Martin Claussen

title.none: Mills and Grafton, eds., Conversion (Martin Claussen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0502.002 05.02.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Martin Claussen, University of San Francisco,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Mills, Kenneth, and Anthony Grafton, eds. Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing. Series: Studies in Comparative History. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2003. Pp. x, 283. $75.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-58046-125-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.02.02

Mills, Kenneth, and Anthony Grafton, eds. Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing. Series: Studies in Comparative History. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2003. Pp. x, 283. $75.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-58046-125-5.

Reviewed by:

Martin Claussen
University of San Francisco

Augustine, in City of God, notes with some despair the nature of an ecclesia permixta, writing "they are with us in the churches, and with them in the theater." This fine collection of essays, which began as a set of papers delivered at a 1999 Princeton symposium, organized by Peter Brown and Susanna Elm, is very much concerned with the social and political nature of religious conversion. The model here is certainly neither the bishop of Hippo's paradigmatic experience in the garden, nor A.D. Nock's analysis of conversion as a life-changing moment of recognition and subsequent rejection of an old way of life. If there is a model here, it is perhaps best explicated in Raymond van Dam's essays on the many conversions of Constantine, conversions, he explains, that have as much to do with social and political realities as they do with religious ones. Mills and Grafton explain in the introduction that, although witnessed in the world and written about ever since, religious conversions were not usually publicly observable. And while often described as a singular momentous mental event, "gradual and incomplete social processes lurk" behind the words of those who discuss them. The second great theme here is the limits of ancient Christianity: the official teachings and orthodox practices of the religion--the ones we can read about in the eloquent sermons of the Fathers, for instance--regularly confront the limits of the church's ability to direct converts and dictate the terms of their belief and especially of their practices. The final theme that unites most of the essays here is an attempt to unseat what many of the authors describe as the "old triumphalist narrative" of the rise of Christianity. The processes of christianization--whatever in the end that might mean--involved all parties in a variety of strategies ranging from compromise through intimidation.

The first essay, "Inscriptions and Conversions: Gregory of Nazianzus on Baptism (Or. 38-40)," by Susanna Elm, notes how even those who write about conversion use competing vocabularies of change: the process of illumination is joined by images of impression and inscription. And although most of them held that such a process was initiated in a moment, they employed the vocabulary of 'inscription' and 'imprinting' to denote the moment initiating the process of shifting religious affiliation. These vocabularies allowed authors to describe and prescribe a great variety of conversions--whether of individuals or groups--because of the density of meanings associated with inscriptions. Gregory of Nazianzus combined the language of inscription with that of illumination, thus making it clear that the moment and the process accomplished a true transformation of cosmological significance. For him the event that crystallized both the moment and the process was baptism. Elm examines his three orations on baptism that he gave during his brief tenure as bishop of Constantinople in 380/81, and notes how he uses them not only to develop his own cosmologies, but also to refute and rebut those competing ones which go under the names of Arianism, Eunomianism, Novatianism, and so forth (all in quotes). She notes how Gregory and his followers were in a distinct minority in the capital on all sorts of issues: for instance, the Cappadocian held that baptism was into Christ's incarnation, while others held it was into his death or resurrection. She argues that all of these wide variety of views reflected distinct theologies, most of which were driven by very distinct cosmologies. All of the men involved here were seeking the 'right' exegesis of Plato through the Old and New Testaments, and believed only a correct exegesis could guarantee the salvation of the individual and the entire community. Elm is a sensitive reader of texts, especially those associated with Cappadocian Christianity, and this is especially clear in her careful and intriguing analysis of the three orations. What seems to have struck her here is the repeated use--best seen in the passage she translates on page 19--of the language of writing and sealing that Gregory of Nazianzus uses when describing conversion and baptism. Drawing on recent studies that have shown how, even for Saint Paul on the road to Damascus and Augustine, conversion was part of a much longer process, she shows how Gregory uses the ideas of process as well, though with language only tangentially drawn from scripture. After looking at how inscriptions were used and understood in the Empire, she says that this 'literary' language was associated with pedagogy: schooling and education, philosophy and intellectual-personal formation. But while noting the superficially permanent nature of inscriptions and writing, Elm also notes how such monuments could be altered and changed, as Paul states in Colossians 2, when he argues that good deeds could erase bad ones. Christians become enrolled as citizens in heaven, their citizenship inscribed by baptism on their hearts. She then discusses Gregory's own contributions to christology and trinitarian theology (offering a clear and useful summary of his sometimes obscure thought). Finally, she places Gregory's three sermons on baptism in the context of his troublesome episcopacy in Constantinople, where he offered but one theological solution among many. And while his time as bishop of the imperial city might have been difficult, Elm concludes by noting that Gregory proved persuasive--Theodosius in early 381 banned the teachings of at least some of Nazianzus' opponents.

