Lynda Coon

title.none: Humphries, Communities of the Blessed (Coon)

identifier.other: baj9928.0104.008 01.04.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lynda Coon, University of Arkansas,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Humphries, Mark. Communities of the Blessed: Social Environment and Religious Change in Northern Italy, AD 200-400. Oxford Early Christian Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 258. 70. ISBN: 0-198-26983-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.04.08

Humphries, Mark. Communities of the Blessed: Social Environment and Religious Change in Northern Italy, AD 200-400. Oxford Early Christian Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 258. 70. ISBN: 0-198-26983-8.

Reviewed by:

Lynda Coon
University of Arkansas

In Communities of the Blessed, Mark Humphries effectively dismantles a seemingly well-ensconced scholarly model of how Christianity spread in late-antique northern Italy. In so doing, Humphries devises a new methodology for the study of the social, religious, and built environment of crucial urban centers, such as Aquileia and Verona, to equally important--but less studied--rural and mountainous communities in the Alto Adigo and Julian Alps. Until fairly recently, Humphries argues, the study of Christian expansion in these areas has been held hostage by historical approaches fashioned in the early modern period, including an exclusive devotion to political and theological topics, an obsessive delineation of episcopal successions, and a polemical renegotiation of the Italian past in the service of papal supremacy and campanilismo. In contrast, Humphries' revised paradigm "seeks to reconcile ecclesiastical and social history". (4) He places his work within the revisionist stance adopted by important scholars in the field, including Jean-Charles Picard (Le souvenir des eveques. Sepultures, listes episcopales et culte des eveques en Italie du Nord des origines au Xe siecle, 1988) and Bryan Ward-Perkins (From Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages: Urban Public Building in Northern and Central Italy AD 300-800, 1984). Frequently repeated code words of Communities of the Blessed, such as contingency, diversity, variation, multi-layered, point to the theoretical underpinnings of this "new social history". For Humphries, Christian landscapes, physical structures, and social-economic networks are all complex cultural productions that can never been fully understood by scholars who impose monolithic political or theological paradigms upon them. A more productive methodology, according to Humphries, seeks to place Christian innovation within a larger context of a human environment consisting of "natural landscapes, social networks, and urban centers". (44)

The reign of the Emperor Constantius (350s CE) marks off the book's two parts. In Part I (c. 200-350 CE), Humphries covers the discursive geography of late-antique northern Italy, the invented traditions of episcopal successions, and the revised model of Christian expansion. In Part II (c. 350-400 CE), he explores the relationships between imperial power and the emerging potestas of the northern episcopacy. He also provides his reader with a detailed discussion of the increasingly elaborate articulation of local episcopal authority as well as the surviving archaeological evidence for the formation of Christian communities in cities and remote regions. Humphries' two major premises are that longstanding social and economic networks in northern Italy had much more to do with the spread of Christianity than past scholarship has acknowledged, and that by the late fourth-century, northern Italy was by no means a "thoroughly Christian space". (215)

In order to elucidate these two points, Humphries joins together textual, material, and liturgical evidence. This strategy, evocative of the one employed by John Crook (The Architectural Setting of the Cult of the Saints in the Early Christian West, c. 300-1200, 2000), is one of the great strengths of this book. The yield is impressive. Humphries navigates the reader through the variegated landscapes of Italia Annonaria, stopping frequently to contemplate both famous and obscure sites. From the fourth-century imperial cults at Como and Pula, to the African mosaics of the Theodorean church at Aquileia, to the synagogue at Brescia, the material evidence speaks most effectively to crucial issues of ethnic and religious diversity in northern Italy as well as the incorporation of Christianity into an already thriving economy intimately linked to the larger Mediterranean world and the Balkans.

