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Medieval Sourcebook:
The Life of Lebuin, 10th Century

[Talbot Introduction]

Though the life of St. Lebuin written by Hucbald of St. Amand is better known and was considered for a long time to be the first, M. J. A Moltzer showed in 1909 that it was based on an older biography, which is here translated. Hucbald was born about A.D. 840 and became monk of Elnone on the Scarpe. He went to Auxerre, where he followed the lectures of Heiric, a disciple of John Scotus Eriugena. Later he passed to St. Bertin, where he was placed in charge of the schools. The successor of Hincmar of Rheims, Fulques (881­900), invited him to reorgamze the schools in the cathedral city, and after doing so he returned to St. Amand, where he died, 20 June, probably in the year 931. Among a number of other lives of Saints, he wrote a biography of St. Lebuin at the request of Baldric, the restorer of the diocese of Utrecht (918­76), but as he merely pads out the facts without making any original contribution it has seemed better to present the original and earlier text to the reader.

Sources: The Life of St. Lebuin was first published by Surius, vol. vi, pp277-86, but this was the text written by Hucbald of St. Amand. A translation of this appeared in Serenus Cressy's Church History of Brittany, vol. xxivv, 7. The present text is, however, based on the Vita Lebuini Antiqua, edited by A. Hofmeister, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores (x926-34), vol. xxx, 2, pp. 789-95.


[229] THE LAND of England which was converted to the faith of Christ by the intervention of the blessed Pope Gregory has always been most steadfast in its religion. And just as it is prolific in all kinds of animals, so also is it productive of holy men. There one finds laymen devoted to the service of God, virgins of exceptional virtue and monks of outstanding generosity spurning the world for the love of Christ. Very many of these have forsaken their country for the Lord's sake, either to expiate their sins or benefit pagans and Christians by their teaching.

The Lord Himself admonished St. Lebuin to forsake his country and to preach to the Saxons across the sea and told him to instruct the people who dwelt in the lands of the Franks and Saxons near the river Isel. After receiving this command, not once but a second and a third time, he embarked on a ship and came to the priest Gregory, who at that time was in charge of the church at Utrecht, which in olden times was called Wiltenburg. Though Gregory was only a priest, he was fulfilling the duties of a bishop. This man, who was the scion of a noble Frankish family, had been brought up in the service of St. Boniface since he was a boy and first joined him when at God's command he went to preach to the people of Hesse and Thuringia. Boniface had come from England at the time of Charles and became so renowned for his wisdom and holiness in the days of that king's two sons, Carloman and Pippin, that he was able to effect reforms both in religion and belief throughout the whole Frankish kingdoms. Though he set out as a poor pilgrim, such was his eloquence and prudence that he was chosen by the kings and the people to be Bishop of Mainz, and when he went to Rome to be consecrated archbishop by Pope Gregory the third his name was changed from Wynfrith to Boniface because of his good deeds [bona facta]. But after this blessed master was slain by the sword vrith fifty­two companions whilst he [230] was preaching in Frisia, St. Gregory spent the rest of his life ministering to the young Chistian community which St. Willibrord and other disciples of the Lord had baptized in Frisia and in the districts round about.

St. Lebuin, therefore, told St. Gregory what the Lord had comrnanded him and asked to be conducted to the spot in his diocese which the Lord had pointed out and commended to his care. After blessed Gregory had listened to him, congratulated him and welcomed this visitation from the Lord, he directed him to the place he had mentioned and gave him as a companion the servant of God, Marchelmus, who had been one of Willibrord's disciples Then he was received into the house of a widow named Abarhilda and enjoyed her hospitality for some days.

When many had accepted his teaching, the Christians who lived there built an oratory for him near the western bank of the river Isel at a place called Wilp, and not long afterwards they built a church and a dwelling­place on the eastern bank of the same river, where the man of God remained intent on the work of God. From time to time he went into Saxony to see if he could gain souls to God, and he persuaded many to accept the faith of Christ. Among his friends and acquaintances were people of the nobility, one of whom was a rich man named Folcbert who lived in the village of Suderg.

