May 02, 2008

Recalling the Life of Leoba

In studying History, students are expected to look critically at the sources they use. This is my slightly edited critique of a source I had to read for a course on Medieval Women. The source was Rudolf of Fuldam's Life of Leoba.

Saint Leoba was a nun who lived during the 8th century and participated in missionary work with Saint Boniface in Germany. The story of her life was written by the monk Rudolf of Fuldam sometime around 836, about 57 years after Leoba’s death.

Rudolf wrote about Leoba’s life supposedly so that other pious women could emulate her. He dedicated the story to Hadamout, another nun, “to read with pleasure and imitate with profit.” However, the story was written at the behest of Rhabamus Marcus on the occasion of the movement and reinterment of Leoba’s relics. The true purpose in writing the account of Leoba’s life was to document her saintly status and cement her holiness in the historical record.

Rudolf wrote about Leoba for the current and future generations of Christian faithful, and he certainly thought of the women in particular. He recounted Leoba’s many virtues clearly so that they could be celebrated and copied by other women. Her behaviors of moderation, in particular, were mentioned more than once. She limited her quantities of food and drink to just enough to sustain health. She emulated her fellow nuns; taking the best virtue of each and practicing it herself, so that she embodied all the virtues that were wanted in a pious Christian woman in her lifetime. These were all qualities one would expect from a saint, as well.

Another quality expected from a saint is a life seemingly destined for holiness. Leoba’s mother reportedly had a dream or vision before her birth, foretelling Leoba’s fate. The mother had been unable to have children, but after she promised God that her child would be brought up in His service, she was able to conceive. Later, Leoba had her own dream or vision which was interpreted to mean she would spread God’s word and wisdom near and far. Rudolf demonstrated through his account of Leoba’s life that both of these prophecies came true, and this helped to further cement Leoba as a proper saint.

One can not be a saint without miracles, and Leoba had several miracles attributed to her during her life. Rudolf recalled four of these miracles through information gathered from the memoirs of those who actually knew Leoba. His main sources of information were four nuns who were Leoba’s contemporaries. Unfortunately, Rudolf could not read their memoirs directly, for they left none. Instead, a monk or priest named Mago wrote down the nuns’ recollections. This source is problematic for historians because Mago did not sit with each nun and transcribe their conversation. Rather, he wrote garbled shorthand notes during their group conversations.

Another problem with Rudolf’s sources arises when Rudolf mentioned other men who wrote about Leoba based on their own conversations with the four nuns, but did not see fit to actually name any of those men. Rudolf wrote that, “there should be no doubt in the minds of the faithful about the veracity of the statements made in this book, since they are shown to be true both by the blameless character of those who relate them and by the miracles which are frequently performed at the shrine of the saint.” The faithful may have no problem accepting the story at face value, but the rest of us wonder how we can substantiate the “blameless character” of men who remain unnamed. Rudolf’s intention in disclosing his sources was presumably to establish the infallibility of the information, although to a critical eye it fails to do this.

After recounting a miracle of a wicked woman who confessed to killing her baby as a direct result of Leoba’s prayers, there is an interesting passage in Rudolf’s narrative. He wrote, “Even before this God had performed many miracles through Leoba, but they had been kept secret. This one was her first in Germany and, because it was done in public, it came to the ears of everyone.” What is interesting about this is that he glossed over her supposed “many miracles”, and it is also amazing that miracles would be kept a secret. One wonders why the Church would conceal the glory of God’s work, when it could help other men and women find the light.

The next miracle recounted by Rudolf involved a fire in the village. Leoba put blessed salt in the water and the water put out the fire “as if a flood had fallen from the skies.” This miracle seems like it should have been credited to St. Boniface rather than Leoba, as it was Boniface who blessed the salt. Why water putting out fire was a miracle is a little muddled in this text, because Rudolf did not offer any details about the wonder of it beyond what is quoted above. Rudolf’s intended audience, however, would not be so critical. They would already believe, and this account of Leoba’s miracle would further strengthen her status as a saintly and holy woman.

The remaining two miracles recounted by Rudolf showed the power of Leoba’s relics. This was the only instance in Rudolf’s account that came from a reasonably reliable source, as it was Rudolf himself who witnessed these two events. It was the only first-hand account, as well as the only source actually named besides Mago.

Leoba did become a saint, and Rudolf’s account may have helped her in the canonization process. He included the information that would be needed to cement Leoba as a truly holy woman. She was a virgin, she embodied all the ideals of a Christian woman, God performed His works through her in the form of miracles, and she did God’s work as a nun and an abbess. She was extraordinary in that she traveled with Boniface to head up the new community of nuns he established in Germany. She was extraordinary in that she did not display a few ideal character traits, but all of them. Rudolf painted a picture of her as the flawless model that all Christian women should aspire to become. His main purpose was to prove her worthy of the title of “Saint”, and the side effect was that he made an example for Christian women everywhere.

Reference: the only source used in this post is Rudolf of Fuldam's Life of Leoba.

Posted by Jennifer at May 2, 2008 10:00 AM | TrackBack