROBINSON 1921 (see Translations).


  • DREVES 1864 (see Translations).
  • • TRILLMICH 1961 (see Editions).
  • (Swedish)
  • RUDBERG 1926 (see Translations).

Summary of contents

The Vita starts by giving a fairly short description of Ansgar’s childhood and youth (chapters 2–6). From an early time significant dreams and visions play an important part in his life. He is educated in the monastery of Corbie (Corbeia) and soon becomes a teacher there, and later in its daughter monastery, Corvey (Nova Corbeia). Then follows a more detailed account of how Ansgar is sent out by Emperor Louis the Pious as a missionary, first to Denmark and then to Sweden. The journey and visit to Birka (chs. 9–11) is dangerous but initially successful, because his mission is supported by the local king, Björn, and the reeve of the town, Hergeir, who becomes Christian and builds a church. After Ansgar’s return from Sweden, the Emperor founds a new archiepiscopal see in Hamburg, and Ansgar is appointed its first archbishop; together with Archbishop Ebo of Rheims, he gets a papal mandate to supervise the mission in the North. A bishop, Gautbert, is sent to Sweden, but he is soon expelled in consequence of a pagan rebellion. This happens about the same time as Hamburg is destroyed by pirates (chs. 12–17).

Ansgar is compensated by being transferred to Bremen, and later he decides to go back to Sweden to renew the mission there. On his second visit to Birka the situation is more ambiguous than before, and the new king, Olof, does not dare to permit Ansgar to preach before the placitum (the people’s assembly) has given its approval. In this connection Rimbert characterizes the Swedish political system by saying that public matters are decided by the people’s will rather than by the king’s power. Facing this crisis, Ansgar, as always, finds support and consolation in divine visions (chs. 25–34). The biographer goes on to Ansgar’s various activities as archbishop and ends by describing his personal qualities; the main stress is naturally laid on Ansgar’s piety, dutifulness and humility, but it is not denied that he had to fight against a certain tendency towards self-praise and vanity. His constant distress and sorrows as well as his health problems are pointed out. This description leads up to a very elaborate theological discussion in the last chapter (42), where Rimbert argues that Ansgar should be considered a martyr, although he did not suffer martyrdom in the proper sense.

Composition and style

Rimbert is a good representative of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, the renewal of classical culture which was brought about in the Frankish empire by Charlemagne. His Latin is mostly correct and elegant, influenced by Ciceronian rhetoric but also by the language of the Bible and the Church Fathers, such as the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great. An important source of inspiration was the Vita Martini (Life of St. Martin) by Sulpicius Severus (end of the fourth century); this work became a model for the hagiographic genre as a whole, and Rimbert indicates himself (in ch. 35) that Ansgar had read it. Generally speaking, Rimbert’s vocabulary and morphology are classical, whereas his syntax presents certain features typical of learned Late and Medieval Latin (cf. BERSCHIN 1991, 349); exceptionally “popular” forms and constructions occur, for example claustra (= claustrum, “cloister”) and de vino (= vini) aliquid (“a little wine”). The rhetorical qualities are, naturally enough, more predominant in the argumentative parts of the biography than in the purely narrative ones. The former group comprises mainly the introductory chapter, where Rimbert declares the purpose of his work, chapter 6, where the reasons for Ansgar’s leaving his monastery are explained, chapter 34, which discusses the relations between Ansgar and Archbishop Ebo, and, in particular, the summarizing analysis of Ansgar’s person and his qualifications as a martyr. As an example of hagiography the book is fairly modest: there is not much said about miracles; on the other hand, great importance is attached to visions and dreams. Specific themes, such as the relevant qualities of Ansgar, are treated with great consistency.

Purpose and audience

Formally the book is a letter to the monks of Corbie from Ansgar’s “sons and disciples” (filii atque discipuli), which probably means the clergy of Hamburg–Bremen. In the introduction, Rimbert describes the sadness and trouble caused to all the friends and followers of Ansgar by their great leader’s death and explains the purpose of writing his biography. It is his aim (or that of the clergy, in whose name he is writing) to ensure that Ansgar’s memory will always live in the minds of the addressees and that his piety will become a model for them, thus promoting their salvation. However, besides this clearly pronounced purpose, other purposes may be traced. Thus, in chapter 6, Rimbert seems anxious to defend Ansgar from possible criticism for leaving the monastery, where he had obliged himself to stay, and becoming a missionary and bishop: it was not wantonness (levitas) that made Ansgar do it – this would of course be blameworthy in a monk –, but he was charged with this duty and he performed it, inspired by holy compunction (divina compunctio) and desire to be a pilgrim (peregrinationis amor). Finally it is highly probable that Rimbert, as the new archbishop of Hamburg–Bremen, endeavoured to gain moral as well as financial support for his rather unstable diocese and its missionary undertakings in the North from those in power in the Frankish kingdom; he had, for example, a serious rival in Archbishop Gunthar of Cologne (EKENBERG 1986, 135, 140–42, 145; ODELMAN 1986, 125; HALLENCREUTZ 1986, 177).

Medieval reception and transmission

The Vita Anskarii exists in two different versions, the longer A-version and the shorter B-version. When DAHLMANN (1829) published the first critical edition of the text, he established the A-version as the authentic one, and this view was definitely confirmed by LEVISON 1919. Around 1100 an adaptation was made, obviously in Hamburg–Bremen, with the purpose of defending the interests of the archbishopric; in the same years quite a number of forged ecclesiastical documents appeared. This is the origin of the B-version. It contains 34 chapters, whereas the A-version has 42. In the B-version many passages have been omitted, especially all those which deal with Archbishop Ebo of Rheims, who shared the responsibility for the mission in the North with Ansgar, and some concerning problems about the uniting of Hamburg and Bremen – in short, anything that might harm the supremacy of Hamburg–Bremen was removed. On the other hand there are additions in the B-version, intended to widen the range of Ansgar’s missionary charge: according to B it comprises not only the Swedes, the Danes and the Slavs but also Norway, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and other places.

