Giselle de Nie

title.none: Moreira, Dreams, Visions, and Spritual Authority in Merovingian Gaul (Giselle de Nie)

identifier.other: baj9928.0109.013 01.09.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Giselle de Nie,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Moreira, Isabel. Dreams, Visions, and Spiritual Authority in Merovingian Gaul. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. xii, 262. 49.95. ISBN: 0-814-43661-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.09.13

Moreira, Isabel. Dreams, Visions, and Spiritual Authority in Merovingian Gaul. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. xii, 262. 49.95. ISBN: 0-814-43661-3.

Reviewed by:

Giselle de Nie

Dreams and visions can give an insight into individual and collective attitudes, feelings and power structures as well as help to determine these. Whereas the early Christians had thrived on manifestations of the spirit, and directed themselves according to prophecy, from the second century onward differing interpretations of the faith made the latter seem a dangerous criterium of transcendent truth. To preserve the Church's stable identity, therefore, institutional authority began to take the place of the charismatic. Augustine, for instance, preferred "the firmer [way] of the Scriptures and their more certain oracles"--interpreted, of course, by the Catholic clergy--to that of "miracles and dreams", a then very much alive pagan tradition as well ( De catechizandis rudibus 6.10). Another more certain source of truth in the now Christian empire were the new class of holy men, whose pure lives guaranteed the content of their visions. This development indicates the changed notion of the "holy": as the New Testament shows, in the early Christian community all believers had been regarded as "saints", but in the fourth century this epithet began to be applied exclusively to professionals in the religious life. Did this mean that non- cleric and non-holy recipients of visions would be silenced and ignored from then on?

Augustine's own writings, as well as those of many others, indicate that this was not the case; and in the high Middle Ages accredited visions prove to be an integral part of clerical culture. In her study, Isabel Moreira shows how "the slow process whereby clerics accommodated antique traditions of visionary access to a new palette of religious sensibilities" took place in the Merovingian period, here regarded as continuing into the early eighth century. She does this by examining clerical responses to dreams and visions in specific contexts: as prophecy about the Church, as concerning the welfare of souls, as formulations of separatist trends in the monastic sphere, as experiential evidence in the cult of the saints, and as "a literature that promoted clerical and liturgical efficacy in Christian soteriology". The underlying question throughout is that of the sources, the determination and the use of spiritual authority: an ongoing confrontation and conversation between established routines of spiritual power and new experiences at all levels deriving from the changes in society and the new currents of spirituality, such as Irish penitentialism. It is a fascinating subject, well worth tracing as far as the surviving sources allow. Most of these are hagiographical. Moreira divides her material in three sections: part one concerns visionary access in Christian Antiquity and in Gaul, part two visions and authority in the Merovingian community, and part three dreams and visions in the context of hagiographical writing in this period, in which the visions of two women are analyzed in detail.

The roots of the two contrasting traditions of visionary access were, of course, two biblical traditions: that of Joel 3:1-5, promising prophecy to all, and that of privileged dreamers/interpreters such as Joseph and Daniel. When the pneumatic early Christian community began to be confronted with the claims of Gnostics and later Montanists to spiritual authority on the basis of their privileged revelations, criteria for testing the truth of visions were set up: Scriptural orthodoxy, deference to the established spiritual authorities, a "meritorious" life. But although Augustine rejected the "Vision of Paul", it was later widely utilized, and a vision of a slave such as Hermas could find its way into accepted church literature. The literature including the shorter visions of the new fourth-century ascetics in the desert, whose pure lives seemed to be a guarantee of orthodoxy as well (and who, in any case, were usually not impinging upon anyone's spiritual authority), came to be regarded as a repository of revelations concerning the interior life. The subsequent genre of Gallic hagiography continued and strengthened this notion: the visions of Martin of Tours and his biographer Sulpicius Severus and of Abbot Eugendus of Condat and their impingements upon spiritual power are analyzed in detail.

Next, Moreira examines the role of visions in the strategies of episcopal power in Gaul. With Gregory of Tours' writings as the prime evidence, visionary revelations are shown in many functions: deciding an episcopal election, proving a bishop's power, protecting another bishop from exile or worse by the king, confirming attitudes toward marginal groups such as Jews and Arians, but also as legitimating popular cults at up-to- then unrecognized tombs against initial episcopal opposition. Unfortunately, however, it is an example of the latter that Moreira adduces in her introduction as evidence of what she formulates as: "By the sixth century, we are told, bishops often quashed the dreams of their flock or at any rate imposed their attitudes toward visions on a reluctant Merovingian populace." (3) In the story adduced ( In gloria confessorum 18) in the reference she gives, Gregory tells us that a peasant received a dream-vision in which he was commanded by two dead virgins to build a chapel over their tomb: he forgot about it. The following night, however, the virgins appeared again and threatened him with death if he did not carry out their demand. After the peasant had done what was required, he asked Gregory's predecessor bishop Eufronius to consecrate the chapel, but the bishop at first pleaded old age, bad weather and impassable roads, and refused. Only when the virgins appeared to him in turn did he realize that he should have taken the peasant's vision seriously; the storm suddenly abated and he went off to consecrate the chapel, describing the appearance of the saints to everyone. Contrary to what Moreira states, Gregory's message here is that dreams-- to anyone--in which saints appear are to be taken seriously. The peasant had been wrong in not paying attention to his dream (something which Gregory more often criticizes as "rusticity"-- thus indicating that, again contrary to what Moreira indicates, it was clerical and not popular culture that emphasized paying attention to dreams), and the bishop equally wrong in not taking it seriously. His own subsequent dream corrected the situation. Gregory, then, in any case would have been inclined to listen rather than to quash; his predecessor may have had to learn this--but learn he did, and he transmitted the story to Gregory. It seems to me that it deserves at least a more nuanced interpretation than the one Moreira here appears to give and, insofar as Gregory's own attitude is concerned, points to the opposite of her assertion; this misunderstanding is reflected in her subsequent treatment of his views: she regards him as ambivalent on the subject.

