Dr. Karen Palmer
In the midst of the Dark Ages, women’s voices are most commonly found in the words of those who joined convents. Whether these women initially sought education, freedom, or a way to enter into divine service, their devotion to God made an impact on the world around them. Because they were educated, they wrote, and, fortunately, some of their writings survive. Leoba is one of these women.
Leoba was “born Thurtgeba to an aged aristocratic couple, Dynne and Aebbe, in around 700 in Wessex, renamed Leobgytha, and nicknamed Leoba, ‘beloved’” (Thiebaux 1994, 142-143). As a young girl, Leoba entered the convent under Tetta of Wimbourne and served with Agatha, Thecla, Nana, and Eolaba. According to Leoba’s biographer, the convent into which Leoba entered was one of a pair—there was a monastery for men and one for women. Women were not allowed in the men’s monastery and vice versa. However, Tetta ruled over both monasteries, giving “instruction by deed rather than by words” and maintaining “discipline with such circumspection that she would never allow her nuns to approach clerics” (Oden 1995, 88).
According to Oden (1995), “Leoba was a diligent student and became known both for her intellect and for her sanctity” (87). Later, she was released to Boniface “to assist him in his tasks in Germany and to supervise thirty nuns” (Thiebaux 1994, 143). Leoba’s life was chronicled by Rudolf of Fulda, a monk from Hesse, and modern scholars also have the privilege of reading correspondence between Leoba and Boniface, of which one letter from Leoba survives.
During the time of Leoba’s service, the primary focus of women in monasteries was to devote their lives to Christ and to do His work. According to Thiebaux (1994), this “might mean toiling in alien climates among ungrateful and malevolent heathen” (142). To this end, missionaries were sent out, and Leoba was one of them.
Interestingly, according to Leoba’s biographer, Leoba was called to service before her birth. He recounts a dream her mother, Aebba, had in which “she saw herself bearing in her bosom a church bell, which on being drawn out with her hand rang merrily” (Oden 1995, 89). Aebba went to her nurse for help in discerning the meaning of the dream and was told, “‘We shall yet see a daughter from your womb and it is your duty to consecrate her straightway to God. And as Anna offered Samuel to serve God all the days of his life in the temple, so you must offer her . . . ’” (as quoted in Oden 1995, 89). Like Hannah and Elizabeth, Aebba was promised a child in her old age who would serve God.
Later in her life, Leoba herself had a strange dream that also portended her calling. This dream is retold in the Vita:
. . . she had a dream in which one night she saw a purple thread issuing from her mouth. It seemed to her that when she took hold of it with her hand and tried to draw it out there was no end to it; and as if it were coming from her very bowels, it extended little by little until was of enormous length. When her hand was full of thread and it still issued from her mouth she rolled it round and round and made a ball of it. The labour of doing this was so tiresome that eventually, through sheer fatigue, she woke from her sleep and began to wonder what the meaning of the dream might be. (Oden 1995, 90)
Wondering about the dream, Leoba sent one of her disciples to an elderly nun known to possess the spirit of prophecy. The nun angrily asked why this girl would pretend she herself had a dream when it belonged to another and proceeded to give the interpretation:
“These things were revealed to the person whose holiness and wisdom make her a worthy recipient, because by her teaching and good example she will confer benefits on many people. The thread which came from her bowels and issued from her mouth, signifies the wise counsels that she will speak from the heart. The fact that it filled her hand means that she will carry out in her actions whatever she expresses in her words . . . By these signs God shows that your mistress will profit many by her words and example, and the effect of them will be felt in other lands afar off wither she will go” (Oden 1995, 90-91).
