The Heroic Age

Issue 6

Spring 2003

Continental Business

Note: this column aims to present scholarship of interest to Heroic Age readers originally published in Dutch, French, and German and not available in translation. The summaries are intended not only to help the reader determine the text's interest, but also to present in some detail the most important ideas and evidence put forth, and whenever possible to refer to other scholarship unavailable in English. The reviewer would greatly appreciate bibliographical references from Heroic Age readers as well as requests for reviews.

St. Boniface in Germany and the Netherlands


by Michel Aaij, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina, Asheville

Books discussed in this review:

Marco Mostert (1999), 754: Bonifatius bij Dokkum Vermoord [754: Boniface Murdered at Dokkum]. Hilversum: Verloren. ISBN 9065504486. 94 pages, 48 illustrations, 3 maps.

Petra Kehl (1993), Kult und Nachleben des Heiligen Bonifatius im Mittelalter (754-1200) [Cult and Afterlife of Saint Boniface in the Middle Ages (754-1200)]. Quellen und Abhandlungen zur Geschichte der Abtei und der Diözese Fulda 26. Fulda: Parzeller. ISBN 3790002267. 264 pages.


The study of Boniface is still alive and well in Europe, especially, of course, in Germany and the Netherlands, as a recent slew of publications proves. Most notably, German scholars Lutz von Padberg and Hans-Walter Stork published seminal works in the 1990s, focusing on the Ragyndrudis Codex, the Boniface relics in Fulda, and Boniface and his books.[1] Also alive is the cult of the saint: after a miraculous healing, the 1990s saw a resurgence of Boniface-veneration in Dokkum, the Netherlands, where in 754 Boniface was martyred, supposedly by Frisian heathens, supposedly trying to protect himself with the Ragyndrudis Codex, which still displays the supposed sword (or axe) cuts made by his killers.

"Supposedly" is a commonly used modifier in Boniface scholarship for a very good reason, as Marco Mostert points out in his 1999 book on Boniface and his importance for Dutch religion and history: we have very few facts. Mostert's book is a publication in a series which aims to inform a wider audience of Dutch history in a catchy style, and he succeeds quite well in presenting scholarship to a non-academic audience (Mostert, a researcher at the University of Utrecht, has published a half a dozen scholarly articles on the topic). The book's five main sections ("The murder on June 5, 754," "Boniface's Netherlands," "Young Boniface," "Missionary and reformer," "The legend of Boniface") add nothing new for veteran Boniface scholars, but they do present a wide array of information in a very readable and pleasant manner, although his tone sometimes strays too far into the vernacular, and (to enhance legibility?) the book has no footnotes, only a brief bibliography.

Especially interesting, since not often discussed in great detail (other than in Theodor Schieffer's essential 1954 Winfrid-Bonifatius und die Christliche Grundlegung Europas [Freiburg: Herder]), is Boniface's Friesland. Mostert outlines the history, culture, and political organization of pagan Friesland and its subsequent developments, with excellent illustrations (many in color). Also useful is the overview of the various vitae of Boniface; though von Padberg's section in his Studien,(while strictly focused on what the
vitae say of the Ragyndrudis Codex), is as clear and provides many useful footnotes, and an even better discussion is Kehl's, to be discussed below.

Certainly of interest to Boniface scholars is the short section on Boniface veneration in the Netherlands. After the Utrecht Vita altera Bonifatii was written (around 825) and revised (under Bishop Radbod, 899-917), for a long time there is scant mention of Boniface in the Low Countries outside of Utrecht proper. Dokkum, where Boniface died in 754, remained an only nominally Christian border area and early in the ninth century reverted to paganism, not to be fully converted until the eleventh and twelfth century: Mostert argues that considering those circumstances a cult could not have survived in Dokkum, where the completely different situation in Mainz and Fulda did allow for its continuation. Boniface resurfaces in a thirteenth-century Dokkum chronicle, which erroneously dates his death in 725. Another thirteenth-century reference occurs in Caesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus Miraculorum, who relates a miraculous cross-vision in Dokkum on the day of Boniface's martyrdom, in 1214, 1215, or 1216: in the thirteenth century, according to Mostert, Dokkum did have a Boniface cult. After a short account of the cult surrounding the Bonifacian books in Fulda (which seems to rely on von Padberg and Stork), Mostert returns to Dokkum, where the cult really took off in the nineteenth century during the Catholic emancipation. Boniface's well was 'rediscovered' in 1853, when the local "Brewers' Well" came to be identified as the well which sprung after Boniface's martyrdom (so Lullus tells Willibald); in the 1920s a "Boniface park" was built, and Boniface began to be venerated in parochial churches. In 1934, a chapel was added to the park. Titus Brandsma, who perished in Dachau in 1942, helped conceive the Stations of the Cross, which were built in 1949; in 1962, a 2.5 mtr. Boniface-statue was placed in the park. In 1990, the park saw extensive renovation; two years later, the park, the chapel, and the well were restored. Mostert also relates a modern miracle: in 1990, after being submersed in the well (though not the original one, as pointed out by critics), Nefthys Brandsma of Sneek was miraculously cured of the whooping cough. The miracle greatly strengthened the cult: the park now receives around 20,000 visitors a year. Mostert is quick to point out that modern veneration serves the interests of the city: the cult of Boniface is tied to that of Liudger, who completed the conversion of Friesland, and that of Titus Brandsma, canonized in 1985; moreover, Dokkum is also a focal point in the reemergence of Frisian identity.

