ALEXANDRA H. OLSEN
EADBURG, LIOBA, BERHTGYTH, AND OTHERS
WOMEN ASSOCIATED WITH
The best direct evidence for the learning and piety of the women who accompanied Boniface from England to Germany comes from a group of 150 letters in a number of manuscripts (of which the most complete is MS Nationalbibliothek Lat. 751) that includes ten letters by women as well as letters from St Boniface and his successor St Lull to women. Christine E. Fell remarks that "a single surviving letter implies the loss of others" (31), so the original correspondence must have included more letters by women. Michael Tangl edited the letters as Die Briefe des Heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, and they are normally known in English as "the Boniface collection." Scholars studying the Boniface collection like the modern editor Reinhold Rau have been interested primarily in Boniface and Lull. The English translator Ephraim Emerton omitted letters which "have no reference to the great bishop" (19), most notably the letters of Berhtgyth to her brother Baldhard.
From Otloh we learn that one of the women was "materata scilicet sancti Lulli nomine Chunihilt" [the maternal aunt of St Lull named Cynehild] (Levison, Vitae 138), and Lull himself says that he left Britain "cum totius propinquitatis meae propemodum caterva" [with a crowd of almost all my near kindred] (Tangl 98). Otloh's use of " materata " [maternal aunt; normally translated just "aunt"] and statement that the women were " valde eruditiae in liberali scientia " [very learned in the liberal arts] tells us important things about both the learning of monastic women and Anglo-Saxon family relationships, especially the importance of the female line.
The most famous of the women of the Boniface mission from England to Germany is St Lioba , in part because we know the most about her. Rudolf of Fulda wrote her Vita (c 837), which is available in English translation in works like Medieval Women's Visionary Literature by Elizabeth Alvida Petroff.
The Boniface collection is famous for its inclusion of poetry in the letters, poetry that is heavily influenced by Aldhelm (died 709), who writes in the classical tradition but uses alliteration and formulas like vernacular poets. In an early letter to Boniface, Lioba includes four lines which she calls "versiculi " [unpretentious verses] (Tangl 29) that are clearly Aldhelmian. She indicates that she learned the art from her "magistra " [female teacher], Eadburg, "quae indesinentur legem divinam rimare non cessat" [who does not cease investigating the divine law]. Her verses follow: Arbiter omnipotens, solus qui cuncta creavit, In regno patris semper qui lumine fulget, Quia iugiter flagrans sic regnet gloria Christi, Inlesum servet semper te iure perenni. [The omnipotent Ruler, Who alone created all, Who always shines with glory in the kingdom of His Father, Because the perpertual flame, the glory of Christ, May always preserve you in perennial right.] (Tangl 29) Both by her own work and by her references to Eadburg, Lioba suggests the extent to which women participated in the tradition of Latin letters.
Eadburg is a common Old English name, but this Eadburg may have been the recipient of four letters from Boniface and one from Lull (none of her letters have survived). Boniface addresses her as his "dilectissimo sorori ... Eadburge abbadisse" [most dear sister the Abbess Eadburg] (Tangl 30); it is usually assumed that she was the abbess of Thanet.
Boniface thanks Eadburgh in one letter for "sanctorum librorum munera " [the gift of holy books] (Tangl 30). In another he asks that she " auro conscribas epistolas domini mei sancti Petri apostoli" [write with gold the epistles of my master, the apostle St Peter] and that her works "aureis litteris fulgeant" [shine with golden letters] (Tangl 35). Eddius Stephanus says that the Archbishop Wilfrid of York owned " quattuor evangelia de auro purissimo in membranis depurpuratis , coloratis" [the four Gospels written in the purest gold on purple parchment and illuminated] (36), and women like Eadburg and her nuns must have been occupied in the composition of such manuscripts.
