Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Saint Lioba: Trusted Friend of a Martyr

by Kim Rendfeld

Before he became a martyr in Frisia in 754, Saint Boniface had put his affairs at Fulda in order. Part of that was summoning his younger kinswoman Lioba, whom he had installed as abbess at Bischofsheim. He gave Lioba his cowl and instructed the monks of Fulda that they were to treat her with reverence and, when her time came, to place her remains in the same tomb as his.

Photo by Kandschwar, statue of Lioba in Schornsheim
Neither Boniface nor Lioba were young. Boniface likely was in his 70s. Lioba might have been in her mid-40s. Her hagiography gives hints of her struggles at the time, referring to “her weakness.” Boniface also “exhorted her not to abandon the country of her adoption and not to grow weary of the life she had undertaken, but rather to extend the scope of the good work she had begun.”

Those instructions must have worked. Lioba spent the rest of her days in Francia, visiting the royal court, convents, and the monastery at Fulda, where no other woman was allowed to enter.

Given how close Lioba and Boniface were in life, it might not be a surprise that his parting words to her would have such an effect. In a letter to him, she reminds her kinsman that her father died eight years before and her mother was grievously ill. "I am the only daughter of my parents, and unworthy though I be, I wish that I might regard you as a brother; for there is no other man in my kinship in whom I have such confidence as in you."

Most of what we know about the British-born Lioba comes from her hagiography written by the monk Rudolf of Fulda almost 60 years after her death. Like other hagiographies, Lioba’s story includes dreams and miracles, with parallels to biblical characters and events, the accuracy of which I will leave to the reader to decide.

“In appearance she was angelic,” Rudolf wrote, “in word pleasant, dear in mind, great in prudence, Catholic in faith, most patient in hope, universal in her charity. … No one ever heard a bad word from her lips; the sun never went down upon her anger. … So great was her zeal for reading that she discontinued it only for prayer or for the refreshment of her body with food or sleep: the Scriptures were never out of her hands.”

Childhood in the Church

Like Boniface, Lioba (also spelled Leoba) was born in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Her parents, Dynne and Aebbe, had given up on having a child, but then Aebbe dreamed that she bore a church bell in her bosom, which rang out merrily when withdrawn. A nurse told Aebbe that she was going to have a daughter and she must dedicate the child to the Church the way Anna offered Samuel to the temple.

Aebbe handed her daughter over to the care of Mother Tetta, abbess of Wimbourne and future saint who believed in the power of mercy and prayer. Wimbourne was a double monastery where men and women did not mix. Women who entered stayed for life unless there was a greater cause.

Growing up, Lioba proved to be serious and pious. A dream she had of an endless purple thread from her mouth, she was told, was a sign that her wise counsel would be felt in other lands.

That dream was fulfilled when Boniface sent for Lioba, who had a reputation for being learned. Boniface was founding abbeys where the practice of Christianity had slipped, and he needed people he could trust to watch over them. Tetta was not happy to let Lioba go but felt like the need was too great for her to refuse.

Life in Francia

Lioba arrived in Bischofsheim (now called Tauberbischofsheim) around 748. She trained other nuns on the principles of monastic life and many of her disciples became abbesses themselves.

Photo by Andreas Praefcke, Lioba (right)
with Saints Walburga and Michael
But Lioba and her sisters faced their own difficulties. In a story that could have come from today’s tragic headlines, a woman discovered a murdered newborn in the river and jumped to the conclusion that one of the nuns - strangers to the area - had borne and killed the child to cover up her sin. Lioba and the nuns were horrified. After a series of prayers and processions, a vision like flames appeared around the guilty party - a crippled girl the nuns had been caring for. (Her hagiography has other miracles of her healing a very sick nun, putting out a fire, and quieting a storm.)

Lioba lived for 25 years after Boniface’s martyrdom. She was often invited to the Frankish court and well received and respected for her wisdom. She was an advisor to Pepin and his sons, Charles and Carloman (who didn‘t get along). After Carloman died, she still was in Charles’s favor and became close to Hildegard. Perhaps, she was even like a second mother to the young queen, who might have been 13 when she married in 772.

But she “detested the life at court like poison,” Rudolf wrote. And so she would return to her work, mainly mentoring nuns.

At some point, her age and failing health caught up with her. Perhaps when she was in her 60s, she must have realized she had little time left. After settling her affairs at the convents under her care, she retired to Scoranesheim. But Queen Hildegard made one final request to see her.

For the sake of her friendship with the queen, Lioba visited her but soon left. Her farewell is an intimate gesture. She kissed Hildegard on the mouth, forehead, and eyes, and called her “most precious half of my soul.”

Lioba died a few days after returning home. The monks remembered Boniface’s request but they were reluctant to break into his tomb. So she was buried nearby and moved to a different location in the church several years later. (After her hagiography was written, she was moved a few more times after that, finally resting in Petersburg Abbey in Fulda.)

Miracles continued to be attributed to Lioba after her death. One involved a man cured of his twitching. When asked what happened, he said he had a vision of an old man in a bishop’s stole accompanied by a young woman in a nun’s habit who took him by the hand, lifted him up, and presented him to the bishop to be blessed.


The Letters of Saint Boniface, p. 37-38

Medieval Sourcebook: Rudolph of Fulda: Life of Leoba

"Saint Lioba of Bischofsheim" Saints.SQPN.com. 2 April 2013. Web. 8 June 2013.

All images from Wikimedia Commons, permission granted under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License.


Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia: 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.

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