St. Boniface and His Companions (AD 686-755)

by Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1910)

Image of Sr. Augusta Theodosia Drane.
Sr. Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1823-1894)

The prominent importance attaching to the schools of Kent and Northumbria must not lead us to regard them as the only learned foundations existing in England during the early period of which we have hitherto been speaking. The spread of the monastic institute among the Anglo-Saxons was so rapid and so universal, that we are sometimes led to wonder how a country so thinly populated as England must have been in the seventh century, could have furnished those crowds of religious men and women who hastened to people her newly-erected cloisters. And wherever those cloisters were reared a knowledge of letters and the civilised arts was soon introduced, and pursued with as much ardour at Selsey as at Lindisfarne, among the nuns of St. Mildred or St. Hildelitha as among the brethren of Jarrow.

If the bold and mountainous scenery of Northumbria has become indelibly associated in our mind with the lives of those saintly scholars who have been made known to us by the pen of Bede, far away at the other extremity of England there is a province which still claims as its patron saint one whose learning was as great as theirs, and whose action on the Church was even yet more important. St Boniface, or Winfrid, as he was called before he entered on his apostolic labours, was born in the same year that witnessed the entrance of Bede into the monastery of Jarrow. They were therefore contemporaries, though widely different in character, as in the career which awaited them. The simple-hearted scholar whose holy happy life flowed calmly on from childhood to old age within his convent walls, like some quiet stream that never overpasses its verdant banks, is a contrast indeed to the great apostle who, after having evangelised half Europe, and ruled the churches of France and Germany, as Vicar of the Vicar of Christ, with a spiritual sway larger than any ever exercised save by the successors of St. Peter, died, as was fitting, a martyr’s death, saluting with his parting words the joy and glory of that “long-expected day.” Yet both in different ways exhibit to us the noblest features of the Anglo-Saxon race, whose simple piety and strong good sense are as apparent in Bede, as the ardour of its active charity is in Boniface.

He was a native then, not of the bleak and hardy north, but of the softer climate of that southern province,

Where the salt sea innocuously breaks, And the sea-breeze as innocently plays On Devon’s leafy shores.

It took its name from the deep hollows where the apple-blossoms clustered as thickly then as now, and the clematis wove its tangled wreaths in as wild profusion over bank and wood. Still covered with those grand primeval forests which made perpetual shadow in its pathless valleys, and, fearless of the billows that lost their fierceness as they broke upon that gentle shore, clothed even the purple rocks themselves with verdure, and bent their branches into the briny waves, it merited to receive from St. Aldhelm the title of dire Dumnonia. Perhaps he could not resist the tempting alliteration, or perhaps the wooded hollows of Devonshire oppressed with their leafy gloom the senses of the traveller who, as he tells us, had just passed over the barren hills of “Cornwall, void of flowery turf.” It formed the border-land of English Saxony, and touched on that unfriendly territory still inhabited by the Britons, who saw in the newly converted Saxons only a race of giants and savages, with whom they refused to hold any intercourse.

The Dumnonians, however, from the first era of their conversion, showed the same readiness to welcome the establishment among them of monks and schools as was elsewhere exhibited, and the city of Exeter is said to have received the name of Monkton from the number of religious which it contained. It was probably some of the Exeter monks who, in the course of a journey which they had undertaken for the purpose of preaching to the inhabitants of the wild Western districts, were hospitably received and entertained at Crediton by the father of Winfrid. The passing visit left an indelible impression on the boy’s heart, and he grew up with the fixed desire of becoming a monk and a scholar. His father did what he could to turn him from his purpose, but finding himself forced at last to yield to his son’s entreaties, he committed him to the care of Wulphard, abbot of Exeter. Winfrid was at that time thirteen years of age. His education had not been neglected in his father’s house, and he now threw himself into his studies with an ardour which made it evident that he deserved some higher kind of teaching than the monks of Exeter could supply. The school of Nutscell, in Hampshire, a monastery afterwards destroyed by the Danes, possessed as high a reputation as any in Wessex, so thither Winfrid was transferred, and placed under the direction of the learned abbot Winbert. In this monastery Winfrid was able to satisfy his thirst for grammar, poetry, and the sacred sciences, and at last, being appointed to the care of the school, he drew students to hear him from all the southern provinces. In short, the scholasticus of Nutscell became a famous man; he taught not only the monks but even the nuns of that part of the world to study grammar and write hexameter verse; he attended royal councils and episcopal synods, and he even appeared in the character of an author, and composed a treatise on the Eight Parts of Speech. “Yet, though indued with such excellent knowledge,” says his biographer, “he was nothing puffed up in mind, nor did he despise any who were of meaner abilities, but the more his learning increased so much also did he increase in virtue, only showing himself the more humble, devout, pitiful and obedient.” Both King Ina, of Wessex, and Archbishop Bretwald, of Canterbury, knew his worth, and desired nothing better than to raise him to the highest dignities; but neither the charms of a studious life in his own cloister, nor the certain prospect of court preferment, sufficed to satisfy his ambition. He had within him in its fullest measure the apostolic fervour which animated so many of his countrymen, and led them to carry back to the old Germanic soil from whence they sprang the new faith which they had learnt in Britain. Year after year there came the news of English missionaries who had passed over into that huge province which then extended between the Elbe and the Rhine, the greater part of which was swallowed up in the inundation of 1287, and now forms the bed of the Zuyder Zee. It was called Friesland, and was the chief seat of the English missions. The first man who gave a certain sort of shape and system to these missions was an English priest named Egbert, who had been educated at Lindisfarne by Bishop Colman, and afterwards passed over to Ireland to improve himself in her schools. The Anglo-Saxon scholars were accustomed at this time to resort in great numbers to the sister isle, going about from one master’s cell to another, to gather from each the science for which he was most renowned. The Irish received them hospitably, and furnished them with food, books, and teaching, gratis.

