The Medieval Review 10.05.24

Jones, Allen E. Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul: Strategies and Opportunities for the Non-Elite. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 379. $90 hb 978-0-521-76239-7. .

Reviewed by:

Gregory I. Halfond
Framingham State College

In an important study of the Carolingian nobility, K. F. Werner defended prosopography as both a "tool of social history and the study of political structures." [1] However, due to the aristocratic bias of the bulk of surviving textual sources from the early medieval period, most modern practitioners of this auxiliary science have constructed their collective biographies around elite communities. Allen E. Jones' Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul is an important and necessary corrective to this trend. Jones does not disregard aristocrats, as befits a student of Ralph Mathisen, himself a scholar whose many publications have demonstrated the value of prosopography for understanding the transition from Roman to Barbarian Gaul from the perspective of social and ecclesiastical elites. However, Jones expands his view to include non-elites in an effort to understand how the latter "developed strategies to cope and prosper" in late-fifth and sixth-century Gaul (17). In his study, Jones rightly rejects a simple division of Gallic society into a two-tiered social model, e.g. Roman/Barbarian, Pagan/Christian or Elite/Popular, instead sorting the population of a thoroughly-Christianized Merovingian Gaul into four surprisingly porous social groupings: aristocrats, well-to-do freemen (ingenui), free paupers (pauperes), and slaves (servi).

Jones' evidence is almost entirely literary, and he leans heavily, by his own admission, on the Historiae and Miracula of Bishop Gregory of Tours. Jones also acknowledges his debt to Mathisen's Biographical Database for Late Antiquity, although this debt is not obviously reflected in the book's critical apparatus. Jones, to his credit, makes no effort to conceal the aristocratic (and ecclesiastical) perspective of his source-base, and follows the Introduction with a chapter-length survey (Chapter 2) of the most prolific writers of sixth-century Gaul: Avitus of Vienne, Caesarius of Arles, and Venantius Fortunatus, and Gregory himself. While this chapter emphasizes these authors' social, gender, and religious biases, Jones unfortunately does not contribute much that is new to our understanding of these authors and their compositions, instead leaning heavily on the interpretations of earlier scholars, e.g. Ian Wood and Danuta Shanzer on Avitus, William Klingshirn on Caesarius, and Brian Brennan and Judith George on Fortunatus. Jones' discussion of his main source, Gregory of Tours, is comparatively more original. While following the growing number of readers such as Ian Wood, Walter Goffart, and Martin Heinzelmann, who understand the bishop of Tours to be "a shrewd manipulator of text" (63), Jones nevertheless argues persuasively that Gregory's carefully-constructed historical and miraculous narratives concern both real people and real events whose presence allows the author to offer moral commentary on his society. Thus, Gregory's perceived biases do not prevent the modern historian from accessing the hundreds of named and unnamed individuals who populate the bishop of Tours' writings, and whose identities and actions reflect the social construction of contemporary Gallic society. Jones' confidence in the reality of unnamed persons might, perhaps, arouse some skepticism, but incredulous readers should recall the prevalence (and importance) of unnamed individuals in the prosopography of Mediterranean travelers ca. 700-900 AD underlying Michael McCormick's seminal Origins of the European Economy. [2]

In Chapter 3, Jones introduces his four-tiered social organizational model for early Merovingian Gaul, devoting careful attention to the Latin terminology of his sources, both narrative and legal. Despite these sources' obvious partiality towards hierarchy and order, Jones argues convincingly that opportunities for social advancement did exist in Merovingian Gaul, in particular through marriage and the accumulation of property, the pursuit of secular office, and the acquisition of ecclesiastical and/or spiritual authority. For elites, birth, military prowess, and wealth were all-important indicators of status, but factionalism and the lack of universally-accepted standards of nobility ensured that the Gallic aristocracy was not a closed club. One could improve one's standing within the nobility, and even, in some cases, become ennobled despite the lack of an aristocratic birth.

One of Jones' key observations is that the same strategies of social advancement pursued by Gallic nobles were employed by those ingenui, pauperes and servi who lacked the advantages inherent in an aristocratic birth. In Chapter 4, Jones concludes that "schemes for social improvement in fact might differ between nobles and non-elites only by a matter of degrees" (129). Certainly, it was more difficult for freemen to improve their social status in comparison with nobles. Among the ingenui, most of whom were rural farmers, liable for military service and taxation, there existed considerable variation in wealth and status. Like aristocrats, freemen sought advantageous marital unions to accumulate wealth and status that could be publicized via wedding ceremonies and funerals. They also joined the ecclesiastical establishment as presbyters and abbots under the oversight of an aristocratic episcopacy. Despite their humbler origins, those ingenui who entered the Church were permitted by their superiors to accumulate spiritual prestige through ecclesiastical construction projects, religious visions, and healings.

