Monday, March 07, 2011

Boniface's Other Women; A Saxon Quest at Crediton

The following is taken several extracts taken from a longer piece I've written, about  forgotten scholarly Anglo-Saxon women connected with mid-Devon:

Crediton Church


... Every time I hear the church bells loop their rounds out over the town I think of the buried cathedral and of how the history of this place is largely mysterious, sacred, sunken, lost to view ...

        Many are familiar with the life and importance of Saint Boniface (known as Wynfrith) and of his roots in the mid Devon town of Crediton. The church’s own web site says of him:

Boniface has had an enormous impact on English and European history, far beyond the simple conversion of people to Christianity. His guidance of the early church in Germany, his establishment of structures which allowed it to co-exist with monarchy, were massively important, and the educational and literary influence from his monasteries and churches in his lifetime and over the next centuries was very significant. He is described as the Apostle of Germany and is greatly revered in Holland.

Boniface's statue in Newcombe's Park
Locally there are many places, including houses, named after Boniface and places linked with his famous life, including a sprinkling of houses named ‘Dokkum’. There is a popular Boniface town trail here, a commemorative window in the Holy Cross Church and the Boniface National Shrine is in the Catholic Church.        
       Not so many will be aware of the importance of a group of literary women who shared Boniface’s passion, commitment and intelligence. If we can put together even a fragment of a lost narrative we are beginning to assert the case for an alternative canon to the reported chronology of that of the male clerics and missionaries of the early Devon church. There is almost certainly a forgotten her-story of women missionaries, possibly centering on this part of Devon, whose pagan Nymeds (sacred groves) conjured its ancient sacred ambiance and connection with female spiritualities. Mid Devon’s links with sacred forces did not die out with the transformations carried out by its early Christians. On the contrary, although our modern day mid-Devon landscape does not easily give up its sanctified secrets, they are there and reminders are dotted all across the area, whose earlier pagan associations are thus extended forward into an equally rooted affiliation with early Christian visionaries, many of whom were women. Before the period of Boniface and his circles' sway, there were even earlier Celtic missionary-saints roaming this area, traces of whose influence are still to be detected in surviving local church dedications. A cluster of these were female ...

    ...  We can imagine those women wandering through the Wessex territories towards Cornwall on the old pilgrim ways. In Cornwall and Devon names such as St Ite/Ide, St Julietta, St Bridget, St Christina, St Morwenna, St Ia, St Breaca, are laced with associative identity at the various places whose names recall them. As one historian noted, they ‘have passed their names intertwined with those of native British Celtic Christians down to our time' and the ‘presentation of a shadow of an extinguished dedication in the name of a place is far more frequent than commonly expected’ (Richard Kerslake, The King of Englishmen and his Territory, 31-4)

      If one could magic a coloured hologram into the C8 Anglo-Saxon era, only a stone’s throw of centuries after Brychan’s children came across the sea and stamped their early Christian identity over much of the county, one might see a thriving community of vibrant women who, working on behalf of the new church, wrote and breathed their life-essences as pious visionaries into the geographical heart of their community. Travelling from place to place, they may have paused to pray and preach at wooden crosses; stopped to reflect at a particular inscribed stone set in place with a chi-rho, in memory of a relative; set up and founded local schools and chapels; or sanctified a particular pagan well, which then became established in their own name. Though there is nothing confirmed about the birth origins of these women, reading between the fragmented lines of lost herstory provides the imaginative researcher with a keen sense of the essence of ghostly presences still pervasive within the bare bones of the cultural landscape’s skeleton today.

Wynfrith's (Boniface's) Well, Crediton)
       One or two Anglo-Saxon historian researchers have initiated theories gesturing in that direction. These take as their starting point the fact that until recently the rather limited study into the Boniface archives has described and emphasised the women in his circle only as far as their connections with the eastern and midland reaches of the country - especially Kent and Hwicce - were concerned. This is to the detriment of the just as likely – though not so easily proven – links between these religious women and west of Wessex, a part of the country for which there is perhaps surprisingly little documentation re early religious communities, particularly those with women; although most agree that they must have existed.

       In her study, The Bonifacian Mission and female religious in Wessex, Barbara Yorke has acknowledged the likelihood of individuals within Boniface’s female coterie having originated from the western reaches of Wessex: ‘Many of the women who worked with him on the continent also seem to have come from Wessex and so it might be expected that many of the women associated with the monasteries would be West Saxons as well’(2).

       However, even Yorke has not gone as far as to identify locations. The study does not even suggest where any sites of women’s religious institutions may have been, other than that of the famous Wimborne community herstory.