Egbert and his friend Edilhun were studying in the monastery of Rathmelsigi, in Connaught, when the great pestilence of 664 broke out, which caused such terrible ravages both in England and Ireland. It was on this occasion that St. Ultan, bishop of Ardbraccan, collected all the children who were left orphans, and had them brought up in a hospital or asylum at his own charge. The two English students were attacked by the plague, and Egbert, believing his last hour was at hand, went out in the morning, and sitting alone in a solitary place thought over his past life, and being full of compunction at the thought of his sins, watered his face with his tears, praying to God that he might yet have time granted him to do penance. He also made a vow that should it please God to spare his life, he would never return to his native land, but live abroad as a stranger; and that besides the Divine Office of the Church he would every day recite the entire Psalter, and every week pass one whole day and night fasting. Edilhun died the next night, gently reproaching his friend for having thus prevented their entering into everlasting life together; and Egbert kept his vow and remained in Ireland, doing good service as well to the Scots and Picts as to his countrymen, for it was through his influence that the former at last conformed to the Roman method of observing Easter, and his school was resorted to by every Anglo-Saxon student who crossed the sea in search of Divine wisdom. In his heart, however, Egbert nursed a great design, which he was never suffered to carry out in person. He desired to carry the Gospel among the races of Germany whence the English were originally descended, and Wicbert, one of his companions, being filled with the like desire, did actually proceed to Frisia, and there preached for two whole years among the heathen, but without much fruit. Egbert, understanding that it was not the will of God that he should himself embrace a missionary life, and being warned that his vocation lay rather among his own people, cherished the hope of at least inspiring some of his scholars with the apostolic spirit. Among these was Wilibrord, who, after receiving his early education among the monks of Ripon, had passed over into Ireland in his twentieth year, attracted by the excellent science which then flourished in her schools, and the fame of his learned countryman. It appears probable that the two Ewalds, martyred in Friesland in 695, were likewise pupils or friends of Egbert’s, for Bede tells us that they were living strangers in Ireland for the sake of the eternal kingdom; that both were pious, but that Black Ewald was the more learned of the two. Wilibrord departed for Friesland in 696, accompanied by twelve fellow-missionaries; and the protection of Pepin, who then ruled the Franks as mayor of the palace to the Merovingian monarch, enabled him to pursue his apostolic career in spite of the opposition of Radbod, the Pagan duke of the country. It would be pleasant, did space permit it, to say something of his labours;–to relate how he found his way into Denmark and brought away thirty young Danes, whom he sent to be instructed in the schools which he had founded at Treves and Utrecht; how on his voyage back to Friesland he landed at Heligoland, the holy island of the Saxons, but which then bore the name of Fosetesland, from the hideous idol to whose worship it was dedicated. It was a wild, mysterious spot. No animals that had once grazed on its sacred herbage were suffered to be molested, and near the altar of the god a clear stream bubbled up of which the natives never drank save in awful silence, for the utterance of a single word would, as they believed, bring down on them the vengeance of the dreaded Fosete. Wilibrord caused some of the cattle to be killed for food, and baptized three converts in the fountain, over the waters of which he broke the mystic silence by pronouncing the invocation of the Holy Trinity. This daring act excited the direful wrath of Radbod, and on the death of Pepin, in 714, Wilibrord found himself forced to leave the country. He was, however, reinstated in his bishopric of Utrecht by Charles Martel, and in 717 we find him engaged in destroying another Frisian idol in the isle of Walcheren.

Tales like these fired the heart of Winfrid with the desire of sharing in such glorious enterprises. After a journey to Rome, whither he went to obtain the authority and blessing of Pope Gregory II., he joined Wilibrord at Utrecht, and for some time laboured under his direction. But finding that the bishop intended to have him appointed his successor, he fled away in alarm, and took refuge in the heart of Germany, where he continued until 723, preaching among the Saxons and Hessians. According to the old writer, Adam of Bremen, “Winfrid, the philosopher of Christ,” as he calls him, is undoubtedly to be regarded as the first apostle of that part of the country. It was at this time that he gained a young disciple, whose story is sufficiently connected with the subject which we wish to illustrate to justify its insertion here. Adela, the daughter of King Dagobert II., had founded a monastery at Treves, where, on his journey from Friesland into Hesse, Winfrid was hospitably received and entertained. After he had said mass, he sat down to table with the abbess and her family; and her young grandson, Gregory, a boy of fifteen, who had just come from the court school, was summoned to read aloud the Latin Scriptures, according to custom, during the repast. Having knelt and received the holy missionary’s blessing, he took the book, and acquitted himself of his task with sufficient success. “You read very well, my son,” said Winfrid, “that is, if you understand what you are reading.” Gregory replied that he did, and was about to continue the lecture, when Winfrid interrupted him. “What I wish to know, my son, is whether you can explain what you are reading in your native tongue.” The youth confessed that he could not do this, but begged the missionary to do so himself. “Begin again then,” said Winfrid, “and read distinctly;” and this being done, he took occasion to deliver to the abbess and the rest of the community, a discourse so sublime and touching, that when they rose from table Gregory sought his grandmother, and announced his determination of following their guest, that he might learn the Scriptures from him, and become his disciple. “How foolish!” said the abbess; “he is a man of whom we know nothing: I cannot tell you whence he comes, or whither he goes.” “I care nothing for that,” replied Gregory; “and if you will not give me a horse, I will follow him on foot.” His importunity prevailed, and he was permitted to join the company of Winfrid, and journey with him into Thuringia.

