views updated


BONIFACE (673754), the most distinguished in the group of English missionaries who, in the eighth and succeeding centuries, felt impelled to cross the seas and to preach the gospel to the peoples of the continent of Europe who were still non-Christians. Winfrith, to whom the pope, as tradition has it, gave the name Boniface in 722, was a missionary, founder of monasteries, diffuser of culture, and church organizer. Born in Devonshire, he was introduced to monastic life at an early age. Here he grew up in an atmosphere of strict observance of the Benedictine rule and acceptance of the vivid culture which was spreading abroad from Northumbria. His many gifts would have assured him of a distinguished career in the growing English church but he felt within himself an intense inner call to carry the gospel to the as yet non-Christian world.

Two attempts at missionary work with Willibrord in Friesland led to nothing, perhaps because of temperamental differences between the two. In 719, Winfrith made the journey to Rome and received a commission from the pope as missionary to the Frankish lands. This commission was later strengthened by his consecration as bishop. Before long the missionary convictions of Boniface became firmly settled on three points: that the missions of the Western church must be controlled and directed by the central authority in Rome, that religious houses both for men and women must be founded to supply the necessary continuity of Christian life in a period of almost ceaseless military disturbance, that regular dioceses must be founded and supplied with loyal and well-trained bishops.

The first period of Boniface's work was marked by notable successes in Hesse and Thuringia. At Geismar he dared to fell the sacred oak of Thor. This episode was understood by the people of the time as a conflict between two gods. When Boniface felled the oak and suffered no vengeance from the resident Germanic god, it was clear that the God whom he preached was the true God who alone is to be worshiped and adored.

Boniface was successful in securing the confidence and support, first of the all-powerful Frankish ruler, Charles Martel, who in 732 defeated the Muslims at the battle of Tours, and, after Charles's death in 741, of Martel's sons Carloman and Pépin. This helped Boniface greatly in his work of restoring or creating order in the churches in the dominions of the Franks, the goal of his second period of the work. He was successful in creating four bishoprics in Bavaria, where churches existed but without settled order. He also called into being four dioceses in the territories to the east of the Rhine. During this period he brought in many colleagues, both men and women, and founded a number of religious houses. His favorite was Fulda (744), where he was buried, and which for more than a thousand years was a great center of church life in Germany.

Until 747 Boniface had been a primate and archbishop without a diocese. In 747 he was appointed archbishop of Mainz. In the meantime his influence had extended westward, until it was felt in many parts of what is now France. In 742 he was able to hold a synod of the French churches, commonly known as the German Council, and in 744 an even more important meeting at Soissons. It is to be noted that the decrees of the earlier council were issued in the name of Carloman and became the law of the church as well as of the state.

Two special features of the work of Boniface are to be noted. Boniface was too busy to become an accomplished scholar but was deeply concerned for the spread of culture and used his monasteries as centers for the diffusion of knowledge. He himself wrote Latin clearly and elegantly, coming between the over-elaborate style of Aldhelm (d. 709) and the rather flat scholastic Latin of the Middle Ages. Frank Stenton has called him the one great writer produced by the early schools of southern England and a man of individual genius.

The part played by women in the development of the church in this period is astonishing. At a time at which the vast majority of women were illiterate, the religious houses of England produced a number of aristocratic and highly cultivated nuns, a number of whom Boniface brought over to Europe to be the abbesses of his newly founded monasteries. To Leobgytha (Leoba), abbess of Tauferbischofsheim, he was bound, as the letters exchanged between them show, in a relationship of specially affectionate friendship. She survived him by more than a quarter of a century, and when she died in 780, she was buried near her venerable friend at Fulda, in accordance with her earnest desire.

In 752, Boniface, feeling that his work was done, and perhaps wearied by the increasing opposition of the Frankish churchmen to the English dominance, resigned all his offices and returned as a simple missionary to Friesland, where he had begun his missionary career. Great success marked the first year of this enterprise. But on June 4, 754, Boniface and his companions found themselves surrounded by a band of pagans, determined to put a stop to the progress of the gospel. Boniface forbade armed resistance, and he and fifty-three of his followers met their death with the quiet fortitude of Christian martyrs.

The English are accustomed to speak of these years as "the dark ages," but, as the eminent German church historian K. D. Schmidt once remarked, "to us this was the period of light, when the light of the Gospel and of Christian civilization came to us." Boniface, the apostle of Germany, was one of those burning and shining lights.


The primary authority is the large collection of the letters of Boniface, to be found in Latin, Bonifacius: Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifacius and Lullus, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1916), admirably edited by Michael Tangl. A good many of these letters are available in English in The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, edited and translated by Charles H. Talbot (New York, 1954). For those who read German the outstanding modern work is Theodor Schieffer's Winfrid Bonifatius und die christliche Grundlegung Europas (Darmstadt, 1972). In English the pioneer work is William Levison's England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford, 1946). Among more popular works, Eleanor S. Duckett's Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars (New York, 1947), pp. 339455, can be specially recommended as both scholarly and readable.

Stephen C. Neill (1987)