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Eckenstein, Lina, d. 1931 / Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (1896)


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Anglo-Saxon Nuns abroad.

Among the women who came to Germany and settled there at the request of Boniface was Lioba, otherwise Leobgith, who had been educated at Wimbourne in Dorset, at no very great distance from Nutshalling where Boniface dwelt, and who left England between 739 and 748. She was related to him through her mother Aebbe, and a simple and modest little letter is extant in which she writes to Boniface and refers to her father's death, six years ago; she is her parents' only child, she says, and would recall her mother and herself to the prelate's memory.

'This too I ask for,' she writes in this letter, 'correct the rusticity of my style and do not neglect to send me a few words in proof of your goodwill. I have composed the few verses which I enclose according to the rules of poetic versification, not from pride but from a desire to cultivate the beginnings of learning, and now I am longing for your help. I was taught by Eadburg who unceasingly devotes herself to this divine art.' And she adds four   [p. 135]   lines of verse addressed to God Almighty as an example of what she can do.[1*]

As mentioned above we are indebted for an account of Lioba's life to the monk Rudolf of Fulda († 865). From this we learn that Lioba at a tender age had been given into the care of the abbess Tetta at Wimbourne.[2*] 'She grew up, so carefully tended by the abbess and the sisters, that she cared for naught but the monastery and the study of holy writ. She was never pleased by irreverent jokes, nor did she care for the other maidens' senseless amusements; her mind was fixed on the love of Christ, and she was ever ready to listen to the word of God, or to read it, and to commit to memory what she heard and read to her own practical advantage. In eating and drinking she was so moderate that she despised the allurements of a great entertainment and felt content with what was put before her, never asking for more. When she was not reading, she was working with her hands, for she had learnt that those who do not work have no right to eat.'

She was moreover of prepossessing appearance and of engaging manners, and secured the goodwill of the abbess and the affection of the inmates of the settlement. A dream of hers is by her biographer in which she saw a purple thread of length issuing from her mouth. An aged sister whom she consulted about it, interpreted the dream as a sign of coming influence.

To Lioba, Tecla and Cynehild, Boniface addressed a letter from abroad, asking in the usual way for the support prayers.[3*] Lioba's biographer tells us that when Boniface thought of establishing religious settlements, 'wishing that the order of either sex should exist according to rule,' he arranged that Sturmi, who had settled at Fulda, should go to Italy and there visit St Benedict's monastery at Monte Casino, and he 'sent envoys with letters to the abbess Tetta (of Wimbourne) begging her as a comfort in his labour, and as a help in his mission, to send over the virgin Lioba, whose reputation for holiness and virtuous teaching had penetrated across wide lands and filled the hearts of many with praise of her.[4*]

  [p. 136]  

This request shows that Boniface thought highly of the course of life and occupations practised in English nunneries and that he considered English women especially suited to manage the settlements under his care. In a letter written from Rome about 738 Boniface refers to the sisters and brothers who are living under him in Germany.[5*] Parties of English men and women joined him at different times. One travelled under the priest Wiehtberht, who sent a letter to the monks of Glastonbury to inform them of his safe arrival and honourable reception by Boniface, and he requests that Tetta of Wimbourne may be told of this.[6*] Perhaps Lioba, who was Tetta's pupil, was one of the party who travelled to Germany with Wiehtberht.

'In pursuance of his plan,' says Lioba's life,[7*] 'Boniface now arranged monastic routine and life according to accepted rule, and set Sturmi as abbot over the monks and the virgin Lioba as spiritual mother over the nuns, and gave into her care a monastery at the place called Bischofsheim, where a considerable number of servants of God were collected together, who now followed the example of their blessed teacher, were instructed in divine knowledge and so profited by her teaching that several of them in their turn became teachers elsewhere; for few monasteries of women (monasteria foeminarum) existed in those districts where Lioba's pupils were not sought as teachers. She (Lioba) was a woman of great power and of such strength of purpose that she thought no more of her fatherland and of her relations but devoted all her energies to what she had undertaken, that she might be blameless before God, and a model in behaviour and discipline to all those who were under her. She never taught what she did not practise. And there was neither conceit nor domineering in her attitude; she was affable and kindly without exception towards everyone. She was as beautiful as an angel; her talk was agreeable, her intellect was clear; her abilities were great; she was a Catholic in faith; she was moderate in her expectations and wide in her affections. She always showed a cheerful face but she was never drawn into hilarity. No one ever heard a word of abuse (maledictionem) pass her lips, and the sun never went down on her anger. In eating and drinking she was liberal to others but moderate herself, and the cup out of which she usually drank was called by the sisters 'the little one of our beloved' (dilectae parvus) on account of its smallness. She   [p. 137]   was so bent on reading that she never laid aside her book except to pray or to strengthen her slight frame with food and sleep. From childhood upwards she had studied grammar and the other liberal arts, and hoped by perseverance to attain a perfect knowledge of religion, for she was well aware that the gifts of nature are doubled by study. She zealously read the books of the Old and New Testaments, and committed their divine precepts to memory; but she further added to the rich store of her knowledge by reading the writings of the holy Fathers, the canonical decrees, and the laws of the Church (totiusque ecclesiastici ordinis jura). In all her actions she showed great discretion, and thought over the outcome of an undertaking beforehand so that she might not afterwards repent of it. She was aware that inclination is necessary for prayer and for study, and she was therefore moderate in holding vigils. She always took a rest after dinner, and so did the sisters under her, especially in summer time, and she would not suffer others to stay up too long, for she maintained that the mind is keener for study after sleep.