The prodigious success that accompanied the labours of Winfrid, having reached the ears of Pope Gregory II. he was summoned to Rome, and there consecrated bishop of the German nation. At the same time he received his new name of Boniface, and solemnly signed an oath of fidelity to the Holy See, which he placed on the tomb of the Apostles. Then returning to Germany he pursued his apostolic career along the banks of the Rhine and the Danube; he penetrated into the wild fastnesses of Hesse, cut down in the ancient Hercynian forest the huge Donner Eiche, or thunder oak, sacred to Jupiter, and erected a wooden chapel out of its timbers, on the spot where now stands the town of Geismar. Within the space of twenty years one hundred thousand converts had abjured their idols and received baptism, but the work as it grew on his hands required additional labourers. The eloquence which in old time had earned for the monk Winfrid a scholar’s fame, was now employed to rouse the apostolic spirit in the hearts of his countrymen, and a circular letter addressed to the bishops and abbots of England, painted the wants of the German mission in such moving terms that his appeal was quickly responded to, and he soon found himself surrounded by a noble band of missioners, among whom were Burchard, Lullus, Wilibald, and Winibald, the two last named being nephews of the saint.

We find from the lives of these great men, written by their immediate followers, that the same form of community life was adopted among them which we have seen had been already established in the English dioceses. The bishop and his clergy formed a kind of college; and, in this episcopal monastery, as it may be called, the younger clerics were trained in letters and ecclesiastical discipline. The college thus founded by St. Wilibald at Ordorp, became so famous as to draw learned men from all parts of Europe to take part in his labours among the populations of Hesse and Thuringia. Yet more renowned was the episcopal seminary, founded at Utrecht by St. Gregory, the young disciple of St. Boniface already named, who, after completing his studies at Ordorp, and following the saint through the long course of his missions, was sent by him a little before his death to administer the see of Utrecht, then vacant by the death of Wilibrord. Gregory formed his clergy into a community, which he governed in person, and was joined by many illustrious Englishmen, among whom was St. Lebwin, the apostle of Overyssel, and the patron saint of Deventer. The seminary of Utrecht produced some famous alumni, of whom I will name but one whose history cannot be altogether passed over in a narrative of schools and schoolboys. Luidger was the son of a Friesian noble, who confided him to St. Gregory’s care at a very early age. In fact, Luidger’s somewhat premature commencement of his school life was the result of his own entreaties. He was a precocious child, who cared nothing at all for play, and so soon as he could walk and talk gave signs of a passion for books and reading. Whilst his companions were engaged in the sports of the age he would gather together pieces of bark off the trees and busy himself in making little books out of these materials. Then he would imitate writing with whatever fluid he could find, and running to his nurse with these fine treasures, bid her take care of them, as though they had been the most precious codices. If any one asked him what he had been doing all day, he would reply that he had been making books; and if further questioned as to who had taught him to read and write, he would answer “God taught me.” It will not seem astonishing that a child of this temper should be possessed with a strong desire to learn how to read and write in good earnest. Yielding to his persevering request his parents accordingly sent him to Utrecht, where Gregory placed him in his school and gave him the tonsure. The Monk of Werden, who wrote his life, records his sweetness with his companions, and his devotion in church. He was always reading, singing, or praying; and always to be seen with a bright and smiling countenance, though seldom moved to laughter. And there was something about him so winning and amiable, that master and schoolfellows all loved him alike. In course of time he was sent to England to receive deacon’s orders, Gregory himself not having received episcopal consecration; and here, for the first time, he became acquainted with Alcuin, whose scholastic career was just then commencing. Luidger returned to Utrecht, but an unfortunate blunder which he made in the public reading of a lesson, and which drew down on him a severe reproof from his abbot, suggested to him the desirableness of a further course of study, under the great English master. Gregory reluctantly consented to his plan, and Luidger undertook a second voyage to England, and spent three years and a half in the school of York. Here he was as popular as he had formerly been at Utrecht, and his biographer seems half disposed to think that the extraordinary signs of affection lavished on him by his masters and fellow-students require some excuse, for he tells us they really could not help it, and that any one who had known him must have done the same. To none, however, was he so dear as to Alcuin, who always bestowed on him the title of “son.” During his residence in York, Luidger read through the whole of the Old and New Testaments besides a great many books of secular literature, and thoroughly studied the monastic rule as it was carried out in the English monasteries; and at the end of that time he returned to Utrecht, laden with books, and well fitted to instruct others. Alberic, the successor of Gregory, ordained him priest, and sent him to preach in his own country, till the Saxons drove him out, and then he became the apostle of that people also. Charlemagne heard of his merit from Alcuin, who by that time was fixed at the imperial court, and by his orders, sorely against the will of the missioner, Luidger was consecrated first bishop of Mimigardford in Saxony. He immediately founded a great monastery of regular canons to serve his cathedral, from which circumstance the name of the place was changed to Minster, or Münster, which it still bears. But his favourite foundation was at Werden, a spot which he had chosen in the midst of the huge virgin forests which clothed the banks of the river Rura. The old legend makes us understand what sort of work was involved in these foundations, when it tells us that the bishop and his companions, having pitched their tents, prepared to cut down the trees and clear a space large enough to contain a few rude huts; but they were dismayed when they beheld the massive trunks of the growth of centuries, with their branches so thickly interlaced that they could catch no glimpse of the sky, while the summits of the mighty oaks seemed to touch the clouds. They determined to wait till morning to commence their task; and meanwhile Luidger knelt down beneath one of the largest oaks, and was soon absorbed in his devotions. It was then a clear and beautiful night, the moon and stars shining unclouded in the heavens. Gradually, however, the clouds gathered, the wind arose, and a furious tempest burst over the forest. The monks heard the crash of falling trunks and trembled with fear; they guessed not that the stormy elements were being forced to do them service. When morning dawned there was an open space around them, the trees lay prostrate on all sides, and a sufficient space was cleared for the foundation of the monastery. One tree alone remained untouched, it was that beneath which St. Luidger had prayed, and which was long reverentially preserved. When at last it was cut down, a stone was placed on the site in memory of the event.