[Such manuscripts looked back to the production of imperial codices written in gold upon purple vellum, and forward to a manuscript in Norwich Castle, which may have been written by Julian of Norwich herself though it is not a Showing of Love text, where a Gothic T in gold is placed against a purple ground.
Norwich Castle Manuscript, fol 1. ]
The letters of the Boniface collection are of the greatest value because a number of them present women speaking directly. One letter is from a woman named Cena, whose identity, Emerton says, "is quite obscure" (173). She addresses Boniface as " dilictissime" [dearest friend] (Tangl 97), so she was presumably a member of his inner circle.
One letter is jointly authored by an abbot and two abbesses, but Fell suggests that "it is clearly the composition of Cneoburg, one of the abbesses named" (31). Saying " Ego Cneuburg" [I, Cneoburg], she requests prayers for "nostrarum defunctarum sororum " [our dead sisters] (Tangl 55).
The only letter from a woman to a woman is one from Ælflæd, abbess of Whitby, to Abbess Adola of Pfalzel, commending to her an English pilgrim, " karissimam fidelissimamque filiam nostram" [our most beloved and faithful daughter] (Tangl 8), who is traveling to Rome. The letter provides evidence of Whitby's contacts with the Continent. Because of its subject, it is stately and formal, and it shows clearly Ælflæd's ability to write excellent Latin prose.
Most of the letters from women as well as those of Boniface and Lull to their close friends speak movingly of the emotional plight of being in a foreign land, isolated from their homeland and families--a serious problem for Anglo-Saxons for whom the kin-group was of paramount importance. All such epistles show the influence of themes from formulaic vernacular poetry like Journey to Trial, the Sea Voyage, and Exile; Fell speaks of "the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and concepts underlying the acquired Latinity" (41).
One of the first letters in the collection is by the abbess Eangyth and her dayghter Heaburg (also known as Bugga) to Boniface, whom they know well enough to address by his Anglo-Saxon name Winfred. Eangyth identifies herself as an abbess, " indigna ancilla ancillarum Dei" [unworthy handmaid of the handmaids of God], and Bugga as her " unica filia" [only daughter] (Tangl 14). When Archbishop Breowine of Canterbury writes to Lull much later about the death of Bugga, he speaks of her as the "honorabilis abbatissa " [honorable abbess] (Tangl 117), so she may have suceeded her mother. Her importance is shown by the fact that King Æthelbært of Kent writes to Boniface on her recommendation (Tangl 105) and a letter from Boniface consoles her for her " tempestates tribulationorum " [storm of troubles] (Tangl 94). Eangyth laments that she and Bugga are oppressed physically by "paupertas et penuria rerum temporalium " [poverty and lack of temporal goods] and spiritually by " amissio amicorum etcontribulium, caterva propinquorum et consanguineorum turba " [the loss of friends and countrymen, the crowd of relatives and the throng of those related by blood] (Tangl 14). She says that " tedebit nos vite nostrae et pene nobis pertesum est vivere " [our life wearies us and it is almost a burden to us to live] (Tangl 14) and compares their misery to a dangerous sea voyage: Tamquam spumosi maria vortices verrunt et vellunt undarum cumulos conlisos saxis, quando ventorum violentia et procellarum tempestates sevissime inormem euripum inpellunt et cymbarum carine sursum inmutate et malus navis deorsum duratur . [As when the whirling of the foaming sea sweeps and pulls the mountainous waves broken on the rocks, when the violence of the winds and the fury of the tempests drive wrathfully against the long channel and the keels of the boats are turned up, and the unfavorable ship remains up and down.] (Tangl 14) The purpose of the letter is to ask Boniface to permit them to travel "equoreis campis " [the pathways of the sea] and make a pilgrimage to the " orbis Romam " [city of Rome] (Tangl 14) as other English women have done. Ursula Schaefer has argued that this letter is similar to The Wife's Lament, especially in Eangyth's complaints about "the lack or loss of friends" (493). Bugga also writes to Boniface independently, promising to send him a book he had requested, " passiones martyrum " [the passions of the martyrs] (Tangl 15).
