John Contreni

title.none: Markus, Gregory the Great (Contreni)

identifier.other: baj9928.9811.006 98.11.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Contreni, Purdue University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Markus, Robert Austin. Gregory the Great and his world. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997. Pp. xxiii, 241. $59.00, ISBN 0-521-58430-2 (HB). ISBN: $22.95, ISBN 0-521-58608-9 (PB).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.11.06

Markus, Robert Austin. Gregory the Great and his world. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997. Pp. xxiii, 241. $59.00, ISBN 0-521-58430-2 (HB). ISBN: $22.95, ISBN 0-521-58608-9 (PB).

Reviewed by:

John Contreni
Purdue University

Gregory the Great (590-604) along with Gregory VII and Innocent III is one of the popes that everyone interested in the Middle Ages knows something about. Often introduced to undergraduates as either "the first medieval pope," "the architect of the medieval papacy," "fourth doctor of the church," or some other weighty honorific, Gregory has also claimed the attention of historians from the days of John, a ninth-century Roman deacon, to our own. Robert Markus in the preface of his new book pays homage to F. Homes Dudden's two-volume, Gregory the Great: His Place in History and Thought (London, 1905) and to more recent fine studies by Claude Dagens, Saint Grégoire le Grand: Culture et expérience chrétiennes (Paris, 1977), and Carole Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection (Berkeley, 1988), to which one could add five still useful general biographies listed in Straw's bibliographical essay (p. 262). Within the last dozen years three international conferences have focused the attention of scores of specialists on Gregory and his work: Grégoire le Grand, ed. Jacques Fontaine (Paris, 1986); Gregorio Magno e il suo tempo (2 vols.; Rome, 1991); and Gregory the Great: A Symposium, ed. John Cavadini (Notre Dame, Ind., 1996). The same years have also witnessed the appearance of work on Gregory's spirituality such as Joan M. Petersen's The Dialogues of Gregory the Great in their Late Antique Cultural Background (Toronto, 1984) and William D. McCready's Signs of Sanctity: Miracles in the Thought of Gregory the Great (Toronto, 1989). Francis Clark's The Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues (2 vols.; Leiden, 1987) even sparked a controversy about one of Gregory's most influential works.

And still the stream of books and even more numerous articles (among the more perceptive remain those of Robert Gillet and Paul Meyvaert) shows no sign of abating. Markus acknowledged in his preface that he came across Michael Fiedrowicz's Das Kirchenverständnis Gregors des Grossen: Eine Untersuchung seiner exegetischen und homiletischen Werke (Rome, 1995) too late to make good use of it. Another late-breaking contribution to Gregory studies, Adalbert de Vogüés article in Revue Bénédictine (106 [1996]: 319-331) questioning the attribution of the commentary on 1 Kings to Gregory, a work Markus cited 39 times, could only be acknowledged in the preface of Gregory the Great and His World.

What does Robert Markus add to this ever-expanding stream of scholarship on Gregory? Three achievements stand out. First, as might be expected from the pen of Robert Markus, his book provides a perceptive and sensitive interpretation of Gregory's papacy grounded in a close reading of the sources. In addition to the 39 references to the questionable exposition on I Kings, the 200 pages of Markus's own exposition rest on a foundation of nearly 1300 references to Gregory's works. The lion's share (907), as might be expected, send readers to the letters. But Markus has mined the Dialogues, the commentaries on the Song of Songs, the homilies on the Ezechiel and on the Gospels, the Moralia and the Pastoral Care as well. While several of the book's twelve chapters reprise essays written earlier (Markus has been working on Gregory since around 1960 [p. xiii]), the book coheres remarkably well as a work of fundamental research scholarship (in contrast, say, to loosely researched and constructed "meditations" or "reflections" sometimes served up by publishers).

Secondly, and again this will come as no surprise to those familiar with Markus's many essays and books ( Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine [Cambridge, 1970; 1988]; The End of Ancient Christianity [Cambridge, 1990]; Sacred and Secular: Studies on Augustine and Latin Christianity [London, 1994]; Signs and Meanings: World and Text in Ancient Christianity [Liverpool, 1996]), Markus views Gregory from the late antique side of the Great Divide between antiquity and the Middle Ages. Although he encourages his readers to view Gregory as "belonging to two worlds at once, or rather as a Grenzgestalt between them" (p. xii), this reader came to view Gregory in the more absolute terms Markus used in his conclusion: "In Gregory's time the Roman Church was still very much a part of the imperial system that had been given its shape by Justinian. This was the unquestioned context of his pontificate; he could scarcely have imagined a differently constituted Church" (p. 204). And on the previous page Markus sums up his subject's impact in part by noting that Gregory's pontificate did not affect the development of the institutional papacy or change the direction of papal concerns and policies. These developments would come later, he observes, in the eighth century. Along the way Markus emphasizes Gregory's continued deference to emperors and how much of his energies when not directed at suburbicarian Italy (e.g. 500 or 51.5% of the letters) and its problems focused on Ravenna, Milan, Constantinople, and North Africa. No architect of the medieval papacy, Markus's Gregory perhaps should be viewed best as the last pope who operated in the imperial Mediterranean world.

Gregory was convinced that his world was perishing. Markus anchors Gregory's pontificate firmly in that world. His most impressive achievement, suggested by the book's title, is to give equal billing to Gregory and to his world. By paying such close attention to sixth-century Italy and Gregory's perceptions of and responses to his world, Markus avoids framing Gregory teleologically. But while the responses Gregory was called on to make to the problems that impinged on him everyday in his fissiparous age were neither transcendent nor even enduring, neither were they ad hoc. An imperial man and a contemplative at once, Gregory would have seemed ill suited -- bureaucratic, hidebound, detached, rigid -- to cope effectively with the challenges he faced. Markus sees the key to understanding Gregory's actions and pontificate in the pope's deeply held sense of pastoral ministry. His sense of ministry permeated all his actions and provided him with a new framework to guide his church. That new framework centered on his own place in it. Following the lead of John Cassian and Julianus Pomerius, Gregory came to view action in the world rather than withdrawal as the contemplative's true mission. One could be both Rachel and Leah, Mary and Martha, just as Christ had united contemplative life with active life in his flesh and lived both (p. 21). Here one might expect a close reading of the Pastoral Care to fill out this portrait of Gregory. Instead, Markus cites that work only 24 times. The proof comes not in the treatise, but in the pope's actions as when he dealt with recalcitrant and fractious bishops or when he used church funds to rescue the son of Cosmas, a Syrian merchant, who was held in bondage in Sicily by his father's creditors. Gregory knew little about the world of the Anglo- Saxons when he sent his famous missionary expedition to England. At first he seems to have thought of the Anglo-Saxon kings in familiar terms, as latter-day Constantines who could effect conversion by fiat. When the reports he received from the field suggested otherwise, Gregory reversed course and counseled a more flexible, "liberal" (p. 184) missionary strategy. "Preaching, persuasion, and inducements: but no force, no pressure, no coercion" (p. 80) was also the rule when it came to the Jews.

Gregory the Great and His World is written in an engaging and sympathetic style. Readers who know Gregory well will learn from Markus's study. For others, Markus's book will take its place at the head of the abundant literature on Gregory and serve for decades as the most instructive point of entry into understanding Gregory and his pontificate. What Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, 1967) did thirty years earlier for Augustine and his world, Robert Markus's book has accomplished for Gregory and his world.