Rebecca Lyman, in "The Politics of Passing: Justin Martyr's Conversion as a Problem in 'Hellenization,'" takes a very different tack in describing and analyzing her problem. Explicitly drawing on post-colonial theory, especially the works of Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, she too begins by questioning the triumphalist narrative of early Christian history, this time especially in reference to Judaism and Hellenism. She notes that the contrast of Christianity with the latter is often coded through a contrast of bishops who embody orthodoxy (again, here in quotation marks), and teachers who offer multiple forms of belief, often referred to as heresy. Instead of this bipolar distinction, she will examine Christian authors of the second century by "addressing issues of multiple authorities and identities in Roman Hellenism," and will unravel "strategies of assimilation as well as realities of estrangement" (37) in Christian texts. Drawing on the post-colonial notion of 'passing,' which she defines as the ability of individuals to successfully participate "in multiple layers of dominant and dominated culture," she sees Hellenic or Hellenistic culture as a means by which ambitious or successful provincials could gain recognition, power, and status for themselves by mastering its intricacies and codes. She wonders if Justin's 'passing' in Hellenistic culture by using its forms and languages has limited his ability to 'pass' as orthodox in later Christian narratives. Noting that the 'hybridity' of such cultural mimicry can create a context of both mimicry and menace, she makes much of the subversive qualities of passing, and notes that he represents both critique and dependence on Greek culture, and that he thus reflects an indeterminacy of both religion and culture found in Roman Hellenism. She states that as an "apologist" he did not translate an existing "religion" into another "culture" for explanation and defense as often assumed, but reflects an attempt within Roman Hellenism as an Asian provincial to address contemporary problems of religious authenticity and cultural multiplicity (38).

In other words, she would have us see Justin as a more typical product of the eastern provinces of the Empire, one engaged, along with many others, in interpreting the wisdom of Plato and Pythagoras. He was one of any number of ambitious and educated provincials who in fact created the great plurality of Roman Hellenisms. And she dismisses the old orthodoxy in which the Christian church survives this ideological confusion by offering in its place a clearly unitary teaching guaranteed by bishops and apostolic succession. But Justin also might be seeking another typical goal of Roman Hellenism--that is, the creation of a universalizing identity, one that both unites and transcends local identities through philosophy. For Justin, Christianity seems to offer the possibility of such a new creation, for it was superior to philosophy, although of course true philosophy was congruent with Christianity, at least in Justin's mind.

