Local Girl Made Good

The picture above is of Saint Walpurga (alternatively Walburga or Walpurgis). She was born in 710 CE in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, probably somewhere in what is now Devonshire. Aged 11 she was sent to Wimborne Abbey in Dorset to study and become a nun. 26 years later she took ship for the continent in the company of her brothers, Willibald and Winebald, to help her uncle, Saint Boniface, bring Christianity to the pagan Germans.

Being better educated than her brothers, Walpurga ended up writing a biography of Winibald who had been on pilgrimage to Palestine. This may make her the first woman in England or Germany to author a work of literature.

She was canonized by Pope Adrian II in 870, just under 100 years after her death. Although her official feast day is February 25th, the Germans prefer to remember her on May 1st, supposedly the day of her canonization. Walpurgisnacht, the spring equivalent of Halloween, is the eve of her holy day. Of course a May Day celebration suggests co-option of a pagan tradition, which means that she was associated with Freya, the Norse fertility goddess.

Possibly the most interesting thing about Walpurga, however, is her appearance in something known as Manuscript I.33. It is the oldest known fencing manual or Fechtbuch, having been written in Germany around 1300. I found out about it from the new Sam Willis TV series on the history of weapons.

This 64 page book is full of illustrations demonstrating the technique of fighting with a sword and buckler. Most of the pages show combat between a monk and a student. The book was written by monks, which I guess shows that the far east doesn’t have a monopoly on monkish martial arts. However, the final two pages show the monk fighting a woman who is identified in the text as Walpurgis. There’s no explanation as to why, but clearly the monks felt that our girl would have been good with a sword.

And that is the story of how a girl from the South West of England went to Germany and became famous as a missionary, an author, a sex symbol and a warrior maid. That’s quite a life.