      But at least Yorke has identified names of women in Boniface’s network who she believes had connections with and ‘fitted into the context’ of the ‘western Wessex’, or ‘West Saxon’ region. They include Leoba, (Abbess and later Saint); Eadburg or Edburga (Leoba’s teacher and possibly Boniface’s pupil from time before he left Wessex; may have been abbess at Wimborne; Boniface asks her to send him Epistles of Peter in gold); Ecgburg (Boniface’s pupil; locality of Glastonbury?); Cyneburg (Abbess of royal descent; Lull’s abbess; ‘Cyne’ was a prefix used in west Saxon royal families); Bugga, (Abbess, built an unidentified church, praised by Aldhelm; daughter of King Centwine of Wessex); Cuthberg/Cuthberga or Cuthburh (foundress of Wimborne; sister of King Ine); her sister Cwenburg (King Ine is said to have founded Glastonbury Abbey and a fortress in Taunton); Tetta (a nickname; Abbess at Wimborne; teacher of Leoba; sister of a king of Wessex; probably a kinswoman of Cuthberg and Cwenburg or may have been one of them; or may have been one and the same as Edburga); Lulle (nun; possibly an Abbess; sold lands to Glastonbury and her community seems to have bordered lands belonging to Glastonbury); Sulce (nun; recorded as having granted lands at Culmstock and Culm Davey sometimes after 760); Walburga (related to Boniface; siser of Willebald and Wynnebald); Hugeburc or Huneberc (wrote biography of Willebald and Wynnebald; seems to have been their kinswomen and therefore related to Walburga); Thecla (kinswoman of Leoba); Cynehild and her daughter Berhtgyth or Berhthyo (mother and daughter; learned in the liberal arts; aunt and cousin to Lull – (who was probably a west Saxon and received part of his education at Malmesbury).

        I am not trying here to prove that all, or indeed any, of these religious women did come from or live in Devon/Dumnonia. The information about most of them is too disparate to be able to ascertain any home-base with certainty. But there is every reason to suppose that at least a handful of them were in some way closely allied with this part of the west country and if this can be assumed, then their influence as literary, spiritual and scholarly individuals should be acknowledged for their revelation of just a little about a missing chunk of our heritage ...

     ...  Making a stab in the dark. I’d reiterate that not only did some of the women correspond with Boniface, whilst a few of them may have accompanied or followed him on his travels abroad, but it is likely that a cluster of the women originated from the western reaches of the west country, as, the consensus is, did Wynfrith himself. If as suggested, the women were his kinswomen, it is surely probable that they were familiar with the land of his birth, either as visitors or as themselves inhabitants there. Looking at the names, one is struck at how many of them appear to have been inter-related and so, if one of them had connections with the Devon lands, then presumably so did the others. During this period the ties of kinship were more powerful than those of friendship or spirituality, and the fact that Wynfrith himself is reputed to have originated in the mid-Devon region allows the equally valid possibility that his women colleagues and correspondents also led at least part of their lives there ...

      ... Any attempt to repatriate these women’s lives within the folk and cultural literary memory of Devon and the west country must consider their own writings and scholarship, fragments of which are still retained in archives. The women round Boniface need to be recognised, remembered for their work on and understanding of different genres, including letters, poetry, cryptography or ‘enigmata’ and biography. Although it can not be confirmed that any of their work or study took place in mid-Devon, neither can it be concluded that it did not, for the archival information about the whereabouts of the sites of Scriptoriums as well as imprecision about the women’s own lived locations leaves a very fluid situation. Just as the writing of the Saxon missionaries of this period is typified by runic games, plays on words and cryptic puzzles, the circumstances and stories of their lives have only left remnants; little tasters: tantalising names or snippets of narratives which need deciphering, as do the texts themselves ...

     ... Although they are sparse, reading their letters provides a sudden sharp sense of identity in a way that no accumulated facts could ever do. Leoba’s presence as feeling, sensual being is immediate when she writes to Boniface from Wimborne, sometime between 725-32, telling him she is ‘filled with breathless longing to hear from you’. She pleads with him, to ‘remember the friendship you once had in the West Country, with my father, Dyyno who died eight years ago’ and asks him ‘to remember my mother Ebbe, your kinswoman, who is still alive, but ailing’. Somehow the lived intensity of Leoba’s life comes right through to us in the C21, although formally her writing makes rhetorical use of devices typical of her time ...

... Lyrical lines rise over and above the church. All that and all of them are still near and here. For centuries others’ live-journeys passing across and through this place. Pausing to stop and consider the paths. Another’s past. Perhaps to pray. This is the way. My road.

Crediton Church from the park
copyright Julie Sampson