Interview with Frederick S. Paxton

Frederick S. Paxton, a Professor of History at Connecticut College. The main focus of his research has been about how medieval people approached sickness, healing and mortality. In this latest book, Anchoress and Abbess in Ninth-century Saxony: The Lives of Liutbirga of Wendhausen and Hathumoda of Gandersheim, Paxton provides an edition and translation of hagiographic texts about two important women in the early Christian church in Saxony. We interviewed him by email:

1. How did you become interested in researching Liutbirga of Wendhausen and Hathumoda of Gandersheim?

In Christianizing Death (1990), I argued that Latin Christian death rituals began to take definitive form in the later ninth century. After finishing that book, I wondered if there were any contemporary narrative accounts that might confirm my findings. The Life of Hathumoda seemed a perfect test case. Unlike many hagiographical sources, it was written shortly after the death of its subject by someone who knew her well and was present when she died. And I was not disappointed. The ritual accompaniment to Hathumoda’s death played out just as I had expected. To my surprise, though, the text passed over the formal deathbed rituals in a rather perfunctory manner. Much more time was spent on the visions that Hathumoda experienced during her terminal illness, the emotional and spiritual responses of the women who tended her in her dying, and their struggle to come to terms with her death. There was a bigger story there and I wanted to get to the bottom of it. The Life of Liutbirga got added to the mix at the suggestion of Tom Noble, who thought that the two lives made a good pair because they were roughly contemporary and from the same region. Analyzing and contextualizing them together thus helped expand the research to Saxony as a whole and to the larger fields of women’s spirituality and the history of the family.

2. Although the three works you translate revolve around Liutbirga and Hathumoda, the texts also detail a number of other ninth-century Saxon women. How do these depictions of other women help to reveal Christian life in this period?

These texts really do stand out for their focus on women. Men appear, of course, but only in supporting roles. This is because Gisla figures primarily as a widow, and Liutbirga never married, and also because Liutbirga’s cell was in the church of a house of canonesses and Hathumoda was abbess of a similar community of cloistered women. They thus reveal arenas of female activity that do not often appear in early medieval sources, one secular and two religious: the management of aristocratic households and their dispersed estates, teaching and dispensing spiritual guidance to the laity (if at the price of ritual enclosure), and leading a newly established women’s community. And they do it with a great deal of narrative power, especially in the descriptions of Hathumoda’s visions and Liutbirga’s struggles with the devil, and with added doses of naturalism and psychological acuity in the extraordinary accounts of Liutbirga and the women who came to see her, or just happened to be passing by her cell.

3. You also talk about how ninth-century Saxony was only recently converted to Christianity, and that the Saxons were able to “fashion their understanding of Christianity in their own image.” How do your texts help reveal some of the unique aspects of Christianity in Saxony?

Gender relations in Saxony seem to have been more balanced than in other places in Europe and ordinary families, like Hathumoda’s and Liutbirga’s, seem to have played as much of a role in the process of Christianization as missionary bishops and Benedictine monks. Both Gandersheim and Wendhausen were family foundations built on family land. They were blessed by the clergy, but otherwise independent. Moreover, as much as monks like Agius of Corvey wanted all cloistered women to become nuns, aristocratic Saxon families preferred the more flexible status of canonesses, who took no permanent vows, could own property and could leave the cloister at will. At least in the first generation or two, the abbesses were daughters of the founding couple. Other women of the family also lived there: some their whole lives, some until they were married, and others after they were widowed, like Hathumoda’s mother Oda, who spent the last decades of her life at Gandersheim. The firm establishment of this particular way of life in the later ninth century led to its blossoming in Ottonian Germany, where abbesses, queens and canonesses played key roles in the religious, cultural and even political life of the Reich.

4. Finally, going back to my undergraduate days, I found that hagiographic texts could sometimes be difficult to understand and to teach. How would you go about teaching students at an undergraduate level the Lives of Liutbirga of Wendhausen and Hathumoda of Gandersheim?

You’re right about that. Saints’ lives, especially if they are filled with miracle stories and stock figures, often elicit reactions from students along the lines of “Why would anyone believe this stuff?” Others find the blend of natural and supernatural interesting and challenging, though, and that mixture is very evident in these texts. There are visions and miracles, but the principal characters are also recognizably human, even flawed. Hathumoda and Liutbirga are presented as holy women, but they are also shown struggling with their faith, and acting within the context of real families and institutions. This opens up unusual opportunities for teaching. I was surprised when creating the index for the volume to see how many entries there were on topics like childhood and children, daughters, families, friendship, nobles and nobility, servants and servitude, virgins and virginity, widows and widowhood. There is also a myriad of information on abbesses and abbeys, care of the sick, responses to death and dying, dreams and visions, and other forms of piety for students interested in early medieval religion. Finally, enough translations of primary texts from the ninth and even the tenth centuries are now readily available that students can use these texts together with related ones for pretty focused comparative research, even without proficiency in Latin.

We thank Professor Paxton for answering our questions.

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