In response to her reputation, she is chosen by Boniface to assist him in his work in Germany. Though Abbess Tetta “was exceedingly displeased at her departure, but because she could not gainsay the dispositions of divine providence,” she agrees to Boniface’s request (Thiebaux 1994, 145). Leoba leaves the country she knows and agrees to establish a community in Germany among the pagans who would eventually take the life of Boniface himself. According to Thiebaux (1994), “she would respond to a dear kinsman’s summons to live out her life in a harsh, inhospitable country, in a form of foreign exile over the water. Surrounding him are men who threaten to hunt him down, and they do. He wanders, she is fixed in a place where she must discharge duties” (145).
Boniface recognized the worth of Leoba’s service and affirmed her calling to ministry symbolically, as well. Rudolf’s biography recalls that Boniface “gave her his cowl, the hood of his cloak, an item sometimes taken as the insignia of the monk’s very calling,” an act that again reinforces the calling of Leoba (Thiebaux 1994, 146). Thus, Leoba’s calling is confirmed again by Boniface, both in his request for Leoba’s help and in his offering her the symbol of divine service and calling.
According to Leoba’s biographer, her duties were many and varied. She was often summoned by King Charles and Queen Hildegard so that they “might progress in the spiritual life and profit by her words and example . . . And because of her wide knowledge of the Scriptures and her prudence in counsel they often discussed spiritual matters and ecclesiastical discipline with her” (Oden 1995, 92). In addition, she ministered to nuns at various convents, teaching the nuns as well as the novices. Leoba was, then, sought after for her knowledge by both those in government and those in ministry, both male and female. She was known for her wisdom and her devotion to the Scriptures. She set an example that many tried to pattern their lives after.
Leoba’s own words in the one remaining letter to Boniface is a testament to the life she sought to live. She saw herself as “the lowest servant of those who bear the gentle yoke of Christ” and, throughout the letter, denigrates herself, calling her diction “countrified” and her composition “meager rudiments” (Oden 1995, 149-150). Her requests of Boniface exhibit the concerns of her heart, namely, her family, her devotion to Boniface himself, her devotion to God, and her education.
First, she asks Boniface to “offer prayers to God” for the soul of her father and “to remember my mother Aebbe” who is “still alive and much burdened by illness” (Oden 1995, 149). Then, she asks Boniface if she “might welcome you as my brother” and sends a gift “so that you will remember me only a little and not hand me over to the blankness of oblivion just because you are far away” (Oden 1995, 149). Third, she asks him to pray for herself as she seeks holiness, “that with the leathern shield of your prayers you will protect me against the poison darts of the enemy” (Oden 1995, 149). Finally, she offers a composition to Boniface for his correction saying, “It isn’t because I’m bold enough to think that I have any talent but because I’m eager to practice my meager rudiments of graceful composition, and I hope to have your help” (Oden 1995, 150). Through the entire letter, Leoba exhibits a humbleness of spirit and a desire to help others, seek godliness, and to improve her skills. Even the composition she offers at the end of the letter reflects her heart, as it is a prayer for Boniface:
“May the all-powerful Judge, who alone created all,
Who pours forth light in the realm of the father
Where it steadfastly gleams so Christ’s glory may reign,
Keep you unharmed forever in his eternal law” (Oden 1995, 150).
As for the impact of Leoba’s life, her reputation tells the story. She is called out of the monastery by Boniface to help him in ministering to German heathens. She is set up as the leader of thirty other nuns there. She is called repeatedly to court to minister to those in leadership. And in all of these things, she is known to be continually seeking God in prayer and in service. Her example led the way for many others.
Excerpt from “Chapter 4: Rhetorical Analysis of the Words of Women in the Bible and Church History” from Clarifying God’s Purpose for Women in Ministry Today: A Rhetorical Analysis of Women’s Words Through History by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC ND.
Leoba’s Letter to Boniface
The English Nun Leoba Begs Boniface’s Prayers For Her Parents (Soon after 732)
The nun mentioned here appears later in this volume: see her biography by Rudolf of Fulda. Her mistress Eadburga was the Abbess of Minster in Thanet, as mentioned earlier.
