Thursday, February 4, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Lisa M. Bitel, Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 299. ISBN $34.95. $34.95.
Reviewed by John C. Arnold, SUNY-Fredonia


In Landscape with two saints, Lisa Bitel presents a nuanced and richly textured analysis of the process of Christianization in late-fifth and early-sixth century France and Ireland. Bitel's adroit use of spatial theory and contemporary trends in human geography as found in the work Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja informs these comparative case studies of the female saints Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare, whose contemporaneous ministries, contrary to custom, promoted Christianity through the raising of monumental architecture.1 The book asserts that these feminine actors consciously modified and refashioned their sacral surroundings to construct a Christian infrastructure due to a "nexus of gender, landscape, and architecture".2

Bitel clarifies this nexus with sophisticated analyses of hagiographical discourses and patterns of sacred landscape use. Rather than foreground textual sources and illustrate them with archaeological material, Bitel frames and drives the argument with conclusions drawn from material culture and sacred landscape. She contextualizes her findings with saintly vitae and other contemporary written sources. The pace and scope of Christianization is found, then, not in the flow of abstract mental processes or broad historical forces, but instead in a daily reconfiguration of the familiar patterns of human interaction with the physical environment.

Bitel devotes the first four chapters to a discussion of the career of St. Genovefa, best known for her miraculous salvation of Paris from Hunnish attack in 451. Genovefa subsequently discovered the tomb of St. Denis, the city's first bishop, where she organized and patronized the building of an oratory at the present-day site of the northern Parisian Basilica of St. Denis. Chapter One, "Paris before Genovefa: the Landscape enters History", first conceptualizes the city of Paris not just as a physical and material place of human activity, but also as a gathering of humans, each of whom possessed their own view of the city as derived from status, gender, and passage through its space. Late-antique Parisians discerned their city through four discourses of landscape: administrative, economic, sacral, and historical. These located fifth-century Paris within a web of imperial territorial limits, a center of local markets and regional consumption, a mosaic of churches situated against urban temples and rural shrines, and an architectural palimpsest of "past detritus" with which citizens maintained and renovated the city. Bitel contextualizes these discourses within possibly as good a short history of Roman Paris as can be found in English. She insists that through the long development from the Roman fort of Lutetia to the fifth-century walled city that comprised the Ile-de-la-Cité alone, romanitas persisted. The use of spolia to reconstruct and refashion Paris to meet the changing needs of its population greatly enhanced an abiding "Romanness". This "conservative" political and economic landscape contrasts with the remarkably fluid and shifting religious one discussed in the second chapter, "Sacral Paris". While urban temples and shrines associated with the masculine power structure fell into disuse, more primitive rural spaces connected with feminine deities experienced changing patterns of use occasioned by status and gender, among other determinants. Women shared rural shrines with men, for example, but those who could afford ex-votos more likely resorted to those of wombs and breasts while poor women used none. Christians also renegotiated urban pagan sites when they buried in traditional cemeteries or placed doves or other characteristic markers on traditional tombstones. The growing Christian population within the city, however, increasingly segregated its spaces from those of its pagan neighbors. This required the construction of new churches, cemeteries, and processional spaces. As Chapter Three, "Genovefa's Territory", makes clear, the feminine Parisian saint fit into a pattern of fifth-century male bishops who established and rooted their urban communities through architecture. Bitel bases this chapter in the main on Genovefa's anonymous vita, written roughly 25 years after her death in 502. She excavates from the text three layers to establish the historical Genovefa, the saintly Genovefa situated within local and universal salvation history, and her afterlife as a figure of cult used to establish the bona fidesof the Merovingian dynasty. The woman Genovefa transgressed gender boundaries to appropriate the rural tomb of St. Denis where she acted as a bishop to finance and build a shrine to which she led processions. Her subsequent peregrinations and miraculous performances won public religious authority for Paris over its environs. The spontaneous reverence expressed at the tomb of this remarkable patroness and thaumaturge allowed the Frankish ruler Clovis and his queen Chlothilde to co-opt her emerging cult as a support for the Merovingian dynasty. "Paris after Genovefa" details Chlothilde's construction of the Church of the Holy Apostles on the South Bank at the present site of the Pantheon. Genovefa's burial there along with the bodies of the royal family allowed her to play the saintly "Helena" to Clovis's carefully honed image as the Frankish "Constantine". She remained an important patron of Paris throughout the Middle Ages, retaining enough hold on the popular imagination to be tried by a revolutionary tribunal.

