03.03.15, Effros, Caring for Body and Soul

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Bailey K. Young

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.015


Effros, Bonnie. Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. Pp. xiii, 255. ISBN: 0-271-02196-9.

Reviewed by:
Bailey K. Young

"Deathways" have long been used by anthropolgists as a lens to study societies and their cultural systems; since Philippe Aries drew historians into this field (Western Attitudes Towards Death [1974]) these have stimulated much lively research and debate. Major studies by Peter Brown and Carolyn Walker Bynum have shown how attitudes towards the "very special dead" and the resurrection of the body were critical to the development of the Western style of Christianity in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. In Christianizing Death (1990), Frederick Paxton focused more specifically on the development of a Christian death liturgy in the core areas of the early medieval West between the fourth and the ninth centuries, resulting by Carolingian times in a new sense of community linking the living with the dead. Megan McLaughlin's Consorting with Saints: Prayer for the Dead in Early Medieval France (1994) expands on the themes of prayer, commemoration and the construction of community, particularly from the Carolingian era into the twelfth century. In her review of Paxton's book, Janet Nelson remarks that the liturgical evolution he successfully traces needs to be better situated in regard to overall history: "he would need to bring in a lot more, and non-liturgical, evidence for funerary rites, and to consider how far pre-Christian practices were being accommodated in the rituals he describes"(EHR 109 [1994], 682). Bonnie Effros returns to the Late Antique time frame of Paxton's book; she centers her treatment on the Merovingian realms (he had devoted some attention to Visigothic Spain and Ireland as well), with some reference to Anglo-Saxon England. She describes her objective as to "examine burial custom primarily through written sources of the Merovingian period...[while] in some cases, it will also be possible to test this information against archaeological evidence" (5).

Much of the archaeological evidence derives from the widespread (though very unevenly observed) custom of burying people fully dressed, and often including within the grave such objects as weapons, ceramics, glassware and coins. Past interpretations have linked these customs to pagan religious traditions, to ethnic self-representation, and or to a legal prescription against transmitting to heirs certain types of items belonging to the deceased. Effros is not much concerned with the first two explanations in this book (they are presumably dealt with in her forthcoming study, Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Early Middle Ages, announced in the prologue); she does reject, convincingly, the third. Instead in her first chapter, "The Symbolic Significance of Clothing for the Dead," she calls upon recent work by anthropologists (Lewis Binford, and more particularly Ellen Jane Pader) who stress that the way a person is represented at death reflects a complex set of ideological decisions. "Rather than passively reflect that person's ethnicity or social status to the exclusion of all other features, personal adornment expressed the relationship of an individual to the rest of the community as mediated by age, religious belief, gender, status, sense of style and ethnic and familial allegiances" (17). Nor is it clear, in the absence of written testimony such as a will, who has made the decisions. Kinfolk, who actually organize and conduct the funerary ceremonies, have strong interests at stake. Luxury objects with a high "semiotic virtuousity," put on display in the funeral, affirm the family's ongoing high status in the community. And yet such testamentary evidence as does survive, such as the will of Erminetrudis, shows this noblewoman bequeathing her personal possessions, including clothing and brooches, with such a precision as to suggest that she was equally directive in regard to her own funeral. Abbess Gertrude of Nivelles (d. 659) was quite explicit that she was to be buried without finery, in her own hair shirt as well as a veil that had once belonged to a pilgrimess who had visited the monastery. On the other hand, it was Queen Balthild who chose the silk garments in which Bishop Eligius of Noyon was buried.

