John Ott

title.none: Elm, Die Macht der Weisheit (John Ott)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.003 04.12.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Ott, Portland State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Elm, Eva. Die Macht der Weisheit: Das Bild des Bischofs in der Vita Augustini des Possidius und andere spaetantiken und fruehmittelalterlichen Bischofsviten. Series: Studies in the History of Christian Thought, vol. 109. Leiden: Brill, 2003. Pp. x, 304. $92.00 90-04-12881-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.03

Elm, Eva. Die Macht der Weisheit: Das Bild des Bischofs in der Vita Augustini des Possidius und andere spaetantiken und fruehmittelalterlichen Bischofsviten. Series: Studies in the History of Christian Thought, vol. 109. Leiden: Brill, 2003. Pp. x, 304. $92.00 90-04-12881-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

John Ott
Portland State University

The bishop was arguably--many would say unquestionably--the most powerful and most important figure in western Christian society from Late Antiquity until the end of the Middle Ages. His roles, responsibilities, and the expectations of his office addressed nearly every facet of human existence, from the mundane to the sublime, intellectual and material, secular and spiritual. Scholars have of course long recognized this, and studies of the bishop's place in religious life, politics, social and economic life, and as cultural patrons are in no short supply. Until recently, however, one was far more likely to find studies devoted to Bischofsherrschaft and the bishop's religious leadership than to representations of the ideals and concepts of episcopal office. With Die Macht der Weisheit, Eva Elm not only presents readers with an insightful and needed study of Late Antique and early medieval representations of the bishop, but also argues broadly for a reconsideration of the place and sources of episcopal biography more generally within the constellation of ancient and medieval biographical models. Her study, centering on Possidius's generally overlooked Vita Augustini, joins a burgeoning number of articles and monographs which address the bishop's image and authority across the Roman and post-Roman Mediterranean world.[[1]]

The fulcrum point of Elm's study is her assertion that the Vita Augustini of Possidius, and the episcopal biographies that both preceded and followed it, are ideally read and understood as the intellectual and literary heirs of the Greco-Roman biographical model of the "holy man," a paragon of divine wisdom, moral authority, asceticism, and pragmatic leadership (13-14 and chapter two, passim). In the "holy man" resided a template ideal for the dual persona of the bishop, who must combine humilitas with auctoritas, be of the community yet firmly above it. In identifying the "holy man" as avatar of the ideal bishop of Late Antique hagiography, Elm argues that the difficulties of the Vita Augustini, a text long puzzling to scholars, may be resolved. The work of Augustine's disciple, Possidius, the Vita Augustini inevitably suffered by comparison with Augustine's own voluminous writings, and unimpressed twentieth-century scholars denounced (among other things) his apparent lack of concern with Augustine's theological and intellectual contributions (3-8, 112-113, 143, 250-51). To these charges Elm counters that Possidius had another agenda in mind and a different image of Augustine to convey, one that becomes clear once we read the text not strictly as aretology, or as a defense of the monastic life, nor even as political biography in the Suetonian mold, but as a work in an emerging subgenre of Christian biographical writing, namely the episcopal biography.

Elm lays out her argument in the book's analytical center, chapters two and three. Put briefly, she notes that, "Die Verfasser von Bischofsviten befanden sich ... gewissermassen in einem Dilemma" (31). Late Antique and early medieval bishops' lives traversed a wide spectrum of experiences and backgrounds. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), the first bishop endowed with a vita and passio, was both martyr and bishop. Martin of Tours was soldier, ascetic, monk, and bishop. Augustine was an intellectual and monk-like bishop. Such a plurality of life experiences was not unusual for bishops in Late Antiquity. The literary models available to describe episcopal office were limited essentially to the lives and deaths of martyrs and monks, which did not hinge on the daily problems of the here and now, or with the biographies of secular figures like emperors and state officials, oriented in directions other than the Christian virtues of humility and mildness. Possidius and others found a suitable compromise in stressing their subjects' divine wisdom, which became the unifying strand in the episcopal biographies that slowly emerged from the mid-third century on. In a superbly documented section (see, e.g., 34-39) influenced by Patricia Cox Miller's Biography in Late Antiquity: A Quest for the Holy Man (Berkeley, Calif., 1983), Elm finds that the biographies of Socrates and Plato, Plotinus, Apollonias, and Pythagoras presented Christian writers with models of conduct well suited to describing the particularities of episcopal leadership. These classical holy men, like bishops, mediated the metaphysical and the physical much as bishops mediated between man and God. Possessed of wisdom from a precocious age and ascetically inclined, their wisdom gave them crucial insight into the souls of men (Menschenkenntnis) (42-43). Moreover, the holy man's moral example had a practical side as well, expressed in prosyletizing, wonder-working, and conveying knowledge to his students and disciples.