Brigit of Kildare, another woman renowned for her Christianizing efforts through the building of monumental architecture, faced a far more formidable task. She worked in rural Leinster where no tradition of urban civilization or Roman heritage existed. The great challenge of Brigit's ministry was to an implant an infrastructure better suited to Mediterranean, urban culture within a densely sacred, traditional landscape of "mutable surfaces and ancient places".3 Chapter Five, "Crossings and Conversions", establishes the conditions in which that work occurred. That Brigit labored successfully in Leinster demonstrated that area's proximity to Roman Britain, from which the Irish had received "portable exotica and the Latin words of scripture".4 The region of Kildare also boasted the hill-fort of Dún Aílinne, of significance since the Neolithic Era. Its likely later ritual use, suggested by a possible wooden ring surrounding a central tower or hall, demonstrated a native Irish tradition of reconfiguring the ancient landscape to accommodate newly emerging practices. Dún Aílinne, however, fit within a built and bounded political and economic landscape associated with kings and male property owners. The mutable sacred landscape of springs, glades, and uninhabited fields carried feminine connotations. While the law prevented outright female ownership of property and enclosed women within demarcated zones, in practice they enjoyed use of land and frequently crossed boundaries for purposes of marriage, pilgrimage, or transhumance. Brigit thus slipped through these gendered interstices to negotiate land donation on which to build a "little Rome". Chapter Six, "Ekphrasis at Kildare", analyzes Cogitosus's renowned vita of Brigit with an eye for his discursive treatment of her church. Whatever the reality of the structure, Cogitosus presented a pilgrim's itinerary for his audience, leading them to an Irish "Rome" where they might venerate the relics of Brigit. Her power and authority stemmed not from the Christian male practices of preaching and conversion, but from co-opting Irish male practices of situating a permanent worship site within a bounded area. In later times, however, the Christian hierarchy subdued Brigit to its power (Chapter Seven, "Brigit Goes to Ground"). Her relics disappeared and her hagiographers carefully submitted her to male domination. They also freed her from the shackles of place, turning her loose into the landscape as a "mistress of the unbuilt environment" and a patron of all Ireland.5 Not only did this strategy allow Kildare to claim authority over all Irish women's foundations, but it also turned Brigit into an "intermediary between the historic pagan wilderness and the enclosed Christian society".6 As such, as Chapter Eight ("Relics") claims, Brigit "went to ground" to suffuse the landscape. Her formal veneration dwindled away, finally dispersed with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Her virtus re-emerged in wells and springs and today even images forth as a mannequin in a phone booth at Liscannor. Brigit's cult ended in nationalism. Similarly, officials of the French Revolution dismissed Genovefa's reverence by casting her relics into the Seine and transmuting her newly built church into the Pantheon. Those reputed remains of hers recovered during the Restoration now repose in the nearby Church of St. Étienne-duMont.

Lisa Bitel has produced an important book that all scholars of hagiology and late-antique Christianity should read. Her sensitivity to the narrative suggested by deliberate human interaction with landscape and the built environment, coupled with her incisive and subtle analysis of hagiography, provides an important model for understanding the process of Christianization. It should become a staple of graduate seminars. Its clear and fluent writing, lack of jargon, and crisply structured organization could recommend it to more advanced undergraduates as well. One could quibble that some conclusions are too broadly stated or perhaps not completely supported by the most recent scholarship. She undercuts her own assertion as to the uniqueness of Genovefa's building project, for example, with her discussion of the anonymous wife of Namatius, bishop of Clermont. Bitel brings this fifth-century episcopa forward as a possible model of imitation for Chlothilde's project of Holy Apostles. That woman constructed a shrine for St. Stephen in a suburban cemetery, replete with mosaics based on historical themes. Her project is remarkably similar to that of Genovefa, although she enjoyed the privileges of her husband's office and status as Genovefa did not.7 Bitel also firmly dismisses possible Romano-British influences on Brigit's project at Kildare, stating that "British Christians had no exportable ecclesiastical architecture".8 Her declaration that the British never "built their religion in a Roman monumental vocabulary" is true if the emphasis is placed on "monumental". To say that British Christians had no ecclesiastical architecture reads the sparse archaeological evidence far more strictly than does her principal source, Charles Thomas's classic Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 from 1981. David Petts's 2003 publication Christianity in Roman Britain also provides a more sympathetic reading of the evidence, but neither this book nor its recent citations are consulted.9 The editing is generally good, aside from an occasional word omission.10 Guy Halsall's "Movers and Shakers: The Barbarians and the Fall of Rome", cited in footnote four of Chapter One, does not appear in the bibliography, nor does the footnote indicate that it is found in Thomas Noble's From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms, which the bibliography does include.

Such observations, however, hardly detract from a work of such quality and deep learning. Bitel has provided a highly readable and meaningful study of similar saints in a "similar sort of historical moment when change in religious habit made it possible for a woman to express unusual authority visually and materially".11


1.   Bitel cites Edward W. Soja's Postmodern Geographies: the Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989). Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space (Blackwell, 1991) remains fundamental to these approaches.
2.   p. 21.
3.   p. 98.
4.   p. 104.
5.   p. 186.
6.   p. 165.
7.   pp. 81-82.
8.   p. 103.
9.   See Charles Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (Berkeley, 1981), pp. 143-201 for churches. David Petts, Christianity in Roman Britain (Charleston SC, 2003), pp. 51-86. W. H. C. Frend, however, would agree with Bitel's assessment, as found in his review of Petts, The Journal of ecclesiastical history, vol. 55:2 (2004), p. 351.
10.   Line 22 of p. 195 should read as early AS Genovefa's lifetime, for example.
11.   p. 138.

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