To the most reverend Boniface, dearly beloved in Christ and related to me by kinship, the lowest servant of those who bear the sweet yoke of Christ, wishes for eternal welfare.
I beseech you in your kindliness to be mindful of the past friendship which you formed with my father Dynne long ago in the west country. It is now eight years since he passed from this world, so I beg you not to fail to pray for his soul. I ask you also to remember my mother Aebbe, who, as you are wen aware, is related to you by ties of kinship. She is still alive but suffers from ill health and for many years now has been afflicted with infirmity. I am my parent’s only child, and, though I am not worthy of so great a privilege, I would like to regard you as my brother, for there is no other man in my family in whom I can put my trust as I can in you. I venture to send you this little gift not because it is worthy of your attention but because I wish to remind you of my lowly self, so that, in spite of the distance that separates us, you may not forget me but rather be knit more closely to me in the bond of true affection. This boon particularly I beg of you, beloved brother, that by the help of your prayers I may be shielded from all temptation. Would you also, if you please, correct the homely style of this my letter and send me as a model a few words of your own, for I deeply long to hear them.
The little verses written below have been composed according  to the rules of prosody. I made them, not because I imagine myself to have great ability, but because I wished to exercise my budding talents. I hope you will help me with them. I learned how to do it from my mistress Eadburga, who continues with increasing, perseverance in her study of the Scriptures.
Farewell; pray for me; may you enjoy a long life here and a happier life to come.
Arbiter omnipotens, solus qui cuncta creavit,
In regno patris semper qui lumine fulget,
Qua iugiter flagrans sic regnet gloria Christi
Inlesum servet semper te iure perenni.”
C. H. Talbot, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, Being the Lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Leoba and Lebuin together with the Hodoepericon of St. Willibald and a selection from the correspondence of St. Boniface, (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954)
Page numbers are from the Talbot edition. The copyright status of this text has been checked carefully. The situation is complicated, but in sum is as follows. The book was published in 1954 by Sheed & Ward, apparently simultaneously, in both London and New York. The American-printed edition simply gave ‘New York’ as place of publication, the British-printed edition gave ‘London and New York’. Copyright was not renewed in 1982 or 1983, as required by US Law. The recent GATT treaty (1995?) restored copyright to foreign publications which had entered US public domain simply because copyright had not be renewed in accordance with US law. This GATT provision does not seem to apply to this text because it was published simultaneously in the US and Britain by a publisher operating in both countries (a situation specifically addressed in the GATT regulations). Thus, while still under copyright protection in much of the world, the text remains in the US public domain.
An Excerpt from Leoba’s Biography
Leoba, Abbess of Bischofsheim in the diocese of Mainz, died in 779. Her Life was composed by Rudolf of Fulda, probably by 836. It is as a portrait of a powerful eighth-century abbess, and as a source for the conversion of Germany, that the Life is usually read.
Leoba met one of Charlemagne’s wives -Hiltigard – who formed a deep attachment to Leoba. The Queen speaks of their relationship in terms of the classical tropes of friendship – with stress on the idea of “one soul in two bodies” and later union in heaven.
[The full text of the Life is available at the Medieval Sourcebook] excerpts
The blessed virgin, however, persevered unwaveringly in the work of God. She had no desire to gain earthly possessions but only those of heaven, and she spent all her energies on fulfilling her vows. Her wonderful reputation spread abroad and the fragrance of her holiness and wisdom drew to her the affections of all. She was held in veneration by all who knew her, even by kings. Pippin, King of the Franks, and his sons Charles and Carloman treated her with profound respect, particularly Charles, who, after the death of his father and brother, with whom he had shared the throne for some years, took over the reins of government. He was a man of truly Christian life, worthy of the power he wielded and by far the bravest and wisest king that the Franks had produced His love for the Catholic faith was so sincere that, though he governed all, he treated the servants and handmaids of God with touching humility. Many times he summoned the holy virgin to his court, received her with every mark of respect and loaded her with gifts suitable to her station. Queen Hiltigard also revered her with a chaste affection and loved her as her own soul. She would have liked her to remain continually at her side so that she might progress in the spiritual life and profit by her words and example. But Leoba detested the life at court like poison. The princes loved her, the nobles received her, the bishops welcomed her with joy. And because of her wide knowledge of the Scriptures and her prudence in counsel they often discussed spiritual matters and ecclesiastical discipline with her. But her deepest concern was the work she had set on foot. She visited the various convents of nuns and, like a mistress of novices, stimulated them to vie with one another in reaching perfection.