After the theoretical rigors and sometimes obscure post-modern terminology of Lyman, it is especially refreshing to turn to Eric Rebillard's fine paper, "Conversion and Burial in the Late Roman Empire." He begins by reminding us of the primacy of family in taking care of the dead, including their burial. But he wonders if converts to Christianity, or indeed any religion, sought instead to be buried with their religious fellows. In other words, he asks whether conversion was such a powerful experience that it precluded traditional ways of burial. Examining first of all the cults of Mithras and Cybele, he finds no evidence of exclusive burial of cult members. These men and women seem to have continued participating in traditional--that is family-directed--burial rites. He then turns to Judaism. Here, the evidence, and certainly the scholarship, is more problematic, but again, looking at locations that had well-attested Jewish communities, he finds no evidence of exclusive cemeteries. And looking at Jewish law from the imperial period, he again notes that there were no prohibitions regarding burial among Gentiles. He concludes that as far as archaeologists can tell, conversion to Judaism required neither the abandonment of family burial, nor the choice of a specific burial plot. Finally, coming to Christianity, he confronts an even more entrenched scholarly position--that from fairly early on, Christians were buried together, and separate from members of other cults and religions. Although such practices seem to have been mentioned by Tertullian and Cyprian, Rebillard shows most clearly that they in fact have been misinterpreted, and that the first clear interdict of commingled burials seems to be that of Charlemagne. Other imperial evidence is shown to have been equally susceptible to misinterpretation, and he concludes that again, Christian converts seem to have been buried by their families, among other family dead. Moreover, burial does not seem to have been much of a religious concern at all in the Empire, and that the rites accompanying internment cannot be explained only by religious affiliation. At the end of his essay, he poses a much broader question: if Christians were not required or instructed, or even urged, to separate themselves in death from their relatives who differed in religion, in what other ways might the church have sought to accommodate Greco-Roman society?

While Rebillard shows that at least some aspects of the care of the dead were opaque to Christianity, Richard Lim, in "Converting the Un-Christianizable: The Baptism of Stage Performers in Late Antiquity" asks whether there were any such groups among the living. He finds that the Life of Pelagia contains a number of themes having to do with ideas of conversion in late antiquity: not only that of the individual (in this case, Pelagia, the actress and harlot, becoming a transvestite monk in Jerusalem after her encounter with the saintly bishop Nonnus), but also the mission to the non-Roman gentes, the transformation of the ancient city, the tensions between the Christian and pagan worlds, and the important notion of the varying degrees of Christianity among those people who have already chosen the new religion. All of these "speak to the challenge of Christianizing post-Constantinian Christian communities." (85) The vitality or disappearance of the games and shows of the classical world have often been seen as a sort of barometer for the success of Christianity, their slow disappearance used as evidence for the growing influence of the new religion. As the people came to accept more and more the teachings of their bishops, and consequently had their attitudes and habits molded by the religion, they would turn from the games and the theater, and reject these long-lived trappings of pagan cult. Lim makes a convincing argument that things were in fact quite different. After outlining the transformation of troupes of performers into the hereditary and involuntary associations of collegia, he shows how tetrarchic legislation made their work into a bound profession, into a leitourgia. But imperial legislation--here no doubt reflecting changing ideals of imperial duty--from the Theodosian period began to take an interest in the moral status of those bound to perform, allowing actors to 'convert' to Christianity, releasing them from their duties to the stage and the cities which hired them to perform. The event that crystallized this transformation from those whose professions involved them in social disrepute and legal scandal to full members of the new Christian civic community was baptism. Lim turns to review the hagiographic genre of the Taufmimus--the baptized actor whose conversion takes place while performing. But he also places the conversion of stage performers in the context of baptism in the newly legal church. From an event that took sometimes years of instruction, preparation for baptism by the mid or late fourth century had been reduced to a matter of a few weeks. But church leaders still expected it to have the same transformational effect on the new Christians that it had during the days of persecution. Pelagia's conversion can be seen as a teaching device for these new kinds of Christians: although her time as a catechumen was quite short, in the narrative she still seemed to be able to grasp the epic transformation that was required, and after a few short weeks, she left her city to begin an ascetic life as a monk in Palestine. In other words, to be understood, Pelagia's story must be set into several different contexts, not least of which was the debate within Christianity itself about what being a Christian should mean. Finally, Lim argues, the slow and eventual disappearance of theater and games is not a victory the church could claim as its own: it was all tied up with the transformation of urban life in Late Antiquity. But stories of the Taufmimus, and conversions like Pelagia's, were used by clever ecclesiastical writers to "claim a moral victory over a secularized institution that they otherwise found ultimately un-Christianizable." (111) The argument of such stories was aimed, for Lim, not so much at actors and actresses, those who profited from their efforts, and those who hired them, as at new Christians themselves.

