Boniface’s women

There has been much ink spilled and many pixels energized about Saint Boniface. Missionary, bishop, cleanser of the church, correspondent of popes, counselor to kings, saint. A very impressive life. Not as well known was that he was also a friend to many women, in an age when women’s public roles were strictly limited. His correspondence includes a dozen letters with a half-dozen women. These letters offer a fascinating window into Boniface’s own mind and the life of a few English (they are all English) ecclesiastical women.

Many of the letters are of a type: the writer speaks of the pains of his or her life, and then requests something. The single letter from Abbess Egberga written sometime around 716-18 is typical. She calls herself the “least of your disciples,” and then recounts how desolate she has been since her brother died, and her sister became a recluse in Rome. In their absence “I have cherished you in my affection above almost all other men.” But she knows that Boniface is blessed. “So I say: the lord of high Olympus wishes you happiness with joy unspeakable.” Finally she asks for his prayers, or “some little remembrance, perhaps a holy relic or at least a few written words, that so I may always have you with me.” 1.Letters, V, p.12. No reply are recorded.

A far more extensive correspondence (sadly, one sided) is recorded with Abbess Eadburga of Thanet. Four letters from Boniface to Eadburga survive, spanning close to thirty years. The first letter from 716 offers the abbess a long description of some visions recited by a man who died and came back to life. After that she seems to have been a great supplier of books to the missionary in the dark German forests, which was not uncommon. “In the eighth century, when the Anglo-Saxons emerged as the leading educators in the Latin West, their missionaries kept in close touch with the nuns of their native land.”2.Wemple, Women in Frankish Society, p.177.

A letter from Boniface around 735 thanks her for some books, which “consoled with spiritual light… an exile in Germany.” Soon after that he made a specific request of her and her scriptorium, “by making a copy written in gold of the Epistles of my master, St. Peter the Apostle, to impress honor and reverence… visibly upon the carnally minded to whom I preach.” Apparently cost might have an issue, for “I am sending by the priest Eoban the materials for your writing.” The last letter we have from their correspondence dates to the last decade of Boniface’s life, when he was in his late sixties. He is not in good humor. “[L]et me tell you that, for our sins, the way of our wandering is beset by tempests of many kinds. On every hand is struggle and grief, fighting without and fear within. Worst of all, the treachery of false brethren surpasses the malice of unbelieving pagans.”3.Letters, II, p.3; XXII, p38-9; XXVI, p42-3; LIII, p99-100.

Boniface corresponded with at least one mother and daughter. Abbess Eangyth wrote to him on behalf of herself and her daughter Bugga. It is a long letter, filled with tales of woe, listed, perhaps in an attempt to be helpful, in order of aggrievement: “First of all and above all, there are those external worldly affairs, which have kept us in turmoil.” Apparently enemies are all around: “We are further oppressed by poverty and lack of temporal goods, by the meagerness of the produce of our fields and the exactions of the king based upon the accusations of the those who envy us.” They have no friends or family: “To all these troubles must be added the loss of friends and compatriots, the crowd of relatives and the company of our kinsfolk… God has taken them from us in various ways.” In case Boniface was wondering how they were holding up under the stress, she adds that “our life is a weariness to us and it is almost a burden to live.” In the absence of other friends, however, they have found solace because “now we believe that we have found in you the friend whom we have wished, prayed, and hoped for.” I am not sure that I would be gratified to learn that the opportunity of their friendship had been bestowed upon me.

Finally, however, Eangyth is able to come to the point. She asks Boniface to pray so that God “may show us what He judges most profitable and useful: whether to live on in our native land or go forth upon our pilgrimage.”4.Letters, VI, p14. Perhaps she was also laying some political groundwork, for ecclesiastics were supposed to stay where they had taken their oaths, and not go wandering around. Although it seems everyone went on pilgrimages, so I’m not sure why she felt constrained.

Eangyth’s daughter Bugga turned out to be a woman of more resilience than her mother, which probably resonated well with the sturdy and indefatigable Boniface. Indeed, in the Introduction to Boniface’s letters, Thomas Noble believes Bugga “seems to have been as good a friend as Boniface had in this world.”5.Letters, Introduction, p.xxxiv. She appears to have started out as, in her words, “a humble housemaid” and book supplier, perhaps more in spirit than delivery. “Know also that the Sufferings of the Martyrs which you asked me to send you I have not yet been able to get, but as soon as I can I shall send it. And you, my best beloved, comfort my insignificance by sending me, as you promised me in your dear letter, some collection of the sacred writings.” While the book is not forthcoming, “I am sending you by this same messenger fifty solidi and an altar cloth, the best I can possibly do.”6.Letters, VII, p18.

The earlier letter from Bugga’s mother Eangyth alludes to a pilgrimage, but it is not clear if they went or not. Dating these letters is extremely problematic. There is a letter from Boniface to Bugga (now an abbess) in which he responds to her request for advice. “I dare neither forbid your pilgrimage on my own responsibility nor rashly persuade you to it.” But if she does decide to go, “you should do better to wait until the rebellious assaults and threats of the Saracens who have recently appeared about Rome should have subsided.” Boniface turns out to be not that great at sending books himself. “In regard to the writings which you have requested of me, you must excuse my remissness, for I have been prevented by pressure of work and by my continual travels from completing the book you ask for. When I have finished it, I shall see that it is sent to you.”7.Letters, XIX, p38.

Of great interest is a letter from King Ethelbert of Kent to Boniface, sometime after 748. Among other things, including a request for two falcons (he is a king, after all), Ethelbert recollects a conversation he had with Bugga after her return from Rome. “[W]hile you were both at Rome and eagerly engaged in making frequent visits to the shrines of the Holy Apostles, you had given her permission to speak familiarly with Your Gracious and Indulgent Holiness about her own affairs.”8.Letters, LXXXV, p155. Well, well, well, out together, eagerly engaged, speaking familiarly! Boniface, you ol’ smooth talking man.

The world grinds on, and we all grow old. Evidently Bugga threw off the cloak of responsibility that an abbess must wear, but her cares did not end. Boniface did his best to console his old travel partner. “I have learned from many reports of the storms of troubles which with God’s permission have befallen you in your old age. I have deeply regretted that after you had thrown off the pressing cares of monastic rule in your desire for a life of contemplation, still more insistent and more weighty troubles have come upon you.”9.Letters, XIX, p148. Boniface then provides much in the way of biblical support, but unfortunately, nothing specific about what types of “weighty troubles” might oppress a contemplative nun.

In the next post I want to talk about a woman who was not only Boniface’s correspondent, but apparently his one true spiritual companion, as well as something of a celebrity.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Letters, V, p.12.
2. Wemple, Women in Frankish Society, p.177.
3. Letters, II, p.3; XXII, p38-9; XXVI, p42-3; LIII, p99-100.
4. Letters, VI, p14.
5. Letters, Introduction, p.xxxiv.
6. Letters, VII, p18.
7. Letters, XIX, p38.
8. Letters, LXXXV, p155.
9. Letters, XIX, p148.

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