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Rudolf of Fulda: Life of Leoba (c.836)
Leoba and Hiltigard

Leoba, Abbess of Bischofsheim in the diocese of Mainz, died in 779. Her Life was composed by Rudolf of Fulda, probably by 836. It is as a portrait of a powerful eighth-century abbess, and as a source for the conversion of Germany, that the Life is usually read. But there is another aspect - its discussion of a relationship between two women.

Leoba met one of Charlemagne's wives -Hiltigard - who formed a deep attachment to Leoba. The hagiographer records this, but is sufficiently acute to note that this was a "chaste affection" by the Queen. The Queen speaks of their relationship in terms of the classical tropes of friendship - with stress on the idea of "one soul in two bodies" and later union in heaven. At their final parting, Hiltigard seems to have become rather more emotional than one might expect for a friendship with a nun.

Leoba's feelings about the whole affair are not discussed.

Is this a "lesbian text"? There is clearly no question of sexual engagement, but this certainly fits into the idea of a "lesbian continuum" suggested by Adrienne Rich in her classic article "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence", as well as Lilian Faderman in her discussion of pre-mid-20th century women's relationships, Surpassing the Love of Men.

[The full text of the Life is available at the Medieval Sourcebook]

The blessed virgin, however, persevered unwaveringly in the work of God. She had no desire to gain earthly possessions but only those of heaven, and she spent all her energies on fulfilling her vows. Her wonderful reputation spread abroad and the fragrance of her holiness and wisdom drew to her the affections of all. She was held in veneration by all who knew her, even by kings. Pippin, King of the Franks, and his sons Charles and Carloman treated her with profound respect, particularly Charles, who, after the death of his father and brother, with whom he had shared the throne for some years, took over the reins of government. He was a man of truly Christian life, worthy of the power he wielded and by far the bravest and wisest king that the Franks had produced His love for the Catholic faith was so sincere that, though he governed all, he treated the servants and handmaids of God with touching humility. Many times he summoned the holy virgin to his court, received her with every mark of respect and loaded her with gifts suitable to her station. Queen Hiltigard also revered her with a chaste affection and loved her as her own soul. She would have liked her to remain continually at her side so that she might progress in the spiritual life and profit by her words and example. But Leoba detested the life at court like poison. The princes loved her, the nobles received her, the bishops welcomed her with joy. And because of her wide knowledge of the Scriptures and her prudence in counsel they often discussed spiritual matters and ecclesiastical discipline with her. But her deepest concern was the work she had set on foot. She visited the various convents of nuns and, like a mistress of novices, stimulated them to vie with one another in reaching perfection.

Sometimes she came to the Monastery of Fulda to say her prayers, a privilege never granted to any woman either before or since, because from the day that monks began to dwell there entrance was always forbidden to women. Permission was only granted to her, for the simple reason that the holy martyr St. Boniface had commended her to the seniors of the monastery and because he had ordered her remains to be buried there. The following regulations, however, were observed when she came there. Her disciples and companions were left behind in a nearby cell and she entered the monastery always in daylight, with one nun older than the rest; and after she had finished her prayers and held a conversation with the brethren, she returned towards nightfall to her disciples whom she had left behind in the cell. When she was an old woman and became decrepit through age she put all the convents under her care on a sound footing and then, on Bishop Lull's advice, went to a place called Scoranesheim, four miles south of Mainz. There she took up residence with some of her nuns and served God night and day in fasting and prayer.

In the meantime, whilst King Charles was staying in the palace at Aachen, Queen Hiltigard sent a message to her begging her to come and visit her, if it were not too difficult, because she longed to see her before she passed from this life. And although Leoba was not at all pleased, she agreed to go for the sake of their long-standing friendship. Accordingly she went and was received by the queen with her usual warm welcome. But as soon as Leoba heard the reason for the invitation she asked permission to return home. And when the queen importuned her to stay a few days longer she refused; but, embracing her friend rather more affectionately than usual, she kissed her on the mouth, the forehead and the eyes and took leave of her with these words. "Farewell for evermore, my dearly beloved lady and sister; farewell most precious half of my soul. May Christ our Creator and Redeemer grant that we shall meet again without shame on the day of judgment. Never more on this earth shall we enjoy each other's presence."

So she returned to the convent, and after a few days she was stricken down by sickness and was confined to her bed. When she saw that her ailment was growing worse and that the hour of her death was near she sent for a saintly English priest named Torhthat, who had always been at her side and ministered to her with respect and love, and received from him the viaticum of the body and blood of Christ. Then she put off this earthly garment and gave back her soul joyfully to her Creator, clean and undefiled as she had received it from Him. She died in the month of September, the fourth of the kalends of October. Her body, followed by a long cortege of noble persons, was carried by the monks of Fulda to their monastery with every mark of respect Thus the seniors there remembered what St. Boniface had said; namely, that it was his last wish that her remains should be placed next to his bones. But because they were afraid to open the tomb of the blessed martyr, they discussed the matter and decided to bury her on the north side of the altar which the martyr St. Boniface had himself erected and consecrated in honour of our Saviour and the twelve Apostles.

Source: 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 Latin Life of Leoba was first published in 1574:-
Surius, De Probatis Sanctorum Historiis, (Cologne: 1574), Vol. V, pp. 396-406.

The best edition is in:-
Monumenta Germaniae Historicae, Scriptores, ed. Waitz, (Hanover: 1887), Vol. XV, I, pp. 127-131.

Although Talbot's was the first full English translation, much of it was translated in:-
Serenus Cressy, Church History of Brittany, Bk, 24, 4 (Rouen: 1668, microfilm: Early English books, 1641-1700 ; 137:9)

There is also a version as:-
"Life of Leoba," edited by Dorothy Whitelock in English Historical Documents, Vol I: c.500-1042, Second Edition (London: Methuen, 1955), pp. 719-722.

See also:

Stephanie Hollis, Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church, (Woodbridge, Suffolk [UK] ; Rochester, NY, USA : Boydell Press, 1992.1992)

Jo Ann McNamara et al., eds., Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, (Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992), for 17 more lives of women saints between fifth and seventh centuries.

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 simultaneously in both London and New York. The American-printed edition simply give 'New York' as place of publication, the British-printed edition gives 'London and New York'. Copyright was not renewed in 1982 of 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 (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.

Recently a collection of such hagiographical texts, including this 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.

© Paul Halsall June 1997

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