It’s that time of year when letters and cards might actually arrive in your mailbox. Real letter, hand-written by a friend or loved one who lives far away. Isn’t it wonderful? One of the sad things about this modern age is the pen-and-paper letter has gone the way of the dodo, for the most part.
Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until even thirty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to get a letter from someone far away. And even in Anglo-Saxon England, in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages, there were people who communicated to one another via letters.
This was not an easy task, and, just like today, not exactly a common one. There wasn’t the convenience of a centralized postal system which would handily take care of getting your letter to its destination. You had to find someone who was going to the letter’s intended destination, and then someone at that destination had to get that letter to the recipient.
Couple these difficulties with the fact that most people could not read and write, and you can easily see that for the general population, this means of communication was not possible. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but for most of human history, when people left their homes to go to faraway places (in those days, that could even be relatively close by, to our minds), it was likely that they would never be heard from or seen again by their loved ones.
Having said all that, it’s amazing that some letters from the 7th century survived through the centuries. They are fascinating, as they give us a first hand view of one person’s life at the time. Since these close and personal glimpses of life in the Early Middle Ages are few and far between, these letters are very instructive to us today.
The one group of people who could easily write and send letters were those in religious life, as they learned to read and write as part of their vocations. And because there were often travellers between the various monasteries, they had a way for letters to be carried back and forth. So, it’s not surprising that the letters we have are mainly from Church men and women.
And seeing as the Church was engaging in missionary work at this time, establishing monasteries on the Continent, there were even opportunities to send letters back and forth across the ocean.
Today I want to introduce you to Berhtgyth, a Anglo-Saxon nun who grew up in Wessex. She eventually went overseas to Germany as part of a mission to that country, likely with her mother, Cynehild, and taught in the region of Thuringia, Germany. She likely worked under the leadership of the Abbess Leoba. At the end of the 8th century* she wrote some letters to her brother, a monk named Balthard, who at the time of receiving the letters could have been Abbot of the monastery at Bad Hersfeld, in central Germany. The letters themselves aren’t clear exactly where Balthard was, but it is evident he was some distance away, either in Germany, or perhaps even back in England.
We don’t have Balthard’s side of the correspondence; just three letters that Berhtgyth wrote to him have survived. You might wonder why. Although it seems she was a learned woman and accomplished teacher, Berhtgyth was, by all accounts, an ordinary nun, doing the work set out for her as part of an English missionary circle which included the much more famous Boniface, the celebrated English missionary to Germany.
According to a later, 11th century Life of St. Boniface, Berhtgyth’s mother Cynehild was a maternal aunt of Lull. Lull (or Lullus) was the eventual successor of Boniface as Archbishop of Mainz. Because Boniface and Lull were both important figures, the correspondence between the two of them, as well as letters to and about Boniface, were saved for posterity. In the midst of that bundle of letters that have been saved (probably compiled by Lull), you will find these three letters from Berhtgyth to her brother Balthard. I will touch on why this might be so later.
The letters are short, but remarkable. To give you a taste, here is the opening of the second letter:
Most beloved brother in God and dearest in the flesh, Berhtgyth salutes Balthard in the name of Christ.
My soul is weary of my life because of our fraternal love, for I am alone, left behind and without help of kin. For my father and my mother abandoned me, but the Lord has taken me up. Many are the congregations of water between me and you, yet let us be joined in love because true love is never divided by the borders between places. But still I say that sadness never recedes from my soul, nor can I rest my mind in sleep, because love is as strong as death. I therefore ask you now, most beloved brothers to come to me or have me come to you, so that I might see you before I die, because your love never leaves my soul. Brother, your only sister salutes you in Christ.
All three letters follow this theme. In them, Berhtgyth begs her brother to come and visit her, and expresses her loneliness and sadness at being abandoned by her parents (by their death). In fact, as you can tell from this excerpt, she does lay it on rather thick. However, we have to keep in mind that this type of overblown rhetoric only seems that way to our modern eyes. In some of the other literature we have looked at, such as The Wife’s Lament, you can see hints of this same style, so it’s not like this was unusual for the times.
In the third letter, we get a glimpse of some of the ways letters travelled from one person to another, as we see that Balthard has obviously replied to Berhtgyth’s letter.
It may be known to you that your missionary words came to me through a faithful messenger named Aldraed, together with gifts that are embraced with intimate love. And now I confess to you that with the help of God I long to fulfill all that you instructed me, if your will might deem it worthy to come to me, because I cannot in any other way suppress my fountain of tears.
Aldread has brought a letter back to her from Balthard, along with some gifts. It almost seems like the package of a letter and the gift maybe passed through more than one hand, finally getting to Aldread and thus to Berhtgyth. And at the end of the letter, she reciprocates:
A little present, although small, still loaded with great love, which we send to you by the faithful messenger named Alfred; that is a ribbon.
Try to look past the “fountain of tears” to see the woman who wrote the words, who has given up husband and family to serve Christ as a nun, and who is missing her only kin, her brother, longing for a glimpse of home in a foreign land. They write back and forth, sending gifts via a messenger or messengers they can only hope and pray will reach their destination. It’s really rather touching, don’t you think?
There is some speculation that these letters were included with the bundle of Boniface correspondence as a type of “form letter” that others could use in their own correspondences to use in similar circumstances. If you were missing your brother/sister/aunt/uncle/mother/father, etc, you could pull out these letters, personalize it with the appropriate names, and you would have a letter already done for you. Keep in mind that letter writing was an important skill that was taught in Classical times, and although we don’t know for sure, there are hints that it could have been taught throughout the Early Medieval period in England as well at the monastery schools. It was expected that letters would follow certain forms and include specific parts. It would have been handy to have examples of a “good” letter to work from for busy church men and women.
At any rate, no matter why there are there, I’m really glad these letters still survive. We get a small glimpse of an ordinary person of the times, in her own words. That it is a woman’s voice we are hearing is even more remarkable. These letters are a small window into this long-ago time, one far removed from the battles, warriors, and saints we usually see.
But I wish we knew whether Balthard finally visited Berhtgyth or not, don’t you? I really hope so!
Featured image from medievalists.net
If you want more in-depth info on Berhtgyth’s letters, have a look at Berhtgyth’s Letters to Balthard, a scholarly paper from the University of Iowa by Kathryn Maude.