Elm's consideration of the literary influences on episcopal biography is not restricted to this kind of source. Prudently, she does not discount biblical influences from Jewish and Christian scripture--emphasizing the singular importance of the latter (51)--other Hellenistic and non-Christian eastern sources, and even examples from the vitae of holy ascetics and monks in episcopal biography (51-54). If anything, she tends to downplay the very strong resonances between Christian biographies of the eastern desert fathers and western episcopal vitae.[[2]] Elm does admit that Suetonius's biographies of the caesars offered formal and thematic models for some elements of episcopal biography. There were, moreover, important differences between classical and Christian understanding of wisdom, the latter emphasizing not only the formal study of letters, but more importantly the contemplation and application of the scriptural examples of humility and servitude (86-87). Confronted with such a broad range of topoi and influences, Elm avoids laying a single smoking gun before her readers on the question of the episcopal vita's literary genealogy. She proceeds by example, assessing in chapter three the themes and motifs of Pontius's Vita et passio Cypriani--another work once judged, on the basis of misplaced standards, as mediocre and konzeptionslos--Sulpicius Severus's Vita Martini, and Paulinus of Milan's Vita Ambrosii. Works as different as these, written over a period of 150 years in North Africa, Gaul, and Italy, necessarily emphasized different facets of their subjects' lives and experiences. The notion of divine wisdom was neverthless a key component of the bishops' virtues, and found expression in a correspondingly wide range of their pastoral and thaumaturgic conduct. Indeed, the works all share in common a lack of consideration for the bishops' intellectual and theological achievements, obviously impressive in the case of Cyprian and Ambrose (96). The chapter frustratingly ends without a conclusion.

A brief overview of Possidius's own life follows in Chapter four; then Elm moves on to analyze his Vita Augustini, composed between 431 and 437. Here the consideration of wisdom takes center stage. Elm offers (to my admittedly non-specialist's mind) convincing counter-arguments to the accusations that Possidius's biography was a distinct literary underachievement. Writing when northern Africa was beset by war and invasion and above all by profound religious schism between Donatists and Catholics, Possidius depicts an Augustine whose chief accomplishments lay in combating heresy in all its forms and in putting divine wisdom into the daily service of Christendom. Elm notes, "Die Weisheit des Augustinus ist fuer Possidius nur insofern relevant, als sie zum Wohle der Kirche beitraegt. Sie ist nicht sein eigenes Verdienst, sie entspringt der Gnade Gottes. . . ." (144). In depicting an Augustine with back turned to a neoplatonic conception of wisdom in favor of a contemplation of God's grace, Possidius, Elm shows, was to a degree echoing Augustine's own intellectual development and also projecting his own understanding of grace onto Augustine himself (150-59). Out of Augustine's experiences Possidius sought to create a model of Christian living accessible to all (155). Hastily passed over in the vita are Augustine's intellectual achievements and even his monastic impulses. Emphasized are his combat against heresy, his preaching, self-knowledge, and embrace of God's grace, all concepts approachable by a readership drawn not from the Greco-Roman intelligentsia but ordinary (and conflicted) believers.

Chapters six and seven consider the proliferating episcopal vitae of the fifth through ninth centuries. The first examines the vitae of Epiphanius, Caesarius of Arles, and Fulgentius of Ruspe; while the latter quickly surveys a range of biographies largely composed in Gaul, including those of Germanus of Auxerre, Desiderius of Cahors and Arnulf of Metz. As the Germanic successor kingdoms began to coalesce around the Mediterranean, the bishop's role, above all in Gaul, took on enhanced qualities. The necessity of defeating heterodoxy dwindled as the need to convert non-Christians grew. The ideal of wisdom retained its relevance despite the changing context, but its sense was likewise altered (166-167). The bishop's call to preach and to model ideal Christian conduct became, if anything, even more conspicuous than in earlier times. Fulgentius preached before the Vandal king Thrasamund in contest with an Arian bishop; Epiphanius and Caesarius, for their part, were accomplished orators (172, 179, 184-185). Their biographers, much as Possidius, dispensed with considering the dogmatic or theological qualities of their thought. The bishops' confrontations with their opponents turned on their personal qualities, charisma and miracle-working, which the authors marshaled for polemic purposes. For example, the Vita Caesarii Arelatensis stylistically makes a point of using more direct speech to heighten preaching's central role in the bishop's duties.