Some interesting points are made between the lines. One Bonifacian myth is debunked without commentary: if there is still much debate about whether Boniface consecrated Pippin II, Mostert speaks out firmly against it (63),[2] in a section that illuminates the complicated conflict between Carolingians and the church of Gaul on the one hand, and Boniface, Rome, and the German church on the other. But Mostert never doubts that pagan Frisians killed Boniface, indeed, he claims it as one of only a few historical facts; in the context of the conflict between Gaul and Rome, he could at least have mentioned the opinion, most recently propagated by Johannes Kern, that a Frankish conspiracy was behind the murder.[3] Mostert also speaks out, again without commentary, on the ongoing discussion concerning the allegiances of the first three missionaries to Friesland; often Willibrord, Wilfrid, and Boniface are regarded as proponents of Benedictan rule. But on the issue of Wilfrid's influence on Willibrord, Boniface's predecessor in Friesland, Mostert places Willibrord (while calling him "a pupil of Wilfrid" on p. 10) on the Irish side, that of the monachi peregrini in the tradition of Rathmelsigi, and Boniface in the line of Wilfrid, as a proponent of Benedictine rule and the authority of Rome (44-45).

If the strengths of the book are its conversational tone, its helpful maps and illustrations, and the sections on Friesland and modern Boniface veneration, its weak points lie precisely in the intersection between scholarship and popular history: occasionally, the author takes too much liberty with the facts, which he acknowledges are scant. For instance, while Mostert says that Willibald's vita displays the author's interests (that is, those of his principal, Lullus), he claims that Willibald had access to "reliable sources" (7), a difficult claim that has never been substantialized. Some errors seem to derive from treating historical periods a bit loosely, for instance, the claim that Boniface in the later Middle Ages was always displayed holding a book pierced with a sword (10): the illustration on p. 34, the copper engraving by Nicolaus Serarius in the Moguntiacarum Rerum Libri V, dates from 1604 and is the earliest such representation we have. Mostert also erroneously states that the Ragyndrudis Codex is on display in "the museum" (77): the original is under lock and key; only facsimiles are on display in the Dommuseum and the Hessische Landesbibliothek (the last of the three facsimiles made in the late 1970s was given to Pope John Paul II, on his visit to Fulda in 1980). One error concerns the dates for the various feasts: Mostert lists 1 November as the date on which Boniface's remains were translated "from the old to the new church in Fulda" and 1 December as "the date on which the church of St. Boniface was consecrated" (68). However, 1 November is both the date for the translation and for the consecration of the Ratger Basilica; 1 December is the feast day of Boniface's ordination (celebrated in Fulda, according to Rabanus's Martyrology and perhaps originating with him), although the actual ordination by Pope Gregory II took place on 30 November (as Mostert mentions on p. 47; see Kehl 105-108).

In all, Mostert has succeeded in writing a popular account, in a well-made book with beautiful illustrations, many of which are informative for readers not schooled in Dutch (especially in the chapter on Friesland) even without the benefit of a translation. If his account occasionally lapses into colloquialism, and if some facts are confused, his book remains a much more accurate account than the many popular book(let)s available,[4] and very readable for a general audience.

