The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 10—Saints and Sanctity (May 2007)   |   Issue Editors: Celia Chazelle & Deanna Forsman

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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History by Biography—St. Æthelthreda

History by Biography—St. Elisabeth


Continental Business

Michel Aaij  
Auburn University Montgomery

Discussed in this review:

Dirk Otten. 2006. Lebuïnus, een gedreven missionaris. Hilversum: Verloren. ISBN 9065509143. 91 pages, 2 color ills., 23 b/w ills.

Hubertus R. Drobner. 2nd rev. ed. 2005. Der heilige Pankratius: Leben, Legende und Verehrung. Paderborn: Bonifatius. 3897103397. 146 pages, 18 color ills.

§1.  I reported earlier on these pages that the Bonifacian well was far from dry, and I am pleased to note that for this review I don't even have to look at that venerable saint for some new books on saints and hagiography. From the Netherlands comes a nice and interesting book on St. Lebwin, not one of the best-known saints, if only to indicate that the worldly Dutch haven't lost all respect for their Christian ancestors. From Germany comes the revised edition of a 1988 book on St. Pancratius, relatively unknown in Northwestern Europe though many know his name from churches, towns, and streets named for him.

§2.  To begin with the Dutch offering, Lebuïnus, een gedreven missionaris (Lebwin, a driven missionary) is a publication by Verloren in their series Middeleeuwse Studies en Bronnen.1 Lebwin was a little-known Anglo-Saxon missionary who followed in the footsteps of Willibrord, Boniface, and Ludger, and left England to do missionary in the Low Countries in the latter half of the eighth century. After he arrives in Utrecht, abbot Gregory sends him to the eastern part of present-day Netherlands, the area bordering on Saxony. Apparently successful in his mission, he has a chapel built at Wilp, and later a church in Deventer—both of those towns today boast churches dedicated to him. Jealous Saxons (or locals—the sources offer different peoples as enemies of Lebwin) burn the church down, and after Lebwin flees to Utrecht, he returns to rebuild the church and increase his missionary efforts in a dramatic fashion. In an action reminiscent of, but less destructive than, Willibrord's destroying pagan idols on Fosite or Boniface chopping down an oak dedicated to Donar, Lebwin travels to Markelo, where the Saxon tribes hold their annual synod. Though warned that angry young men will be eager to kill him, Lebwin appears before the Thing, and warns the pagan Germans that if they refuse to accept his Christian God they will be destroyed by a neighboring king who will subdue them by force—a prophetic reference to Charlemagne's impending subjugation of Saxony. This, the most impressive act in the saint's biography, ends a bit disappointingly: many at the meeting become enraged and attempt to kill the missionary, but he has miraculously disappeared, not to be seen again. Even more disappointing is that the action is not continued, and no more miracles besides the disappearing act are reported. Not long after, around 773, Lebwin dies, and after the church containing his body is once again burned, Ludger is impelled to visit the church and find the saint's remains. After his death, his cult grows to moderate proportions—the day of his passing is celebrated in the liturgy in Deventer and the entire Utrecht diocese, until the Reformation.

§3.  Otten's main interest is less in the actual character of Lebwin than in the opportunity the saint offers to disperse a variety of historical anecdotes. The author is a historian with a special interest in names, and thus much is said about many names—Deventer, Wilp, Willibrord/Clemens, Wynfrith/Boniface, Lebwin/Lebuinus, though not all these remarks are equally to the point. Geography also, and the meandering of the Yssel river, have his attention, and a few maps illustrate the changes the landscape has undergone—but not all of this information is relevant to the author's goal, which, I surmise, is really to give a historical and economical analysis of the era and the area. And some of his remarks are quite valuable: this particular area of Northwestern Europe, far from a deserted (because not yet Christianized) wasteland, in fact possessed a thriving industry especially in the production of iron—one slag mound in the area just to the south-east of Utrecht gives evidence of the production of enough iron for tens of thousands of swords. Many of these iron products, Otten explains, were transported all over Europe on the many waterways, which were major transportation routes rather than the impassable barriers they are often thought to be. As it happens, the Yssel is one of those waterways; hence perhaps the impetus for Lebwin's foundation (not to mention Utrecht's interest in expanding its influence eastward), and the counterpoint of its destruction at the hands of either locals or Saxons wary of growing Frankish influence.

