Friday, December 3, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Pietrina Pellegrini, Militia Clericatus Monachici Ordines: Istituzioni Ecclesiastiche e Società in Gregorio Magno (second edition). Testi e studi di storia antica; 20. Catania: Edizioni del Prisma, 2008. Pp. 380. ISBN 9788886808330. €42.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Raeleen Chai-Elsholz

Table of Contents

Pietrina Pellegrini has provided us with a clear, well documented study of the sub-episcopal clergy and the monastic community in the writings and times of Gregory the Great (pope 590-604).

The introduction to this second edition provides a useful overview of trends in Gregorian scholarship since about 1990. Given the number of important publications that have appeared over the past years and the major developments that have arisen, Pellegrini's summary and bibliographical indications are valuable. Stating that much research over the last two decades has centered on the reconstruction of Gregory's intellectual profile and Gregorian spirituality, Pellegrini sees her own work as a response to the need for specific new studies of how the Church actually operated. She proposes investigating the organization of the clerical and monastic spheres side by side, at levels of the Church hierarchy below that of the episcopate (pp. 21-22).

Chapter 1 focuses on Gregory's views of an ordered Christian society, whether in a tripartite configuration (laypeople or coniugati, monks or continentes, clergy or praedicatores), or more generally as a two-tier society made up of preachers and listeners, rulers and subjects, and so forth. The distinction between monastic and clerical personnel, the overarching theme of the book, is addressed in terms of contemplative and active roles. Lastly, Pellegrini discusses Gregory's understanding of the hierarchy specifically within the ordo praedicatorum as a reflection of the hierarchy of angels.

Chapters 2 and 3 discuss in greater depth the clergy and the monastic corps, respectively. Pellegrini draws attention to the vocabulary associated with each, the process of becoming a cleric or monk (their recruitment), what tasks they performed, and how their corporations were organized--all through the prism of Gregory's writings and other relevant sources. These twin chapters are perfectly complementary; taken together they form the core of Pellegrini's book. One of the subjects Pellegrini dwells on in chapter 2 is the cursus clericorum, the ranks of the clergy, where she seizes the occasion to clarify the meaning of the often misunderstood term cardinalis and emphasizes the importance of deacons and subdeacons in ecclesiastical administration. Chapter 3, about monks, also addresses a major sub-theme of the book: the permeable boundary between the clerical and monastic orders of Christian society. Pellegrini briefly weighs theory and practice on this matter which was so important to Gregory, citing Gelasian precedent in explaining that the firm distinction between the two statuses does not mean they were incompatible (p. 197).

Pellegrini proceeds, in chapter 4, to elucidate the place of the sub-episcopal clergy and monks within civil society. She begins with a discussion of the sources that shaped Gregory's thinking, insisting on the pope's expertise in civil law as foundational. The focus then shifts to the development and application of the priuilegium fori which extended to monks and clerics alike. The measures the Church took against clerical or monastic offenders are set forth clearly. In the interaction of the orders of Christian society, the question of wealth and equality arises; Pellegrini's discussion of it makes for makes for satisfying reading. How ecclesiastical and monastic staff were remunerated, how places of worship were built, and other topics of interest are treated in this final chapter.

Throughout the book, Pellegrini presents terms and evidence thoroughly and quietly, only occasionally spelling out the significance of her findings. She finally does so in her lucid and stimulating conclusion. Of her several soundly-reasoned findings, one example may suffice to underscore the fruitfulness and potential of her work. Gregory's so-called favoritism toward monks in staffing the papal court to the detriment of clerics has become a (sporadically challenged) commonplace.1 Pellegrini simply reminds the reader that this view is at variance with the evidence from Gregorian texts, discreetly allowing the data amassed throughout the book to speak for itself (pp. 298-99 and n.3).

Though Pellegrini never says so, the terms in the main title, "militia clericatus" and "monachici ordines", appear to have been adapted from Letter IV, 11 of September 593. The following overview of how Pellegrini handles these four words will provide a foretaste of her book.

The rather rare noun, clericatus, previously had been understood simply as "clerical office". Pellegrini, on the other hand, argues that the term never designates the ecclesiastical hierarchy as a whole, but is used instead in the context of entry into the ranks of clerics and therefore, in Pellegrini's interpretation, refers exclusively to "entry-level positions", i.e. the lower orders (pp. 77, 151). The adjective monachicus unambiguously pertains to monks (pp. 152-54), i.e., that order of Christian society called continentes. There is greater room for ambiguity in the order of praedicatores, which encompassed a number of ordines. Pellegrini notes that the vocabulary designating them was still being defined in Gregory's day (p. 74). In particular, the status of subdiaconus was distinct in certain ways from the higher orders, whose ordination required the laying on of hands by the bishop, as well as from the lower orders, which received only an episcopal blessing (pp. 80-82; 78). It is regrettable that Pellegrini does not discuss the term militia. The term had long been employed in the context of the secular clergy (who went out into the world to fight Christ's battles), as it is by Gregory in Letter IV, 11, and by Augustine before him. However, militia and related terms also had a long history of association with asceticism and monks in the early Church, and was used by Jerome, Cassian, and Augustine in this context.2 Throughout the book the reader is struck by Gregory's insistence on the separate natures and organization of the clerical and monastic spheres (most pithily stated on p. 228), whereas here, with the Christian militia, there is a lexicographical overlap. When viewed in a wider context, Gregory's stance appears as reforming or idealistic because before, during and after his pontificate many influential bishops emerged from monasteries: the Gaulish bishops from Lérins, or Gregory himself. The double monastery at Whitby produced at least five bishops in addition to the first vita of Gregory. Representing the (apparently less frequent) opposite trend, Augustine of Hippo, when already a presbyter, formed a monastery and lived in it with the monks when he could. Such musings fall outside the tasks Pellegrini set for her book, but her study is thought-provoking in this and many other ways.

