Academic journal article Magistra

Leoba's Purple Thread: The Women of the Boniface Mission

Academic journal article Magistra

Leoba's Purple Thread: The Women of the Boniface Mission

Article excerpt

At Wimborne Abbey in southwestern England one night around the year 730, a young nun known as Leoba had a powerful dream. She saw a purple thread coming from her mouth. It kept flowing from deep within her; there seemed to be no end to it. As the thread filled her hands, she began winding it into an ever-growing ball, continuing till the effort overcame her and she woke up wondering what the dream meant.

An aged nun skilled in prophecy revealed that the thread was the stream of wisdom flowing from her heart. She was to be a great teacher and counselor, and "carry out in her actions whatever she expressed in her words." She would take charge of her life as she took charge of that thread. She would wind her thread upwards and downwards between spiritual and earthly affairs, a person of authority in both spheres, and her calling would take her far out into the world beyond her abbey's walls.1

Leoba's hagiographer recounted this dream as evidence of her special vocation, but the calling was not unique to her. Other Anglo-Saxon women had and would yet do the same. Leoba and her companions played a critical role in Boniface's mission to the Germans. Grounded in traditional Anglo-Saxon values and culture, his overall strategy depended as much on women as on men. Initially equal partners in the venture, only later did Roman orthodoxy overcome traditional practices to create a hierarchy among them.

Rudolf of Fulda, the monk who wrote Leoba' s story some 50 years after her death, changed much about her and her world in his tale, conforming to evolving orthodox views of women's role in the Church. He was still too close to her living memory, however, to reinvent her story completely. In recording the dream of the purple thread, he unwittingly revealed her real story, and that of the other women who joined Boniface's mission to the Germans in the second quarter of the eighth century. Drawing on the ancient spiritual and secular power of women in Germanic societies, they built the foundations of a new Christian culture. In its orthodox, patriarchal Roman form that culture was hostile to them and the traditions from which they drew their strength and moral authority. The thread they set in motion would continue to spin out long after their deaths, however, despite the best efforts of misogynistic churchmen to minimize their contributions, restrict their autonomy and authority, and even to erase them from the historical record.

The history of the German missions is tangled in the story of Frankish imperialist expansion. Missionary effort across the Rhine, more or less under Merovingian patronage and often connected with military conquest, had been going on at least since the mid-600's. After the Anglo-Saxon priest Wynnfriö sought and received a formal commission, along with the new name Boniface, from Pope Gregory II in 719, he quickly became the dominant figure in the field. From earlier unproductive efforts working alone or with the missionary bishop Willibrord in Frisia, he learned that a successful missionary effort required the active support of secular and ecclesiastical authorities and a sizeable, well-organized body of clergy.

Thus he allied himself with the Roman See, carefully cultivated and won the official patronage of the Frankish royal court, and soon had a large contingent of co-workers with him, drawn primarily from his relatives back in England. Boniface was not the first to include women in his group. When Bishop Rupert of Worms was invited to Salzburg by Duke Theodo in the 680's, Rupert's party included his niece Erentrude, probably an abbess, and perhaps a few of her nuns, to establish a convent there. Boniface seems to have been the first Christian clergyman to recruit women systematically for oversees missionary work, and to include them as a key element in the overall structure of his organization, however.3

The structure and success of Boniface's mission depended initially on very ancient forms. …

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