Elsewhere, however, she emphasizes that the "meritorious" model functioned "more as an economy of explanation than as a description of reality": Merovingian hagiography also described "humble, dirty, and rascally inhabitants of Gaul" as having revelations that mattered. As we saw in the just-mentioned story, in practice, of course, this meant that the clergy could decide what was accepted and what was not. Chapter four discusses dream-visions at shrines that validated the saint's power as healer and protector, thereby confirming not only the status of the shrine itself and its clerical managers, but also that of the visions of the least fortunate in society. Here, then, an accommodation had been made between "open" and restricted visionary access. Chapter five discusses the relatively few reports of visionary journeys to the Otherworld that have been preserved from this period. Showing the influence of early Christian visionary literature, Gregory the Great's descriptions of deathbed visions in the fourth book of his Dialogues, indicating the rewards and punishments of the afterlife, were to influence seventh-century monastic visions. Gregory of Tours' descriptions of those of Abbots Salvius and Sunniulf and of the nun at Poitiers are messages during life, intended to influence the life-style of the visionary him or herself. The seventh-century visions of Fursey and Barontus express monastic and penitential concerns reflecting the Irish influence in Gallic ascetic life of this period. Their commonitory and didactic purpose is prominent; although certain individual clerics are pointed to as abusing their office, the focus upon traditional spiritual values supports clerical concerns rather than attacks them. Here again, the two visionary traditions had achieved a dynamic compromise.

Chapter six discusses the "conventional" place of visions in Merovingian hagiography. They were not required for sanctity: only about one-third of the extant Lives report visions, fewer still give details. They showed, however, for the saints, "that their world was infused with divine purpose", and for the hagiographers "that the saints' success was predetermined. Visions elevated the religious significance of the saints' choices, and postulated spiritual rewards for the faithful in heaven." This is illustrated by an analysis of Saint Radegund's visions. Parallels and precedents are adduced which elucidate the images of the Christ as a ship and as the beautiful, youthful heavenly Bridegroom. They include a description of the latter in a prose Life of Saint Hilary of Poitiers by Radegund's great friend, the poet Venantius Fortunatus. His poetry, however, of which a considerable part was written to and for Saint Radegund, and which would have provided a contemporary inspiration for her visions, is unfortunately left out of the picture. Fortunatus' descriptions of heaven and the Bridegroom are contained in the long celebratory poem which was almost certainly written for and recited at Abbess Agnes' consecration in Radegund's convent, and in his Life of Saint Martin, probably also commissioned by Radegund. Of the latter, a new edition with a French translation by Solange Quesnel has appeared in 1996 in the Collection des Universites de France. Fortunatus' detailed imaginative evocations of heavenly realities, also elsewhere in his poems, are a highly interesting transitional modus between conscious fiction and what may be meditative visionary intuitions, influenced by those in the book of Revelation and in the Vision of Saint Paul. This reviewer cannot accept Moreira's contention, however, that Radegund's visions were recorded--c. 605--to underline her special status as a way to counteract the effects of the nuns' revolt in 589 (pp. 187, 197)--the sixteen-year gap makes this unlikely. In Baudonivia's Life of Radegund, contrary to Fortunatus' earlier portrayal stressing her humility (probably indeed just after the revolt of the royal daughters objecting to being ruled by a commoner), she is described as above all queenly and as exercising spiritual authority in teaching her nuns, in advising her stepsons not to make war, and in bringing the relic of the Cross to her chapel in Poitiers--whereby she made it something like the spiritual center of Gaul--facts which the diplomatic Fortunatus had omitted in 590. Mentioning these would have added to Moreira's argument of the visions manifesting messages for herself and her monastic community by giving it an extra-monasterial dimension.

The last chapter, on the revelations of the extraordinary visionary Saint Aldegund, is the most interesting because it is the most detailed. Moreira uses the descriptions of the two earliest Lives--written c. 715-18 and "in the ninth century"-- as though they constitute a homogeneous source. This reviewer would have liked to have been given at least a short comparison between the origins, style, and bias of these so as to be able to weigh possible differences of emphasis or detail. In the analysis of these bridal visions again, a comparison with Fortunatus' descriptions--alongside those she gives of late Roman and early Christian poets and visionaries--would have been enlightening. Aldegund's visions were intensely personal, not didactic, soteriological or political; although her symbolism now and then points to that of Hildegard of Bingen's later symbolic visions, Aldegund's experiences constitute a prototype of late medieval nuns' bridal visions. Her precise relationship with the ecclesiastical authorities is not known, but at least monastic authorities were prepared to accept her authority as guided by the Holy Spirit. And others too were divinely touched when they stood in a place where she had received a revelation. One of her visions, that of the contemporary missionary Saint Amandus ascending to heaven (perhaps inspired by Sulpicius' vision of Martin), certainly validated the Church's missionary expansion in the region (modern Belgium) where she lived. The appearance of Saint Peter, along with more concrete evidence of her veneration of the apostle, "reflects...a vigorous association of salvation and absolution with St. Peter, and by extension, with his representative on earth, the Pope".

Correlating visions with the modes and exercise of spiritual authority is no easy task, especially when one has a rather limited number of sources. Although her interpretation of the pivotal figure of Gregory of Tours is somewhat flawed, Moreira has written a readable and informative overview of what can be discovered about this aspect of the dynamic and highly interesting process of acculturation between Christianity and late Roman and early medieval society.