Pellegrini's analysis of famulus Dei and servus Dei (pp. 163-65) illustrates the benefits, but also one weakness, of her methodology. Nuancing earlier scholarship with her close reading, she shows that the meaning of each title may differ in the singular and plural, and that depending on whether they are used in the Registrum or in the Dialogues they may or may not designate monks specifically.3 Pellegrini thus points to a clear difference in lexicographical usage between Gregory's Registrum and the Dialogues, and the difference is borne out in the terms' differing frequencies of occurrence. Some readers might contend that these differences lend support to the hypothesis of non-Gregorian authorship of the Dialogues, in the same way as Pellegrini says her own findings substantiate Adalbert de Vogüé's reattribution of the Expositio in librum I Regum to Pietro da Cava (pp. 15-18; 293). Although Pellegrini's brief treatment of the question on page 293 is credible, it would have been well to consider, as Dag Norberg repeatedly emphasized, that the papal chancery was responsible for a great many of the letters in the Registrum,4 unlike the Dialogues. To cast this problem in another light, non-narrative historical documents (the Registrum, law codes, liturgical materials) and literary or "narrative" sources (the Dialogues and commentaries) are treated identically as source material. This deserves some comment on the author's part.

The book has a substantial critical apparatus. The table of contents is detailed and very useful. At the end of the book are three indices: primary sources with full bibliographical references, personal names from the primary sources complete with ranks/titles, and the modern authors cited by Pellegrini. The bibliography is impressive. As always, a few sources might have been added,5 but it would be most ungenerous to consider this a shortcoming. On the other hand, the lack of a subject index is disappointing for it hampers use of the book as a reference tool. The fact that many abbreviations in the bibliography do not feature in the list of abbreviations is bothersome, too. Can one confidently expect one's readers to know offhand the titles of the journals abbreviated as "BLE", "BEFR", or "RSCI", to cite only a few? In addition to this flaw, the book has a number of typographical errors, particularly in the footnotes and bibliography ("A. Harnack" should be "A. von Harnack"; "Eight Century" should be "Eighth Century"; "O'Donnel" should be "O'Donnell"; "Péres" should be "Pères"; "Semain Social" should be "Semaine Sociale"; "Thema of Autority" should be "Theme of Authority"; etc.). The startling inversion in the main text of monastria and ascitria on page 172 ("A differenza di monastria, che indica la persona che vive in solitudine, la ascitria è la vergine consacrata") is unfortunate; nevertheless, the attentive reader would not mistake the text's meaning. Such errors do not detract from the arguments presented, but it is surprising to find them in a second edition.

Seeking to elucidate Gregorian thinking and practice with regard to ecclesiastical institutions, the characteristics of their staff, and how they interacted with civil society, this book accomplishes what it sets out to do. Because of Pellegrini's pellucid prose, any lack of clarity in Gregory's own terminology and approach, not to mention in scholarly views about them, stands out all the more starkly. It is often here, at the unclear points (such as the overlap between clerical and monastic spheres, or monastic independence from--but dependence on--bishops) that Gregory is seen to be reforming or at least adjusting ecclesiastical administration to the problems at hand. Militia Clericatus Monachici Ordines offers a sound basis and thought-provoking findings for further inquiry.


1.   This belief has shaped a number of entries in John Norman Davidson Kelly and Michael Walsh, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
2.   L.Th.A. Lorié, Spiritual Terminology in the Latin Translations of the Vita Antonii with reference to fourth and fifth century monastic literature. Latinitas Christianorum Primaeva. Nijmegen: Dekker & van de Vegt, 1955 (p. 104). Also H. Hoppenbrouwers, Recherches sur la terminologie du martyre de Tertullien à Lactance. Latinitas Christianorum Primaeva. Nijmegen: Dekker & van de Vegt, 1961 (pp. 71; 149-50). For a succinct overview of the evolution of the term: Johann Auer, "Militia Christi", Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 2nd ed., vol. 7 (Freiburg: Herder, 1962), col. 418-19.
3.   Pellegrini's analysis complements Henri Leclercq's articles on "Servus servorum Dei" vol. XV, col. 1360-63 and "Famulus Dei et Christi", vol. 5, col. 1107-14 in the Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie.
4.   Dag Norberg, "Style personnel et style administratif dans le Registrum epistularum de Grégoire le Grand," Grégoire le Grand. Chantilly, Centre culturel Les Fontaines, 15-19 septembre 1982, eds. Jacques Fontaine, Robert Gillet, Stan Pellistrandi (Paris: CNRS, 1986), 489-98.
5.   Regardless of one's position vis-à-vis the "Christian Latin" of the Nijmegen School, consultation of other titles from the "Latinitas Christianorum Primaeva" series could have provided more perspective, as in note 2 above. (Notes 1, 3 and 4 also offer additional references.) The Dizionario patristico e di antichità cristiane from the Augustinianum, edited by Angelo Di Berardino (1983; in French, Dictionnaire encyclopédique du christianisme ancien, 1990; in English, Encyclopedia of the Early Church, 1992; now there is a Nuovo dizionario patristico e di antichità cristiane in 3 vols., 2006-2008), might have provided useful points of view on several questions. For example, Salvatore Pricoco's brief entry on the monastic habit would have helped to contextualize Pope Celestine's remarks about special clothing in his letter to the bishops of Vienne and Narbonne (referred to by Pellegrini on p. 139).

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