Leoba, celebrity saint

Many of the women who corresponded with Boniface were women of power and influence as abbesses. In that they were already exceptional. But there was another woman who was a step above the extraordinary.

Boniface’s most ‘famous’ correspondent was Saint Leoba. She was English, although her exact place and date of birth are unknown. She and Boniface were related through her mother, and her father and Boniface were good friends. She was also a disciple of Abbess Eadburga of Thanet, whom I mentioned in last week’s post. In a letter dated around 732 Leoba writes to Boniface and asks for his friendship and his prayers, “for there is no other man in my kinship in whom I have such confidence as in you… I eagerly pray, my dear brother, that I may be protected by the shield of your prayers from the poisoned darts of the hidden enemy.” She also offered Boniface some beginner’s lines of poetry. As justification she adds that “I have studied this art under the guidance of Eadburga.”1.Letters, XXI, p37.

Her vita is of the usual style, but it does contain some interesting details about her relationship with Boniface. Once Boniface was established in Germany he needed reliable people to assist him. “Likewise, he sent messengers with letters to the abbess Tetta, of whom we have already spoken, asking her to send Leoba to accompany him on this journey and to take part in this embassy: for Leoba’s reputation for learning and holiness had spread far and wide and her praise was on everyone’s lips.”2.Soldiers of Christ, St Leoba, trans. C.H. Talbot, pp.255-277. In time Boniface made her abbess of the monastery at Bischofsheim.

Even while an abbess Leoba went out of her way to ensure that she followed Boniface’s precepts and advice. She asked for his advice after a priest had requested that she take on “a certain maiden.” In a short reply Boniface was expansive, probably a measure of the trust he felt in her: “Be assured, therefor, that whatever you may see fit to do in this matter for the increase of her merits shall have our consent and approval.”3.Letters, LXXIX, p150.

Her vita demonstrates the depth of Boniface’s affection for and devotion to Leoba. He may have cavorted in Rome with Bugga, but he had a long term vision of Leoba. Before he left for Frisia in 754, in what he must have known was his last expedition, Boniface “commended her to Lull [his successor]… and reaffirming his wish that after his death her bones should be placed next to his in the tomb, so that they who had served God during their lifetime with equal sincerity and zeal should await together the day of resurrection.” He died about twenty-five years before her, and in fact they didn’t end up next to each other, but in the same room. He certainly picked a popular woman with whom to spend eternity.

She performed some miracles, although I must confess that most of these don’t strike me as particularly miraculous. One time a poor woman who used to beg near the abbey got pregnant, but then threw the baby in a pond once she gave birth. A hue and cry arose, started by a local woman who accused one of the nuns of killing her own child. Leoba led all of the nuns in a prayer vigil, until the poor mother admitted that she had killed her child. The miracle was that the mom appeared “surrounded by flames” before confessing. I would think bringing the child back to life and uplifting the poor mother would be a better miracle than saving the good name of her nuns, but that’s just me.

Another time Leoba assisted the village with a big fire by pouring some salt in a bucket of water and having the water dumped back into the stream. Evidently the bucket brigade worked a lot harder after this, because “[a]fter they had done this the violence of the conflagration died down and the fire was extinguished.” Which if ever there was an example of ‘the Lord helps those that help themselves,’ that would be it. Once there was a fearsome storm, and all the people huddled in the church. The thunder was too much for them, and they beseeched Leoba to do something. She went to the door of the church and prayed to the sky, and the storm subsided. As miracles go, it seems a stretch.

I am going to out on yet another completely unsubstantiated limb and guess that Leoba needed her miracles beefed up because the Powers That Be wanted her to be a saint. The nobility of Francia loved Leoba, at the highest levels.

Many times [Charlemagne] summoned the holy virgin to his court, received her with every mark of respect, and loaded her with gifts suitable to her station. Queen Hildegard also revered her with a chaste affection and loved her as her own soul. She would have liked her to remain continually at her side so that she might progress in the spiritual life and profit by her words and example…. The princes loved her, the nobles received her, the bishops welcomed her with joy.4.Soldiers of Christ, St Leoba, trans. C.H. Talbot, pp.255-277.

Queen Hildegard, on her deathbed, summoned Leoba to be with her for the last few days, but Leoba was not pleased at this intrusion into her spiritual duties. She traveled to see the queen, but after dispensing some suitable biblical injunctions she left as soon as she had said her goodbyes. In general, according to her hagiographer, “Leoba detested the life at court like poison.” Perhaps this increased her fame. At her death was in procession, “followed by a long cortege of noble persons.”

As with all saints Leoba’s fame expanded after her death. Her vita credits her with two specific miracles after her death, one where the too-tight iron rings on a man’s arms fell off, and another where she cured a man who had a shaking disorder. Again, not particularly powerful miracles, but the story behind the shaking disease is fantastic. The afflicted man said he saw an old man in a bishop’s outfit and a young woman in a nun’s habit, who lifted him up and presented him for the bishop’s blessing. At that point, “an inky-black bird like a raven had flown out of his bosom and through the head of his tunic; as soon as it alighted on the ground it changed into a hen and then transformed itself into the shape of a very ugly and horrible little man, who emerged from the crypt.”5.Soldiers of Christ, St Leoba, trans. C.H. Talbot, pp.255-277.

In the end, Leoba’s miracle wasn’t even hers, but another of Boniface’s. But even Boniface wasn’t asked to be at the deathbed of a queen.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Letters, XXI, p37.
2, 4, 5. Soldiers of Christ, St Leoba, trans. C.H. Talbot, pp.255-277.
3. Letters, LXXIX, p150.

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