The next two chapters, "Lay and Clerical Regulation of Grave-Goods and Cemeteries" and "Grave Markers as Memoria," review evidence from the principal written sources (Roman and barbarian law codes, church councils, epigraphy, hagiography) in conjunction with grave-markers and sarcophagi. Taken together, these reinforce her general argument that death and burial were essentially family matters, subject to minimal regulation by either state (legal prescriptions have to do mostly with protection of family property) or church (few canons concern burial practice, except to forbid what we could call sacral contamination, such as putting the eucharistic wafer or relics in the grave). There is little that is new in the arguments, but they are usefully brought together with examples from a wide variety of archaeological contexts. Her discussion of the large body of epigraphic evidence, first collected in the nineteenth century by Edmond Le Blant and recently re-studied by Gabriel Sanders, Brent Shaw, Nancy Gauthier, Mark Handley and others is particularly useful, since the material is extensive and coherent enough to disclose convincing continuities and changes over time. Continuity is shown by the overwhelming emphasis on family ties: in the Roman tradition the epitaph "was often directly linked to the heir's moral obligation to honor his benefactor," who was usually within the nuclear family (97% of cases between the fourth and seventh centuries). Change is reflected in the shift from a language suggestive of legal formulations in Roman times (the epitaph served as a kind of attestation of citizenship) to a Christian emphasis on praising the virtues of the deceased and expressing confidence in the afterlife in Late Antiquity. By the late Merovingian period, however, there is a new note of concern for the posthumous well-being of the deceased and a more explicit call for prayer on his or her behalf, suggesting to Effros "the role of liturgy as a driving force behind their creation" (26).

The next two chapters take up the liturgical thread. "Membership in the Kingdom of the Elect" points to the note of triumph sounded by Late Antique authors evoking the funeral procession of Martin of Tours, or the adventus ceremony of Victricius of Rouen welcoming relics to his city at the end of the fourth century. Visions revealed the saintly hero, clad in white, among the elect. Effros credits Gregory the Great's Dialogues with giving wider currency to these "holy dreams" at the same time that the feast days of particular saints were coming to be regularly celebrated in particular monasteries, and the demand for privileged ad sanctos burial was growing. But not all visions of the afterlife take the soul over an intolerably odorous river to a field filled with light and flowers peopled with figures clad in radiant white. Chapter V, "Christian Liturgy and the Journey to the Next World" relates how the Frankish monk Barontus, taken sick ca. 678-79, was attacked by two repulsive demons with enormous teeth whose attempt to drag him to the nether regions was foiled by the archangel Raphael (aided by psalms sung by monks around the stricken man's bedside). Bede also records negative afterlife visions (Fursey, Dryhthelm) suggestive of purgatorial suffering. Effros links tales such as these with liturgical developments to suggest a growing anxiety about the afterlife in the later Merovingian period, following Paxton here. He contrasts the calm confidence in God's salvation characteristic of a short service of prayers for the dead associated with the sixth-century Bishop Caesarius of Arles, with the stress on the need for penance and absolution in the eighth-century Gellone sacrementary. Prayer for the liberation of imperilled souls was one effective means, as the story of Barontus attests. Charity, through donations to the poor, was another means, one recommended by St. Augustine and by Gregory the Great, and attested in practice (as Effros points out) in the handful of testaments that have survived from Merovingian Gaul. The development of votive masses for the dead, urged by Gregory the Great and greatly developed among the Irish and then, through their influence, in Gaul, is a further decisive step in establishing clerical dominance. In her final chapter, "Exchanges Between the Living and the Dead" Effros links the transition to a church-centered funeral rite to the abandonment of the old grave-goods customs, and of some of the old cemeteries as well. The creation of prayer confraternities among clerics, and the appearance of memory books (libri memoriales) complete the evolution away from funerary practice centered on the physical remains of the deceased to commemoration of a soul now integrated (or so it is hoped) into eternal membership in the celestial kingdom.

