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Boniface [St Boniface]locked

  • I. N. Wood

Boniface [St Boniface] (672x5?–754), archbishop of Mainz, missionary, and martyr, is unusually well documented for a man of the early eighth century. One life was written about him by Willibald in Mainz before 769, and other lives followed in the course of the eighth and ninth centuries. He was also the major figure in the lives of numerous of his followers, notably in those of Sturm of Fulda and Gregory of Utrecht. More important for an in-depth understanding of the saint is that a large number of letters written by, to, and about him were gathered together, apparently at the behest of his pupil and successor at Mainz, Archbishop Lul. Among other works left by Boniface are a grammatical treatise and some riddles, while he is also known to have written a treatise on metrics. In addition, canons of several church councils in which he played a leading role have also survived. These sources are not without difficulties, since Boniface was a controversial figure, and some of the evidence relating to his career is undoubtedly skewed by the propaganda of both his supporters and his detractors. Moreover, even among his supporters there were differences of opinion, since rival factions, notably in Mainz, Fulda, and Utrecht, tried to claim Boniface as their own, as is apparent from the surviving hagiography relating to the martyr and his disciples. Nevertheless, the sum total of the evidence for Boniface makes him more accessible as an object of study than most other figures of the early middle ages.

Boniface's correspondence

The collections which include the letters of Boniface shed light not just on the martyr himself, but also on a wide range of aspects of Anglo-Saxon and continental society in the late seventh and eighth centuries. The letters are essentially preserved in three manuscripts of the eighth and ninth centuries. Study of these collections suggests that there was once a Collectio pontificia, a collection of papal letters addressed to and from Boniface, as well as a separate Collectio communis, a more general collection of the saint's correspondence. To these were added a further collection of letters associated with Boniface's disciple Lul, as well as other miscellaneous letters from Anglo-Saxon England, several of them written by or sent to Aldhelm of Malmesbury.

Altogether there are 150 letters, of which 38 were written by Boniface, 32 were addressed to him, and a further 14 were written in support of him. In addition there are 15 letters by Lul and 24 written to him. Of obvious importance for reconstructing Boniface's career are the 15 papal letters (including 2 forgeries) written to him, and the 12 letters written on his behalf, by popes Gregory II (r. 715–31), Gregory III (r. 731–41), Zacharias (r. 741–52), and Stephen II (r. 752–7), as well as the 4 letters which Boniface himself addressed to popes Zacharias and Stephen. Equally interesting, however, is the correspondence of Boniface and Lul with other Anglo-Saxons. These letters reveal a network of family and professional connections and shed considerable light on the English church of the early eighth century, most notably on the piety and intellectual and cultural achievements of a number of Anglo-Saxon nunneries. There are 8 letters to Anglo-Saxon abbesses and nuns, and a further 4 from them. More specifically there are letters to and from Abbess Eadburh of Thanet, from whom Boniface requested a copy of the epistles of St Peter written in gold; from Abbess Eangyth, and to and from the latter's daughter Bugga; and above all to and from the missionary's relative Leoba, who was to follow Boniface to the continent, where she became first abbess of the saint's foundation of Tauberbischofsheim. According to Rudolf of Fulda, who wrote the life of Leoba in the 830s, Boniface wanted the abbess to be buried in the same tomb as himself. In the event, Leoba was buried initially at Fulda, although not in the same tomb as the martyr, but was later translated to nearby Petersberg.

Early life to 716

Boniface's early years are known only from hagiography. He was probably born between 672 and 675 and apparently in the neighbourhood of Exeter: later medieval tradition named his birthplace more precisely, and apparently without justification, as Crediton. His original name was Wynfreth. After an early illness he was placed, according to his earliest hagiographer, on his own insistence and despite paternal opposition, as a (puer oblatus'child oblate') in the monastery of Ad-Escancastre (Exeter), which was then ruled by Abbot Wulfhard. Subsequently he transferred to the monastery of Nhutscelle (Nursling), near Southampton, where Wynberht was abbot, and where he completed his education in grammar, rhetoric, and the scriptures. Thereafter he was appointed head of the monastic school and his teaching there is presumably reflected in his treatise on grammar. On reaching the age of thirty, the traditional age for ordination, he also became a priest. Following a rebellion in Wessex, Wynfreth was sent as an envoy to Archbishop Berhtwald by a synod held, probably at Brentford in 705, by King Ine and his leading churchmen.

