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A Magazine of comment, criticism and review dealing
with questions confronting the Anglican Communion
Saint Boniface, the Popes and the
T. BONIFACE is popularly known as the Apostle of the
due him is very great, but it is that of the organizer of the German Church, of a reformer of German ecclesiastical and religious conditions, and above all of a great founder of mediaeval Church unity, rather than that of a missionary pioneer. It is not recorded that Boniface ever preached the Gospel where it had not been preached before; it is certain that he never preached it where it did not sorely need to be preached again.
From 716, when Boniface first went to Frisia, to his martyrdom, probably in 754, the records are quite full, though they are often incomplete, not always clear and apparently sometimes inconsistent.1
For their study one needs an appreciation of the very artificial style of the time, especially of its ecclesiastics. No less needful is knowledge of the political situation in which Popes and Karlings found themselves in the first half of the eighth century and of the great changes wrought in the preceding years in the English and German Churches. Against such a background the correspondence, lives and legends of Boniface get new meanings. He has seemed to students equally sincere, now an apostolic prince of the Church, now a fanatical destroyer of evangelical liberty," a great Saul, a Paul never ". The truth lies between. Boniface was not a great originator; he was a great executive, but he was greater still as a man, a type of the best in Anglo-Saxon character.
1 Boniface's correspondence counts 99 letters written between 716 and 753. Of the early biographies Willibald's was written before 768, the Utrecht Priest's about 800, the Passio about 1011, Othlo's about 1065. These are conveniently presented in Jaffe's Bibliotheca Rerum Germanicarum, Vol. 3 (Monumenta Moguntina, 1866). The best general histories of the time are Mühlbacher's Deutsche Geschichte unter Karolingern (1896) and Hauck's Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands (1898). In the latter is a full bibliography of the significant Boniface literature. Noteworthy also is Tangl's Das Todesjahr des Bonifatius in Zeitschrift des Vereins für hessische Geschichte und Landeskunde, Vol. 37 (1903).
Boniface was an Englishman but he came to Germany from Rome. That was the result of no chance or accident. He was probably then well over forty-five. Of distinguished parentage, in his boyhood at Exeter and his youth at Nursling Abbey he had watched and shared in the West-Saxon enthusiasm for the great reform of his own Church by Theodore. At Nursling he had had for teacher Abbot Wynbert, who had once been chancellor to the West-Saxon king and could doubtless teach his eager pupil at least as much of diplomacy as of theology. His abilities as a scholar had already commanded general recognition and warm praise from Aldhelm. He had successfully conducted, probably in 710, certainly before 712, delicate negotiations as representative of a West-Saxon synod at Canterbury. He had gone with missionary purpose to Frisia in 716 but had been shrewd enough to see on looking over the ground that existing political conditions did not justify his remaining there as an uncommissioned worker. He had been offered the abbacy at Nursling. The commendatory letters that he took with him to Rome show that he was already in his own Church a man of mark. His determination to go to Germany by way of Italy was the result of deliberate judgment that one who had in him to do a work like Theodore's could make full use of his ability only if he spoke with the prestige of a commission from the Threshold of the Apostles that none could gainsay. His idea of the papacy was common in the England of his day. It was not common in Germany. If the Roman Church would send him there as its missionary he trusted himself to justify its trust.
To Gregory II such a missionary volunteer was most welcome. He was facing varied difficulties with consummate skill and Boniface could help in just the quarter where help gave most promise. On the borders of Christendom the Saracens were a growing menace. The first break in the advancing wave of their progress in Europe was still fourteen years away. Already it must have been clear to so shrewd an observer as Gregory that Karl Martel was the one man and the Franks the one people from whom safety could be had in that world
crisis. Till then the relations of the Frankish State Church to the curia had been occasional and irregular though not uncordial. The moral authority of the See of Peter was never questioned. Beyond this the Frankish princes, as Hauck observes, never contested in theory the claims of the Popes but acted as if these did not exist. Knowledge of transalpine. ecclesiastical conditions was apparently not very intimate at Rome, but it was evident that a strengthening of ties might be, as indeed it soon after became, a matter of vital import to the temporal power of the papacy in its struggle with the Lombards. And then there was always a smouldering conflict with the Emperor at Constantinople, who had been making notable inroads on papal revenues in Greece, Sicily and Calabria. Moreover, a door had just been opened to him in Bavaria. No wonder Gregory turned his eyes expectantly northward. But such a commission as he had in mind was not for a chance volunteer. It was not till after varied tests of his orthodoxy, his loyalty and his ability that Boniface received appointment as papal missionary, May 15, 719. A pledge of obedience was exacted. It does not appear that any special field or form of work was stipulated. Boniface was, apparently, to look over the situation and report. Gregory would not hastily commit himself where issues, greater than Boniface yet imagined, were at stake. Possibly the Pope wished also to see whether the evidently profound impression that the Eternal City had made on the ardent missionary would stand the test of time. It had at least already so far prevailed as to induce him to exchange his Anglo-Saxon name Winfrid for what might pass for a Latin equivalent, Bonifatius, that is "fortunate," the Greek Eutyches.
To win Karl Martel was the goal of papal policy but, possibly for that very reason, his court, or the district under his immediate government, was not the missioner's first quest. He went over the Brenner Pass to half-independent Bavaria. There was double promise of welcome there. Three years before Duke Theodo, a pilgrim to Rome, had sought help from the