Humphries' treatment of the problematic textual evidence-- evidence which for so long has dominated the study of this topic--represents another important contribution of this book. In a meticulous section on source criticism (a central focus of chapter 2), the author guides the reader through the interpretative dilemmas poised by notoriously discursive texts, such as sacred biographies, martyrologies, catalogues of feast days, and lists of bishops. For Humphries, these seemingly disparate sources "represent a constantly evolving and metamorphosing map of the sacred past, crafted to meet the shifting needs of those who produced them". (53) Clearly, the producers of much of the numinous history of northern Italy were the churchmen of the high Middle Ages, who reconstructed the origins of important dioceses, such as Milan, within the context of their own violent struggle for independence in the face of expanding papal power. Other important urban centers like Aquileia used hagiographic invention to foster rival cults to that of the sedes Apostolica of S. Peter. Instead of offering an objective account of diocesan formation, these sources can be more constructively read as lively testimonies to the vigorous and volatile competition among bishoprics. This section of source criticism alone makes Communities of the Blessed an ideal kind of secondary text to assign in a graduate methods/historiography seminar.

Another vital kind of source investigated by Humphries is the physical landscape of Italy itself. Again, recent methodologies drawn from the work of cultural geographers is apparent in the author's vision of the late-antique Italian environment. Compellingly, Humphries defines northern Italy less as a discrete region and more as a "world-system": "The northern Italy of this study is not constrained by the rigid straitjacket of physical boundaries^Êit is an amorphous thing, sometimes inward-looking, sometimes open to influences from the Balkans, Gaul, peninsular Italy, and overseas Africa and Egypt." (14-15) In their cutting-edge work on metageography (The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography,1997), Martin W. Lewis and Karen Wigen define the methodology of a world-system theorist as a deliberately open-ended way of viewing geographical relations across macrocultural boundaries as well as an approach that focuses on cross-cultural integration (136-137). Clearly, Humphries' vision of the cultural, social, and economic matrices that formed the background to the development of northern Italian Christianity looks ahead to major revisionist work in the field of geography rather than looking back toward the "Nation-State" model which typically sought to isolate cultural identity within the territorial domain of a specific sovereign entity.

Communities of the Blessed does display at times an awareness of more theoretical approaches to the study of Christianity and its environment, yet there remains considerable tension in this book between discursive and historicist approaches. For example, while in one place the author reveals his sensitivity to the rhetorical reading of hagiographical sources by denouncing those who view them merely as a "cynical manipulation of the past" (69), in another place he refers to such vitae as "shameless fictions" (72) that must be considered carefully within a larger context of archaeological and epigraphical sources. Humphries ventures frequently into some very recent and controversial theoretical territory: the role of memory in medieval history, discursive landscapes, and the multi-religious culture of late antiquity. Yet he consistently retreats from developing these themes explicitly. In the chapter devoted to the "human environment" of northern Italy, Braudel's Mediterranean (1972) appears to be the underlying theoretical model (though Humphries' subsequent analysis of that environment is more progressive than this choice would indicate). Certain critical works in the theory of memory, such as Pierre Nora's Les lieux des memoire (1984) and Mary Carruthers' The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (1990), would enhance further an already very good discussion in chapter 2 on re-inventing the past. Finally, chapter 7's brief but very intriguing survey of the evidence for the survival of Judaism in northern Italy tends to place Christians and Jews in two rival and antagonistic camps, at times using evidence from the high Middle Ages to support the violent conflict between them. Yet Humphries himself acknowledges that "evidence for actual violence against north Italian Jews is sparse". (213) Very recent work on late-antique rabbinic Judaism and Christianity has created a new model of religious interaction where "convergence is as possible as divergence" (Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism, 1999). It may be fruitful to reconsider some of the evidence of Christian, Jewish, and even Greco-Roman cultic contact through the criteria of cross- cultural influence and appropriation.

But these criticisms undoubtedly reflect more the interests of this reader rather than the explicit goals of Communities of the Blessed. Overall, I found this to be an extremely useful book, particularly in terms of the author's presentation of the historiography of the late-antique Italian church and his effective integration of verbal and non-verbal sources. Humphries is able to persuade his reader of many rather startling things, including his belief that allowing Ambrose of Milan to speak for the fourth-century northern Italian church is a bad idea and his insistence that the pope remained a liminal figure in the political and theological controversies of Italia even after the death of Ambrose. Finally, he has convinced this reader that the anticipated companion volume to this one--a social and ecclesiastical study of the northern Italian church in the fifth and sixth centuries--will be an equally important contribution to the field of early medieval history. I would recommend Communities of the Blessed to scholars and graduate students working in the fields of church history, social and economic history, architectural history, and hagiography.