BMCR 2011.05.34

Christianity’s Quiet Success: The Eusebius Gallicanus Sermon Collection and the Power of the Church in Late Antique Gaul

, Christianity's Quiet Success: The Eusebius Gallicanus Sermon Collection and the Power of the Church in Late Antique Gaul. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. x, 278. ISBN 9780268022242. $34.00 (pb).

The Eusebius Gallicanus collection of sermons,1 despite appearing in 477 manuscripts, has received comparatively little scholarly attention, being comprehensively overshadowed by the sermons of Caesarius of Arles. Bailey’s monograph, based on a PhD thesis supervised by Peter Brown (inter alios), aims to show why this collection is worthy of wider consideration and how it brings important new insights to our understanding of the process of Christianisation in late antique Gaul.

The collection numbers 76 sermons, composed by a number of different authors, and ranging over a wide range of subjects. Most of the sermons are aimed at lay congregations, though ten are aimed at monks. We can understand the collection as a ‘handbook’ for preachers, containing model sermons, such as would become very popular in the early medieval period, though it would also be used for devotional reading by monks and laypeople alike. The sermons themselves cannot really be designated “original” compositions, as they owe much in words, phrase and theme to other patristic texts. They are anonymous, as is the compiler, though traditionally the collection has been associated with Faustus of Riez. This anonymity is one factor that has discouraged historians from working with the collection. The sermons can be dated to the mid to late fifth century and the collection, as we have it, dates to the sixth century. As the sermons were collected to be used elsewhere they are much more generic than comparable sermons of known authors, and this lack of historical specificity has also deterred social historians from making use of the collection. Hitherto, scholars have tended to concentrate on the vexed issues of authorship and the relationship of the collection to the “semi-pelagian” controversy, unsurprisingly making little headway in either area. Nonetheless, Bailey argues persuasively that this collection has much to offer our understanding of the pastoral strategies of the late antique church in Gaul, as we shall see.

The introduction lays out the aims of the study. Bailey’s major interest lies in what the sermons can reveal about pastoral care in late antique Gaul and she identifies four major pastoral imperatives: to ensure that the faithful got to heaven, to communicate the Christian message, to provide for the flock and to build the structures of the Church. The structure of the monograph is laid out: a first chapter puts the sermons in context, the next takes a closer look at the collection itself. The importance of community provides the theme of the third chapter, while the next two look at the issue of explaining the faith and the problem of sin. A final substantive chapter focuses on the sermons aimed at monks. After a brief conclusion an epilogue considers the manuscript tradition.

Chapter One (‘Preaching in Late Antique Gaul’) aims to reconstruct the performance context of the sermons. Preaching in Gaul at this time was (ideally) done regularly and by an unusually wide range of clerics: priests and even deacons, as well as bishops. It was a crucial task but one that was fraught with difficulties, due, not least to the variable educational levels of the clergy. A collection like that of Eusbebius Gallicanus played an important role in this respect, in providing a “safe” handbook of model homilies. Bailey makes good use of recent work on preaching and the late antique church. She is particularly interested in the sermons as communication, seeing preaching as an interactive dialogue, although she does cites the work of Maurice Bloch, who stressed that we should understand the highly formalised language of sermons as ‘coercive’,2 an argument returned to later in the book.

The next chapter returns us to the corpus itself, though one might have expected this study to constitute the first chapter. Bailey explains how debates over authorship have ‘paralysed’ the study of the collection but argues that we need to move on from this sterile debate.

Chapter Three (‘Building Community’) argues that the first priority of pastors in Gaul was to build specifically Christian communities, and goes on to show what the Eusebius Gallicanus collection can reveal about this project. The texts included consistently stress the importance of community. One interesting feature of the sermons (and a reason for their neglect by social historians) is that, unlike so many late antique homilies, they make no reference to the social constitution of the congregation. Unlike John Chrystostom or Augustine, for instance, there is no appeal to the different constituencies: men and women, rich and poor. Bailey suggests that this is deliberate: the sermons deliberately ‘nullified difference’ (p. 51) in order to establish unity. Moreover, and in striking contrast with the case of Caesarius of Arles, this model of unity also embraces the pastor, who is placed at the centre of the community, rather than above it. The preachers here take a ‘fraternal rather than paternal approach’ (p. 55), and offer ‘a “service” model of leadership, rather than an authoritarian one’ (p. 52). In line with this, the sermons can seem surprisingly tolerant when it comes to areas of behaviour which so exercised Caesarius: “pagan” practices, sexual sins and drunkenness are hardly attacked. What is the reason for this? Bailey sees the preachers of the collection as seeking to build consensus and avoid dissent, but also points that a head-on attack on such everyday behaviour was a risky strategy even for a figure as relatively powerful and secure as Caesarius, whose career was beset with accusations of treason and even a period of exile.