But as it were not possible for him who bore the light of Christ to remain concealed for long, nor for the seed of Christ to grow without persecution, complaints arose among those who did not believe and they began to threaten the man of God because some of their number had abandoned the ancient worship and had turned to new ways. "Why do we not get hold of this fanatic," they said," and give him what he deserves for gadding about the province and jabbering his incantations and sending people out of their minds?" And so they banded together in a mob, burned down his church and drove out the Christians from their midst.

In olden times the Saxons had no king but appointed rulers over each village; and their custom was to hold a general meeting once a year in the centre of Saxony near the river Yser at a place called Marklo. There all the leaders used to gather together and they [231] were joined by twelve noblemen from each village with as many freedmen and serfs. There they confirmed the laws, gave judgment on outstanding cases and by common consent drew up plans for the coming year on which they could act either in peace or war.

Folcbert, whom we have already mentioned, had a son named Helco, who was to set out with the other youths for the meeting. One morning, whilst he was speaking to his son, he said, among other things: " I feel anxious about Wine" - for this is what he used to call Lebuin - "and I am afraid that if he meets with those who hate him they will either kill him or drag him to the meeting place and have him killed there." Whilst he was still speaking, the dogs began barking in the hall and growling at someone coming in. The young man Helco went to the door to see who it was and there he found Lebuin trying to ward off the dogs with his stick. He ran up to him and, driving the dogs away, brought him vwith joy to his father. After they had greeted each other and sat down, Folcbert said to the man of God: "You have just come at the right time, my dear Wine, for I was wanting to see you and have a few words with you. Where do you intend to go now?" The man of God said: " I am going to the meeting of the Saxons." Folcbert said: "You are on friendly terms with many of us, dear Wine, and what you say gives pleasure even to me. But I hear that there are many insolent young fellows who insult and threaten you. Listen to me and be on your guard against them. Do not go to the meeting, but return home to your friend Davo. For once the meeting is over you may go about with less danger and then you can come here in safety and we shall listen to your words with very great pleasure." The man of God replied: " I must not fail to be present at this meeting, for Christ himself has commanded me to make known his words to the Saxons." Folcbert said: " You will not get away." He answered: " I shall escape easily enough, for He who sent me will be my aid."

Since he could not persuade him, he sent him away.

When the day of the meeting came round, all the leaders were present, as were others whose duty it was to attend. Then, when they had gathered together, they first offered up prayers to their gods, as is their custom, asking them to protect their country and [232] to guide them in making decrees both useful to themselves and pleasing to the gods. Then when a circle had been formed they began the discussions.

Suddenly Lebuin appeared in the middle of the circle, clothed in his priestly garments, bearing a aoss in his hands and a copy of the Gospels in the crook of his arm. Raising his voice, he aied: "Listen to me, listen. I am the messenger of Almighty God and to you Saxons I bring his command." Astonished at his words and at his unusual appearance, a hush fell upon the assembly. The man of God then followed up his announcement with these words: " The God of heaven and Ruler of the world and His Son, Jesus Christ, commands me to tell you that if you are willing to be and to do what His senants tell you He will confer benefits upon you such as you have never heard of before." Then he added: "As you have never had a king over you before this time, so no king will prevail against you and subject you to his domination. But if you are unwilling to accept God's commands, a king has been prepared nearby who will invade your lands, spoil and lay them waste and sap away your strength in war; he will lead you into exile, deprive you of your inheritance, slay you with the sword, and hand over your possessions to whom he has a mind: and afterwards you will be slaves both to him and his successors."

At this they could no longer hold their tongue and cried out in a loud voice: "This is the wandering charlatan who goes about the country preaching wild, fantastic nonsense. Catch him and stone him to death." In spite of the efforts of the wiser among them to prevent it, the mob ran to the fence close by, wrenched stakes from it, pared and sharpened them and threw them, trying to transfix him. But suddenly he was no longer there. Then, all of them, both those who had been put to confusion and those who had tried to control them, condemned their action as unjust, and one of them in particular, a speaker named Buto, climbed on to the trunk of a tree and addressed them as follows: "All you who have any sense of justice, listen to what I have to say. When the Normans, Slavs and Frisians or any other people send messengers to us we receive them peacefully and listen with courtesy [233] to what they have to say. But now, when a messenger of God comes to us, look at the insults we pour upon him! The ease with which he escaped from our hands ought to prove to you that he spoke the truth and that the threats he uttered will not be long in happening."