Raymond Van Dam, in "The Many Conversions of the Emperor Constantine," begins and ends with the statue the emperor had raised up on top of a 120 foot column overlooking his new city on the Bosporus. The statue, over its 800 year existence, came to bear many meanings, some of which Van Dam teases out for us. He tells us, lest we forget, that Constantine was a man of many visions and of at least as many conversions, but he warns us not to let Constantine's religious concerns--especially as they are told us by Eusebius--control our evaluation of him: even in Late Antiquity, it was possible to imagine Constantine quite independently of his relationship with Christianity. Constantine himself adds to our confusion by contributing a number of fragments--he was, according to Van Dam, a visionary of an almost mystical bent at times--which Eusebius put into a variety of contexts, mainly by transforming the emperor into a pious Christian, an image which has dominated the historiography. Van Dam examines the religious visions of Constantine, and places them in a wide variety of contexts. Noting that the emperor's visions occur almost always in moments of crisis, Van Dam notes their political, military, and social usefulness for the emperor. Finally, he notes how Constantine manipulated the visions for his own needs, declaring himself a bishop of bishops, and eventually becoming the direct representative of God on earth, an image of Christ himself. In the end, Constantine and Eusebius together, each for their own purposes, transforms the emperor into a coordinate ruler with Christ, "identical because they were both commanders for God." (144) It is a fine essay, reminding the readers that tales of conversion are always tales of remembrance, tales of the "retrospective moment, and the retrospective self" (129), and finally, tales of interpretations on many levels.

Michael Maas, in "'Delivered from their Ancient Customs:' Christianity and the Question of Cultural Change in Early Byzantine Ethnography," offers a very interesting and useful journey through the history of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine historical and ethnographic writing. Peter Brown noted many years ago how towards the end of the Late Antique period, Byzantine society 'hardened,' and the residents of the eastern Empire came to find great strength in their identity as a Christian people. Maas shows how this is reflected in the writings of historians and ethnographers like Procopius, Agathias, and their successors. While outside of my own field of expertise, Maas' essay seems quite convincing. He wants to examine not only the old tropes of Greek and barbarian, civilized and uncivilized, but also how Greek and Roman writers accounted for change in 'outside' societies. He argues that for the Romans in particular, it was crucial that these non-classical societies be able to change: it was the civilizing mission of the Romans to bring change--and thus improvement--to those beyond the traditional orbit of the Mediterranean world. The christianization of ethnography, he argues, profoundly altered the understanding of the means by which communities outside the empire might change their character. After a brief and useful overview of traditional classical ethnography, he notes that Christian writers viewed the old barbarians not as complete outsiders, but rather as people not yet saved. Just as the Romans had brought civilization and classical culture to these outsiders, so Christian writers saw civilization as redemptive: it offered the possibility of eternal salvation and happiness, when the old empire simply offered the chance at temporal gain and temporal peace. He then embarks on his primary case study, the Tzani, a people living in the foothills of the Taurus mountains near Armenia. His analysis is particularly interesting, because he is able to draw on three different sources that describe them: a 'traditional' historical account in Procopius' Wars, a panegyric in the same author's Buildings, and legal sources in Justinian's Code. He turns to Agathias then, and while he sees far more Christian influence in his writings than in Procopius, he also detects some significant influence from the classical tradition of ethnography. It is only after Agathias, beginning with Theophylact Simocatta and George of Pisidia, that religion comes to completely dominate ethnographic writing: barbarians are longer be described with that Herodotian detachment that so marks earlier efforts in the classical tradition. Instead, they are not just enemies of the state, they are enemies of God. He concludes that this change should not be too surprising for us. Roman writing always reflected contemporary needs and contemporary politics, and in a state where Christianity and 'way of life' were equivalent, there was no longer room for observations independent of religion.

