Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.02.21 Aaij/Godlove (eds.), A Companion to Boniface

22.02.21 Aaij/Godlove (eds.), A Companion to Boniface

The 18 studies collected in this volume are the fruit of an international collaboration, organized into four subsections offering historical backgrounds to the saint’s life and work, the textual sources of our information about him, studies of the Germanic-speaking lands in which Boniface worked in the first half of the eighth century CE, and his later cult and memorialization there. There are seventeen illustrations, five excellent maps produced by John-Henry Clay, five tables, a substantial Bibliography and full Index to the whole volume. It is a major contribution to scholarship on the saint and his world, and especially to our understanding of the religious transformation of which he was one of the key catalysts in early medieval Europe.

In Part I: Contexts, Rudolf Schieffer reviews what we know of Boniface’s life and work, while Barbara Yorke ponders how the saint’s missionary activities on the Continent may have been inspired by his coming-of-age in what was still a frontier society on the far western fringe of Saxon settlement in Britain beyond which lay Christian, but culturally alien and Brittonic-speaking Cornwall. The close presence of co-religionists with a different language, ethnicity and ecclesiastical praxis may have provoked Boniface’s later sectarian obsession with theological and disciplinary correctness in the Roman tradition. Yorke writes:

“[W]e can readily understand why Boniface was so zealous in stamping out practices he considered to depart from the accepted norm when he worked in Germania. He was suspicious of native clergy who had not been trained by him, and even more so of the Irish whom he encountered. Boniface even questioned certain practices he observed in Rome, and was anxious to establish whether the sent by Gregory I to Augustine were genuine, as he found a ruling that marriage could be allowed to those related in the third degree contrary to his understanding of the issue. Boniface’s supreme sense of his own correctness developed out of his identity as a West Saxon Christian and can be considered part of his inheritance from West Saxon predecessors such as Aldhelm” (39).

This West Saxon experience seems also to have raised Boniface’s awareness of the necessity for far-flung political networking and top-down secular backing for church reforms, as well as his recognition of the role to be played by noble women and close family ties in the financing and promulgation of the Christian faith.

James T. Palmer explores Boniface’s organizational outreach in further depth, demonstrating how the saint developed over time a consistent message and distinctive vision of the religious life that he propagated through an intertextual set of saints’ lives consonant with each other and distributed over a wide territory. In addition, as Palmer puts it, when Boniface

“faced some localized resistance to his work within the Frankish kingdoms...the multiplicity of his personal and political connections ensured that his work could always continue in some modified form, particularly given his ability to form alliances with key social leaders and opinion-makers. Mission needed resources in terms of people, books, wealth, and moral support, and to obtain these Boniface generated bonds of obligation by invoking ideas of family, friendship, gift exchange, ethnicity, and the shared responsibilities of fellow Christians. The project of converting and Christianizing groups of people in Germany, in this context, started with practicalities and localities, but was always about wide-ranging political, intellectual, and memorial connections which drew Hesse and Thuringia into a varied European world” (66-67).

As Felice Lifshitz demonstrates, the saint’s spiritual agenda was successfully sold to a number of prominent women who came within Boniface’s sphere of influence and control, figures such as the saint’s own cousin Leoba, her kinswoman Thecla, and other nuns of his new foundations in the Main watershed. These learned women actively cultivated religious education in a Bonafatian mode and their scriptoria became centers for the propagation of biblical and patristic texts.

Boniface’s own writings and the several posthumous memorials of his life and career are addressed in Part II. Emily V. Thornbury describes the saint’s public debut as a teacher of Latin grammar in Wessex, where he was the author of enigmata or riddles in the elaborately contrived but ingenious manner of Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, his older contemporary and the leading intellectual of the later seventh century in the south of England. This competitive impulse, demonstrating the young Wynfrith’s natural intellectual gifts, soon yielded, however, to what would soon become his mature mental posture under the Latin name of Boniface, given to him by Pope Gregory II when he visited Rome in 718. The saint’s “signature,” his philosophy of life as expressed to his many correspondents, is a consistent concern for clear and precise instructions, whether grammatical, metrical, or theological: rules for speaking, rules for writing, rules for living the religious life. This urge for discipline, conformity, and compliance impelled Boniface to correct errors in belief or practice wherever he encountered them. At the same time, it produced what is perhaps the saint’s greatest intellectual contribution to our understanding of his era. Michel Aaij surveys the 150 letters and other documents that have been collected with Boniface’s correspondence, yielding a distinct impression of his personality and of his relationships, though many times we have only replies to one of his own missives. These letters demonstrate the saint’s powers of persuasion and their practical results, his far-reaching effectiveness on the ground, most of which foundations still stand where he planted them. In fact, he came to model himself rather self-consciously on the Apostle Paul in his epistolary outreach. Aaij notes with some curiosity that Boniface even managed to cap his apostolic career with a memorable martyrdom, a grand finale to his curriculum vitae which secured his canonization as a kind of new Paul (3).