First years on the continent, 716–722

Despite his intellectual and diplomatic successes Wynfreth resolved to become a missionary on the continent. In making such a choice he may have known of the work of evangelization which had already been carried out in Frisia by Bishop Wilfrid of York, and of the mission to the same region begun in 690 by another Anglo-Saxon, Willibrord. Wynfreth left for Frisia in 716. The year was not a propitious one, for, in the aftermath of the death of the Frankish mayor of the palace, Pippin II, in 714, war had broken out between Pippin's son and successor, the eponymous founder of the Carolingian dynasty, Charles Martel, and the Frisian king, Radbod. As a result of this Radbod had turned against Christian communities in his kingdom, and against Willibrord, who had come to be closely associated with Charles. Although Wynfreth did manage to make contact with Radbod, he realized that he would achieve little in the circumstances, and returned to Nursling. There, on the death of Wynberht, he was elected abbot, but he refused the appointment and instead set off for Rome in 718, with a letter of introduction from Bishop Daniel of Winchester, who found an alternative abbot of Nursling in the person of Stephen. Wynfreth was to continue to turn to Daniel for advice, even when he was himself on the continent.

Wynfreth was not the first Anglo-Saxon missionary to travel to Rome: both Wilfrid and Willibrord had done so, the latter specifically to obtain approval for his work of evangelization. Nevertheless, Wynfreth was to develop a particularly close link with the Holy See, and especially with popes Gregory II and Gregory III. Having reached Rome in 719 he was examined by Gregory II; and on 15 May 719 the pope granted him a commission to preach to the pagans. It seems that on the previous day the pope had conferred on Wynfreth the name of Boniface, from Boniface, the martyr of Tarsus, whose relics had been brought to Rome. Thereupon, as Boniface, Wynfreth travelled north, via the court of the Lombard king, Liutprand (r. 712–44), to Bavaria, and thence to Thuringia and on to Frisia, much of which had been taken over by Charles Martel following the death of Radbod in 719. Boniface now joined forces with Willibrord in Utrecht, working in the neighbouring region for the following two years. In 721, however, when Willibrord offered to make him chorepiscopus (a suffragan bishop, with no diocesan centre, working in a rural, often missionary, zone), Boniface declined and resolved to carry out the commission conferred on him by Gregory II. He set off—via the nunnery of Pfalzel outside Trier, if traditions relating to the childhood of Gregory of Utrecht are to be believed—for Amöneburg in the Lahngau. There he preached with some success against the supposedly syncretist Christianity of the local rulers Dettic and Devrulf, and of their followers.

In 722 Boniface sent his companion Bynnan to Rome, and on receiving an invitation to the Holy See from the pope he set off, via Francia and Burgundy, on his second visit to the papacy. On his arrival he was again examined by Gregory II; and on St Andrew's day (30 November) he was raised to the episcopate, becoming a missionary bishop with no fixed diocese—an unusual, but by no means unprecedented, appointment, which was well suited to the needs of the church in an area which had as yet not been subjected to a diocesan structure. Thereafter he returned north, with letters of recommendation from the pope addressed to Charles Martel and to the leaders of Thuringia.

Missionary work in Germany, 723–741

Having paid his compliments to Charles, Boniface travelled on to Hesse, where he is said to have felled a great oak associated, according to Willibald, with the Roman god Jove (and presumably to be equated with the Germanic deity Thor), at Gaismar, near Fritzlar. Subsequently he turned his attention to Thuringia, where Christianity had supposedly collapsed during the period of rule of Theobald and Heden in the face of aggression from the pagan Saxons. Among Boniface's bases at this time was his monastery of Ohrdruf, near Gotha. In assessing the strength of paganism in Hesse and Thuringia it is, however, important to recognize two points: first, that these regions had been Christianized before Boniface's arrival (and here it must be remembered that early medieval clerics made very little distinction between pastoral work among imperfect Christians and mission to the outright heathen—they were adjacent points on the spectrum of sin); and, second, that the references to a resurgence of paganism in these areas may have had more than a little to do with the propaganda of Charles Martel and his apologists. For instance, Heden is known to have been a supporter of Willibrord's monastery of Echternach, while an inscription, now lost, showed Theobald to be a church founder. Their poor reputations are probably to be associated not with their religious positions, but with their opposition to Charles Martel.

