12.01.10, Clay, In the Shadow of Death

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James Palmer

The Medieval Review 12.01.10

Clay, John-Henry. In the Shadow of Death: Saint Boniface and the Conversion of Hessia, 721-54. Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers n.v., 2010. Pp. 487. ISBN: 978-2-503-53161-8.

Reviewed by:
James Palmer
University of St. Andrews

The English missionaries who worked in Germany in the eighth century have for a long time been the subject of a curiously uneven and tendentious historiography. In the last century of scholarship alone, St Boniface (d. 754), the subject of Clay's first book, has been a proto-European, heroic Englishman, trailblazing Catholic, and more, as his career has been appropriated for a variety of ends, good and bad. In order to rescue his achievements from weak Grand Narratives, Clay offers a careful micro-study of Boniface's work in the region of Hessia alone, drawing on neglected archaeological evidence and a relatively fresh approach to landscape studies and the sociology of conversion. In the Shadow of Death offers a meticulous and critical summary of a vast and often inaccessible German historiography, while expanding the traditional source base one associates with Boniface. It is undoubtedly a new starting point for Anglophone studies on the subject. And yet, at times, there is perhaps something a little old-fashioned running through the core.

The book proper begins with a tidy overview of existing historiography, providing a meaty bibliography of things Bonifatian. What it does not provide--at least up front--is much of a critical framework. Scholarship is largely divided between the German and English languages without much indication of the approaches used. With the major works on the subject, for example, one should explain the debt of Wood's The Missionary Life (2001) to Walter Goffart's ideas about historiography, or von Padberg's Mission und Christianisierung (1995) to theology and missiology. We also really need a discussion of the tradition of Landesgeschichte, as this is what Clay engages with on the whole. He does, however, provide interesting reflection on how interdisciplinarity--a little more than documents plus archaeology--can be used to reconstruct the complex but tangible sociological arena in which Boniface worked.

Two substantial chapters discuss the background in Wessex and Hessia, of which the second is the most successful. Not for the last time in the book, Clay uses the evidence of topography, toponyms and fragmentary references in letters and chronicles to evoke a rich world in which Boniface may have operated. Hessia is portrayed very much as a frontier zone--culturally distinct from the Frankish world to the south and west, but also subject to its influences and, ultimately, its political expansion through to the conquests of Charles Martel early in the eighth century. The chapter on seventh-century Wessex is less satisfying because some of it does not seem to be as relevant as it is portrayed (see for example a discussion of the much earlier site at Swallowcliffe Down) and much relies on Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as unproblematic narrative sources for Wessex, despite their respective geographical and chronological distance from events. Boniface's early political environment is presented as more crucial than his intellectual one. Anglo-British tensions, to cite one example, are discussed primarily for their implications for identity and social organisation, with a relatively small role allotted for things such as the conflicts over Easter reckonings. This balance is perhaps understandable given the concern to explain ecclesiastical organization later on. If one wanted to understand Boniface's worldview, however, one would need to pay more attention to educational environments, given that his "insular" writings concern grammar, meter, and learning in general rather than high politics.

Chapter Five presents a "critical chronology" of Boniface's mission in Hessia. In content, we get a thoughtful run through the course of key events, discussion of the changing nature of key sites--especially Fritzlar--and most importantly the issue of whether Boniface was active in Saxon mission in the 730s. On this last point, Clay is cautious but convincing in supporting the argument that Boniface was involved in Saxony, perhaps with moderate success. There remains space for a different kind of "critical chronology," however, as there are so few concrete dates in the Bonifatian correspondence, and some of them are so contested that the established chronology is rather built out of straw, or at least out of later hagiography.

The closing doublet "Representing the Mission" and "Experiencing the Mission"--the latter an unwieldy 118 pages in length--is where the study really comes into its own, with a wide-ranging exploration of Boniface's mission and its environments. "Representing" is a nuanced appreciation of literary motifs in the letter collections which shows without doubt how Boniface and his colleagues described mission differently to different audiences, utilising ideas of ethnicity, geography, peregrinatio and exile, and word play. Boniface, when he addressed his friends back home, was a weary wanderer in Germany, but to the papacy--which he often addressed in a much more direct Latin, incidentally--he was more businesslike. Good use in particular is made of parallels between the Bonifatian imagery of tempestuous seas and exile, and similar motifs in Old English poetry. (Do note, though, that Gregory the Great also riffed on these ideas to Leander of Seville.) There is also a nice argument about how Boniface's changing title in his letters reflects his ambitions to the North and then his failure to realise them.