Boniface, writing to Lioba while she was abbess at Bischofsheim, sanctions her taking a girl into the settlement for purposes of instruction. Bischofsheim was on the Tauber a tributary of the river Main, and Boniface, who dwelt at Mainz, frequently conferred with her there. Lioba went to stay with Boniface at Mainz in 757 before he went among the Frisians;[8*] he presented her with his cloak and begged her to remain true to her work whatever might befall him. Shortly after he set out on his expedition he was attacked and killed by heathens. His corpse was brought back and buried at Fulda, and Lioba went to pray at his grave, a privilege granted to no other woman.

Lioba was also in contact with temporal rulers. Karl the Great gave her presents and Queen Hildegard († 783) was so captivated with her that she tried to persuade her to come and live with her. 'Princes loved her,' her biographer tells us, 'noblemen received her, and bishops gladly entertained her and conversed with her on the scriptures and on the institutions of religion, for she was familiar with many writings and careful in giving advice.' She had the supervision of other settlements besides her own and travelled about a good deal. After Boniface's death she kept on friendly terms with Lul who had succeeded him as bishop of Mainz (757--786), and it was with his consent   [p. 138]   that she finally resigned her responsibilities and her post as abbess at Bischofsheim and went to dwell at Schornsheim near Mainz with a few companions. At the request of Queen Hildegard she once more travelled to Aachen where Karl the Great was keeping court. But she was old, the fatigues of the journey were too much for her, and she died shortly after her return in 780. Boniface had expressed a wish that they should share the same resting-place and her body was accordingly taken to Fulda, but the monks there, for some unknown reason, preferred burying her in another part of their church.

It is noteworthy that the women who by the appointment of Boniface directed convent life in Germany, remained throughout in a state of dependence,[9*] while the men, noticeably Sturmi († 779) whom he had made abbot at Fulda, cast off their connection with the bishop, and maintained the independence of their monasteries. Throughout his life Sturmi showed a bold and determined spirit, but he was not therefore less interesting to the nuns of Bonifaces circle. His pupil and successor Eigil wrote an account of his life at the request of the nun Angiltrud, who is also supposed to havc come from England to Germany.[10*]

We know little concerning the other Anglo-Saxon women who settled abroad, for there are no contemporary accounts of them. The 'Passion of Boniface,' written at Mainz between 1000 and 1050, tells us that as Lioba settled at Bischofsheim so Tecla settled at Kizzingen, where 'she shone like a light in a dark place.'[11*] No doubt this Tecla is identical with the nun of that name whom Boniface speaks of in his letter to Lioba.[12*] She has a place among the saints,[13*] but it seems doubtful whether she founded the monastery at Kizzingen or the one at Oxenfurt.

The names of several other women are given by Othlon, a monk of St Emmeran in Bavaria, who in consequence of a quarrel fled from his monastery and sought refuge at Fulda. While there, between 1062 and 1066, he re-wrote and amplified Wilibald's life of Boniface. In this account he gives a list of the men who came   [p. 139]   into Germany from England, the correctness of which has been called in question. He then enumerates the women who came abroad and mentions 'an aunt of Lul called Chunihilt[14*] and her daughter Berthgit,[15*] Chunitrud and Tecla, Lioba, and Waltpurgis the sister of Wilibald and Wunebald.'[16*] The only mention of Waltpurgis is her name, but he describes where the other women settled, some in the district of the Main, others in Bavaria.

