contributor.author: William Klingshirn

title.none: Hen, Culture and Religion (Klingshirn)

identifier.other: baj9928.9901.010 99.01.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William Klingshirn, Catholic University of America, klingshirn@cua.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Hen, Yitzhak. Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, 481-751. Cultures, Beliefs and Traditions, Vol 1. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995. $99.50. ISBN: ISBN: 9-004-10347-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.01.10

Hen, Yitzhak. Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, 481-751. Cultures, Beliefs and Traditions, Vol 1. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995. $99.50. ISBN: ISBN: 9-004-10347-3.

Reviewed by:

William Klingshirn
Catholic University of America
klingshirn@cua.edu

Rehabilitation of the Merovingians and of the society and cultures of the territories they ruled, underway for some years now, continues in this book. Rejecting Carolingian (and later) characterizations of Merovingian Gaul as "thinly christianised" and culturally stagnant (p. 2), Yitzhak Hen portrays instead a fundamentally Christian Gaul, whose vibrant "popular culture" was shared by "the vast majority of the population^√člaity and clerics, peasants and aristocrats" (p. 19). This definition of popular culture allows Hen to cover a broad range of secular and religious practices and also to argue, as he does throughout the book, that even "high" cultural activities like manuscript production and performance of the mass carried a wide and popular cultural significance. The Gaul he studies includes most of Roman Gaul and Germany between Clovis's accession in 481 and the deposition of Childeric III in 751 -- not just territory controlled by Franks therefore, but also by Goths, Burgundians, and other groups. Thus Caesarius, bishop of Arles from 502-542, can serve as a major source for the book (second in importance only to Gregory of Tours) even though Arles did not fall under Merovingian control until 536/7 (pace Hen, p. 89, who dates this event to 507). Although the idea of an ethnic, cultural, or geo-political unity called Gaul is something of a fiction, going back at least to Caesar's De Bello Gallico, it is still a useful fiction, provided one respects, as Hen does, the wide regional and local differences that still characterize this extensive and diverse territory.

Based on the author's Ph.D. thesis (Cambridge, 1994), "revised and partially rewritten" (p. ix), the book retains many of the characteristics of that genre. It is, however, such an interesting and useful piece of work that these do not appear to be major shortcomings. After an introduction on sources and aims, the first chapter discusses Merovingian literacy and orality. This is crucial, since the vast majority of Hen's evidence is written, and in Latin, and he needs to demonstrate both that the Latin of the sources was more or less identical with the spoken language of ordinary people, and that written sources produced by elites (in whatever language) could represent a popular culture that contained many oral (and non- verbal) elements. The chapter's methods, arguments, and optimistic conclusions will not be unfamiliar to those who have followed recent debates about Merovingian and Carolingian literacy, and especially the signal contributions of Rosamond McKitterick (Hen's supervisor). But Hen fills in the picture with Merovingian details--his discussion of Marculf's Formulary is particularly good--and overall the chapter does its work well. At a few points optimism about the importance and extent of literacy may not be entirely justified. While many sermons were written in advance and read out to congregations (p. 33), we cannot conclude that this was generally true of sermons. Neither Isidore's reference to written homilies nor the practices of Caesarius demonstrate it, and sermon delivery must have remained a largely oral art. At another point (p. 39), the translation of a phrase from Caesaria the Younger's letter to Radegund overestimates the degree of literacy that could reasonably be expected of entrants into a monastery. "Nulla sit intrantibus quae non literas discat" does not mean "admit no one who does not know letters," but rather "no woman should enter who cannot learn (or is not learning) letters." In other words, literacy was important, but it could be acquired after entering.

The next four chapters, on cultural aspects of the Christian liturgy, constitute the book's largest and most original section. Hen argues that because Merovingian Gaul was a fundamentally Christian society, its liturgy, the most important ritual expression of its Christianity, should be interpreted as a form of popular culture. Here is where the earlier argument that the highest and lowest levels of Merovingian society participated in the same popular culture begins to work the hardest, for if we define popular culture as that in which all participated, it is reasonable to interpret the liturgy, constructed by ecclesiastical elites precisely to express everyone's participation, as an important part of popular culture. Edward Shils took a similar view of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in an article written with Michael Young, arguing that the elements of this civil and above all religious ceremony represented central values widely held by the whole population. But whether or not the reader accepts this argument (which tends to treat popular culture as a production for rather than by ordinary people), Hen's chapters do a good job of redefining the Merovingian liturgy as a broadly cultural problem.