The seventh essay, "Emending Evil Ways and Praising God's Omnipotence: Einhard and the Uses of Roman Martyrs," is about reform in its early medieval manifestation, especially the important Carolingian idea of correctio. Smith, following both Gerhart Ladner and especially the late Timothy Reuter, notes that reform is a particularly problematic term in the early middle ages. For patristic writers, reform almost always meant a personal renewal of the individual human soul; the Carolingians used it to mean this as well as, sometimes, the restoration of property to individual churches, and sometimes, the reconstruction of dilapidated structures. But as to changing society as a whole, correcting its morals and mores, they tended to use words like correctio, which Smith defines as "the adjustment of Christians' behavior to bring it into line with the teaching of Scripture and the church fathers." (189) Smith teases out the implications of correctio in a very smart reading of Einhard's "Translation and Miracles of Marcellinus and Peter" [available in an English translation by Paul Dutton, in Charlemagne's Courtier: The Complete Einhard (Peterborough, 1998)]. This interesting text describes how Einhard obtained the relics of these two Roman saints, brought them to Francia, and established a church in their honor between Mainz and Wurzburg, and how they rewarded the Franks with a series of spectacular miracles. After reviewing both the political history of Einhard and his relations with Louis the Pious, and the history of Christianity in the eastern borders of Francia, Smith discusses the many miracles of healing the saints performed as a type of physical correctio, meant to lead to a more spiritual one. By placing the translation in the context of the problematic court life of Louis' Aachen in years leading up to 830, when it was written, she shows how Einhard's text calls for a correctio--a reform, in our terms--of the court's public life, and a re-conversion to proper Christian behavior. Einhard continued his call for correctio when he built a new stone church to house his precious Roman relics at Mulinheim, later known as Seligenstadt. But Smith reminds us as well that the call for correctio, while at the heart of the Carolingian vision of society, was not just a matter of a voice crying in the wilderness. It demanded political negotiation, a wide variety of procedures, and was a constant and polymorphous endeavor. Einhard established his martyrs as an outpost of Roman Christianity, the martyrs themselves trailing bits of Christian romanitas in their wake. Their establishment at Seligenstadt transformed as well the old hamlet of Mulinheim into a normative bit of Christian topography, where proper Roman saints presided over proper Christian actions, proper Christian behavior, and proper Christian thoughts.

The final paper, "Seeing and Believing: Aspects of Conversion from Antoninus Pius to Louis the Pious" by Neil McLynn, is a superb piece of work, a closing essay that brings together all that went earlier, and allows the various authors, their various subjects, and their various methodologies to talk to one another. I can't recall coming across a collection that ended in such an unusual and provocative way. He draws together several of the themes mentioned in earlier essays--that congregations remained reluctant to be domesticated by their bishops; that the very nature of religious authority was under debate; that any uniformity is rhetorical; that Christianity, its nature, and its structure are at the center of the question about the nature of conversion in late antiquity and the early middle ages--and points out several conclusions, for instance that what he calls "prescriptive Christianity" was profoundly limited by many factors in the period. But perhaps the most important conclusion he draws in the first half of the essay is that scholars now are looking at conversions not as mental events but as social processes that are structured by the nature of Late Antique society.

In the second half of his paper, in an intellectual tour de force, he pairs up the essays (Rebillard and Lim; Elm and Lyman; Van Dam and Maas; and Smith with everyone else), offers new evidence, proposes new questions, and pushes the authors ideas in many interesting and provocative ways. McLynn's work here is simply too complex to summarize, but it should be read by anyone interested in Late Antiquity and the early middle ages. His erudition, lightly worn, leaves one thunderstruck, and offers a fitting conclusion to this excellent collection of essays.

On a personal note, when I picked up the book, I assumed it was going to be an examination of various personal conversion stories from the period. This collection instead compels us to think of conversion in a much more sophisticated and nuanced fashion, and at the same time pushes the boundaries of what constitutes conversion into many different places. It is on the whole a most admirable and useful book.