In 731 Gregory II died, to be succeeded in the Holy See by Gregory III. A year later the new pope sent Boniface the pallium, thus conferring on him archiepiscopal status and considerable authority east of the Rhine—but Boniface still lacked a fixed diocese. Meanwhile, he continued to found monasteries in Hesse and the region of the Main, notably at Fritzlar, Tauberbischofsheim, Ochsenfurt, and Kitzingen. At some point before 736 he was invited to Bavaria, by Duke Hugobert, and it was then that he probably first became acquainted with his disciple Sturmi. Having reached Bavaria, however, Boniface travelled on south, to make his third visit to Rome. There, in 738, he received further support from Gregory III.

Meanwhile Boniface began to turn his attention northwards once again, not least because in 738 Charles Martel launched a major campaign against the continental Saxons. The evangelization of these peoples had always been very dear to Boniface's heart: indeed, like Willibrord's teacher, the Anglo-Saxon Ecgberht of Rathmelsigi, before him, he was particularly concerned to Christianize the continental cousins of the English. Although he had always kept in touch with relatives and clerics in England, hopeful that Charles would open up the possibility of a mission to the Saxons, Boniface now penned a number of well-known letters to his insular contacts, seeking help in the Christianization of Saxony. Taken out of the very specific context to which they belong, these letters have led to a certain overemphasis on the extent to which Boniface was involved in missionary activity among pagans. In the event, however, Charles's failure to press home his military advantage meant that Boniface's hopes came to nothing—although in the wake of his appeal for help he did attract a number of notable Englishmen to him, including Willibald, who had been living as a monk in Monte Cassino.

Instead of working as a missionary in Saxony, Boniface returned in 739 to Bavaria, whose duke was now Odilo. Here he reformed the ecclesiastical structure of the region, dividing it into four dioceses, Passau, Salzburg, Regensburg, and Freising. In fact these dioceses were not totally new creations: Vivilo, bishop of Passau, had already been consecrated by Gregory III, while Salzburg had had a bishop, Rupert, as early as the late seventh century; and in the generation before Boniface's work of reform, Regensburg and Freising had been the respective centres for Emmeranus and Corbinian. Further, the man chosen as bishop of Freising by Boniface, Erembert, was actually Corbinian's brother. Boniface's work in Bavaria was thus one of reorganization, rather than the creation of a Bavarian church.

Reformer of the Frankish church, 741–742

The deaths of two major figures in 741 affected Boniface's position radically. First, Charles Martel died on 22 October, leaving his power to be divided between his sons Pippin III and Carlomann, to the exclusion of Gripho, a third son from another marriage. Although he had backed Boniface when necessary, Charles had never been an enthusiastic supporter of the Anglo-Saxon missionary, preferring rather to cultivate the leading clergy of the Frankish kingdoms, on whom he depended for much political support. Carlomann and Pippin were to prove much more supportive of Boniface and his reforming ideals than their father had been. Second, on 29 November Gregory III died. Boniface had had consistently good relations with the two Gregorys, who had been never less than supportive. The new pope, Zacharias, appears not to have been on such cordial terms with the Anglo-Saxon, although he continued to approve his work, albeit sometimes rather reluctantly.

For Boniface the new regime in Francia quickly brought benefits. In 742 Carlomann, despite local opposition, conceded territory in the forest of Buchonia, along the banks of the River Fulda, for the foundation of what was to prove to be Boniface's greatest monastery, itself named after the river. The site had been discovered by Sturmi and Boniface appointed him the monastery's first abbot. After 747–8, when Sturmi spent a year in Rome and Monte Cassino, Fulda became a major centre for the transmission of the Benedictine rule. In 751 Boniface obtained a papal privilege for his foundation; and after his martyrdom Fulda became the main focus for his cult.

