Academic journal article Magistra

Reading the Textual Shadows of Anglo-Saxon Monastic Women's Friendships

Academic journal article Magistra

Reading the Textual Shadows of Anglo-Saxon Monastic Women's Friendships

Article excerpt

In what is virtually a letter of application for spiritual friendship and mentoring, the young Anglo-Saxon nun Leofgyth (called Leoba) sends the older missionary Bishop Boniface some verses showcasing her literary abilities. Saluting Boniface as "most dear [to her] in Christ," Leoba cites their shared links with her teacher Eadburga. She appeals to him as well by invoking ties of both blood and synthetic kinship, reminding Boniface of his previous friendship with Leoba's father Dynne and his blood kinship with her mother, Aebbe.1

Leoba's letter constitutes a useful entrance point into a discussion of women's friendships in seventh and eighth century England. In thus seeking by her written words to take Boniface "in the place of a brother" her elision of multiple kinships exemplifies the rhetorical and textual creation of an extended monastic familia.2 Barbara Rosenwein defines as "emotional communities" those "groups in which people adhere to the same norms of emotional expression and value, or devalue, the same or related emotions."3 The letters exchanged between Boniface and his companions on the Continent and their relatives and supporters in England, letters of which Leoba's is but one, construct such a community, a network of individual friendships linking women equally with men, despite geographical separation, through letters and a dramatically foregrounded literacy.

The "Boniface Circle" is, at least in part, a literary construction: its visibility to history depends upon the subsequent selection of these letters as "a kind of epistolary pattern-book for a range of occasions" for later writers.4 Within the network made visible by this compound literary artifact, however, friendship is an equally literary phenomenon, effecting the free election of a synthetic kinship through the mastery of a formula- and image-stock, a vocabulary for spiritual friendship. Accordingly, it is, above all, Leoba's ability to manipulate a common Anglo-Latin literary culture, as demonstrated in both letter and poem, which allows her to write herself into this circle of friends. Her poem deploys images and vocabulary drawn from the poetic corpus of Aldhelm; her letter echoes formulae Boniface himself had used in addressing previous letters to her teacher, Eadburga, and other Anglo-Saxon monastic women. Far from witnessing a lack of imagination on the part of the writer this double bricolage reads as a calculated display of belonging.

Along with letters, a rich variety of gifts passed between and among members of the community, most prominent among which were gifts of manuscripts. Heaburg sends Boniface 50 solidi and an altar cloth and promises him a copy of The Sufferings of the Martyrs, asking in return that he say masses for her kinsmen, and perhaps send her "some collection of sacred writings."5 Boniface promises Heaburg such a book in a later letter, and offers in the meantime prayers in return for her various gifts and garments.6 Elsewhere, too, Boniface thanks Eadburga for "the solace of the books and the comfort of the garments with which [she] has relieved [his] distress." He requests a further gift as well, the Epistles of Saint Peter to be written in letters of gold.7 Again, in yet another letter, Boniface thanks his "most beloved sister" Eadburga, "long linked to him by the close bonds of spiritual patronage," for the gift of sacred books that his "most dear sister" had sent him.8

Particularly prized as objects of exchange, manuscripts functioned multiply as tools for monastic study and ministry to the wider world, as a source for communal language, and as a symbol of the literacy at the core of community. The Boniface Circle is defined precisely by the written word's ability to enable emotional and intellectual presence despite physical absence. Thus, if Eadburga gives books to Boniface, it is entirely appropriate that his letter of thanks to her be replete with scripture, that it deploy strategic allusion to exactly the kinds of biblical manuscripts exchanged, that in a single brief paragraph he echo Psalms 17, 112 and 118, as well as Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians. …

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