In these episcopal monasteries Luidger established a course of sacred studies, over which he personally presided. Such was, in fact, the universal discipline observed by the German missionaries, and hence the institution of cathedral schools spread over every province from Denmark to the mountains of the Tyrol. There we find the same class of foundations established by St. Virgil, Bishop of Saltzburg, concerning whom it will be necessary to speak a little more particularly. He was a native of Ireland, and held to be one of the most learned men of his time. It appears probable, though it is by no means certain, that he is the same Virgil who, when still a simple priest, was sent into Bavaria, together with Sidonius, and was there reported to have given expression to certain scientific theories of doubtful orthodoxy. It is not easy at the present day to determine precisely what the supposed errors were, as the only notice of them that remains occurs in a letter from St. Boniface to Pope Zachary, wherein Virgil is charged with teaching “that there is another world, and other men under the earth, another sun and another moon.” The reply of the Pope was to the effect that if on examination by a council Virgil should be convicted of teaching this “perverse doctrine,” he should be degraded; and the matter was finally settled by his being summoned to Rome, where inquiry was made into the facts of the case. It would seem that his explanation of his own doctrine must have proved satisfactory, if the priest Virgil here spoken of were the same who was shortly afterwards raised to the see of Saltzburg, and who in 1233 was solemnly canonised by Pope Gregory IX. These facts have, however, furnished the groundwork of a story which has been repeated by D’Alembert, and adopted with all its crowd of attendant blunders by a host of modern imitators. According to this version, Virgil, Bishop of Saltzburg, was excommunicated by St. Boniface for teaching the existence of the antipodes, and this sentence is represented to have been confirmed by Pope Zachary.It will be seen, however, that the person of whose doctrines Boniface complained was not a bishop, but a priest; that the opinions attributed to him bore no reference to the antipodes; that he was not excommunicated; and that so far from either passing or confirming such a sentence, the Holy See examined, and it is to be presumed approved his doctrine, since it raised him to a bishopric, and at a subsequent period canonised him. St. Boniface reported the supposed errors of Virgil as they were reported to him, and whatever may be understood by the expressions which he quotes, they cannot be held to signify a belief in the antipodes. They rather seem to point to some theory of the existence of another race of men, distinct in origin from the sons of Adam, who therefore shared neither in original sin nor the benefits of redemption, errors which, as Baronius shows, might reasonably be styled ‘perverse.’ It is indeed true that Bede, and other early writers on natural philosophy, did not believe in the antipodes; not, as Mr. Turner remarks, from “any superstitious scruple,” but because they followed the geographical system of Pliny, who imagined the climate of the southern hemisphere to be incapable of supporting human life. Yet this history of Virgil and his condemned propositions has been made the occasion of impeaching St. Bede, St. Boniface, and the whole race of monastic scholars, not only of considering a belief in the antipodes as heretical, but of denying the spherical form of the earth, a point which was certainly never involved in the controversy.

Next to the foundation of churches and monasteries, St. Boniface trusted to the establishment of public schools for the consolidation of the faith in the newly converted countries. In every place where he planted a monastic colony a school was opened, not merely for the instruction of the younger monks, but in order that the rude population by whom they were surrounded might be trained in holy discipline, and that their uncivilised manners might be softened by the influence of humane learning. At Fritislar and at Utrecht, as afterwards at Fulda, public schools were therefore opened, and how nearly the maintenance and prosperity of these schools lay at the heart of their founder, may be gathered from the epistle which he wrote shortly before his martyrdom to Fulrad, the councillor of King Pepin, in which he implores the protection of that monarch for such of his disciples as were engaged in the work of educating children. We also find incidental notices in his letters of certain monks appointed by him to the post of schoolmasters (magistri infantium).

St. Lullus, who has been named above among the companions of St. Boniface, and who was destined in after years to become his successor, had been educated at Malmsbury, whence he removed to Jarrow and finished his studies under Bede. Nine of his letters are preserved among those of St. Boniface, and in one of them, addressed to Cuthbert, abbot of Wearmouth, he entreats that copies of the works of his venerable master may be sent to him without delay. Cuthbert’s reply shows in what esteem Bede was already held as a writer, both at home and abroad, and how great was the demand for his works, which the copyists could not multiply fast enough. He begs for a little indulgence, seeing that the terrible cold of the past winter has disabled the hands of his best writers. “Since you have asked me for some works of the Blessed Bede,” he says, “I have prepared, with the help of my boys, what I now send you, namely, his books in prose and verse on the man of God, Cuthbert. I would have sent you more had I been able. But this winter the frost in our island has been so severe, with terrible winds, that the fingers of our transcribers have been unable to execute any more books.” Here is a glimpse into what one may call the real life of the scriptorium, which we are sometimes disposed to regard in a certain picturesque and sentimental light. Incessant labour and chapped hands formed part of the business, and the severities of climate made themselves felt in rooms entirely destitute of the appliances of modern comfort. Cuthbert goes on to entreat St. Lullus to send him if possible some foreign artificers skilled in the art of making glass vessels, and also a harper. “I have a harp,” he says, “but no one who knows how to play on it.” The whole correspondence of St. Boniface and St. Lullus bears witness to the deep interest felt by their countrymen in the work on which they were engaged. Their letters are addressed to bishops, abbots, monks, and nuns, and show how close an intercourse was kept up with England in spite of the difficulties of communication. Presents are exchanged between the absent missionaries and their friends at home. While the English kings and prelates send contributions of books and altar-plate, and the English nuns despatch a welcome supply of clothing, Boniface sends back a chasuble, “not all of silk, but mingled with goats’ hair,” and some linen cloths, which, before the linen manufactory had been introduced into England, were highly prized luxuries. To another friend he presents some fine German falcons. Some of the letters preserved are of peculiar interest, as showing us what kind of learning was then pursued in the religious houses of England, and specially in those of the English nuns, whom Mabillon calls, “the peculiar glory of the Order.” Boniface in former years had directed the studies of several convents of religious women, and kept up an active correspondence with his old pupils, who entered heartily into all his interests, and forwarded them to the best of their power. Naturally enough, their talk is often of books. In one of his earliest letters, addressed to the Kentish abbess Eadburga, he begs her to send him the “Acts of the Martyrs;” and in her reply, which is written in Latin, she informs him that, together with the literary offering, she has sent him fifty pieces of gold and an altar carpet. Her liberality encourages him to beg for new favours; and whilst he thanks her for her present, he petitions that she will get written out for him, either by herself or her scholars, the Epistles of St. Paul in letters of gold, in order to inspire his neophytes with greater reverence for the Holy Scriptures. In his next epistle he rewards her diligence with the appropriate present of a silver pen.