Meanwhile, since his father's death in 741, Carlomann had backed Boniface in his establishment of dioceses east of the Rhine. Boniface had already appointed the Anglo-Saxon Burchard to the see of Würzburg in 741; in the following year he raised Willibald (not to be confused with Boniface's hagiographer) to the see of Erfurt; and during the same period he appointed a third Englishman, Hwita, to be bishop of Büraburg, near Fritzlar. The creation of all three dioceses he announced in a letter of 742 congratulating Pope Zacharias on his elevation to the papacy. Replying in a letter of 743, the pope confirmed the new creations, despite some scepticism as to whether they were based in appropriately populous centres. The see of Erfurt did soon have to be abandoned, and Willibald was appointed to a new bishopric of Eichstätt in 745.

Church councils, 742–745

In 742 Carlomann had authorized the first of a number of reforming councils, held under the leadership of Boniface, which were to have a major impact on the Frankish church, and which were to end a long period (sixty or seventy years, according to Boniface, although rather less than that in reality) in which no church council had been held in the Frankish kingdom. The Concilium Germanicum, so called because its place of meeting is unknown, recognized Boniface as leader of the churchmen within Carlomann's domains (chiefly the eastern Frankish kingdom of Austrasia) and as papal legate, although as yet he had no diocese of his own. Thereafter the council turned to the abuses of the Frankish church, to the promotion of the rule of St Benedict, and also to the existence of semi-pagan beliefs. These were listed in greater detail in a short work known as the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum, which must, therefore, have originated in Bonifatian circles.

The council of 742 was followed on 1 March 743 by a second Austrasian council, which was held at Les Estinnes, near Lobbes, on the River Sambre, in present-day Belgium. Again the council dealt with ecclesiastical abuses and prescribed the use of the Benedictine rule. It also tried to regulate the development of precarial tenure in such a way that it did not impoverish monasteries. The leasing out of monastic estates was a long-standing practice, which had become a significant way of providing warriors with landed property. It had been abused under Charles Martel, but was too useful to subsequent rulers for it to be abolished completely, despite the complaints of Boniface and other reformers.

In March 744 Carlomann's brother Pippin III, prompted by Boniface, called a council at Soissons, which dealt with abuses similar to those which had been discussed at the Austrasian councils and also with the heresy of a bishop, Gallic by birth, called Adalbert. He was a charismatic, regarded by many as a wonder-worker, who treated his own hair and fingernails as relics. He refused, however, to recant, following the council, and was therefore sent for judgement to Pope Zacharias, along with a second heretical bishop, the Irishman Clemens, who rejected teachings of the church fathers. In a council held in Rome in 745 both men were stripped of their episcopal office: Adalbert was made to do penance and was threatened with excommunication, while Clemens was excommunicated.

Meanwhile, in 744, Boniface elevated three Neustrian clerics, Grimo of Rouen, Abel of Rheims, and Hartbert of Sens, to archiepiscopal status; and in a letter of 22 June 744 Pope Zacharias confirmed the appointments. Within months, however, Pippin revoked his support for the elevation of Abel and Hartbert, probably because of local Frankish opposition to them—a change of mind which angered the pope. Despite the setback caused by Pippin's second thoughts, Boniface was able to press on with his reforms, and at a general council of the whole Frankish church, held with the joint support of Pippin and Carlomann, one of the leaders of the old guard, Bishop Gewilib of Mainz, was deposed. At the same time the council decided to confer on Boniface the diocese of Cologne, which was elevated to the status of a metropolitan see. These decisions were approved by Zacharias in a letter of 31 October 745, in which the sentences on Adalbert and Clemens were also announced.

Secular and ecclesiastical disputes and debates, 746–751

In the event the planned transfer of the diocese of Cologne to Boniface did not take place. Instead he received Gewilib's old diocese of Mainz in 746, where he appointed his disciple Lul as his archdeacon. This new distribution of dioceses, however, was soon to lead to considerable conflict between Mainz and Cologne over their jurisdiction east of the Rhine and over their missionary interests, particularly in Frisia.

Also in 746–7 Boniface turned his attention to the English church and more particularly to the behaviour of the Mercian king, Æthelbald (r. 716–57), who was reputed to have been sleeping with nuns and to have violated the privileges of churches and monasteries. Together with seven other Anglo-Saxon bishops who had Frankish dioceses (Wera of Utrecht, Burchard of Würzburg, Werberht, Abel of Rheims, Willibald of Eichstätt, Hwita of Büraburg, and Leofwine), Boniface wrote a letter of admonition, which he sent first to Archbishop Ecgberht of York, for correction. Boniface's intervention in the affairs of the Mercian church was to bear fruit, first in the 747 Council of ‘Clofesho’, whose canons show close dependence on those of the Concilium Germanicum and on various letters of Boniface, and subsequently on the grant of ecclesiastical privileges made by Æthelbald at the Council of Gumley in 749, which regulated the scale of the obligations owed by the church to the king.