This woman Waltpurgis has been the subject of many conjectures; writers generally do not hesitate to affirm that the sister of Wunebald and Wilibald is identical with the saint who was so widely reverenced. But St Waltpurgis, popularly called Walburg, is associated with customs and traditions which so clearly bear a heathen and profane character in the Netherlands and in North Germany, that it seems improbable that these associations should have clustered round the name of a Christian woman and a nun.[17*]

In face of the existing evidence one of two conclusions must be adopted. Either the sister of Wunebald and Wilibald really bore the name Waltpurgis, and the monk Wolfhard who wrote an account of a saint of that name whose relics were venerated at Eichstätt (between 882 and 912) took advantage of the coincidence of name and claimed that the Walburg, who bears the character of a pseudo-saint, and the sister of Wunebald and Wilibald were identical; or else, desirous to account for the veneration of relics which were commonly connected with the name Walburg, he found it natural and reasonable to hold that Walburg had belonged to the circle of Boniface, and identified her with the sister of Wunebald and Wilibald.[18*]

Nothing is preserved concerning this sister except a reference to her existence, which is contained in the accounts of the acts of Wilibald and Wunebald written by a nun at Heidenheim, whose name also is not recorded.[19*] These accounts offer many points of   [p. 140]   interest. The nun who wrote them was of Anglo-Saxon origin; her style is highly involved and often falls short of the rules of grammar, but she had possession of interesting information, and she was determined to impart it. It has been noticed that her writing varies according to whether she is setting down facts or dilating on them; for she is concise enough when it is a question of facts only, but when it comes to description she falls into the spirit of Anglo-Saxon literature and introduces alliteration into her Latin and launches forth into panegyric. She came from England to Germany, as she tells us, shortly before the death of Wunebald (c. 765), and experiences of an unpleasant nature led her to expect that her writings would not pass without criticism.

'I am but a woman,' she says,[20*] 'weak on account of the frailty of my sex, neither supported by the prerogative of wisdom nor sustained by the consciousness of great power, yet impelled by earnestness of purpose,' and she sets to work to give a description of the life of Wilibald and the journey which he made to Palestine, parts of which she took down from his dictation, for at the close of her account she says that she wrote it from Wilibald's narrative in the monastery of Heidenheim in the presence of deacons and of some of Wilibald's pupils who were witnesses to the fact. 'This I say,' she adds, 'that no one may again declare this to be nonsense.

The account she gives of Wilibald's experiences contains one of the earliest descriptions written in northern Europe of a journey to Palestine, and modern writers have commented on it as a curious literary monument of the time. Interest in descriptions of the Holy Land was increasing. Besides early references to such journeys in the letters of St Jerome who described how Paula went from Rome to Jerusalem and settled there in the 4th century, we hear how Adamnan came to the court of King Ealdfrith of Northumbria about the year 701 and laid before him his book on Holy Places[21*] which he had taken down from the narrative of bishop Arculf who had made the pilgrimage, but of whom we know nothing more. But Adamnan's account is bald and its interest is poor compared to this description of the adventures of Wilibald and of what he saw on his travels.

The nun prefaces her account of the journey by telling us of Wilibald's origin. She describes how he fell ill as a child, how   [p. 141]   his parents vowed him to a religious life if he were spared, and how in conformity with their promise they took him to the abbey of Waltham at the age of five, where Wilibald continued studying till manhood. We are not told to what his love of travel was due. He determined to go south and persuaded his father and his brother Wunebald to accompany him. We hear how they and their companions took boat and arrived at Rouen, how they travelled on till they reached Lucca where the father fell ill and died, and how the brothers pursued their journey to Rome where they spent the winter. We hear how the heat and bad air of summer drove them away from Rome and how, while Wunebald remained in Italy, Wilibald with a few companions pushed on by way of Naples and Reggio and reached Catania in Sicily, where he took boat for Ephesus and Syria. We get a good deal of information by the way on saints and on relics, and hear of the veil of St Agatha which stayed the eruptions of Mount Aetna, and of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. The travellers experienced all kinds of hardships; thrice they were cast into prison and liberated before their feet trod on holy ground. Then they visited Nazareth and Chana; they gazed upon Lake Tiberias, they bathed in the river Jordan, and finally they reached Jerusalem where they made a long stay, broken however by several long expeditions. Each site is described in turn, and its connection with scriptural history is pointed out. We hear a good deal about Jerusalem, about Mount Sion, the site of the Ascension of the Virgin, and about the site of the Nativity at Bethlehem. It was once a cave, now it is a square house cut into the rock,' over which a little chapel is built. We also hear of various monasteries where the travellers stayed in coming and going. Finally they travelled to Tyre, where they took boat to Constantinople. There they made a lengthy stay and then journeyed on to Italy and visited the Isle of Lipari, where Wilibald desired to get a glimpse of the crater, which is designated as hell, the thought of which called forth a fine piece of description from the nun.

