Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Lisa Kaaren Bailey, The Religious Worlds of the Laity in Late Antique Gaul. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Pp. viii, 247. ISBN 9781472519030. $120.00.

Reviewed by Robin Whelan, Brasenose College, Oxford; The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (robin.whelan@history.ox.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


Ordinary late-antique Christians are beginning to think for themselves. Numerous recent studies have used the evidence of sermons (in particular) to try to push past the normative views of ecclesiastical authority figures and locate the voices and agency of the men and women who constituted the majority of Christians in this (and any) period. Lisa Bailey has a track record in this field: her first monograph was a close reading of the Eusebius Gallicanus sermon collection.1 In her new book, Bailey widens her scope to investigate what Christianity meant to people in late-antique Gaul (here defined as the period c. 400-700; much of the discussion focuses on the sixth century).

In her Introduction (1-19), Bailey locates her study within the context of scholarship on lay Christianity, not only in late antiquity, but across the European middle ages,2 before sketching approaches to the various available forms of evidence: church councils; secular legal sources; hagiographies; sermons; epitaphs; material culture. All of these are brought to bear in the following chapters; perhaps unsurprisingly, the two big beasts of the sixth-century Gallic Church, Caesarius of Arles and Gregory of Tours, play central roles. In her opening pages, Bailey justifies the choice—perhaps more obvious from a medieval than a late-antique perspective—to frame her subjects as the 'laity': this book is about the messy process by which that Christian construction of ordinary people came to be dominant, even taken for granted (4-6). In that sense, this is less a study of the 'many identities' of late-antique Christians (to borrow a phrase from Éric Rebillard) than a work on the multiplicity of that one form of identity.3 Bailey also problematizes the frequent recourse to a 'negative trajectory' (6-7) of clerical takeover in the early middle ages: 'the laity, like the Roman Empire, are always declining' (7).

Chapter 1, 'Laity, clergy and ascetics' (21-51) frames the book by setting out the ambiguities of 'bipartite' views of the Christian community in late-antique Gaul (clerici vs. laici/saeculares). A first section (24-33) surveys the categories used in conciliar canons and secular legislation. Both presented a fundamental contrast between clerics and worldly people, whether resulting from ordination, lifestyle choices, or exemptions and restrictions. This contrast became much fuzzier when it came to ascetics (who did not necessarily hold ecclesiastical office) and lower clergy (who had lower status and expectations). The boundaries were further blurred by the focus of ascetic writers on conversion as an inward change from which external markers followed (33-43). Other pious Christians also straddled the clerical/lay borderline, not least those in various forms of 'service' to individual churches: unfree dependents, penitents and the poor (43-51). In aggregate, Bailey identifies a 'spectrum of religious commitments and behaviours rather than strictly delineated categories' (38). From this fuzziness, she suggests, came opportunities for lay religious agency (50-51).

Chapter 2, 'Environments' (53-73) draws on approaches from the 'spatial turn' to think about lay interaction with physical churches. It argues that 'clergy did not and could not control the religious environments of the laity', either in terms of access or use (73). Basilicas had multiple foci and they often seem to have been designed to facilitate proximity to relics (56-62). Private churches and monasteries provided alternative environments even less susceptible to ecclesiastical control (67-71). As for actual church use, clerics had obvious anxieties about lay people disrespecting a sanctified space. At the same time, they also present considerable evidence of activities that suggested a much greater reverence, not least incubation and the seeking of cures (62-66).

Chapter 3, 'Urban case studies' (75-101) considers the specific rhythms and topography of Christian life in Arles, Lyon, Trier and Tours. Each city presents very different ancient and late ancient patterns of development and sharply contrasting bodies of surviving evidence. Bailey sets out the urban fabric and (possible) communal memory of each site before discussing how people might have experienced these cities as Christians. Particularly nice are her evocations of attempts by bishops to unify distant Christian sites at Arles and Tours through processions and relic translations (81, 97-98).