‘Explaining the Faith’ (Chapter Four) looks at the strategies used by the preachers in their explication of Christian doctrine. Again Bailey builds upon and engages with the work of other scholars (notably Bloch and Averil Cameron), while setting out her own distinctive picture. The chapter looks at the treatment of four central areas of doctrine: the creed, the virgin birth, the meaning of scripture, and the justice of God. The use of “circle of faith” reasoning is discussed, whereby preachers treat various principles as already accepted by the congregation, as not even available for debate. The interpretations of scripture in the sermons are notably simplistic in comparison with the multiple offered by other preachers of the period. Instead the preachers of the collection offered safe, simple interpretations of the faith and did not encourage their audience to look at the scriptures for themselves.

Chapter Five (‘Dealing with Sin’) looks at one of the most pressing problems faced by pastors: that of sin. While traditional doctrine had held that it was possible to live without sin after baptism the realities of late antique pastoral care, including, not least, infant baptism, had led to a fundamental shift in this regard. Augustine’s argument for the acceptance of Christian “mediocrity” had been hugely influential, if controversial and much previous scholarship on these sermons (and on Gallic Christianity in general) has focused on detecting which side of the “Augustinian” or “anti-Augustinian” debate a particular author fell down on. Bailey argues convincingly that pastoral considerations weigh far more heavily than theological debate in the collection.

In something of a switch of focus, Chapter Six looks at the ten sermons in the collection directed to monks. Bailey finds the pastoral concerns of the two groups of sermons ‘surprisingly congruous’ (p. 106), for instance, the focus on the importance of the community. The monastic centre of Lérins has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, including Robert Markus’ influential notion of an “ascetic invasion”, based from the powerbase of Lérins.3 The evidence from the sermons offers a much less divisive model than that of an “invasion” and Bailey argues that we should instead see the connection between the monastery and the world as ‘a natural extension of community’ (p.126).

The success of the Eusebius Gallicanus collection lay in its flexibility and its adaptability, which also constituted key features in pastoral care in late antique Gaul. In the brief conclusion Bailey summaries her key findings, such as the emphasis on community, and the consensus-driven approach, which are distinctive features of the collection. Again, Bailey points to ways in which the sermons of the collection contrast with the better-known sermons of Augustine and Caesarius. She suggests that the emphasis on consensus and the absence of conflict to be found in the sermons have also contributed to the scholarly neglect suffered, commenting wryly that ‘conflict always makes better copy.’ (p.129). Ultimately it does seem the very middle-of-the-road nature of the collection is the key to both its medieval success and its modern oblivion.

An epilogue returns to the Nachleben of the sermons, showing that they were highly popular in the Middle Ages, only falling out of fashion as late as the thirteenth century, as the new style preaching of the mendicant orders took hold.

Bailey has clearly made the case for the value of the collection as a source for the study of the development of the Church in late antique Gaul. It is to be hoped that this volume will encourage other researchers to look again at the collection, as well as at other “difficult” anonymous corpora. Moreover, straying from the beaten patristic track has enabled Bailey to nuance our understanding considerably. The often explicit contrast that her book offers is with Klingshirn’s study of Caesarius of Arles.4 Caesarius, as presented by Klingshirn, is an authoritarian figure, who harnesses all his available coercive powers, including locking his congregation in the church and encouraging them to use physical force against their sinning neighbours. The model of Christianisation presented by the Eusebius Gallicanus collection, according to Bailey, is far less coercive, and far nicer. Nonetheless, the theme of power (as in the book’s subtitle) is still there. We are told that the sermons are examined as ‘part of an attempt to build power. They help us to understand exactly how that power was built’ (p. 2). Later, the strategy in the explication of faith is described as ‘a subtle insinuation of power’ (p. 63). This reviewer found the discussion of the mechanisms of power-building, less overt and strikingly coercive than those of Caesarius, highly persuasive and would liked to have seen more along this line. Overall, this is an impressively nuanced, sensitive and persuasive study of an unduly neglected literary corpus and deserves to be read by all with an interest in the late antique Church.


1. Eusebius “Gallicanus”: Collectio homiliarum, ed. Fr. Glorie. CCSL 101, 101A and 101B. Turnhout, 1970.

2. M. Bloch, ‘Symbols, Song, Dance, and Features of Articulation: Is Religion an Extreme Form of Traditional Authority?’, Arch. Eur. Sociol 15 (1974): 55-81.

3. R. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity. Cambridge, 1990.

4. W. Klingshirn, Caesarius of Arles. The Making of a Christian Community in Late Antique Gaul. Cambridge, 1994.