One letter is from a woman named Ecburg to Boniface. She speaks of "germanum meum Osherem" [my brother Oshere] and " carissima soror Uuethburg" [most beloved sister Wethburg] (Tangl 13). Ecgburg speaks of " inmensi doloris" [unmeasurable sorrow], the " meroris ... nebula atra " [dark cloud of sorrow] which afflicted her after the death of Oshere, and the " lucra iniurirum " [sum of her wrongs] (Tangl 13). Although modern scholars are uncertain about the identity of Ecgburg, the names of her sister and brother have led Patrick Sims-Williams to hypothesize that she was "a member of the royal house of the Hwicce" (220) and possibly the abbess of Gloucester (see 229). Like the speakers in the Old English elegies who allude to their former membership in a comitatus (see The Wanderer ) or a marriage of high status (see The Wife's Lament ), Ecgburg is a woman of high status. Her state of exile is the more poignant because of the loss of that status, and she describes her state of mind as clearly as the speakers of the Old English elegies do. Her letter also indicates the learning of the women of the Boniface mission and their familiarity with the classical poetic tradition. For example, Ecburg refers to God as " superi rector Olimpi" [the ruler of high Olympus], a phrase that parallels "superi regnator Olympi " [the ruler of high Olympus' in Aeneid II, 79. The letters which express the sense of exile most fully are three that have no reference to Boniface or Lull, the letters of Berhtgyth to " fratri unico Baldhardo ", [her only brother Baldhard] (Tangl 148).
Otloh's Vita Bonifatii describes the women of the Boniface mission as including " Chunihilt et filia eius Berhtgit" [Cynehild and her daughter Berhtgyth] (Levison, Vitae 138). Otloh mentions Berhtgyth because she was Chunihild's daughter, but Baldhard is not named (presumably because Otloh is naming only the women of the Boniface mission), so that he is only known from his sister's letters. (One letter, Tangl 143, appears in the manuscript without the names of sender and recipient, but "stylistic detail, similarity of content, and positioning in the manuscript suggest single authorship" of the three [Fell, 38]). Dronke notes that these "passionate and sensitive letters" have no link with Boniface and have therefore "not appeared in modern selections of the Boniface letters" (30), and he provides the first partial English translations of them.
Because of recent interest in women writers, and because of the important studies of Dronke and Fell, these letters have been brought to the notice of scholars, both Anglo-Saxonists and others. Berhtgyth makes much use of the vernacular tradition. As Dronke notes, she uses a "vernacular motif," that of "the sea that sunders those who love each other" (31). Berhtgyth speaks of the " multae ... aquarum congregationes" [many congregations of the waters] (Tangl 147) that separate her and Baldhard. One reason for the emotional effect of the three letters is their use of the theme of Exile, which Berhtgyth expresses more fully even than Ecgburg. She says that she is "ultima ancillarum Dei " [the least of the handmaidens of God] (Tangl 143). Likewise, all three letters make clear that she is "sola in hac terra " (Tangl 143) [alone in this country]; "sola derelicta et destituta auxilio propinquorum " [alone, forsaken, and deprived of the support of kin] (Tangl 147); and " derelicta ... et sola " [bereft and alone] (Tangl 148). The alliteration of "d" in "derelicta et destituta" calls attention rhetorically to her state of being forsaken. This emphasis on the lack of kin recalls both the Old English elegies and other letters of the Boniface collection. Berhtgyth expresses her longing to go to the place " ubi requiescunt corpora parentum nostrorum" [where rest the bodies of our parents] and " temporalem vitam ibi finire " [end this transitory life there] (Tangl 148) . Fell suggests that the letters were not written while Berhtgyth's first cousin Lull was alive (40), a likely fact because the letters lament most poignantly the absence of kinsmen. This fact would suggest that the sense of exile expressed in them is more than merely conventional.
