Bonifice and Lioba or It Takes a Saxon

October 22 is the feast of St. Lioba Abbess. She is one of those saints who predates the official system of canonization, as is St. Boniface. Both were Saxons from Wessex who went to the Wild East to convert/reconvert/keep from backsliding the continental Saxons in the generation before Charlemagne. They are an interesting pair and show some of the difficulties Christianity faced in northern Europe. And they both must have wondered on occasion if “…make disciples of every nation” really applied to Saxons and Danes, or if there was an exception clause somewhere.

By 650, most of England had been Christianized, wither Celtic from Ireland or Roman. A core of Romano-British Christians had survived after the Roman government removed its troops in AD 410 CE, But had been slowly outnumbered by Saxon, Angle, and Jute pagans from the mainland. The Irish, the locals, and eventually missionaries from Frankish Gaul persuaded, browbeat, and defeated the Saxons into converting to Christianity, and southern England looked to Rome.

However, the Saxons and Frisians and others on the European mainland were not quite so easily persuaded, in part because missionaries had not gotten there in large numbers. The Irish went first, scattering out north of the Alps and east of the Alps—and in the Alps—, but for all their good works, they were not Roman. This fact might have been part of their success in some places. The Roman Church wanted people who followed Rome’s teachings more precisely than the Irish sometimes did.

And so Saxons ended up going east to Frisia (northern Holland) and Saxony. Boniface was one of these, and was one of the best known. He was a tall man, around six feet, of mature years when he started as a missionary, and persistent to the point of dogged determinism. This was pretty much what the mission field required, because the Frisians and Saxons needed a lot of repeated persuading that the god of Rome was stronger and (as important) as dependable as the local tribal deities. After all, what good is it to switch from one deity to another if the White Christ can’t protect your fields or help you against your enemies? You’d be in big trouble and your former gods would be very unhappy and less willing to bail you out.

Another difficulty the missionaries faced was the hesitation of people to change political loyalties. This was less obvious for Bonifice’s time*, because Charles Martel—then mayor of the palace for the Merovingian kings of Gaul/Francia—was not actively trying to extend Frankish rule into the Germanic lands. However, changing to Rome’s god meant that you also followed Rome’s politics. And looking over their shoulder at the Franks, would the Franks claim some sort of authority over other believers? Did Fresians who followed Rome’s god have to obey Saxon or Burgundian Christian nobles?

After a lot of comings and goings, intra-church “discussions” about who was in charge where and who kept the tithes or tax monies, Boniface was given spiritual authority over a swath of what is now Hesse in west-north-central Germany. He established a number of convents and monasteries and churches, the most famous of which was at Fulda, near a gap in the hills/mountains that covered a trade and invasion route. Yes, that Fulda. Boniface needed someone who could manage things in his absence and provide physical as well as moral and prayer support. So he called in more Saxons. Several happened to be his relatives, including a woman named Lioba. She was, depending on which source you read, a cousin or a grand-niece. Did I mention that by now, Boniface is in his 70s?

Lioba, by all accounts, was up to the task. She pestered heaven with her prayers, managed at least one convent, oversaw properties and sent their funds to where they were needed, and stood up to anyone who challenged Boniface and Rome’s decisions about who controlled the revenues of the properties belonging to Fulda. She too was a noble, trained in a Benedictine house in Wessex, and used to giving orders and managing things. She ended up overseeing multiple convents, monasteries, and secular farms. After Boniface’s death at the hands of the Frisians (he was only 82 at the time), she continued managing things but on a smaller scale.

Other Saxon nuns also manged things and supported Saxon missionaries. One of the best known is St. Walburga, although she’s known more by accident because her feast was/is on May Eve, and became Walpurgisnacht.

*Once Charlemagne was named Holy Roman Emperor, the problem of political-spiritual loyalties became far more important, and in some cases actively hindered conversions.

10 thoughts on “Bonifice and Lioba or It Takes a Saxon

  1. This time, there’s NO gratuitous Saxon violence? Awww …

    The other political feud still simmering was Rome and the Irish abbots. Council of Whitby resolved where the Saxon kingdoms looked to, because Rome’s bones were older (Peter, not Patrick). The Irish monks were still there, feeding abbeys all over Europe. Influence constrained by the need to gather strength and drive off the Vikings. Lots of synchronicity at eork.

    • I thought “Saxon” messed up the “gratuitous” part? Either because it’s always gratuitous, or because “Saxon” justifies it all so none is….

      • Old phrasing joke with some Celtic friends. Gratuitous Saxon violence, slowed down, comes out as “gratuitous sex and violence.” Both of which are tautological with Saxon.

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