Gift-giving and books in St Boniface’s letters

JOHN-HENRY WILSON CLAY, ‘Gift-giving and books in the letters of St Boniface and Lul’, Journal of Medieval History, 35, 2009, pp. 313-325.

Abstract: The Anglo-Saxon missionary and archbishop St Boniface (d.754) and Lul, his protégé and successor in the see of Mainz (d.768), left behind a rich collection of letters that has become an invaluable source in our understanding of Boniface’s mission. This article examines the letters in order to elucidate the customs of gift-giving that existed between those who were involved in the mission, whether directly or as external supporters. It begins with a brief overview of anthropological models of gift-giving, followed by a discussion of the portrayal of gift-giving in Anglo-Saxon literature. Two features of the letters of Boniface and Lul are then examined — the giving of gifts and the giving of books — and a crucial distinction between them revealed. Although particular customs of gift-giving between the missionaries and their supporters were well established, and indeed bore some resemblance to ‘secular’ gift-giving customs depicted in Anglo-Saxon poetry, books, while exchanged frequently, were consistently excluded from the ritualised structures of gift-giving. A dual explanation for this phenomenon is proposed: first, that books were of greater practical importance to the mission than other forms of gifts; second, that their status as sacred texts rendered them unsuitable for inclusion within rituals that depended upon the giver emphatically belittling the material worth of their own gift.

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