Eadburga removed to Rome, whence many of her letters to Boniface were afterwards addressed. But the correspondence continued to be carried on by some of the pupils whom she had left behind her in England, and specially by a relation of the saint’s named Lioba, then a religious in the convent of Wimbourne.

Of this convent and its learned inmates I must say a few words, as they deserve a place in our catalogue of English scholars. The present collegiate church of Wimbourne, ancient as it is–and the architecture of its tower bears out its claim to have been founded by the Confessor–does but mark the site of that far more ancient minster which owed its erection to the two sisters of good King Ina, Cuthburga and Guenburga by name. This was one of the very earliest convents of women founded in England, and is noticed by St. Aldhelm in a letter written in 705, wherein he declares that he has purposed, in the hidden recesses of his soul, to grant the privilege of free election to certain monasteries in his diocese; among others, that which lieth by the river Wimburnia, presided over by Cuthburga, sister to the king. Perhaps he was moved to this act of favour by the fact that Cuthburga and Guenburga were pupils of his old friend the abbess Hildelitha, the first of English virgins who had consecrated herself to Christ. Hildelitha received her education at Chelles, in France, and brought into the cloisters of Barking all the learning of that famous school. This she increased by her intercourse with St. Aldhelm; and her disciples, as we have seen, were rather profoundly versed in sacred letters. Neither did the Wimbourne scholars decline in learning under the good abbess Tetta, who was governing a community of five hundred nuns with admirable wisdom at the time when Lioba first introduced herself to the notice of St. Boniface in the following graceful letter:–

“To the most noble lord, decorated with the pontifical dignity, Boniface, most dear to me in Christ, and, what is more, united to me by the ties of blood, Leobgitha, the last of the handmaids of Christ, health and salvation. I beg your clemency to condescend to recollect the friendship which you had some time ago for my father. His name was Tinne; he lived in the western parts, and died about eight years ago. My mother also desires to be remembered by you; her name is Ebba, she is related to you, and suffers much from infirmity. I am their only daughter, and desire, though unworthy, to claim you as my brother, for there are none of my relations in whom I have so much confidence as in you. I send you a little present, not as being worthy of your greatness, but that you may preserve the memory of my littleness, and may not forget me on account of the distance which separates us. What I chiefly ask of you, dearest brother, is that you will defend me by the buckler of your prayers from the hidden snares of the enemy. I beg you to excuse the rustic style of this letter, and not to refuse me a few words from your affability which may serve me as a model, and which I shall be eager to receive. As to the little verses you will find written below, I have endeavoured to compose them according to the rules of poetry, not out of presumption, but as a first attempt of my weak little genius, desiring the help of your elegant mind. I learnt this art from Eadburga, who ceased not to meditate on the Divine law day and night. Farewell; live long and happy, and pray for me.”

Then follow four rhymed hexameters in Latin, wherein she not inelegantly commends him to the protection of Heaven. This was a common way of concluding a letter in the eighth century, and St. Boniface, in his epistles to his friends, frequently relieves the graver subjects of which he treats by a Latin distich or acrostic; sometimes also by a scrap of Saxon verse. He responded very heartily to Lioba’s appeal, and a familiar correspondence was at once opened between them. It is supposed, with every show of probability, that the lady to whom St. Boniface afterwards dedicated his poem on the Virtues was no other than the Anglo-Saxon nun. In the dedication to this poem he says, “I send to my sister ten golden apples gathered on the tree of life, where they hung amid the flowers.” These golden apples are ten enigmas, each containing the definition of some virtue, the name of which, in true Saxon taste, is formed by the initial letters of the lines.

Another of the most constant correspondents and advisers of Boniface was his old diocesan, Daniel of Winchester, whom he frequently consulted in the difficulties with which he was beset. Ozanam observes that the former grammarian and scholasticus peeps out in one of the questions he sends for solution; namely, if the baptism were valid, administered by a certain priest who was in the habit of using the form, In nomine Patria et Filia, et Spiritui Sancta? But we may, I think, acquit our great apostle of the charge of pedantry, founded on this passage. He was engaged in planting the Church on a new soil, and a scrupulous exactness, in preserving the sacramental forms of words from corruption, need not be taken as a sign of scholastic priggishness. There is no saying where the “Patria et Filia” might have ended, or what more extensive variations might not have been added by the il-literati of Thuringia. Bishop Daniel gave him a great deal of excellent advice, and was of considerable service to Boniface by supplying him with books. On one occasion we find the missionary writing to his good friend, begging him to send the book of the Prophets “which the abbot Wimbert, my master, left at his death. It is written in large and very distinct letters; I could not have a greater consolation in my old age, for there is no book like it in this country, and as my sight grows weak I cannot distinguish the small letters which run together in the volumes I now have.”