There are six extant lives of Saint Boniface by different authors, and Shannon Godlove writes on the first of these, Willibald’s Vita Bonafatii, composed shortly after his death in June 754 at the age of seventy-nine. It confirms the departed saint’s aspirations by concluding each chapter with verses from the Pauline Epistles. In a second study, Godlove shows how this early account of the saint was massaged to suit the needs of later hagiographers in the service of their own religious communities. Rob Meens writes on a collection of sermons and a penitential once attributed to Boniface, but finds little actual evidence of the bishop’s more routine pastoral activities as priest and bishop in preaching to his flock or caring for their souls in confession and assigning penances. These sermons from his milieu suggest a primary concern for driving home the key points of Christian doctrine: “the Creation, the Trinity, the coming of Christ, and the Last Judgment were presented as the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Christians should also know the Creed and the Pater Noster” (218). Beyond these fundamental matters of faith, Boniface seems most concerned for the legitimacy of baptisms performed by imperfectly trained or unauthorized personnel, or for the poor creedal command and comprehension of recent converts, or for the indulgence of certain traditional folk beliefs on the part of colleagues and rivals like Virgil of Salzburg whom he accused to the Pope of heresy. Boniface’s real talents seem to have been as a community organizer or political activist, to use our own terms. Michael Glatthaar describes the saint’s determined agenda in reforming the Frankish church by recruiting support from their most powerful elites, first Charles Martel, then his sons Carloman and Pippin III. And leaving nothing to chance, Boniface lobbied hard to make sure the reforms he promoted were codified into law, which in turn had a profound effect upon the subsequent shape of the whole Carolingian legal system and emergent body of canon law.

Part III is devoted to Boniface’s activities in particular parts of the growing Frankish empire and its surrounding territories. Michael Edward Moore writes on Francia itself, describing the saint’s tense but skillful navigation of the shift from Merovingian to Carolingian rule, and especially his successful effort to secure the new dynasty’s strong orientation toward Rome. John-Henry Clay writes on Boniface in Hessia and Thuringia, describing how the saint had hoped to use the former as a base of operations into pagan Saxony, a goal which remained unfulfilled in his lifetime. Yet in Hesse, Boniface displayed his characteristic knack for “events planning” with what looks like a staged miracle, one that was meant to recall a similar manifestation of God’s power earlier described in the Vita Martini of Sulpicius Severus. This is the saint’s famous felling of the great robor Iobis “Oak of Jove” at Geismar, understood by most scholars to mean that of Thor or Donar on the model of Donares tag “Thursday” in Old High German, calqued on Latin dies Jovis. The region was hardly a pagan backwater, however, since there was already a church less than a kilometer away at Büraburg, where was also stationed a troop of Frankish cavalry at the ready. Clay concludes that “the felling of the oak at Geismar, far from being a daring act in the face of overwhelming hostility, was strategically planned and carefully executed under an umbrella of Frankish military protection” (281). Indeed, Boniface soon went on to secure major religious achievements in the region, including the foundation of Fulda, which became an Anglo-Saxon powerhouse crucial to Charlemagne’s forcible conversion of the “Old Saxons” during the decades that followed Boniface’s death, even though the saint had secured a papal exemption of his house from all local secular or ecclesiastical authority. Leanne Good addresses the similar success of Boniface in Bavaria, where he negotiated carefully between a number of competing interests--royal, ducal and episcopal--to establish the monasteries of Eichstätt and Heidenheim, and to lay the groundwork for the reform of the Bavarian and Austrasian churches in general. These reforms were confirmed by Charlemagne when he finally appropriated the territory in 788, though Good also shows how later Bavarian hagiographers like Arbeo of Friesing pushed back against the pro-Bonafatian propagandists who celebrated the saint’s reforms at the expense of earlier Irish missions and church foundings that had been ignored or belittled in a kind of damnatio memoriae.