§4.  Such a context for state-supported missionary efforts which would culminate in the complete Christianization and subjugation of Northwestern Europe is insightful. Useful for a non-academic audience are the author's remarks on the genre of the vita and on the similarities between the Germanic languages spoken in that part of Europe. Most useful, perhaps, for Otten's readership are the paragraphs on Charlemagne's Saxon campaigns after Lebwin's death (74-76) and on the Heliand, the Germanic version of the gospel which gives us this wonderfully German Christ (76-80). But much of what's most interesting in the book has little or nothing to do with Lebwin, and unfortunately this lack of cohesion is evidenced on a more basic level. I can't tell if the author did this intentionally, but many of the sections and chapters end with remarks far removed from Lebwin or even the particular chapter's main argument—a useful chapter on the conversion of England and on its language (that Anglo-Saxon missionaries had little linguistic difficulty on the continent) concludes that French influence would change Old English irrevocably, and the book itself closes on the remark that Otto became the first German emperor. Surely such factual statements have their use in an argument, but they ought not to conclude chapters or books—I cannot help but think that Otten could have done with a stricter editor, one who would better realize where the value of all this hard work lies: in a comprehensive and well-contextualized historical account of one minor figure, not a collection of facts the reader cannot presumed to be interested in, facts that do not automatically exhibit their relevance.

§5.  Having said that, I am pleased to own this book—the index and bibliography are useful, as are some of the illustrations (but there is only one photo of the magnificent Deventer Lebwin church)—and I am especially pleased to see publications on minor figures. Then again, Otten misses quite a few opportunities. While he provides translations of some passages from the vitae, he might have included full translations of all those texts. Otten might also have referred the reader to the ninth-century Lebwin gospel now in Utrecht, incorrectly ascribed to Lebwin but testifying to his importance. Likewise, that he mentions liturgical celebrations of the saint is important, but why not actually cite the liturgy? It seems to me that this book intends to educate a non-academic audience, and here was a golden opportunity. I also wanted to know more about the saint's relics, which Ludger apparently found and which, as the author says, were saved from destruction during the Reformation. So where are those relics, what do they look like, what role, if any, do they still play? The website of the Deventer Lebwin church tells me that there are two Lebwin-reliquaries in the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, and I wish that Otten would have devoted a paragraph or two to them. Especially if there is so little knowledge to build a narrative around (that Lebwin was so driven, according to the title, isn't borne out by the author's account) one must use what one has, and it seems to me there was more for the author to employ.

§6.  Hubertus Drobner's Der heilige Pankratius (published by Bonifatius Verlag, Paderborn, well-known for its religious publications) is more complete in some of those respects, and better organized (besides featuring a number of color photographs). St. Pancratius is another relatively little-known saint who has left traces all over Northwestern Europe—as a child, I always wondered how the village St. Pancras, not far from my hometown in the Netherlands, could have such a strange name, and no one could ever tell me. With many of the martyrs of the early Christian church it is difficult, in this case even impossible, to untangle legend and history. The Bollandist Acta Sanctorum (May) relates how Pancratius, at the tender age of fourteen, defies Diocletian, who has him beheaded. As Drobner points out, the account in the Acta is full of contradictions and inconsistencies—the traditional year of his martyrdom, 303, cannot be squared with the saint's defiance of Diocletian in Rome (since he hadn't been there since 286) or with the mention of Cornelius (251-253) as bishop of Rome at the time of the martyrdom. Drobner (also a priest in the Mainz diocese) remarks that really none of these things matter, that there is an undeniable kernel of historical truth here: St. Pancratius was a saint from the East who was decapitated for his faith in Rome at age fourteen outside the Aurelian gate and buried nearby. This first chapter also includes a much later (1854) and much more dramatic version, set in an amphitheater in which the saint, who cannot be approached by the emperor's wild beasts is devoured by a panther only after he gives the animal permission to do so.