Has Caring for Body and Soul effectively met Janet Nelson's challenge of better locating Merovingian "deathways" in total history? Bonnie Effros has assembled data from a variety of sources to argue 1) that death and burial was largely a family concern in Late Antiquity, manifesting a wide variety of rituals which "served to create, legitimate, and perpetuate predominating social mores within a set of negotiated and thus evolving social parameters"; 2) that by the Carolingian Period the clergy had appropriated most of the responsibilities involved in burying and commemorating the dead, promoting themselves as "the primary intermediaries between God and the Christian faithful at the time of death" (209). Though hardly new, these strike me as legitimate conclusions, in accord with Paxton's findings. His work was based on the close scrutiny of a dense and consistent corpus of liturgical texts. Unfortunately, the nature of the non-liturgical sources Effros considers do not lend themselves to such rigorous analysis, marked as they are by inconsistency, ambiguity, and uneven survival. She is well aware of these problems, pointing out in the introduction the discordance between an archaeological record derived very largely from the excavation of cemeteries rich in grave-goods (mostly rural, mostly representative of lay people) north of the Loire, and a set of written sources more often composed by clerics in cosmopolitan centers south of it (3). (This may be overstated: Michel Colardelle and others have shown how much can be learned from southern cemeteries, even without grave-goods; and Gregory of Tours, for all his family ties with Lyon and the Auvergne, wrote from a broad perspective). Take the epigraphic tradition, widespread in Roman times: from the late-fifth through the seventh centuries, if the traditional dating is right (see below), epitaphs continued to be carved in some numbers in the upper Rhone valley, especially around Vienne (maps, 95-97), and to a lesser extent (it would seem from what has survived) around Arles and Trier. Elsewhere they are much rarer, even in the southwest where the production of decorated marble sarcophagi continued to flourish. Whatever can be made of this anomaly, it can hardly be attributed to such factors as higher literacy, or the survival of stone-carving workshops in the Rhone valley as opposed to the Garonne. One is tempted to credit a particularistic tradition, reflecting the profound localism of the Merovingian world, a feature emphasized by Patrick Geary, and acknowledged often in this book (e.g., 132). Effros also draws attention to recent scholarship which challenges Edmond LeBlant's long-accepted view that funerary epigraphy declined steadily in Merovingian Gaul, and had disappeared by 700. Nancy Gauthier and others have redated some inscriptions to the eighth century, and Effros finds in this later material a new concern that the deceased be prayed for, reflecting a more aggressive outreach to a predominantly clerical audience, and preparing the way for Carolingian epigraphical renewal.

Other written sources can yield conflicting impressions. When one type of text, the Synod of Auxerre, forbids Christians to place the eucharistic wafer with the deceased, and another, Gregory the Great's Life of St. Benedict, shows a Christian family doing just this on the Abbots's instructions (45) what conclusion can be drawn for cultural history? Evidence of inconsistency or inconsistency in the evidence? Where Merovingian "deathways" are concerned, one must always be prepared for both, or either. This is hardly surprising in a world where death had not yet become, to adapt Paxton's phrase, "ritually consolidated." Bonnie Effros is surely right to point to the persistence of family control and family concerns as central to understanding the variability of funerary practise in the Merovingian realms. The central theme of this book is perhaps that "families' expression of identity through funerals underwent a process of continuous adaptation" (208). The meaning of "family" itself was also changing, with the multiplication of monastic establishments, which by the seventh century were attracting more and more of the elite, like Gertrude of Nivelles. Her identity as a Pippinid was never, and could never, be forgotten, but her death proclaims a new kind of allegiance to the monastic familia. Here the bias of the literary sources on which this book largely depends is most fully revealed. Whether liturgical, canonical, testamentary, hagiographical or epigraphical, they emanate from Christians and reflect Christian concerns. To Janet Nelson's question -- have "pre-Christian practices been accommodated in the rituals"? -- no good answer is found, or even sought, in this mix of sources. For that, one must reverse the methodology, turning one's primary attention to the archaeological sources. This is presumably what Bonnie Effros has undertaken in Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology. This is an attractive, well-produced book, which includes a dozen black-and-white photographs of artefacts recovered from graves. It offers a wide-ranging, up-to-date bibliography. It is of interest both to early medieval scholars, and to those who wish to consider some, at least, of Merovingian "deathways" in a larger perspective.

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Bailey K. Young