Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tetta: Spiritual Mother of Saints

by Kim Rendfeld

1904 illustration
of a Benedictine nun
from English Monastic Life
by F.A. Gasquet.
Mother Tetta was important in her day. So important that when Saint Boniface needed nuns to assist him in his mission to strengthen the Church in today’s Germany, he wrote to her, not to a bishop. Yet little is remembered about her.

I came across Tetta while writing about Saint Lioba last month. As I researched this post, I found little information about the woman described as Lioba’s “mistress and spiritual mother.” Not even an artistic painting or statue, even though she was also a mentor to Saints Walburga and Thecla of Kitzingen.

Her biographical information is sketchy, even when she was born and died (the latter around 760). The sister of a king of Wessex, she was an abbess of the double monastery at Wimborne. Her baptismal name might have been Cuniberg.

She appears in one or two letters. A priest writing to monks in Glastonbury between 732-54 asks them to tell Mother Tetta and her nuns of his party’s safe arrival in Germany. A letter to Cuniberg from three assistants to Boniface asks her for prayers, a significant request in an age that believed in divine intervention.

Photo by Andreas Praefcke, Lioba (right)
with Saints Walburga and Michael
The importance she placed on education is seen in two of her disciples. Lioba paused from her reading only to pray, eat, or sleep. Walburga wrote her brother’s hagiography and recounted his travels to the Holy Land.

The most tantalizing clues about Tetta are in Lioba’s hagiography, written around 836. Both stories about Tetta involve the supernatural, but I have a feeling there might be some truth about her character in them. As before, I will leave it to readers to decide their accuracy.

One tale involves a set of lost keys to the chapel. The nun responsible for keeping the keys believed she was negligent and, after desperate, fruitless search, threw herself at Tetta’s feet and confessed. Tetta suspected a more sinister cause. Rather than punish the nun, Tetta led her sisters in prayer in another building. Sure enough, a dead fox (a symbol of the devil) appeared at the door with the keys in its mouth.

The other story involves a nun elevated to prioress because of her zeal for discipline and strict observance. Apparently, she was too zealous and too strict. The young nuns hated her so much that when the prioress died, they heaped curses at the grave and stomped on it. The grave sunk six inches, an indication the prioress was being punished in the afterlife. Tetta was horrified.

What she told the nuns will ring true for Christians today. Rudolf, Lioba’s hagiographer, writes, “She counselled them to lay aside their resentment, to accept the ill­ treatment they had received and to show without delay their forgiveness: if they wished their own sins to be forgiven by God they should forgive others from the bottom of their hearts.”

After three days of fasting and prayers, including Tetta prostrating herself before the altar, the grave was restored, a sign that the prioress had been absolved.

If we are to believe Saint Lioba’s hagiography, Tetta was a gentle soul who believed in education and mercy. It’s a shame we know so little about her. She deserves better.

All images via Wikimedia Commons in public domain or have permission granted under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License.


The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912) articles on Saint Walburga, Saint Thecla of Kitzingen, and Wimborne Minister
Medieval Women Monastics: Wisdom's Wellsprings edited by Miriam Schmitt, Linda Kulzer, pp. 101-103
Medieval Sourcebook: Rudolph of Fulda: Life of Leoba (Note: Leoba is an alternate spelling of Lioba)


Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia: The Cross and the Dragon  and the forthcoming The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. Fireship Press is the publisher for both. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit or her blog, Outtakes. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. How interesting Kim - a few years back I used to attend the St Boniface church near Southampton near where (supposedly) he had trained before setting out to Germany. Nice to read about someone he had dealings with in this way.


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