'And when they arrived there they left the boat to see what sort of a hell it was. Wilibald especially was curious about what was inside the crater, and would have climbed the summit of the mountain to the opening; but he was prevented by cinders which rose from the black gulf and had sunk again; as snow settles falling from the sky and the heavenly heights in white thick masses, so these cinders lay heaped on the summit of the mountain and   [p. 142]   prevented Wilibald's ascent. But he saw a blackness and a terrible column of flame projected upwards with a noise like thunder from the pit, and he saw the flame and the smoky vapour rising to an immeasurable height. He also beheld pumice-stone which writers use[22*] thrown up from the crater with the flame, and it fell into the sea and was again cast tip on the shore; men there gathered it up to bring it away.'

When Wilibald and his companion Tidberht reached Rome they had been absent seven years, and their travels had made them personages of such interest that the Pope interviewed them. Wilibald at the Pope's suggestion agreed to join Boniface in Germany. Wunebald, the brother whom he had left in Italy, had met Boniface in Rome in 738 and had travelled back with him. Wilibald also settled in Germany and was made bishop of the new see of Eichstätt. Here he came across the nun, who was so fired by his account of his travels that she undertook to record them.

After she had finished this work she was moved to write a short account of the life of Wunebald.[23*] It is written in a similar style and contains valuable historical information, but it has not the special interest of the other account. Wunebald on coming into Germany had first stayed at Mainz, then he travelled about with Boniface, and finally he settled at Heidenheim where he made a clearance in the midst of a wooded wilderness and dwelt there with a few younger men. He was active in opposing idolatrous customs, but does not appear to have been satisfied with his work. He died about the year 765, and his brother Wilibald, bishop of Eichsättt, and his sister, of whom mention is now made for the first time, came to his monastery to assist at the translation of his corpse. The sister took charge of his settlement, apparently for a time only, for the monastery at Heidenheim continued to be under the rule of an abbot and there is no evidence that women belonged to it.

It was from this sister that the nun received her information about Wunebald. The theory has been put forward that she was the same person as a nun who came to Heidenheim and was there miraculously cured. However that may be, this literary nun is the last Anglo-Saxon woman of whom we have definite information who came abroad in connection with Boniface. Her name is lost, it is as the anonymous nun of Heidenheim that she has come down to posterity.


[1*] Epist. nr the verse runs as follows:

'Arbiter omnipotens, solus qui cuncta creavit,
In regno Patris semper qui lumine fulget,
Qua jugiter flagrans sic regnat gloria Christi,
Inlaesum servet semper te jure perenni.'

[2*] A. SS. Boll., St Lioba, Sept. 28, Vita, ch. 9.

[3*] Epist. Nr 91, written between 737--41 (Hahn).

[4*] Vita, ch. 13.

[5*] Epist. nr 34.

[6*] Epist. nr 98, written 732--747 (Hahn).

[7*] Vita, ch. 14.

[8*] Epist. nr 93.

[9*] Epist. nr 126; also Epist. nr 68, written 748 (from the Pope on the consecration of abbot and abbess).

[10*] Vita St Sturmi in Pertz, Mon. Germ. Script., vol. 2, p. 365.

[11*] In Jaff, Ph., Monumenta Moguntina, 1866, p. 475.

[12*] Comp. above, p. 135.

[13*] A. SS. Boll., St Tecla, Oct. 15, casts discredit. on Tecla's settling at Kizzingen and argues in favour of Oxenfurt. Kizzingen existed in the 15 c.; nothing is known concerning the later hisory of Oxenfurt.

[14*] Hahn, H., Bonifaz und Lull, ihre angelsächsischien Correspondenten, 1883, p. 138, footnote 4, considers her identical with the Cynehild of the correspondence.

[15*] Two letters, nrs 148, 149, in the correspondence are written by 'Berthgyth,' apparently a nun in England who wished to go abroad, to her brother Baldhard, but judging by their contents ('I have been deserted by my parents,' etc.) it is improbable that she is identical with the nun referred to above.

[16*] Jaff, Ph., Monumenta Moguntina, 1866, p. 490.

[17*] Comp. above, p. 25.

[18*] Comp. the attempt to identify Chunihilt with St Gunthildis, A. SS. Boll., Sept. 22.

[19*] Edit. Canisius, H., Thesaurus, 1725, vol.2; this anonymous nun is sometimes considered identical with the sister of WilibaId and Wunebald, and therefore with St Walburg.

[20*] Vita St Willibaldi (also called Hodoeporicon), edit. Canisius, H., Theasaurus, 1725, vol. 2, ch. 2.

[21*] Bede, Hist. Eccles., bk , ch. 15.

[22*] For erasing writing from parchment.

[23*] Vita St. Wuncbaldi,edit. Canisius, H. Thesaurus,1725, vol. 2.

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