Petra Kehl's 1993 book, an edited version of her doctoral dissertation for the Phillips University in Marburg, is in many respects the opposite of Mostert's.[5] She has earned her marks in scholarly research, having co-edited more than a half a dozen scholarly books on church documents in Germany and written extensively on hagiography. This is a thoroughly researched book in the best tradition of German scholarship, aiming to present the history of the Boniface cult, prompted by Theodor Schieffer's remark that no such history had yet been written. Kehl purposely narrows her field of inquiry, starting at the martyr's death and ending at the quincentennial of his martyrdom, 1254, at the height of Boniface veneration. The book's value to scholars of cults of martyrs in general and of Boniface in particular is unquestionable. Kehl presents a well-written account of the cult in Fulda, Mainz, Utrecht, Dokkum, and England, based on an extensive study of historical sources, especially the liturgy.

The first part of the book covers the period from Boniface's death to his translation in 819 into the newly built Ratger Basilica. Kehl's organization is mainly geographical; the journey of Boniface's remains, from Dokkum to Utrecht, then to Mainz, and finally to Fulda, leads us through the four focal points of Boniface's cult and Kehl's book. While choosing this over a chronological structure sometimes leads to the reader having to flip back and forth to get the chronology straight, a clear advantage is that the various accounts in the various vitae are consistently contextualized in relation to each locale's interest--as, for instance, in the disputes over who gets custody over Boniface's remains: in both Utrecht and Mainz, it took a miracle to convince the local clergy that the body wanted to be taken to Fulda. Such local interest may then explain why Willibald's Vita Bonifatii, written for Lullus, archbishop of Mainz, makes no mention of the dispute in Mainz, while Eigil's Vita Sturmi, written from a Fulda perspective, may exaggerate these events. Kehl's account of the early veneration is convincing and informative, and draws on other sources besides the liturgy. Even though first mention of Boniface's feast in the liturgy in Mainz dates from 813 (61) and in Fulda probably from 801 or 802 (32-33), Kehl notes that donations to the convent in Mainz were already made in the name of Boniface immediately after his death (30). Kehl pays considerable attention to the early beginnings of the cult in England, where Boniface's death first appears in the liturgy, and his death remembered throughout England after a general synod. Of course, Boniface's fame had spread to England but he himself was mainly unknown to the general population: Boniface veneration in England is the result of official church policy rather than popular sentiment. Kehl quotes extensively from Cuthbert's letter to Lullus,[6] and her remarks on the Cuthbert's language and on later mention in the Continuato of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica support the analysis of Nicholas Howe, that the conversion of Germany by Anglo-Saxon missionaries was seen as a continuation of that of England by Augustine.[7] Her discussion of the first vita likewise points to England; Kehl argues the structure resembles Anglo-Saxon models. Together with the lengthy introduction of Boniface's youth and his popularity among Anglo-Saxon clergy, this suggests to the author an intended Anglo-Saxon audience for the vita. The first part concludes with the role of Boniface in Carolingian chronicles, and Kehl suggests various factors for his inclusion in text produced at the court he was often in conflict with during his life: the growing influence of Fulda, his status as the sole martyr of his era (besides the two Ewalds, martyred by Saxons in 695), and, finally, the growing success of the church reform Boniface had worked so hard for.

The second and longest part of the book deals with the dissemination of the cult after 819; again Kehl organizes her chapters by locality, providing valuable sources and accounts of the cult's development. While Kehl never openly states that the Boniface cult contributed to German nationalism, her research bears on that thesis. While popularizing accounts often imply that Boniface became 'der Apostel der Deutschen' only in the twelfth century (in the Vita Eberhardi), Alcuin already had compared Boniface to the Apostle Paul, and after him Rabanus made that point in his Hymnus in laudem sancti Bonifatii martyris: Boniface martyrio decorat quidquid Germania nutrit, et proprio sobolem martyrio decorat ('honors with his martyrdom whatever nourishes Germania, and with his own martyrdom honors her offspring')(102). Also, the church in Dokkum was jointly dedicated to Paul and Boniface, and Boniface called Germanorum praedicator in the Utrecht vita (145). For Kehl, Rabanus combines the traditions of Fulda and England, and extends Cuthbert's veneration of Boniface as an intercessor before God for England, in the tradition of Gregory and Augustine, into Boniface as a blessing for a patria that as yet was hardly unified: o patria, o populus, o populus tanto ditata patrono, per quem vita venit, o patria, o populus ('oh fatherland, oh people, oh people so enriched by your patron, from whom life comes, oh fatherland, oh people')(103). (This account is summarized in a section towards the end of the book, pp. 207-11.) Apart from the personal connection Rabanus had with Boniface, Kehl also indicates how central Boniface was to life in the monastery in Fulda. Using legal sources and seals, she establishes that Boniface was not only invoked in donations but also guaranteed church possessions in and around Fulda, and that most legal matters were conducted at Boniface's grave (109-111). Kehl is somewhat brief on the cult in England; she notes that Boniface's feast day is found in most early kalendars and missals, but only in seven of the eighteen post-1100 kalendars edited by Wormald, [8] reflecting Norman preference to their own rather than to Anglo-Saxon saints (152-53).