"Experiencing" starts, to be honest, at odds with my own published work on paganism in the eighth century, and explicitly so; so I apologise for the extended argument here. For a run of 300 years or so, from 500 to 800, there is little variation in the way in which paganism is described (it mostly centres on rocks, trees and springs). Such things either show that clich├ęs are always true really (Clay, following in the venerable footsteps of Rob Bartlett and others) or else that they are engrained in the literate Christian imagination to be cited whether they are true or not, generating serious epistemological headaches but interesting conclusions about medieval authors (me, Couser). How one decides what's going on, I'm not always sure. I would not want to rule out, either, that some apparently distinctive details in the sources (e.g. sacrifices at saints' shrines in the Bonifatian Indiculus superstitionem) were not really just clerical anxieties rather than reports from investigations. But "distinctive detail" can indicate equally that something is "more likely to be true" or "more likely to be false" depending on the mood of the modern author, whatever the nature of the source. There is an aesthetics of interpretation at work here. Clay counters scepticism such as mine by citing a wealth of paganism-inspired place names, discussing later fairy tales (always a little dangerous), and generally evoking the kind of pre-Christian landscape Boniface must have encountered on the basis of what to him is a coherent body of place names and fragmentary references glimpsed across a number of centuries. It is fascinating and well researched. I just don't know if such continuity arguments always hold up against history in flux, at least not since I read Christina Fell's critique of scholarship on Anglo-Saxon paganism (C.E. Fell, "Paganism in Beowulf: A Semantic Fairy-Tale", in T. Hofstra, L.A.J.R. Houwen and A.A. MacDonald (eds.), Pagans and Christians: The Interplay between Christian Latin and Traditional German Cultures in Early Medieval Europe [Groningen, 1995], 9-34). Splitters will be suspicious; lumpers will love it.

A typical problem surrounds Boniface's infamous felling of the Oak of Jupiter. "Thanks to Willibald's account [in the Vita prima Bonifatii]", Clay writes, "there is no doubt that a...major shrine existed at Geismar in 721, and that it contained an oak dedicated to Thunaer" (300, emphasis mine). Except there is surely some doubt. Willibald was an Englishman writing hagiography in Mainz maybe forty years after 721 in a semi-poetic style which not only drew on Aldhelmian mannerisms (excessive alliteration, excitable sentence structure, etc.) but which also, with the oak, seems to mimic Aldhelm's story of Benedict of Nursia in De virginitate. So is Willibald writing a historical "account" based on accurate local knowledge, or stylised devotional literature for the European audience envisaged in his preface? If the latter, can we invoke interpretatio Romana unproblematically to reveal a real oak dedicated to "Thunaer"? (Can we even date Boniface's felling the tree to 723, as Clay repeats several times, on the basis of its location in Willibald's narrative alone?) I would not deny that oak trees or Thunaer were important to pre-Christian Hessian religious culture-- Clay is quite persuasive about that. Boniface may even have felled that tree. But it does not follow that either the worship of oaks or Thunear "verify" Willibald's storytelling and make it "history". More analysis of Willibald as an author of hagiography has to be included here. The same holds true elsewhere in the book, where Lupus of Ferrires's Vita Wigberti and Eigil of Fulda's Vita Sturmi are used extensively with warnings about being careful, yes, but ultimately with the assumption that it's all history really and one does not actually have to make much allowance for form, agenda, audience, author, context, etc.

Anyway, "Experiencing" eventually gives way to a discussion of Boniface's minster networks and how he might have interacted with various groups in Hessia. Neglected evidence is brought in. The charters of Hersfeld, problematic though they are, are shown to suggest a relatively hard frontier for support along the River Eder. The Pseudo-Bonifatian sermons, now studied in more detail by Rob Meens, are also cited to show what kinds of themes were deemed relevant in preaching to Christianising communities in Germania. The problems Boniface details in his letters are set out and contextualised. Boniface appears much as he did in Lutz von Padberg's 2003 biography, Bonifatius: Missionar und Reformer: frustrated and unimaginative, but incredibly active and influential.

I suspect I have been too harsh on Clay in the paragraphs above. He writes sharply, often with wit, and with great attention to detail. His discussion of the Hessian landscape betrays a real feel for the region from his time studying there. His use of the Bonifatian correspondence is exemplary and careful, and generates new insights into Boniface's self-perception and efforts at organisation. Bonifatian studies are better for all of this. But he is more optimistic than I about the historicity of hagiography, and about how far one can use place-name evidence when discussing pre-Christian beliefs. So: there are debates to be had and that is a good thing too. The history of Boniface is slowly emerging from those Grand Narratives...straight into the fires of methodology and epistemology.

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James Palmer

University of St. Andrews