The manuscripts containing the respective versions are the following (WAITZ 1884, 7–9; TRILLMICH 1961, 9–12; ODELMAN 1986, 130–32):

The A-version:

  • A 1 = Stuttgart, Landesbibliothek, XIV, 7; 58 fols, from the ninth or tenth century. In 1343 it was present in the Cathedral Library of Constance; in 1630 it was sold to the monastery of Weingarten. Its division into chapters is followed in the standard edition by WAITZ. It is believed to be descended from a copy sent by Rimbert to Bishop Salomon of Constance.
  • A 2 = Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, 13772, fol. 47–88, from about 1200. The text is divided into 108 short chapters. It probably originates from Corbie.
  • A 3 = Amiens, Bibliothèque, 461, from about 1300. The text starts with chapter 7, the first six chapters having been added later. It is derived from the same exemplar as A 2.

The B-version:

  • B 1 = Münster, Staatsarchiv, I, 228, called “codex Vicelini”, from the twelfth century, given by Vicelin, canon of Bremen, to the monastery of Abdinghof at Paderborn between 1114 and 1123.
  • B 2* = Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 820, from Gottorp, about 1550.
  • B 2 = Hamburg, Staatsbibliothek, Hist, civ. Dan. fol. nr 22, eighteenth century.
  • (B 3 = lost manuscript from Hamburg, about 1100, printed in CAESAR 1642.)

A number of quotations from the Vita Anskarii in its A-version are to be found in the Vita Rimberti, which was written soon after Rimbert’s death, perhaps by a cleric of Bremen or a monk of Corvey. The same version was used as a source for a metrical Life of Ansgar attributed to an eleventh-century monk, Gualdo, and for the above-mentioned work of Adam of Bremen. Later on, the B-version gradually ousted the authentic text and had great success throughout the Middle Ages. It was used as a basis for liturgy (HELANDER 1986, 181; 198; 1989, 163–66; >Sanctus Ansgarius) and for a medieval Swedish translation, which is printed in ARRHENIUS 1677, 13–155 and FANT 1828, 177–257 (see Editions) and also by GEETE 1902. Occasionally the Vita is referred to in Swedish narrative sources, for example in the Chronica regni Gothorum of Ericus Olai (HELANDER 1986, 199).


An extensive bibliography, written in Swedish, exists in Boken om Ansgar, 1986, 221–27 (see EKENBERG et alii 1986), where most of the relevant literature is thoroughly assessed. Later publications are given below, as well as some of the most important ones found in the above-mentioned bibliography.

  • BERSCHIN, W. 1991: Biographie und Epochenstil im lateinischen Mittelalter, III. Karolingische Biographie 750–920 n. Chr., Stuttgart, 341–51.
  • BRUNHÖLZL, F. 1975: Geschichte der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters, München, vol. 1, 385–86.
  • DÜCHTING, R. 1992: “Rimbert,” in Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters. Verfasserlexikon, ed. K. Ruh et alii, Berlin, vol. 8, 77–79.
  • EKENBERG, A., HALLENCREUTZ, C.F., HELANDER, S., HÄRDELIN, A., ODELMAN, E. 1986: Boken om Ansgar, Stockholm.
  • GEETE, R. 1902: Helige mäns lefverne ... (SFSS 34), 3–92.
  • HALLENCREUTZ, C.F. 1986, see EKENBERG et alii 1986.
  • HAAS, W. 1985: “Foris apostolus – intus monachus. Ansgar als Mönch und ‘Apostel des Nordens’,” Journal of Medieval History 11, Amsterdam, 1–30.
  • HELANDER, S. 1986, see EKENBERG et alii 1986.
  • HELANDER, S. 1989: Ansgarskulten i Norden, Stockholm.
  • KLÜPPEL, TH. 1996: “Die Germania (750–950),” in Hagiographies, vol. 2 (CCHAG), Turnhout, 198–209.
  • KNIBBS, E. 2011: Ansgar, Rimbert and the forged foundations of Hamburg-Bremen, Farnham.
  • KUMLIEN, K. 1969: “Rimberts Vita Anskarii,” in KLNM 14, col. 296–99.
  • LAMMERS, W. 1965: “Ansgar. Visionäre Erlebnisformen und Missionsauftrag,” Vestigia mediaevalia, Wiesbaden 1979, 198–218.
  • • LEVISON, W. 1919: “Die echte und die verfälschte Gestalt von Rimberts Vita Anskarii,” Zeitschrift des Vereins für hamburgische Geschichte 23, 87–146; reprint in Aus rheinischer und fränkischer Vorzeit, Düsseldorf 1948, 567–609.
  • Lexikon des Mittelalters, München: “Ansgar”, vol. 1, 1980, col. 690–91; “Rimbert”, vol. 7, 1995, col. 851–52.
  • MØLLER, H. 1998: “Helgonbiografi och biskopshistoria,” in Sveriges kyrkohistoria 1. Missionstid och tidlig medeltid, ed. B. Nilsson, Stockholm, 160–67.
  • ODELMAN, E. 1986, see EKENBERG et alii 1986.
  • ODELMAN, E. 2008: ”Ansgar’s Life – a Piece of Carolingian Hagiography”, Hortus Troporum, Florilegium in honorem Gunillae Iversen, ed. Andrée and E. Kihlman, Studia Latina Stockholmiensia 54, Stockholm, 290–296.