In the Merovingian and Carolingian periods, episcopal vitae retained a formal continuity with the classical ideals of learning and intellect in their heroes, while showing the tensions of bishops on extended missions of conversion, drawn into the king's court and worldly concerns, taking over abbeys, building churches, or confronting marauders. The overall impression of religiosity in these texts, Elm argues, conveys a world where religion is grounded in the material, the magical, and sometimes in the cruel struggle between pagan and Christian priests and gods (230-32). Despite the diversity in the bishops' individual experiences, however, Elm sees, "mutatis mutandis, einem fast identischen Muster" (234). This common pattern, of course, is the centrality of episcopal sapientia, eruditio, and doctrina, the keys to the prelate's position demonstrated through his personal conduct, preaching, humility, and lived example--qualities more critical still in a world where classical education has faded (238).

Elm presents her monograph as a sketch of a literary "subgenre" and its ideals (14), and she rejects any claim to comprehensiveness in her survey of later bishops' vitae (201-202). Readers should note, however, that historians of Ottonian and Salian Germany have also recently addressed episcopal biography as a particular subgenre of hagiography and historiography. The monographs of Stephanie Haarlaender and to a lesser extent Stephanie Coue [[3]], building on the 1935 work (albeit more limited in scope) of Oscar Koehler [[4]], have presented in considerable detail the literary and historical contours of a large corpus of hagiographical writings on bishops. Haarlaender's work especially lays out the general features of the high medieval German Bischofsvita. It would be unfair to insist that Elm have read these works, which fall chronologically out of her scope of study, but in light of their omission, the last two chapters of Elm's monograph, which chart the development of an episcopal ideal over roughly 500 years, are the least satisfying in the book. Readers will come away with little sense of how the vitae played out within the specific communities in which they were written, beyond broadly suggestive remarks about their cultural place and function. The extent to which the texts were copied, preserved and diffused is unclear, as is the way in which they were read, by whom, and for what purposes. If we may willingly admit with Elm that wisdom is given "an astonishingly high value" (236), and even normative status, in episcopal vitae over the centuries, that does not necessarily explain its significance for or even its reception among different audiences over time. Eventually, wisdom's power is transformed: it goes from being perceived as having an explicit and obvious mediatory role in society to merely identifying that its possessor belongs in the company of the holy. Through repetition, it risks losing power. This process of making a particular quality normative may cement episcopal biography's place as a subgenre, but once we leave behind Possidius and northern Africa we lose the thread of the texts' relationship to their readers, their development in time and place. And this, for a historian, is a great loss. Such is the price, perhaps, in a study that looks to create a legitimate space for a largely neglected biographical genre to take root. It points the way, however, for research to come.

These reservations should not detract from the fact that Elm has written a cogently argued and highly useful book. Its emphasis on the creation and deployment of a literary trope offers an enticing glimpse at what similar studies of episcopal representation could reveal, not just about the tactics of authors but about the bishop's perceived place in the face of broader social changes as well. Elm's Introduction and Conclusion (239-254) criticize the limited eyes with which scholars have read Possidius and, by extension, other early episcopal biographies. Overly constrained by literary classifications that would separate the theologian from the miracle-worker and the monk from the bishop, scholars, Elm concludes, have overlooked the way in which the ideal of holy wisdom fluidly bridges these characteristics to establish a new literary type, the episcopal life, whose dominant features were ideally suited for the multiple roles of the bishop himself.

A final note to the manuscript's editor(s): for a monograph rooted in the evolution of concepts and ideals, the index should have included more than just personal names.


[[1]]. A good many of these focus on the figure of the "monk-bishop." A highly limited selection: Andrea Sterk, Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: The Monk-Bishop in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2004); Vescovi e pastori in epoca teodosiana. XXV Incontro di studiosi dell'antichita cristiana, Rome 8-11 maggio 1996, 2 vols. (Rome, 1997); Simon J. Coates, "The Bishop as Pastor and Solitary: Bede and the Spiritual Authority of the Monk-Bishop," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 47:4 (1996), 601-619.

[[2]]. It is worth comparing her work with that of Philip Rousseau, "The Spiritual Authority of the 'Monk-Bishop': Eastern Elements in some Western Hagiography of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries," Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 23:2 (October 1971), 380-419.

[[3]]. Vitae episcoporum. Eine Quellengattung zwischen Hagiographie und Historiographie, untersucht an Lebensbeschreibungen von Bischoefen des Regnum Teutonicum im Zeitalter der Ottonen und Salier. Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters, vol. 47 (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 2000); Hagiographie im Kontext. Schreibanlass und Funktion von Bischofsviten aus dem 11. und vom Anfang des 12. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1997).

[[4]]. Das Bild des geistlichen Fuersten in den Viten des 10., 11. und 12. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Verlag fuer Staatswissenschaften und Geschichte, 1935).