St. Bonifice (c. 675-754 CE) is remembered today as a missionary and a martyr. He is remembered (along with St. Martin of Tours) for cutting down “pagan” holy trees to prove the superiority of the Christian God. But, The letters of Boniface also give us a unique view into the various roles women played in English and Frankish churches in the 8th century. The letters evidence that women were literate, held powerful positions in religious cloisters, maintained close correspondence with other religious leaders, traveled on pilgrimage, supported missionary endeavors, and even composed poetry!
Boniface corresponds with Abbess Bugga who supported his missionary endeavors, supplied him with books, and asks his advice on taking a pilgrimage. She writes him a letter of congratulations on his missionary success in Frisia (Letter 4). In this letter we see that Bugga is a literary and financial patron for Boniface. She tells Boniface that she was unable to find a copy of The Suffering of the Martyrs, but she will keep looking for him. In turn, she asks him to send her select passages of scripture for her comfort. With the letter she sends fifty shillings and an altar cloth. In Letter 15 Boniface gives Bugga advice on whether or not to go on pilgrimage to Rome. Boniface advises that if she cannot find enough peace for the contemplative life due to her involvement in secular affairs, then she has the right to leave her native land in order “to find freedom for contemplation by making a pilgrimage abroad.” (He mentions that this is what sister Wilthburga did.) Bugga was not the only woman to provide Boniface with expensive religious books. In another letter (Letter 21), he requests Abbess Eadburga to copy out the epistle of Peter in Gold letters! (It is good to know that he was generous enough to send her the gold!) It is a fascinating detail of history that Boniface requested his books from England and specifically from religious women and not from the Vatican.
Not only were women literate and in charge of valuable books, they also wrote poetry! The English Nun Leoba (Letter 17) ends her letter to Boniface with four lines of verse that she composed on her own. She states,
“The little verses written below have been composed according to the rules of prosody. I made them, not because I imagine myself to have great ability, but because I wished to exercise my budding talents. I hope you will help me with them. I learned how to do it from my mistress Eadburga, who continues with increasing, perseverance in her study of the Scriptures.”
Here is her poem (with a rough translation).
Arbiter omnipotens, solus qui cuncta creavit,
In regno patris semper qui lumine fulget,
Qua iugiter flagrans sic regnet gloria Christi
Inlesum servet semper te iure perenni.
Lord omnipotent, who created all things,
Whose light shines in the reign of the Father
Let Christ’s glory rule, which burns always
Always maintaining your unceasing justice.
The Life of Leoba (c.836) was recorded by Rudolf of Fulda. She is likened to Samuel in that she was dedicated by her parents at a young age to serve the Lord. Except Leoba’s learning is not relegated to visions or extreme asceticism like so many later medieval women; instead, she is praised for her erudition.
For, since she had been trained from infancy in the rudiments of grammar and the study of the other liberal arts, she tried by constant reflection to attain a perfect knowledge of divine things so that through the combination of her reading with her quick intelligence, by natural gifts and hard work, she became extremely learned. She read with attention all the books of the Old and New Testaments and learned by heart all the commandments of God. To these she added by way of completion the writings of the church Fathers, the decrees of the Councils and the whole of ecclesial laws.
Boniface had a quite extensive library that he carried about with him as he traveled through the “gloomy” regions of non-Christian Germany. Willibald, in the Life of Boniface, recounts a somewhat humorous story of Boniface’s books during the account of his martyrdom. While traveling through Frisia Boniface and his entourage were attacked by a local mob (see first picture). After the “pagan” mob slaughtered Boniface, they were delighted to find heavy chests, which they presumed were full of gold. They carried the spoils to their ships and started drinking in celebration. As they drank they fought over the treasure chests (something akin to scene in the Lord of the Rings where the orcs fight over the spoils of Merry and Pippin; “Looks like meats back on the menu boys!”). The victorious party, surrounded by their dead comrades, finally opened the treasure chests. They “broke open the chests containing the books and found, to their dismay, that they held manuscripts instead of gold vessels, pages of sacred texts instead of silver plate.” Disappointed by such useless treasure, they threw the books into the marshes and fields and went on their way. Miraculously, the author relays, all the books were recovered. It is worth remembering that a lot of these precious books were supplied by religious women like Abbess Bugga and Abbess Eadburga.