Most useful, to this reviewer, are the extended commentaries on the genesis of the various vitae. She grounds Otloh's and Eberhard's vitae in the crisis experienced in Fulda when, in 1049, the exempt status of Fulda was questioned. Otloh's vita (written between 1062 and 1066), more than a clarification of Willibald (as Otloh states), is an attempt to establish the rights and worldly possessions of the monastery, especially against competing claims by Mainz. She observes also how Otloh, in his extensive use of the Boniface correspondence, pays no attention at all to Anglo-Saxon matter (114); a few pages later comes the shrewd observation that Otloh calls Boniface the pater spiritalis not of Germania, as Rabanus had it, but now of the Germanorum (as opposed to Hessians, Thuringians, Frisians, etc.): a growing sense of national identity had developed, and Boniface was placed at its cradle. Underlying Eberhard's vita (1155-1162) are economic concerns also, Eberhard going as far as falsifying a charter rendering the whole of Germany taxable to Fulda (122-23). The situation of Mainz was different, but there also Boniface was made serviceable to local interest. The cult in Mainz never reached the status it did in Fulda, presumably for lack of relics;[9] there Boniface was a martyr like many others, without a separate proprium in ninth-century sacramentaries. Mainz did produce a Vita quarta (1011- 1066, but before Otloh) based mainly on Willibald, in which the life of Boniface is condensed to portray mainly the importance of Mainz; the role Boniface played in rebuilding the church in Mainz is emphasized, while his mission to Friesland and his martyrdom receive only scant attention. Like Mostert, Kehl notes that no liturgical sources remain of Boniface veneration in Dokkum, but she lists an impressive array of evidence for veneration in Utrecht, culminating in lengthy discussion of the Utrecht Vita altera and Vita tertia. Kehl connects the Vita altera to translation of the remains of Eoban and Adalhar from Utrecht to Fulda; both the translation and the Vita, which first features the image of Boniface shielding himself with a book, indicate the close relationship between the two cities. Like the Vita quarta, the Utrecht vita has little to say about Boniface's early life in England, nor does it mention Boniface's church reforms. Kehl in this section says little about the role of the book in Boniface's death, relegating it to a footnote (n. 333 on p. 141), even though this addition would determine later Bonifacian iconography (she does discuss the three Bonifacian codices in some detail on pp. 96-98, in the context of Fulda).[10] Neither does she engage in polemic. While commentators have remarked that the Vita altera may in fact have been enhanced by the "old woman," supposedly an eyewitness to the murder, Kehl's summary of the vita, in which she points out that all Boniface's decisions were accompanied by visions (unique to this vita), could easily establish that the Utrecht vita is more than the Willibald vita with an added Frisian account. According to Kehl, the Vita tertia was probably a source for Hacbuld's Vita Lebwini, and Hacbuld adds a significant detail not found in any of his sources: Boniface, not Willibrord, nominated Utrecht as diocese, thus underscoring Boniface's authority in Utrecht and indicating how politics influence hagiography (148-48).

The penultimate section of the second part, while perhaps of less interest to general scholars, proves the breadth and depth of Kehl's scholarship as well as the extent of Boniface's popularity from the ninth to the twelfth century, covering (in 34 pages) Boniface in martyrologies; Boniface veneration in seventeen cities and dioceses (in Germany; St. Gallen, Pfäfers, and Muri in Switzerland, and Murbach in the French Alsace); relics outside of Fulda (she lists relics in no fewer than thirty-two places, though oddly enough not those discussed earlier such as the relics in Utrecht, Mainz, or Brugge) with an overview by century of which places received relics; church dedications; and images of the saint. The last section summarizes the "image" of Boniface in the early and late High Middle Ages. As could be expected of an important saint whose agenda involved church reform, conversion, and church building and whose work took him all over Western Europe, Boniface was invoked frequently to settle disputes and make legal claims. For instance, the various disputes between Mainz and Trier prompted church officials from both sides to call on Boniface. Around 1060-1062, Gozwin argued that since Boniface had consecrated Pippin, primacy in the German church should rest with Mainz and not with Trier, which was aiming to supplant Mainz's preferred status (192-93). Conversely, in the fifteenth century a Trier historian made the case that when Boniface assumed administrative control over Trier (and Reims) he did so as apostolic legate and not as Bishop of Mainz, thus hoping to deny Mainz's claim to a preferred position (203-4). That invoking Boniface often resulted from such disputes is evidenced also by various claims from church institutions that Boniface had founded them: Kehl points out that churches and monasteries in Saxony and Bavaria, who found their position threatened, would name the saint as either founder or consecrator (205-7).