§7.  Very early on Drobner involves (popular) legend in his study, and this makes for entertaining reading. A short chapter on legends cites Gregory's Liber in gloria martyrum, the Liber pontificalis, and the Legenda aurea, all passages that show the saint's role as guarantor of oaths and avenger of perjury. Interestingly enough, the chapter follows a pattern that is repeated throughout the book: starting with a discussion of and reading from well-established texts, Drobner goes on to recite more popular and less venerable tales, as if carried away by the momentum of the many popular accounts, which he often recounts as if he were an actual eyewitness. Readers expecting rock-solid academic discourse may be a bit disappointed, but I found Drobner's enthusiasm (which never leads him to disregard the difficult boundary between historic fact and narrative, hagiographical fiction) quite infectious.

§8.  The spread of the cult of St. Pancratius takes up the bulk of the book. Chapters 3 and 4 concern its early spread inside and outside the Roman empire, and Drobner does not fail to mention Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine to England carrying relics of that saint. Then follow two long chapters on the spread of the cult in Germany, the second of which geographically organized. In short, Drobner considers it possible that some of the Pancratius churches may have been named thus under influence of Anglo-Saxon missionaries (though he admits there is not much solid evidence); likely that Arnulf of Carinthia, who freed Pope Formosus from the Langobards after prayer at the saint's grave, played a large part in popularizing the saint among German nobility; and again possible that the translation of relics of the saint from Rome to Ghent in 985 aided in the distribution of the cult in Germany.

§9.  The final sections of the book make some brief remarks on other aspects of the cult, such as the saint's iconography—he is often depicted as a young Roman noble (and occasionally with a panther at his feet, following the nineteenth-century account of his martyrdom), no doubt suggestive of the nobility's adherence to the saint. Drobner also includes some prayers and hymns, a list of processions in various German towns, a list of St. Pancratius parish churches in Germany, streets and organizations named for him—all kinds of interesting information, no doubt trivia for some readers, but relevant enough and suggesting that at least a measure of popularity remains.

§10.  Drobner is quite clear on what he wants: to make St. Pancratius, whose name many Germans know from churches, streets, organizations, better known among the general population. The songs whose lyrics he reproduces may, he says, help parishes and groups to honor St. Pancratius or even inspire them to write their own. Whether Drobner will be successful in such an attempt is a bit doubtful to me—after all, the fact remains that there is very little historical material to build a legend on, and what the Acta and earlier Christian writers recount isn't incredibly dramatic or miraculous. And the practical aspects of the cult can't strike much a chord with modern Germans either—that St. Pankratius can verify the truth or untruth of an oath is not as relevant today as it was earlier, when such oaths had much greater legal and social status; that he is particularly relevant to the nobility and to a lesser extent agriculture is not very significant to an egalitarian Germany whose economic motor is service and industry. In the end some may say that Der heilige Pankratius is yet another book written by an enthusiast, and that's probably true, but at the same time Drobner has written an interesting and very legible little book that continues a trend of historical investigation into religious belief with a clear objective in mind, the goal of keeping tradition alive and rendering it as meaningful to a modern audience as possible.

§11.  Two short books on two simultaneously well-known and unknown saints, both interesting but one better than the other. Both prove that there still is a popular market for such publications, and that's a good thing. I presume such publications are part of what appears to be a growing interest, in America and Europe, in popular expressions of religiosity—a popularity marked by books on saints, by increasing prices for prayer cards on the Internet, by celebrations, plays, operas. To the writers—goodwilling amateurs, longtime academic scholars, caring priests—I say, keep writing those books. Perhaps they will bring some of Europe's and America's lost sheep back into the fold, perhaps not, but it's worth it if only to keep some of this curious history alive.

NOTE: 2004 was Boniface's year, 2006 belonged to Rabanus Maurus, and I aim to review two books on the 'Teacher of Germany.' 2007 will mark the 800th birthday of yet another important German saint, St. Elisabeth, and in the next column, or in an update to the Heroic Age message board, I will report on what all festivities, conferences, expositions, etc. one can expect to find in Germany.


1.  Dutch publishers, as well as their German counterparts, have become quite adept at soliciting external funding sources; this book was made possible by donations from a bank and from the city of Deventer.  [Back]