While pauperes, a class that included rural peasants, poor urbanites, and beggars, generally lacked the resources and social status of freemen, they too sought social advancement opportunities. Jones demonstrates that patronage was the sine qua non that allowed pauperes to rise above their station, and which distinguished them from the ingenui. While pauperes naturally were less likely than their social superiors to acquire high clerical office, monasticism did provide an alternate means of acquiring spiritual prestige. Jones argues furthermore that the line between the poor and servile classes was not as distinct as historians generally have assumed, and that even the servi could hope for social mobility. Some slaves, although likely not many, did marry out of servitude, while many others looked to the church for patronage, emancipation, and even spiritual prestige by becoming ascetics or holding ecclesiastical office.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Jones examines in greater detail the opportunities for social mobility among the socially-disadvantaged. He observes that the prison population of Merovingian Gaul consisted primarily of non-elites, i.e. pauperes and servi. This seems likely enough, although Jones' claim that "violence and crime were endemic in Merovingian Gaul" probably underestimates the ability of local and royal officials to monopolize, if not curb, violence (180). The popular association of prisoners' degraded condition with private misdeeds, Jones argues, offered them an indirect opportunity for release. This association encouraged ecclesiastical patrons to restore prisoners to the Christian community through the ritual of miraculous release. This ritual, Jones explains, was a largely urban phenomenon that often coincided with important dates on the Christian calendar. It would begin with the freeing of the prisoner through ecclesiastical intervention. The prisoner would then be granted sanctuary by his liberator, who would work to secure the pardon of the convicted by secular officials. Once the prisoner had been pardoned, he could resume his place among the Christian community with restored or augmented social prestige, as well as the support of a new ecclesiastical patron.

Miraculous release, by its nature, was an extraordinary event. Ecclesiastics bestowed their patronage far more regularly in the form of charity to pauperes. Here, Jones follows those historians who have seen in the Gallic Church's frequent legislative attacks on necatores pauperum a desire to protect ecclesiastical property from alienation. However, it would be a mistake to view these churchmen as being motivated purely by cynicism. As Jones observes, pauperes were encouraged to congregate about ecclesiastical properties, where they could receive shelter, nourishment, and monetary charity. Their names were recorded in matriculae maintained by the Church. In return for this charity, pauperes were "beholden to ecclesiastics through the bonds of patrocinium," performing certain services including being "conspicuous on church propertyâ•”to substantiate accusations against necatores pauperum" (228). Some of these pauperes could become low-ranking clerics themselves, thus achieving social advancement.

In Chapters 7 and 8, Jones examines the social prominence of two classes of Gallic healers: physicians and folk healers (incantatores). Most Merovingian-era physicians, Jones observes, were urban ingenui, who enjoyed the status and material comforts associated with that social class. Their clientele, likewise, consisted primarily of social elites. In contrast, both the incantatores and their patients were, more often than not, members of lower social orders. It was for this reason that there was little direct competition for clients between physicians and folk healers. Both physicians and folk healers, however, could face stiff competition from saints and their ecclesiastical promoters. Gregory of Tours described his patron saint, Martin of Tours, as a medicus, whose spiritual healing "constituted a kind of medicine superior to what physicians might offer . . . . A doctor who tended to bodily wounds could only address symptoms, whereas a holy healer mended symptom and cause, illness and sin" (267). While ecclesiastics like Gregory were quick to remind physicians of the limits of their healing powers, Jones shows that they generally respected doctors' legitimate talents. In contrast, while not denying the ability of incantatores to address physicals ills, churchmen warned that the formers' cures could be spiritually harmful. In those cases when a folk healer attracted too much negative attention from a local bishop, he might be expelled from the civitas, and by extension the Christian community. In discussing official ecclesiastical policy towards folk healers, Jones cites the canones of several contemporary ecclesiastical councils including the Council of Narbonne, without identifying the latter as a Visigothic, rather than a Merovingian, synod (302 and 322). Jones also wrongly implies that only kings summoned church councils in sixth-century Gaul (31). In fact, the prerogative of convocation was not limited only to the monarchy; bishops were more than qualified to convoke councils of their own accord. [3] Despite the disapproval of the ecclesiastical elite, the incantatores could still derive social advantages from their curative talents. A question that Jones does not address fully is whether such social advantages were available to other practitioners of magical arts, such as diviners.

While Jones is not the first historian to attempt a reconstruction of Gallic class structure in the Merovingian era, his impressive use of prosopographical methodology detached from any ideological preconceptions about class, but instead based on real named and unnamed individuals, permits him to draw original and ultimately persuasive conclusions about social mobility in post-Roman Gaul. His study is a valuable corrective to the notion of Gallic non-elites as members of a static and hopelessly debased population. On the contrary, these individuals were active participants in social and religious institutions and practices, which not only provided visibility, but also attractive opportunities for social advancement.


[1] Karl F. Werner, "Important Noble Families in the Kingdom of Charlemagne," in The Medieval Nobility, ed. and trans. Timothy Reuter (New York: North Holland Publishing, 1979), 150.

[2] Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 799-810.

[3] Gregory I. Halfond, The Archaeology of Frankish Church Councils (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 57-61.