The most dramatic study in this third section is Marco Mostert’s “Boniface in Frisia,” the culmination of the saint’s Pauline ambitions and apparently the site of some earlier disappointment or frustration on his part. When he first arrived from Britain, the West Saxon Boniface joined the Christian mission in Frisia led there by his Northumbrian compatriot Willibrord, who was operating out of Utrecht. Willibrord had first received his calling after twelve years of study in Ireland, arriving in the country with eleven followers. He, too, was concerned with supplanting pagan shrines with Christian churches, but had to accommodate the authority of recalcitrant pagan kings like Radbod who had successfully resisted Frankish domination. Willibrord lived to the ripe old age of eighty-one, dying peacefully of natural causes. Reading between the lines, it looks like Boniface may have had some “authority issues” with Willibrord from whom he learned the missionary’s trade, so soon struck out on his own for points east. The Frisian mission had had only limited success in the intervening decades, so Boniface brashly returned to that country in 754, fifteen years after his old mentor’s death, to encourage the wavering Christians there and secure a victory for the faith in his own name. A planned confirmation ceremony at Dokkum went awry when a gang of thugs showed up instead of the expected communicants. They murdered Boniface and his more than fifty companions, but were dismayed, according to Willibald, at finding no gold or silver in their luggage, but only holy relics and books. These they dumped out into the marsh, which were miraculously recovered unharmed by the timid Frisian Christians who materialized once the coast was clear. Interestingly, it was Willibrord rather than the martyred Boniface who became the most fondly remembered Apostle to the Frisians, the more patient and tolerant evangelist.

Part IV comprises four studies of the later veneration of Saint Boniface and some of the controversy surrounding his character and career, both soon after his death and in his later reception over the centuries. Petra Kehl explores “The Veneration of Boniface in the Middle Ages,” describing the success of his cult at Fulda, Mainz, Dokkum and Utrecht, but noting that he was never venerated as a saint in Anglo-Saxon England, though proudly commemorated there by clergy until the Norman Conquest. Nevertheless, his foundation at Fulda became a magnet for Anglo-Saxon monks. It was Boniface’s favorite and where his remains came to rest, though not without some considerable tussling amongst other interested parties for the honor. In “Imitemur nos, qui alumni eius sumus...: Boniface’s Nachleben in Early Medieval Fulda,” Janneke Raaijmakers compares Boniface’s later popularity in this distinguished house with that of its other founder Sturm, who rather faded as the favored ideal for its monks to emulate. Siegfried Weichlein explores politicized revivals of the image of Boniface in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially the posthumous competition between this early medieval martyr and the later Protestant reformer Martin Luther as the true champion of the Christian faith in Germany. The two figures came to embody the country’s rival Christianities, a contest that sometimes devolved into invidious caricatures of the one or the other figure by Catholics or Lutherans. Michel Aaij brings us up to the present, surveying the “Popular Veneration and the Image of Boniface in the Modern Era.” He notes that the increasing secularization of European society after the Second World War has led to the saint being valued less for his Christian evangelism and more for his political commitment to a unified Europe, an “Apostle of Europe” (427) or prophet of the EU. At the same time, his figure is frequently recruited by the local tourism industry in the towns with which he is associated, commodified in souvenirs and memorabilia or celebrated in plays and operas. On the other hand, the saint’s reputation has suffered somewhat in recent years by a more critical examination from ecological or postcolonial perspectives. His felling of Donar’s Oak is no longer celebrated as a miracle of spiritual courage and the progress of Christian faith in the land, but rather as a more disturbing premonition of environmental degradation, religious bigotry, and ethnic violence. In these views, Saint Boniface had indeed foreshadowed the future of Europe, but in a bad way. And to yet others his brand of evangelical zeal provided a blueprint for an unholy alliance between Christian missions and violent colonialism in modern Africa and elsewhere. This negative legacy, Aaij writes, is just beginning to be explored, but can only improve our understanding of the nature of this remarkable man’s achievements and their complex historical consequences.

This collection offers a valuable compendium of perspectives on Saint Boniface, succinctly articulated, carefully documented, and thoughtfully analyzed with depth and insight. The authors incidentally provide a very fine update of scholarship on all of the saint’s times and places in general.