Although Boniface's prestige was apparently unchallenged in England, the same could not be said in Bavaria. Already in 746 the Irishman Virgilius, then abbot of St Peter's, Salzburg, and Sidonius, later bishop of Passau, wrote to the pope, complaining of the high-handed way in which Boniface had insisted on rebaptism in a case where a priest had made grammatical mistakes in the baptismal liturgy. Zacharias upheld Virgilius's point of view, arguing that grammatical errors did not invalidate the baptism and that rebaptism in itself was heretical. Virgilius continued to be a thorn in Boniface's side. In 747 he was put in charge of the diocese of Salzburg, by Duke Odilo, following the death of Boniface's appointee, John. The next year Virgilius was making open criticism of Boniface, while the latter held the Irishman guilty of such heretical thoughts as that there were other men beneath the world. Not that Virgilius was either a heretic or an opponent of church reform. In fact he was, like Boniface, a man of considerable missionary interests, and he was to play a major role in the Christianization of Carinthia. Indeed, it is possible to regard him as being more successful in the missionary field than his Anglo-Saxon contemporary.

Meanwhile, 747 saw another significant political development on the continent. Carlomann decided to retire from the office of mayor of the palace and become a monk at Monte Cassino, leaving his position to his son Drogo. In the event, Pippin was to take over rule of the whole Frankish kingdom, much to his brother's fury. As yet, however, Pippin, like his father and grandfather before him, could only lay claim to mayoral office and was not in a position to claim the Frankish throne, which was still occupied by a member of the Merovingian dynasty, Childeric III (r. 743–51). Before he could depose Childeric, Pippin had first to deal with his own half-brother, Gripho, who took advantage of Carlomann's retirement and the death of Odilo of Bavaria to seize the duchy of Bavaria in 748. It was not until the following year that Pippin could dislodge him, and only in 750 did he send Bishop Burchard of Würzburg and Abbot Fulrad of St Denis to ask Pope Zacharias whether it was right for him to take the crown of the kingdom of the Franks. Zacharias concurred and Pippin III was anointed king, perhaps by Boniface, in 751.

Final years, 752–754

By the late 740s Boniface himself was beginning to look to the future, when he would no longer be archbishop of Mainz. In 752 he sought the help of Fulrad, to ensure the protection of his followers after his death. He also wished to secure the appointment of Lul as his successor. This he wanted to arrange during his own lifetime, not least because he was intent on resigning his see and returning to missionary work. His concern was all the greater because of growing disagreement between himself and Bishop Hildegar of Cologne. What was at stake was the missionary legacy of Willibrord at Utrecht, where, on Carlomann's orders, Boniface had appointed a new bishop. Hildegar, however, laid claim to Utrecht on the grounds that King Dagobert I (r. 623–39) had given the place to Cologne as a missionary base from which to convert the Frisians. As Boniface pointed out, since the bishops of Cologne had not carried out missionary work, their claim to Utrecht had lapsed. All this Boniface set out in his last surviving letter addressed to a pope, the newly elected Stephen II. Stephen's reply does not survive, but in the event Boniface took matters into his own hands.

Hildegar died on campaign against the Saxons in 753. Meanwhile Boniface himself set off to work in Frisia, in other words in what he claimed to be the missionary field of Utrecht. In the summer of 754 he reached northern Frisia and on 5 June he and a number of companions, including a suffragan bishop, Eoban, were attacked, supposedly by thieves, while waiting to confirm those who had recently been baptized in the neighbourhood of Dokkum (in the province of Friesland in the modern Netherlands). The whole missionary party was massacred, Boniface himself dying, according to tradition, while trying to ward off blows with a copy of the gospels. Their belongings were ransacked, but the thieves found nothing they deemed to be of value, leaving the manuscripts which the missionaries had brought with them lying in the mud.