After a useful survey of liturgical texts in chapter 2, Hen reconstructs the Merovingian mass and the temporal cycle of the church year in chapter 3. He reminds us that the mass was not only a solemn and holy ritual, nor only a ceremonial expression of church-political consensus and communal solidarity, but also an impressive dramatic production intended to have an emotional effect on the individuals who attended. I am not certain whether we can call that effect catharsis, as Hen does (p. 80), or what it would mean if we did, but it is interesting to ask what feelings the mass produced in any Merovingian Christian, and an indication of the value of this book that it even poses such a question.

The saints are the subject of chapter 4. After cataloguing the sanctoral cycles of four dioceses (Arles, Auxerre, Poitiers, and Utrecht) and one monastery (Chelles) and summarizing recent work on Merovingian relics and saint' cults, Hen shifts to the effects of saint veneration on individual Christians. In a mutual exchange of words and actions (which Hen argues, perhaps unnecessarily, had no direct continuity with Roman patronage), saints performed cures, answered prayers, listened to complaints, and resolved disputes, and the grateful recipients of their favors attended their shrines, made donations, and prayed for additional benefits. The relationship is depicted as emotional and direct, a view that complements rather than contradicts recent work by Raymond Van Dam and others on the social and institutional aspects of Merovingian piety toward the saints.

Chapter 5 focuses on rites of passage in the Merovingian liturgy. The chapter begins with a substantial and useful discussion of marriage blessings, prayers, and masses. It then discusses the Barbatoria, which marked the ritual first cutting of a young man's beard and was celebrated by prayers in the Old Gelasian Sacramentary. Rites of baptism and burial are discussed less comprehensively, and mention is also made of liturgical interventions in daily life: prayers and masses for rain, the growth of crops, and safe travel. The principal value of this chapter for many readers will be its use of liturgical books as materials for Merovingian social history, a promising enterprise in which Hen has made a good start. The chapter also marks a transition to the book's third and final part, on the cultural elements of Merovingian daily life.

Chapter 6 is entitled "Superstition and Pagan Survivals," and Hen mostly follows the underlying implications of these polemical terms. The issue, however, is not whether traditional polytheism was widely practiced in Merovingian Gaul--clearly it was not--but what the persistence of traditional religious practices might mean. Here I would disagree with Hen's effort to downplay the extent of such practices and their continuity with traditional religion. Rather than posit a high degree of rupture between traditional and Christian practices, or to judge all Christians by a normative Christianity that may only have existed in the minds (and writings) of clerics, it seems preferable to see the persistence of 'pagan' practices as evidence both of religious continuity and of Christian adaptability, and to question the ideological screen that Christian writing puts in the way of these conclusions. This objection aside, Hen's survey of Merovingian 'paganism' is useful, not least because it does stay close to the texts, and is capable of analyzing them critically. I found the discussion of anti-Merovingian propaganda in Carolingian hagiography (pp. 197-206) particularly incisive.

The final chapter is a miscellany entitled "Merovingian Secular Culture." As Hen observes, extracting 'secular' elements from the mainly ecclesiastical sources for Merovingian culture is a difficult operation, and this chapter does not avoid all its pitfalls. There is an encyclopedic tendency at work here that surveys even categories with little or no Merovingian evidence, for instance childrens' games (pp. 212-13) or markets and fairs (pp. 231-34). There are also occasional lapses, for instance the identification of Salvian of Marseille as a bishop (p. 237) or the assertion that "no amphitheatre has yet been found in Arles." (p. 219) Other evidence could be interpreted differently. I find it difficult to believe that Caesarius's criticism of gambling (serm. 61.3, 89.5, 198.3) was really a criticism of lot divination (pp. 214-15), a practice he and his fellow bishops were quite capable of condemning directly (Council of Agde [506], can. 42). It is true that Caesarius's criticism of an "innocent" game seems harsh, but that is the kind of rigorous language he characteristically employed for amusements of which he disapproved. Despite these minor problems, however, the chapter has many strong points, especially the long section on Merovingian drinking (pp. 234-49).

There are a few mechanical problems that readers (and the publisher) should be made aware of. The Greek quotation in note 1 on page 1 has several typographical errors, and its font differs in size from that used elsewhere in the notes (n. 63, p. 220). On page 188 there are words missing from the clause that begins "and therefore, it is more than probable that the early penitentials." At several places in the text and notes (e.g., p. 176, n. 130; p. 200, n. 267), footnote numbers are too large and displace the lines in which they occur. But these are minor irritations in what is otherwise a refreshingly candid and thoroughly welcome contribution to the field of Merovingian and early medieval studies.