Sunday, May 12, 2013

Saint Boniface: A Man on a Mission

by Kim Rendfeld


In 750, Archbishop Boniface anointed the upstart Frankish King Pepin in Soisson. A Saxon in his 70s, he could have had influenced Frankish politics, or he could have retired to a monastery. Instead, a few years later, he embarked on a dangerous mission to preach to the pagan Frisians.

That’s the striking thing about Saint Boniface. He could have had an easy life, by early medieval standards, but again and again, he gave up power and the privileges that went with it to pursue his missionary work.

Boniface is believed to have been born to a noble family in Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the 670s - details of his early life are sketchy. He was called Winfrid until he took the Latinized version of his name, either when he joined the Benedictine order or when he was consecrated bishop in 722.

From an early 20th century prayer card
When he was a child, missionary monks visited his family’s home. Their stories must have made quite an impression on the boy, enough to make him want to be a monk. Did what they say about the pagans in Saxony cause him to worry that thousands of fellow Saxons faced eternity in hell? Did he see himself rescuing them from that fate?

Regardless of the boy’s motives, Boniface’s father prohibited his son from pursuing a religious life but relented after becoming seriously ill, believed to be a sign from God to let his son go the monastery.

At age 13, he went to the abbey of Adescancastre (site of today’s Exeter) and seven years later the abbey of Nhutscelle (between Southhampton and Winchester). There, he furthered his education, joined the Benedictine order, and was ordained a priest at age 30. (The lines between priest and monk were loose then.)

Rejecting Power and Prestige 

A memorial to Boniface in Fritzlar
He could have basked in the praise of his scholarship and preaching, but that’s not what he wanted. He wanted to preach to the Continental Saxons, pagans who lived in today’s Germany and might have practiced human sacrifice as a thanksgiving after a first battle. At this point, he was probably in his late 30s or early 40s.

He made a foray into Frisia but found the political situation too unstable and returned to Britain. About a year later, toward the end of 717, the abbot of Nhutscelle died, and the monks elected Boniface the abbot. Abbots often had political influence, and although the abbot at Nhutscelle chose an austere lifestyle, many lived as aristocrats. Boniface rejected the abbacy and instead convinced the bishop of Winchester to have the monks elect someone else.

He then traveled to Rome to receive the pope’s blessing for his mission to the Continent. When the pope determined Boniface had the right morals and motivation, he sent him to lands in today’s Germany.

Mission on the Continent
 
What Boniface found was that officially Christian countries had lapsed, often following a mix of Christianity and paganism. With the exception of a couple of visits to Rome, he spent the next decade preaching, converting pagans, founding monasteries and appointing abbesses. Some of his tactics will bother a tolerant 21st century audience. He felled a tree sacred to the pagans and made a chapel from its wood, and he destroyed an idol. His stature and mission continued to grow.

In 732, he was elevated to archbishop and continued to found monasteries and build churches and institute reforms. He wanted to resign his archbishopric in 738 and return to mission work, but the pope would not let him. For many years, he held synods, enforced canons, trained monks, and led prayers and meditation.

An 11th century illustration from the Sacramentary of Fulda

About 753, he resigned the archbishopric of Mainz and went to Frisia with his followers. He surely knew that it was not safe. Having lived longer than most medieval folk, perhaps he did not fear death. While he prepared for confirmation rites for converts on the River Bornes in 754, his party was attacked by pagans, apparently intent on robbery. He told his followers not to resist. His body was found near a bloodstained copy of Saint Ambrose’s The Advantage of Death.

He was eventually taken to Fulda, whose establishment he had supervised, and his canonization soon followed (exactly when is unclear). In 778, more than 20 years after Boniface’s death, the monks at Fulda went to great lengths to protect his relics. While pagan Saxons warriors closed in, they fled for their lives, taking the saint’s bones with them. The monks were able to return to Fulda, where Boniface’s tomb remains today.

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907), article by Francis Mershman

Rev. Alban Butler’s The Lives of Saints 

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons.

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Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia, where Boniface was revered: The Cross and the Dragon, published by Fireship Press, and the yet-to-be published The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog, Outtakes. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

2 comments:

  1. So sad that after such a prestigious life he should die in such a way, in anonymity, but as you say, maybe he knew it was his time. Thanks for the interesting post.
    I'll certainly share it!

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  2. Boniface died bravely doing what he thought God called him to do. I can't help but wonder if he would have gone crazy spending his last years in the comfortable retirement of a monastery. His courage might have inspired other missionaries, which might also be what he was hoping for. Thanks for your comment and for sharing.

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