In 732, Boniface received the pallium from the hands of Pope Gregory III., together with the authority of Papal Legate and Vicar over the bishops of France and Germany. This office empowered him to take every step necessary for the firm establishment of the faith in the newly converted countries, and at the same time he was charged with the far more difficult task of restoring Church discipline in the Gallican provinces, where, owing to the barbarism of the times, a frightful state of anarchy prevailed. We shall chiefly follow him in his apostolic career in Germany, where his first care was to provide for the necessities of the infant Church by the erection of several new sees. Burchard was consecrated Bishop of Wurtzburg, and Wilibald was appointed to the see of Eichstadt, a woody district overspread with oaks, which as yet contained but one small church. Other prelates were named to fill the sees of Erfurt, Ratisbon, and Friesingen. The care of the Archbishop was next directed to providing a succession of clergy for the new dioceses, and with this view he founded several monasteries, one of which became in after-times the greatest monastic school in Germany. In the year 730, when Boniface travelled into Bavaria, to re-establish ecclesiastical discipline in that country, many Bavarian nobles committed their sons to his care, and among these was Sturm, who was offered by his parents to the service of God. Boniface placed him in the monastery he had recently founded at Fritzlar, under the care of Wigbert, one of his English disciples, and took great care of his education. The innocence and humility of the youth made him dear to all his masters, and he quickly learnt the Psalter by heart, and studied the hidden sense of the sacred Scriptures. Being ordained priest, he preached among the neighbouring population for three years, but at the end of that time he was seized with the desire to seek out some solitude where he might found a religious house; and Boniface, approving his design, sent him into the forest of Buchonia to choose a fitting site. Taking two companions with him, they travelled on for two days, seeing nothing but the earth and the sky, and the huge trees through which they made their way. At the end of the third day they reached Hirsfield, where they built themselves some rude huts with the bark of the trees which they felled, and began the practices of a religious life. Boniface, however, was not satisfied with their choice of a situation, and at his desire, Sturm, after exploring the upper course of the river Fulda without success, set out alone, mounted on an ass, on a journey into the wilderness, through which he travelled for days, seeing nothing but the huge trees, the birds, and the wild beasts that roamed at large in the forest glades. At night he cut down wood enough with his axe to make a little enclosure, within which he fastened his beast to save it from the wolves; but for himself he feared nothing, and after tranquilly making the sign of the cross on his forehead, he lay down and slept till morning. At last he reached a vast and woody solitude, which Prince Carloman, the owner, bestowed on him as a free gift, and here, in the year 744, nine years after their settlement at Hirsfield, Sturm, with seven companions, laid the foundation of the Abbey of Fulda. St. Boniface gave them the necessary instructions, and visited them every year; but being desirous to establish among them the rule of St. Benedict in its perfection, he sent Sturm into Italy to visit the monastery of Monte Cassino, and others most renowned for their strict observance, that he might be the better able to form his own community in regular discipline. After a year thus spent in studying the monastic rule, Sturm returned to Fulda, where, before he died, he had the consolation of seeing a zealous community of 400 monks serving God in what had before been a desolate wilderness, and the abbey, like all those founded by St. Boniface, became quickly renowned for the sanctity of its inmates, and the good scholars whom it nurtured within its walls.

To complete the conversion and civilisation of the country, Boniface conceived the plan of bringing over some religious women from England, and establishing them in various parts, that they might provide the means of education to their own sex. Othlonus, in his history, names Chunihilt and her daughter Berathgilt as the first Englishwomen who passed over into Germany at the invitation of Boniface, and calls them valde eruditæ in liberali scientia. But their renown has been eclipsed by that of St. Lioba, to whom the archbishop naturally turned as the likeliest of his English friends to aid him in his great designs. In fact, there were many at Wimbourne disposed to enter heart and soul into the interests of the German mission. Lioba and her cousin Thecla were nearly related to the archbishop, and Walburga was sister to his two companions, Winibald and Wilibald. He knew that their acquirements qualified them to teach others. They had all been carefully trained by the abbess Tetta, and were skilful, not merely in the womanly art of the needle, but likewise in sacred literature. Lioba’s accomplishments may be truly called surprising, when we remember that their owner was a nun, living in the middle of the eighth century in a remote abbey of a half-barbarous land. Instructed from her childhood in grammar, poetry, and the liberal arts, she had increased her treasure of learning by assiduous reading. She had attentively studied the Old and New Testaments, and committed a great part of them to memory. She was familiar with the writings of the Fathers, and with the decrees and canons of the Church–grave sort of reading for so fair a student–(and I do not use the epithet in a conventional sense, for her biographer tells us she was named Lioba, or the beloved one, because of her exceeding beauty); but in those days lighter literature there was none. As we have seen, she could write in the Latin tongue with a graceful simplicity, both in prose and verse. When not engaged in study she worked with her hands, as was enjoined by the rule, but she greatly preferred reading, or hearing others read, to manual employments. Indeed, it was not easy to satisfy her in this respect. When abbess, she insisted on all those under her charge taking that midday repose allowed by the rule of St. Benedict, chiefly, as she said, because the want of sleep takes away the love of reading. But when she herself lay down at these times to rest, she had some of her pupils to read the Scriptures by the side of her couch, and they could not omit or mispronounce a word without her correcting it, though apparently she might be asleep. Yet all this learning was accompanied with a modesty and humility that made her seek in all things to be regarded as the least in the house. There was nothing of arrogance in her behaviour, nothing of bitterness in her words, says her biographer, Ralph of Fulda. “She was as admirable in her understanding as she was boundless in her charity. She liked to wash the feet of her spiritual children, and to serve them at table, and she did this when she herself was fasting. Her countenance was truly angelic, always sweet and joyful, though she never indulged in laughter. No one ever saw her angry, and her aspect agreed with her name, which in Saxon signifies the Beloved, and in Greek, Philomena.”

It was in 748 that the letters from St. Boniface reached Wimbourne, requesting that Lioba, Thecla, and Walburga might be sent over to him, together with as many of their companions as might be willing to share in their enterprise. Thirty nuns at once offered themselves, and the little colony, after a stormy passage across the sea to Antwerp, was met at Mentz by the archbishop, who proceeded to establish Lioba in a monastery he had built for her at Bischoffsheim, where she very soon collected a numerous congregation of holy virgins. Walburga went on to Thuringia, where her brother, Winibald, was superior of seven houses of monks. He had long purposed retiring to some greater solitude, and, with the advice of his brother, he chose a wild valley in the diocese, clothed with majestic forests and watered by mountain streams. It bore the name of Heidensheim; and here, in 752, Winibald, having cleared the ground, erected a church and two monasteries, one for himself and his monks, the other for Walburga’s community. The savage natives beheld with jealous eyes this intrusion into their solitudes, and the destruction of their sacred oaks; but ere a few years had passed, the minster of Heidensheim stood in the centre of a Christian population, and the wild pagan forest had been converted into a smiling land of woods and pastures, where all the arts of civilised life were taught and practised in a society over which the abbot presided with something like paternal sway.

