Anglo-Saxon Monastic Women

By Schoenbechler, Roger | Magistra, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Anglo-Saxon Monastic Women

Schoenbechler, Roger, Magistra


Father Roger Schoenbechler, a monk of Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN, died in 1986 at the age of 85. Well known for his scholarly and liturgical work, he devoted many years in the latter part of his life, while he was chaplain to the Benedictine nuns at Crookston, MN, to a work on Benedictine women in history. He began by culling a number of Benedictine menologies and histories, as well as several general martyrologies, to find all the entries for women who could be broadly classified as Benedictine. This included not only women of the various orders which live under the Rule of St. Benedict, but also several related categories. He recognized also many women who had been major benefactors of monasteries, were relatives of significant Benedictine men or women, were raised or strongly influenced by Benedictinism, or whose places of life or death had become Benedictine monasteries at a later time. For the first centuries after the time of Benedict, it would be impossible to identify the monastic life of any monastery as strictly of the Benedictine order in the later sense, since the lifestyle was not codified and a mixture of many rules and customs were in use. Many women of these monasteries, however, had been included in Benedictine calendars and venerated by and as Benedictines for centuries.

Using numerous traditional sources in four languages, Father Roger proceeded to collate the information into a short descriptive entry about each woman, with page references for each of his sources. These were organized chronologically and then geographically within each century as well. He had also developed indexes alphabetically and by feast date.

At the time of his death this monumental work in progress had almost three hundred pages of typed manuscript and twice that many women named. Margot King had the good fortune of receiving from then-abbot Jerome Theissen of Saint John's permission to have the manuscript. The effort to prepare this work for publication is being carried out by Sister Judith Sutera and Deborah Vess.

In order to make the finished work more useful, the editors are in the process of adding additional sources and making critical revisions to the descriptive material. It will be impossible to include all reference sources which might be consulted. Likewise, the descriptions of the women cannot be exhaustive nor free of mystery and unresolved conflict in the data, especially as regards those of the earliest periods of monastic history. What can be hoped is that this will be a starting point, a simple dictionary of Benedictine women. The goal is that those who would like to know more will study the women it names, their deeds and their spiritualities, their world and their significance.

The portion presented here is still being refined and prepared for final publication. It represents one time and place among many, but one which provided numerous women of outstanding significance.


Bertha of Kent

+late 6th century

Bertha was the Christian daughter of King Charibert I (561-567) of France, and was married to the pagan king Ethelbert of Kent (560-616), the first Anglo-Saxon king to become a Christian. When St. Augustine and his forty monks arrived at the Isle of Thanet in 596, King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha received them solemnly, and gave them permission to preach the Christian faith throughout their kingdom. She was the first benefactress of the Benedictines in England, presenting them with the old British church of St. Martin near Canterbury, which had been her court chapel.(1)

Eanswida of Folkestone


August 31

St. Eanswida (Eanswitha) was the daughter of King Eadbard (Edbald), and the granddaughter of King Ethelbert of Kent and his wife Bertha. She opposed her father's wishes that she marry a pagan prince and finally obtained his permission to found a monastery near Folkestone in Kent, England, where she became abbess. …

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