Kehl's is an impressive book, well-written, with prodigious scholarship, even while the geographical organization is not always conducive to presenting the reader with an easily assembled chronological account (but the conclusion does summarize, albeit briefly, in a chronological manner). Somewhat problematic also is lack of a general index, even though indexes of names, places, and manuscripts are provided. Those who wish to study Boniface veneration in detail will not be disappointed by the book's apparatus: besides extensive bibliographies of primary and secondary sources (and even more bibliography in the notes--a German tradition this reviewer finds bothersome at times), Kehl also adds includes two as yet unedited liturgical texts, and a brief vita from a martyrology (München, StB Clm 18 100). If Schieffer's request for a history of Boniface veneration is narrowed down to the period Kehl chose for her study, then her book certainly delivers: she has written an account that deserves wide recognition (and translation into English), a standard for scholarship for years to come.


1. Lutz von Padberg and Hans-Walter Stork (1994), Der Ragyndrudis-Codex des Hl. Bonifatius Paderborn: Bonifatius; Fulda: Parzeller; Lutz von Padberg (1996), Studien zur Bonifatiusverehrung: Zur Geschichte des Codex Ragyndrudis und der Fuldaer Reliquien des Bonifatius, Fuldaer Hochschulschriften 25 Frankfurt am Main: Josef Knecht. For commentary on Der Ragyndrudis Codex, see Gereon Becht-Jördens (1996), "Heiliger und Buch: Überlegungen zur Tradition des Bonifacius-Martyriums Anläßlich der Teilfaksimilierung des Ragyndrudis-Codex" Hessisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte 46: 1-30.

2. For a more comprehensive account of Boniface's supposed consecration of Pippin and mention of him in Carolingian chronicles, see Kehl 82-87.

3. Johannes P. Kern (1989), "Zum Tode des Heiligen Bonifatius" Theologie und Glaube 79 : 301-21.

4. For instance, Josef Leinweber (1983), St. Bonifatius: Leben und Wirken. Fulda: Parzeller, a popular book so devoid of depth, critical attitude towards sources, and political context that it becomes modern hagiography, accepting at face value, for instance, the "eyewitness" of the Utrecht Vita altera Bonifatii (3).

5. Previous reviews include a brief summary by Martina Stratmann Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters 51.1: 252, and a longer review by Gernot R. Wieland Journal of Ecclesiastical History 46 [1995]: 500-01).

6. Michael Tangl (1955), Die Briefen des Hl. Bonifatius und Lullus, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae Selectae 1 2nd ed., Berlin: Weidmann, letter 111.

7. Nicholas Howe (1989), Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England. New Haven: Yale UP; esp. pp. 108-42.

8. Francis Wormald (1939-), English Benedictine Kalendars after A.D. 1100 London: Harrison.

9. Whether Mainz did or did not possess relics is a matter of contention, and not addressed consistently by Kehl, who discusses the tradition according to which the church in Mainz possessed blood that flowed from Boniface's wounds (a mixture of blood and water called lotium in the Vita quarta Bonifatii), and accepts at least the possibility of such a relic in Mainz (123-24). Surprising then is her categoric denial of relics in Mainz in the conclusion (213).

10. Contrary to Wieland's comment in his earlier review (see note 5), there is no "cautious acceptance" on the part of Kehl "of the so-called Ragyndrudis codex as possibly the book with which Boniface shielded himself in the hour of his death" (500). He claims this acceptance is "marred by her citing only positive voices" (501). In fact, Kehl never accepts the identification (stating the obvious, that the Ragyndrudis Codex is not a gospel as the Utrecht author and Otloh would have it), and cites no positive voices, only mentioning three such scholars, before stating what von Padberg would say later, that the book may have gotten damaged when Boniface's murders fought over the spoils.



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Copyright © Michel Aaij, 2003. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2003. All rights reserved