Walburga and her nuns seem to have cultivated letters as diligently in their forest home as by the banks of the Wimburnia. The travels of St. Wilibald, who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and often related what he had seen to his sister and her nuns, were afterwards written by them, not certainly in very classical Latin, but with a lucidity and truthfulness of style which appears in all the Anglo-Saxon writers, and which contrasts very remarkably with the marvellous narrations of Sir John Mandeville. St. Walburga appears also to have been the author of the “Life of St. Winibald,” and it is quite clear that the singular taste for literature existing among German nuns in the tenth century formed part of the tradition which they had received from their Anglo-Saxon foundresses. Mabillon praises not merely their erudition, but the zeal they displayed in employing it for the good of their neighbours, and says that, moved by a laudable emulation, they devoted themselves to study and the transcription of books with no less energy than the monks. He particularly praises the nuns of Eiken, who employed their time in reading, meditating, transcribing, and painting; specially the two abbesses Harlinda and Renilda, who wrote out the Psalter, the four Gospels, and many other books of Holy Scripture, adorning them with liquid gold, gems, and pearls.

The after-career of St. Boniface exhibits him to us reforming the Frankish Church, long vexed with schism and other frightful disorders, which had grown out of a century of treasons and civil distractions unequalled in any history. The enemies of discipline were naturally enough enemies also to the authority of the Holy See. They had taken advantage of the chaotic state to which society had returned to reject the law of clerical celibacy, and to establish the practice of simony on a gigantic scale. St. Boniface struck at the root of the evil by enforcing obedience to the Roman pontiff, and, happily for the future destinies of the French Church, his efforts were heartily supported by the brothers Carloman and Pepin, the two mayors of the palace, and the real sovereigns of Gaul. His canons of reform were promulgated in a grand national council, and in 748 Pope Zachary established the authority of the see of Mentz over all the German provinces from Utrecht to the Rhetian Alps. One would have thought that the government of such a province would have sufficed to employ the energies of one man; but Boniface kept a place in his thoughts for the necessities of his native land. Exile as he was, he never forgot that he was an Englishman, and though it does not appear that he ever revisited his own country, he took a very active part in some of her affairs. It is rather puzzling to make out how in those days of rude civilization the German missionaries contrived to carry on their voluminous correspondence with friends at home, for the transmission of letters was certainly not provided for by any international postage regulations. It appears, however, from many passages in the letters of St. Boniface that his mails were brought to him by the Anglo-Saxon pilgrims who were continually streaming from England to Rome. Some of these were students, going to make their studies in the Saxon school, lately established in the holy city by King Ina; others were devout monks; and others, unhappily, rather indevout and disedifying characters, who made their pilgrimage a pretext for gadding about the world, and casting off the restraints of respectability. The see of Canterbury was at that time filled by a great friend of St. Boniface, named Cuthbert, who applied to him for help and advice in the sore troubles which surrounded him. The evil example of Ethelbald, King of Mercia, was causing a grievous relaxation of discipline among the clergy, whereby many grave scandals were brought on the Church, and St. Boniface did not hesitate to address the king a letter of remonstrance, which seems to have produced its effect. In 747, the Council of Cloveshoe was summoned for the reform of abuses by command of Pope Zachary, Ethelbald also giving it the weight of his presence and authority.

The Fathers of this Council owed much to the advice of Boniface, and their decrees, which are exceedingly interesting, have a good deal to say on the subject of education. They ordain that priests should constantly teach and explain the Creed and the “Our Father” in the vulgar tongue; that bishops, abbots, and abbesses do by all means diligently provide that all their people incessantly apply their minds to reading; that boys be brought up in the ecclesiastical schools, so as to be useful to the Church of God, and that their masters do not employ them in bodily labour. Sunday is to be strictly observed, and no man is to dare to do any servile work on that day, save for the preparing of his meat; but if it be necessary for him to journey on that day he may ride, row, or travel by any conveyance he chooses, provided he first hear mass. It is only fitting that every man should honour that day, on which God created light, sent manna to the Israelites, rose from the dead, and sent down the Holy Ghost, and it is also fitting that Christian men should prepare for its celebration by coming to church on Saturday, bringing a light with them, and then hearing evensong, and after midnight, prime also; being careful whilst there to keep a peaceful mind, and not to dispute or quarrel. Our forefathers were not left in uncertainty as to what was comprised under the head of servile work, for on this point Archbishop Theodore had laid down rules of great exactness. He divided it into two heads, man’s work, and woman’s work; the first of which comprised husbandry, garden work, the felling of trees, the building of houses and walls, the quarrying of stone, and the digging of ditches; while to the gentler sex belonged weaving, washing, sewing, baking, brewing, wool-combing, the beating of flax and the shearing of sheep. The feeling with which the observance of the Sunday was regarded is best expressed by the beautiful Saxon word by which it was called, the freolsday, or day of freedom, on which even serfs did not do serfs’ work. The freolsung, or Sunday freedom, lasted from noontide on Saturday to the dawn of light on Monday morning–other similar seasons of freedom being established at the greater festivals. The council likewise enjoined the exercise of private prayer after the accustomed formula, wherein prayer to the saints and intercession for the dead are specially named. In church schools every one is to learn the psalter by heart, even if he cannot master the art of chanting it, and the chant itself, as well as the ritual for the administration of the Sacraments, the order of feasts, and everything else appertaining to divine worship, is ordered to be exactly conformed to the custom of the Roman Church.