Moved by regret at what they had done, they decided that the messenger of God should go unharmed if he appeared again and that he should be allowed to travel wheresoever he pleased. Then, after this decision had been reached, they continued with the business they had in hand.

St. Lebuin, therefore, went about wherever the Spirit of God led him, persevering in the work of God until he gave back his soul to its Creator. He was buried after his death in the church which had formerly been burned down and rebuilt. But after his death the wicked Saxons laid waste that place and set the church on fire and for three days tried without success to find his body. At the same time Abbot Gregory also died and his diocese was taken over by his nephew Albricus, who loved Liutger [l] with a deep affection. He said to him: " Because you are now my dearest brother, I beg you to carry out my wishes. For the place in which St. Lebuin carried out his work until his death and where he is now buried has been laid waste. I want you to restore that place and to rebuild the church over his body."

[1] The St. Liutger mentioned in this biography was the first Bishop of Munster in Westphalia. Born at Zuilen near Utrecht about 774 (d. 26 March 809), he was sent to the school of Gregory at Utrecht and from there went to York with Alubert, who was consecrated bishop At York Llutger studhed under Alcuin and contracted a friendship with him that lasted throughout hus hfe. It was in 775 that he was despatched to Deventer to restore the chapel destroyed by the Saxons and to find the relics of St. Lebuin, after which he spent some time teaching at the school of Utrecht. In 777 he was ordained at Cologne and put in charge of the Eastern part of Friesland, with Dokkum, the scene of St. Boniface's martyrdom, as his centre. After seven years he was drlven out by the rlsians, instigated by Widukind, leader of the Saxons, and in 785 vlsited Rome, where he was received by Pope Adrian. For the next two years he stayed at Monte Cassino, and there, on the arrival of Charlemagne, was appointed musslonary to the five districts at the mouth of the river Ems. In 793 Charlemagne wlshed to make him Bishop of Trier, but he declined the honour and proposed instead to evangelize the Saxons. He built a monastery m the place, later called Munster, and lived there under the Rule of St. Chrodegang of Metz, whlch a few years before had been imposed in all Frankish territories. Someume between 80z and 803 he was consecrated Bishop of Munster and died on Passion Sunday 809. His body rests at Werden, the Benedictine monastery begun by hlm in 799 and completed in 804.

[234] Therefore the servant of God Liutger, in obedience to the commands of his master, looked for the body of the saint in the place just mentioned but was unable to f nd it. He began to raise a church, however, in the part where he thought it ought to be. When he had laid the foundations and was trying to erect the walls St. Lebuin appeared to him in a dream and said: " Dearest brother Liutger, you have done well in restoring the church of God which the heathens destroyed so long ago: my body, which you were looking for, will be found buried under the south wall which you have built." On the following morning, after saying his prayers, Liutger found the body in the place described to him in the dream, and, gathering together a large band of men, he had the foundations moved to the south part of the building so that the tomb of the saint could be enclosed within the church. It is in this place that God works many miracles through his servant Lebuin even to the present day.


C. H. Talbot, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, Being the Lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Leoba and Lebuin together with the Hodoepericon of St. Willibald and a selection from the correspondence of St. Boniface, (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954)

The copyright status of this text has been checked carefully. The situation is complicated, but in sum is as follows. The book was published in 1954 by Sheed & Ward, apparently simultaneously, in both London and New York. The American-printed edition simply gave 'New York' as place of publication, the British-printed edition gave 'London and New York'. Copyright was not renewed in 1982 or 1983, as required by US Law. The recent GATT treaty (1995?) restored copyright to foreign publications which had entered US public domain simply because copyright had not be renewed in accordance with US law. This GATT provision does not seem to apply to this text because it was published simultaneously in the US and Britain by a publisher operating in both countries (a situation specifically addressed in the GATT regulations). Thus, while still under copyright protection in much of the world, the text remains in the US public domain.

Some years ago, a collection of such hagiographical texts, including some texts from Talbot, was published:-

Thomas F.X. Noble and Thomas Head, Soldiers of Christ: Saint and Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).

Soldiers of Christ uses, among others, the Talbot translated texts, but is much improved by additional notes by the two editors, and by new translations of some parts. Readers from outside the US should consult this volume, and readers in the US would find it profitable to do so.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, October 1, 2000

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