As shown by Lioba's four lines of poetry, many letters of the Boniface collection include poetry reminiscent of Aldhelm. Most heavily alliterative in the collection is Berhtgyth's second letter: Vale vivens feliciter, ut sis sanctus simpliciter, Tibi salus per saecula tribuatur per culmina. Vivamus soli Domino vitam semper in seculo. Profecto ipsum precibus peto profusis fletibus Solo tenus sepissima, subrogare auxilia: Ut simus digni gloria, ubi resonant carmina Angelorum laetissima æthralea laetitia Clara Christi clementia celse laudis in secula. Valeamus angelicis victrices iungi milibus, Paradisi perpetuis perdurantes in gaudiis. Eloqueel et Michael, Accadai, Adonai, Alleuatia, Allelulia . [Farewell one living happily, that you may be plainly holy. Your salvation through the ages will be allotted through the heights. We always live a life for God Alone in the world. Indeed I, alone, most often beseech Him with entreaties, with profuse weeping, to substitute a source of help: so that we may be worthy of glory, where the songs of the angels rejoicing with joy resound through the upper air and you praise the famous mercy of Christ in an elevated way through the world. Let us be strong united with the victorious angels in the thousands, everlasting in the joy of Paradise perpetual. Eloqueel and Michael, Acaddai, Adonai, Alleuatia, Alleluia.] (Tangl 147) Only two lines of the ten do not include alliteration, and the half-lines usually alliterate as Old English half-lines do. Line seven links together the half-lines by double alliteration. Even the puzzling last line is alliterative if we remember that all vowels alliterate in Old English.
Whether they are in England or in Germany, the nuns and monks associated with the Boniface mission experience the kind of spiritual crisis that is called by later writers the Dark Night of the Soul. Without the developed mystical language available the St. John of the Cross, they fall back on the themes of their English poetic tradition to express their crises. The loving relationships bound together by letters and prayers must have had a special intensity and strengthened all the members of the group of close friends, separated by seas and long and difficult journeys. Christian prayer strengthens the human bonds, which in turn strengthens the ability to pray.
An Anglo-Saxon Gospel,
Opening of Luke, but not written by Boniface's circle, instead
associated with Cuthbert and Lindisfarne. By Permission of The
British Library, Lindisfarne Gospels, St Luke's Gospel, MS
Cotton Nero D.IV.fol 139.
Primary Texts Cited
Colgrave, Bertram, Ed. and Trans. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Emerton, Ephraim, Trans. The Letters of Saint Boniface. Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies, 31. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.
Kylie, Edward. The English Correspondence of Saint Boniface. New York: Cooper Square, 1966.
Levison, Wilhelm, ed. Vitae Sancti Bonifatii. Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum. Vol. 57. Hannover: Hannsche Buchhandlung, 1905.
Rau, Reinhold. Briefe des Bonifatius und Wilibalds Leben. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968.
Tangl, Michael. Die Briefe des Heiligen Bonifatius and Lullus. Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1916.
Dronke, Peter. Women Writers of the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Fell, Christine. "Some Implications of the Boniface Correspondence." New Readings on Women in Old English Literature . Ed. Helen Damico and Alexandra H. Olsen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Pp. 29-43.
Petroff, Elizabeth Alvida. Medieval Women's Visionary Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Schaefer, Ursula. "Two Women in Need of a Friend: A Comparison of The Wife's Lament and Eangyth's Letter to Boniface." Germanic Dialects: Linguistic and Philological Investigations . Ed. Bela Brogyanyi and Thomas Krmmelbein. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science. Vol. 38. Amsterdam: Benjamin, 1986. Pp. 491-524.
Sims-Williams. Religion and Literature in
Western England 600-800. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon
England. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Go to Alexandra Olsen, St Pega and St Guthlac, St Guthlac and St Pega in the South
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