Sometimes she came to the Monastery of Fulda to say her prayers, a privilege never granted to any woman either before or since, because from the day that monks began to dwell there entrance was always forbidden to women. Permission was only granted to her, for the simple reason that the holy martyr St. Boniface had commended her to the seniors of the monastery and because he had ordered her remains to be buried there. The following regulations, however, were observed when she came there. Her disciples and companions were left behind in a nearby cell and she entered the monastery always in daylight, with one nun older than the rest; and after she had finished her prayers and held a conversation with the brethren, she returned towards nightfall to her disciples whom she had left behind in the cell. When she was an old woman and became decrepit through age she put all the convents under her care on a sound footing and then, on Bishop Lull’s advice, went to a place called Scoranesheim, four miles south of Mainz. There she took up residence with some of her nuns and served God night and day in fasting and prayer.
In the meantime, whilst King Charles was staying in the palace at Aachen, Queen Hiltigard sent a message to her begging her to come and visit her, if it were not too difficult, because she longed to see her before she passed from this life. And although Leoba was not at all pleased, she agreed to go for the sake of their long-standing friendship. Accordingly she went and was received by the queen with her usual warm welcome. But as soon as Leoba heard the reason for the invitation she asked permission to return home. And when the queen importuned her to stay a few days longer she refused; but, embracing her friend rather more affectionately than usual, she kissed her on the mouth, the forehead and the eyes and took leave of her with these words. “Farewell for evermore, my dearly beloved lady and sister; farewell most precious half of my soul. May Christ our Creator and Redeemer grant that we shall meet again without shame on the day of judgment. Never more on this earth shall we enjoy each other’s presence.”
So she returned to the convent, and after a few days she was stricken down by sickness and was confined to her bed. When she saw that her ailment was growing worse and that the hour of her death was near she sent for a saintly English priest named Torhthat, who had always been at her side and ministered to her with respect and love, and received from him the viaticum of the body and blood of Christ. Then she put off this earthly garment and gave back her soul joyfully to her Creator, clean and undefiled as she had received it from Him. She died in the month of September, the fourth of the kalends of October. Her body, followed by a long cortege of noble persons, was carried by the monks of Fulda to their monastery with every mark of respect. Thus the seniors there remembered what St. Boniface had said; namely, that it was his last wish that her remains should be placed next to his bones. But because they were afraid to open the tomb of the blessed martyr, they discussed the matter and decided to bury her on the north side of the altar which the martyr St. Boniface had himself erected and consecrated in honour of our Saviour and the twelve Apostles.
Source: C. H. Talbot, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, Being the Lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Leoba and Lebuin together with the Hodoepericon of St. Willibald and a selection from the correspondence of St. Boniface, (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954)
The copyright status of this text has been checked carefully. The situation is complicated, but in sum is as follows. The book was published in 1954 by Sheed & Ward simultaneously in both London and New York. The American-printed edition simply give ‘New York’ as place of publication, the British-printed edition gives ‘London and New York’. Copyright was not renewed in 1982 of 1983, as required by US Law. The recent GATT treaty (1995?) restored copyright to foreign publications which had entered US public domain simply because copyright had not be renewed in accordance with US law. This GATT provision does not seem to apply to this text because it was published simultaneously in the US and Britain (a situation specifically addressed in the GATT regulations). Thus, while still under copyright protection in much of the world, the text remains in the US public domain.