It may be asked what are the schools to which reference is made in these decrees? Chiefly, no doubt, the Episcopal and monastic seminaries; but it would seem that the mass priest’s school is also intended, of which mention is often made in the Anglo-Saxon councils. Among our Saxon forefathers the education of the children of his parishioners was recognised as one of the chief duties of the parish priest. “Mass-priests shall always have in their houses a school of learners; and if any good man will trust his little ones to them for lore, they shall right gladly receive and kindly teach them. For ye shall remember that it is written: ‘They that be learned shall shine as heaven’s brightness; and they that instruct many to justice shall shine as stars for ever.’ They shall not however, for such lore, demand anything of the parents, besides that which the latter may give of their own will.” This decree, the parentage of which is to be traced to the Council of Vaison, reappears in the acts of several councils of England, France, and Italy, the very language being preserved in the Carlovingian Council of Orleans, and in the Constitutions of Atto of Vercelli. And here we see the origin of our parochial schools, which are as emphatically the priest’s schools, as the seminaries are the schools of the bishop.

The career of Boniface was now drawing to its close, and he seized the occasion of Pepin’s coronation to obtain the sanction of the new monarch to a design he had long secretly cherished. It was that of resigning his dignities, and ending his life, as he had begun it, in humble missionary labours. He accordingly wrote, entreating the king’s protection for his churches, clergy, and scholars. “I beg his highness,” he says, “in the name of Christ, to let me know, while I live, in what way he will deal with my disciples after my death. For they are, almost all of them, foreigners; some are priests established in distant places, others monks employed in their different cloisters in the education of youth, some of them are old men, who have been for years the companions and sharers of my labours. Therefore I am most anxious that they should not be disturbed after my death, but should remain under the protection of the king.” Pepin having fully granted all his wishes, and recognised Lullus, whom, by permission of Pope Zachary, Boniface had named as his successor, the archbishop published the charter granted by the Holy See to the abbots of Fulda, which exempted it from episcopal jurisdiction, and made over to Lullus the church of St. Martin at Utrecht, the ancient see of his predecessor and countryman, St. Wilibrord. When all these arrangements had been made, St. Boniface joyfully prepared for his fourth and last expedition to Frisia, where he seems to have already anticipated receiving the martyr’s crown. He wrote to Lullus early in 755 telling him that the end of his life was approaching, and bidding him finish the church of Fulda, in which he desired that his body might be laid. “Prepare all things for my journey,” he says, “and do not forget to enclose with my books a shroud, to contain my mortal remains.”

He would not depart without bidding farewell to St. Lioba, whom he recommended to his successor, giving orders that at her death she also might be buried in the church of Fulda, that together they might await the resurrection. Having nothing of greater value to bestow on her, he gave her, as his parting gift, his monk’s cowl, a precious token of his fatherly regard, and of the absolute poverty which he professed. He then set out, attended by Eoban, an Anglo-Saxon monk, whom he had consecrated Bishop of the Frisians, and fifty-one companions, of whom ten only were priests; and, sailing down the Rhine, made his way into Eastern Friesland. A great number of the pagans were induced by his preaching to embrace the faith; and June 5, being the vigil of Pentecost, was fixed for the administration of Holy Baptism. A tent was erected on a plain near the banks of a little river, not far from the modern town of Dokkum. But whilst the saint awaited his converts, the tidings reached him that a band of pagans were approaching, armed with shields and spears. The laymen in his company would have offered resistance, but Boniface forbade them to draw their swords. “Forbear, my sons,” he said, “for the Scripture teaches us to return not evil for evil, but rather good. To me the long-expected day has at last arrived: the time of my departure is at hand. Be comforted, and fear not them who can destroy the body, for they cannot touch the immortal soul. Trust in God and rejoice in Him, and fix the anchor of your hope in Him who will give you a place in His glorious mansion together with the angels.”

Whilst he was yet speaking, the barbarians rushed on him and struck him to the ground. As he fell, with the instinct of self-preservation, he raised the hand which held the Book of the Gospels, in order to protect his head. A sword-stroke from one ruffian cut through the book, while at the same time the dagger of another pierced his heart; and the rest of the band turned on his companions who stood around, and slaughtered them every one. They then seized the baggage of the archbishop, which they hoped would prove a rich booty, but to their disappointment found nothing but books and holy relics, which they scattered about the surrounding fields, casting some of the books into a neighbouring marsh, whence they were afterwards rescued by the Frisian Christians. Three of them are still preserved at Fulda; they consist of the copy of the Gospel already mentioned, which had been written out by the saint’s own hand, and which, though cut through with the sword which took his life, has not so much as a letter destroyed; a Harmony of the Gospels or Canons of the New Testament, and a Book containing various Treatises and Letters, the pages of which are stained with his blood.

The body of St. Boniface was carried to Mentz, and thence translated to Fulda, when the church of that monastery was consecrated by St. Lullus, the whole history of the event being related by the monk Candidus, in his metrical Life of Abbot Eigil. St. Lioba survived her friend for twenty-four years, during which time she founded a great number of convents, all of which she governed as superior. She received special marks of respect from Charlemagne and his queen Hildegardis, who often sent for her to Aix-la-Chapelle, and loved her as her own soul. She frequently visited Fulda, and on her death, which took place in 779, her body was carried thither for burial. The elder monks remembered the wish that had been expressed by St. Boniface, that their bones should be laid together, but, fearing to open the sepulchre of the holy martyr, they buried St. Lioba at the north side of the altar, which he had himself consecrated in honour of the twelve Apostles. There the two saints still repose, for though the church of Fulda has been rebuilt four times since the day of its first dedication, the ancient crypt has always been preserved, and there the English pilgrim may still revere the relics of his great countryman which are preserved in their antique shrine, together with two memorials of him, the ivory crosier which he was accustomed to use, and the dagger that shed his blood.

Source:  Augusta Theodosia Drane, Christian Schools and Scholars (1910) .

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