Chapter 4, 'Rituals' (103-115) considers the Eucharist, processions and rogations: liturgical moments where 'the lay experience of being "lay" would have been most acute' (103). Presenting rituals (after Philippe Buc and Catherine Bell) as 'argument[s] for… consensus' (105), Bailey contends once more for multiple perspectives on the message and significance of these communal activities.4 So, the performative aspect of the Eucharist might have kept attendees engaged despite its potential remoteness; at the same time, challenges to bishops during Rogations suggest that not everyone got with the programme.

Chapter 5, 'Behaviours' (117-37), the heart of the study (and something of a synecdoche), considers the depictions of ideal and rather less than ideal lay behaviour in hagiographies, sermons and epitaphs. Texts in all three genres suggested that worldly people could be good Christians; Bailey nicely picks out differences of emphasis. Late-antique Gallic saints' lives present future ascetic superstars as virtuous even in their worldly (pre-conversion) lives (119-22). If such narratives offered implicit role models for lay behaviour, sermons were much more explicit in their persuasion and admonishment (122-25). Caesarius offered a moral checklist for individual Christians to tick off (124); the Eusebius Gallicanus preachers were keener to offer a rationale for appropriate behaviour (124-25). Epitaphs highlighted similar pious activities (e.g. almsgiving), but left more room for family and city (125-28). Bailey once again stresses the subjectivity of clerical views both in depictions of 'misbehaviour' (128-32) and incidental descriptions of the laity (132-37). Her readings of alternative logics in Gregory's miracle stories are particularly neat (like the Christian who justified his gardening on Avitus' festival day by claiming that the saint was a working man, too).

Chapter 6, 'Knowledge and Belief' (139-57) returns to the knotty problem of what precisely lay people might have known of Christian teachings in late antiquity. Bailey sides with more optimistic post-revisionist approaches that have suggested widespread popular engagement with doctrinal controversies. Certainly, clerics seem to have both encouraged and expected considerable knowledge (141-48). Bailey takes a judicious perspective on the doubts and objections expressed in sermons and miracle stories: these were neither necessarily real objections made by members of the writers' congregations, nor simple authorial inventions, but 'indirect reflections' (150) of what those Christians might have been thinking. The efforts to which preachers went to persuade those audiences—and the likelihood of doubt and practical scepticism that they assumed—suggest that ordinary Gallic Christians had considerable independence of thought, and thus, distinct perspectives on their own religiosity. A short conclusion (159-60) recaps the book's main arguments, and gestures forward to the continued lack of closure in the high middle ages.

The Religious Worlds of the Laity is an exemplary study of the interaction between Christian authority figures and those over whom they claimed pastoral oversight. It deserves to be read by anyone interested in the construction (and contestation) of Christian identity in late antiquity. With that audience and literature in mind, the book could perhaps have done more to frame what precisely was distinctive about this process in late-antique Gaul. The analysis frequently slips smoothly from general statements about late-antique or medieval Christian identity formation—across the Mediterranean/Europe—to specific examples from fifth-, sixth- or seventh-century Gaul. As a result, something of the particularity of late-antique Gaul—evoked in the urban case studies of ch. 3—is elided. Some intriguing peculiarities are noted, like Gallic hagiography and its positive view of worldly lives before the 'conversion' moment (no reconstructed sinners here), and Caesarius's expectations of ordinary Scriptural reading as opposed to Augustine's elite study groups. The communal dynamics delineated here invite comparisons between Caesarius' Arles or Gregory's Tours and (say), John Chrysostom's Antioch or Augustine's Hippo Regius. A more sustained comparative frame of reference, or a more wide-ranging concluding chapter, would have helped to locate late-antique Gaul—and Bailey's study—within the growing body of literature on the Christianisation of the late-antique and early medieval world. As it is, The Religious Worlds of the Laity will undoubtedly provoke others to make that comparison themselves.


1.   L. K. Bailey, Christianity's Quiet Success: The Eusebius Gallicanus Sermon Collection and the Power of the Church in Late Antique Gaul (Notre Dame, IN, 2010).
2.   Esp. J. Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (London, 2005) and S. Hamilton, Church and People in the Medieval West, 900-1200 (London, 2013).
3.   É. Rebillard, Christians and their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (Ithaca, NY, 2012).
4.   P. Buc, The Dangers of Ritual: Between early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory (Princeton, NJ, 2001); C. Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York, 1992).

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