Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.51

Allen E. Jones, Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul: Strategies and Opportunities for the Non-elite.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. xi, 379.  ISBN 9780521762397.  $90.00.  



Reviewed by Jamie Wood, University of Manchester (woodjamie@hotmail.com)

This is an excellent book. It is well written, has a clearly articulated thesis and engages with an important group of sources in an innovative manner. Jones offers a prosopography of the lower and middle classes of ‘barbarian’ Gaul. This is based, predominantly, upon an in-depth analysis of the historical and biographical writings of Gregory of Tours, our main source for the transition from Roman to Merovingian dominance in late antique Gaul. Jones argues that the society of late antique Gaul was not divided into two tiers of elite and popular. Instead, people of every social rank participated in a common culture in which all attempted to lead meaningful lives and to improve socially (p. 341), adopting similar strategies in attempting to do so, within the constraints imposed by material resources and social rank, for example.

The Introduction (‘Barbarian Gaul’, pp. 1-22) offers an overview of existing scholarly traditions about the social functioning of late antique Gaul, looking to move beyond assumptions of duality between ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ or between ‘Roman’ and ‘barbarian’. Jones emphasises that he does not intend his adoption of the term ‘barbarian’ to be interpreted in a negative sense; for the purposes of this book, ‘barbarian’ connotes the 150 year long period when the independent kings were replacing Roman imperial rule in the West—roughly 450-600 CE. The book intends to explore ‘aspects of the situation of people who were not part of the power structure of Barbarian Gaul, but who nevertheless had an impact on society’ (p. 15).

Chapter Two (‘Evidence and Control’, pp. 23-73) is well conceived and executed, cleverly integrating an introduction to the key sources with a historical analysis of their contexts of production. This means that the author is able to move beyond what could have been a quite traditional overview of the sources for the period (Avitus of Vienne; Caesarius of Arles; Venantius Fortunatus; Gregory of Tours) and effectively integrate methodology and analysis from the very start of the study. The resultant case studies of the different strategies which were adopted by the authors and their families are highly successful in establishing what social data we can and cannot take away from these texts.

The third and fourth chapters (‘Social Structure I: Hierarchy, Mobility, and Aristocracies’, pp. 74-128; ‘Social Structure II: Free and Servile Ranks’, pp. 129-179) constructs a model of society using biographical data derived from the texts introduced in chapter two. These chapters demonstrate that, although people at the pinnacle of society had good reasons to try to stifle social mobility and to maintain individuals and groups in existing social positions, the social reality was more fluid. Chapter four, in particular, is enjoyable and informative. The narrative of the activities of those individuals who found themselves working for the average Gallic bishop is particularly stirring stuff, but Jones’ analysis allows us to see how and why such a situation came about. This was a competitive society, all members of which were seeking advancement. One way of securing such advancement was to do the dirty work for the local bishop or count.

Chapter Five, ‘The Passive Poor: Prisoners’ (pp. 180-212), explores how socially prominent ecclesiastics, often in concert with local secular officials, built up their client bases by promoting the release of prisoners. Such events are described as miraculous interventions by saints in the hagiographies of our period were another method. It is made clear, however, that this was not simply a top-down operation: to function effectively, it required the active participation of the ex-prisoners themselves, who benefitted through entrance into the clientele of both the saint and the local bishop.

The sixth chapter, ‘The Active Poor: Pauperes at Church’ (pp. 213-249), examines the relationship between the institutional church and the poor. Again, the emphasis is upon the agency which the two sides exercised in this encounter: both put something in and both profited. Jones suggests that ‘an ecclesiastical need to project an image of continued association between church and poor resulted in a relationship of mutual exploitation between clerical patrons and pauperes’ (p. 247).

Chapters Seven and Eight (Healing and Authority I: Physicians, pp. 250-282; Healing and Authority II: Enchanters, pp. 283-335) explore how ‘healers’ of all types, although varying in terms of their training and the degree of official sanction which they enjoyed, sought to improve their social position by deploying their medical expertise. Jones demonstrates that even Gregory of Tours, who has often been seen as highly hostile to doctors due to the inclusion of some rather negative stories in his writings, actually preserves quite a lot of information to show that medical expertise was a lucrative avenue for social advancement. Even enchanters, who were presumably in quite a vulnerable position due to their potentially un-Christian (at least in the eyes of a twitchy bishop such as Caesarius of Arles) practices, were able to acquire prestige and socio-economic advancement in barbarian Gaul due to the services they could offer to the ‘forsaken poor who lived throughout the Gallic countryside’ (p. 334).

The Conclusion (pp. 336-344) reiterates the predominant themes of the book, summarising the main strategies by which people at all levels of society sought to improve their positions socially and materially. Marriage, office-holding, education, gift-giving, and other acts of patronage are all given prominence as ways through which anyone that was on the make could make good their position. Making oneself useful, and hopefully one day indispensable, to a patron was (and still is) a sure-fire way to rapid advancement.

In summary, I have no hesitation in recommending this book. Jones’ work is timely, building in exciting new ways on the groundwork which has been laid by Peter Brown, Ralph Mathisen and Raymond Van Dam on the historical sociology of late antique Gaul. In killing off the idea that late antique Gallic society was divided into two tiers of ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ Jones has accomplished a valuable task. Similar work needs to be carried out on material from elsewhere in the post imperial West and the still imperial East.

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