Legacy and assessment

The bodies of Boniface and his companions were then taken by boat to Utrecht. There most of the party were buried, but the body of Boniface himself was taken on to Mainz, and then to Fulda, where, in July, he was buried in accordance with his own wishes. According to Eigil, the biographer of Abbot Sturm of Fulda, Bishop Lul intended to keep the martyr's body at Mainz, but was unable to do so. Other evidence, however, does not suggest that Lul attempted to prevent Boniface's burial in his monastic foundation. More important, from the moment of the arrival of the cortège, Fulda received enormous prestige as the resting-place of a martyr.

Fulda was to be developed into a northern equivalent of the shrine of St Peter in Rome. Indeed, beginning in 791, Ratgar, first as architect and then as abbot, embarked on rebuilding the main church at Fulda as a copy of St Peter's, which itself commemorated the greatest martyr of the western church. Boniface was, therefore, to be seen as the martyred apostle of the Germans. The building project, however, was to prove too costly. Among other relics of the martyrdom which the church of Fulda still claims to possess is the manuscript with which Boniface tried to protect himself—but far from being a gospel book, the manuscript in question is a copy of Isidore of Seville's Synonyma.

The manner of Boniface's death, and the development of the image of him as the apostle of Germany, buried in such a way as to make him the equivalent of St Peter in Rome, tends to stress the saint's importance as a missionary figure. It is certainly true that he spent time at the beginning and end of his continental career working among the pagans of Frisia. It is also true that he always longed to be an active missionary, particularly among the continental Saxons, whom he regarded as cousins of the English, and that he sought help, especially from England, for a mission to the Saxons, most notably around the time of Charles Martel's campaign in Saxony in 738. Nevertheless, he did not manage to work among the Saxons and his missionary career in Frisia was short-lived. Despite the lack of any clear line between mission and pastoral care, Boniface's continental career was above all that of a reformer and organizer. Even in Thuringia and Hesse, where he undoubtedly came across paganism, syncretism, and heresy, his major achievement lay in the foundation of monasteries and bishoprics and in the creation of a diocesan system. In Bavaria, where churches were well established, it was again in ecclesiastical appointments and diocesan organization that he was to play a crucial role. In this respect there is no sharp division between his work east of the Rhine and his reform of the Frankish church, which was to dominate his life in the 740s when he had the backing of Carlomann and subsequently of Pippin III.

What was new after Charles Martel's death in 741 was that at last Boniface had support to reform the church of the Frankish heartlands. This Charles had been unwilling to agree to, for he had relied too much on the support of the ecclesiastical old guard, in order to establish himself, to be able to turn against them en masse. Boniface knew only too well that he could do nothing without the help of, first, Charles, and, later, Carlomann and Pippin; and Charles, at least, gave him little aid, except where it was to his own advantage—in the peripheral regions of the Frankish kingdom, which had been most opposed to Carolingian rule. The lack of Frankish support during his early years on the continent, however, enhanced the significance for Boniface of his outside contacts, with England and the papacy. Not surprisingly, he came to play an important role in strengthening links between the Franks and the Holy See.

Boniface has, therefore, to be seen first and foremost as a reformer, and one aspect of that is his promotion of monasticism, and especially of the rule of St Benedict, which played an increasing role both at Fulda and in other monastic foundations like Heidenheim, where Winnebald, brother of Bishop Willibald of Eichstätt, was abbot. He packed his monasteries and the episcopal sees he created with like-minded individuals, many of them relatives or contacts from Anglo-Saxon England, and both men and women, like Leoba, abbess of Tauberbischofsheim. Moreover, through his English connections Boniface played a major role in bringing English learning and insular culture to the continent. Although Bede seems not to have heard of Boniface, making no reference to him in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Boniface came to hear of Bede, and several of his letters to England are requests for copies of Bede's works. Further, Boniface's continuing links with England enabled him to involve himself in the reform of the English church, particularly in Mercia, where his attack on Æthelbald seems to have led directly to the reforms of the Council of ‘Clofesho’ in 747. Although the drama of his martyrdom has caused Boniface to be remembered as a martyr and a missionary, his achievements lay primarily in his reform and organization of the church across much of north-west Europe.


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Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum
Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae Selectae
Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Concilia
Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores [in folio]