BMCR 1995.01.05

1995.01.05, Klingshirn, Caesarius of Arles

, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. xxii + 317.

The Gallo-Roman society of late antiquity has every claim to be one of the most admirable and successful of ancient Mediterranean communities. Alone of Latin-speaking communities it rivaled the cultured prosperity of Asia Minor. Of all western provinces it absorbed the “barbarian” invasions with the most aplomb and managed the greatest continuity of society and culture into the middle ages. For a long time, modern nationalist history distorted its history by fitting it into the history of “France”, but in the last generation a hardy international band of Gallo-Roman scholars has begun to exploit the remarkable documents that survive.

Klingshirn has chosen as his point of departure a figure of considerable power, the bishop Caesarius of Arles who dominated south Gallic Christian politics throughout his tenure of that bishopric from 502-542. The last biographies of Caesarius are almost a hundred years old and antedate Germain Morin’s edition of the literary remains. (The particular challenge is that Caesarius was an assiduous student of the sermons of Augustine, and there survive manuscript collections of sermons which intermingle works of Augustine, works of Caesarius, and works of Augustine remodeled for reuse by Caesarius. Morin’s edition is a landmark.) The time was thus ripe in several ways for this study.

Title and subtitle clearly state that two different agenda are pursued in these pages. One is the refinement and enhancement of the biographical portrait of its subject, the other is the exploitation of the point of view thus won for re-interpreting the history of Christianity in Caesarius’ places and times. The two agenda are interwoven skillfully in these pages, which are clearly written with an extensive erudition more or less lightly borne. The resulting volume is not a page-turner, but it is a serious scholarly contribution that undergraduates can read with profit as well.

If we still have a mental picture of late antiquity c. 500 as a fully Christian society, Caesarius is a good place to begin to revise it. The last generation has rediscovered just how long and slow a process full Christianization of traditional societies was. Even in the cities, installing bishops, abolishing “pagan” rites, and getting people to go to church was one thing; but finding a new communal ethos and shaping a new culture was another. In the countryside, matters were altogether different and penetration much slower. Caesarius’ sermons are eloquent preachments, but a fair number of them contain the admonitions of an irked cleric to his congregation to stay around for the eucharist and not drift away after the rhetorical showpiece sermon was over. Bishop and congregation were not necessarily at one in their sense of what was going on in that building on Sunday morning. If one did not have preconceived notions of Christianity and strong feelings about it in hand (if, say, Christianity had died out in about the tenth century), it is far from clear how comprehensive a transformation one would be inclined to see in this late antique society. “What kind of a Christian is the man who … drinks until he vomits and, after he is drunk, gets up to dance and leap like a madman in diabolical fashion, and sings shameful, bawdy, and wanton verses?” asks Caesarius ( serm. 16.3, quoted here at p. 198): to Caesarius, obviously not a very good Christian; but statistically speaking, his kind outnumbered Caesarius, and that kind evidently thought his conviviality a sign of religious zeal. The great strength of this book is to dismantle a sequence of historical inevitabilities (inevitable in that they really happened this way) and to make them come alive as a series of contingencies that need not have happened this way after all.

What turns out to be most distinctively Christian about such a society is the emergence of the specialist, the cadre of professional Christians in the clergy and the monastic communities; and what is most distinctively Christian about Caesarius is the way he foreshadows the hortatory behavior of later generations of medieval clergy in the behavior he implicitly accepts precisely by the way he continues to preach ineffectually against it.

Caesarius was also alert to the politics and powers of his day. The church councils he managed were important in the history of doctrine, but more importantly, he carried these off in a political environment of some volatility. In the course of his time at Arles the dominance of the Visigoths was shaken in warfare initiated by Franks and Burgundians with Byzantine connivance, then replaced by the arrival of the largest power on the western Mediterranean scene at the time, the Ostrogoths, in 508; and by the end of Caesarius’ career, the Ostrogoths themselves were in retreat before Byzantine invasions and the Franks had finally succeeded to control of Arles. Caesarius was a deft representative of his community’s interests through all this period, negotiating not only the political shoals but also the ecclesiastical reefs between powers of differing stripes of Christian allegiance. What emerges in the end is an impressive portrait of a society and its leaders showing exceptional resilience and resourcefulness through times that could have been much more difficult than they were had affairs been conducted more obtusely.

In the end, the book succeeds at what it sets out to do, but mild reservations may be expressed, if only to help us think about how to continue in the line of studies like this. The link between biography and social history is a tenuous one; for a variety of reasons, not least of them here Klingshirn’s own sophistication in forging that link, in this case the link does not break. But one last inevitability remains insufficiently disturbed here: to tell this story from the outset as a story centered on Caesarius leaves us too cautiously centered on the known and makes it harder to achieve a sense of the alternate possibilities that were very much alive to contemporaries. Oddly enough, it is precisely Caesarius’ success that is understood least well by being taken for granted.

There is further a question of how to handle evidence from this period. One of the most important sources is the life of Caesarius written within a few years of his death by clerics who knew him. It is one of the best such “sources” from the period, full of anecdote and detail written from first-hand experience. But of course it contains a fair number of stories that modern readers dismiss out of hand: Caesarius the wonder-worker is as important a part of that narrative as Caesarius the diplomat. Further, it imposes a kind of biographical framework on the life that we judiciously dismantle before using the data the document contains. We are less interested in Caesarius’ visions, at least for the purposes of this study, than his contemporaries were, and so we leave such things chiefly for discussion in other settings by scholars with different interests.

So far, so good, and a traditional, positivist approach to such documents. The problem is that a preliminary choice has been made that is in the main alien to the text itself: that is, to privilege this text for reasons of its usefulness to modern students and to dismiss as of less value many other texts that contemporaries would have read side by side with it. The fifth and sixth centuries in southern Gaul and Italy were a booming time for the production of “lives” of holy men. Many of those texts have not been printed in several hundred years, because they fall short of our criteria of value as historical sources: fanciful lives of martyrs, translations from the Greek, and so forth. But the distinction we force that extracts a few of these and promotes them as historical sources is one alien to the time; the further subdivision of the texts themselves into kernels of historic information and pious fluff distorts once again.

This objection applies not only to the reports we use and what we use them for, but it gets at the way lives were lived as well. A bishop who lived and wielded influence for a good long time in that age was already the object of veneration and comparison by his flock, or at least by some of his flock, and the way he lived imitated the lives written of in texts around him and anticipated the textualization of his own life afterwards. We take too easily for granted that these figures wrote and were written about, and we have till yet made too little study of the way Christian authority was created and maintained by the astute use of texts. The documents are not transparent. Caesarius did not merely deliver those sermons to parishioners skulking out the door, for he also wrote and preserved them and meant for them to be read and reused. The next book about Caesarius should be one that resists the temptation to create linear narrative (I say this as one who has created his own share of linear narrative about late antique writers), but begin with the thing that is in the end most striking about him, that he comes with this cloud of works by and about, this dossier of documentation, and look closely at how that dossier’s nature and structure themselves offer a point of departure for illuminating the age. The last and in many ways the greatest miracle of Caesarius is that we know so much about him; this should make us both admiring and cautious. Klingshirn’s sober but in the end traditional study of him and his times will shape Caesarian studies for a generation at least, but it deserves as well to be questioned and rewritten in search of a fuller, howbeit perhaps more impressionistic and fragmentary, portrait.