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04.01.07, Mathisen, People, Personal Expression, and Social Relations

04.01.07, Mathisen, People, Personal Expression, and Social Relations

There has been a glut of collections of translated extracts from lateantique sources in recent years, many of which, it must be said, are nicely produced and very useful. To distinguish his collection from the others in a crowded marketplace, Ralph Mathisen offers two individual features. The first is that he presents us not only with a translation but also, in a second volume, with the original texts themselves. The second is that he has tried to arrange the selections so as to form a self-standing survey of late antique Gallic society and culture, as manifested through its literary output, mainly letters.

The book falls into seven thematic chapters, dealing in turn with the aristocratic-literary world; the socially less privileged: decurions and plebeians, dependents and slaves; family life; social turmoil; the triumph of Christianity and life in the church; elite women; and inappropriate activities. An epilogue, "Having the last word," contains the will of Remigius of Reims. A series of appendices give the dates of Emperors, Popes and kings, and there is a very useful glossary. Volume 2 opens with a very useful introduction containing handy introductions to late Latin usage, rhetorical form, and epigraphy. The translations are helpfully annotated and technical terms such as titles are explained.

The bulk of the source material, as might be expected, is letters. Mathisen makes an interesting and useful selection from the epistolary archives of Sidonius Apollinaris, Ruricius of Limoges, Avitus of Vienne, Salvian and others. He also however translates less well-known sources such as funerary inscriptions and especially welcome are the selections from the anonymous fifth-century Plautine comedy Querolus. It is most valuable to be given more than the well-known "go and live on the Loire" section. In addition to these there are some nice selections from less familiar literary works and other letter collections. Finally, there is a sprinkling of selections from the writings of Gregory of Tours, usually the Histories but occasionally from the Miracula. One criticism of the book might be that many of these sources are already available in translation. One might cite Mathisen's own translation of the letters of Ruricius, for example. Sidonius' letters have long been translated and a recent excellent translation and commentary on Avitus' letters makes even those bombastic pieces accessible to the student. Nonetheless, these are at least accurate translations, with some of the more maddening technical inaccuracies of Thorpe's rendition of Gregory's Histories corrected.

A more valid criticism would probably confront the use of extracts from longer sources. With the letters (with some reasonable exceptions, see below), Mathisen takes pains to include the full text but the selections from Gregory and some other sources are but brief excerpts. One is inclined to feel sorry for Gregory. No late antique writer made a clearer statement that his work should be kept together and studied as a whole, yet within a generation someone had steamed the Histories down to a six-book version. An abbreviated translation by BrC)haut has circulated for a while, as well as bits and pieces in numerable anthologies, and the only widely available translation is filled with mistakes. In spite of the self-contained nature of the chapters of the Histories as well as the Miracula, it is very difficult to appreciate selections from Gregory in isolation not least because his narrative worked by juxtaposition and complex intratextual cross-reference. This criticism is made both more and less serious by the fact that I do not think that Mathisen's book would have lost much by the omission of the selections from Gregory. A similar point, though, concerns the Querolus. A full-length translation of this source would have been very useful. Although it too dabbled in cut and paste from poor old Gregory to some extent (though providing completely new translations) and reissued some material available elsewhere, probably the principal rival to Mathisen's book, Alexander Callander Murray's phenomenally useful From Roman to Merovingian Gaul gained from translating interesting material not otherwise available in its entirety. Nevertheless, though I have just cast these two books as competitors, one could perhaps as profitably see them as complementary, given Mathisen's greater concentration upon literary and epistolary sources.

There are some attractive editorial interventions. The translations omit the more tedious extended lists of biblical citations. Purists might balk at this and there is doubtless a case that could be made that would insist upon the retention of these passages for a rounded view of late antique letters, but I found Mathisen's honesty refreshing, probably because no one familiar with Mathisen's work could assume that the omissions stemmed from mere laziness or an inability to treat with the material. My favorite such ellipsis occurs towards the beginning of one of Paulinus of Nola's letters (document 5.12, p.172), where Mathisen describes the omitted passages as "four pages of ecclesiastical boilerplate." Indeed there are many similar editorial comments which create a warmth throughout this book that bespeaks Mathisen's genuine engagement with the subject; one might also mention Mathisen's clear exasperation with Salvian (e.g. p.108, p.175, n.138). Frequently one has the impression that, having spent his academic career dealing with this material, Mathisen really feels as though he knows these people.

As a study of the social history of late antique Gaul, there is much of great value here. There are, however, some problems. Change through time does not come across very clearly, and nor does the regional bias of the sources. Hardly anything from (or, often, even about) Gaul north of the Loire survives, though there are very plentiful epitaphs from Trier. The reasons for that doubtless hinge upon different fates for the late Roman social order (when discussing Salvian and other refugees, Mathisen hints at this) in northern and southern Gaul. Other types of evidence do permit apercus into the issues examined here but as they are archaeological they would be out of place n a book like this. Or is it time to consider how material culture might be read as in a sense textual and equally anthologized in this way? As it is the reader will not really get much of an impression of Gaul as a dynamic or (except in the divergent life experiences of different social groups) varied place. The only technical point I would make concerning Mathisen's treatment of the sources concerns a too-ready acceptance of the ages at death recorded on inscriptions. Gallic epigraphy had a tendency to round ages to the nearest multiple of five.

All things considered, though as noted there are questions about the venture which need to be raised, I enjoyed Mathisen's book. It does more than simply carve out a niche within the field of translated extract collections. It would be fun teaching a higher-level undergraduate or Master's level course with this as a core text-book, not least because of the provision of the texts in their original language. This feature would allow one to provide students with a grounding in (frequently rather difficult) late antique Latin as well as exploring the social and religious history of the period. I fear that Mathisen's book might get lost in the sea of translations, if only because so many of the texts are available elsewhere and that, in spite of his best intentions it might end up being used as a simple repository of translated texts (which, from the point of view of Gregory of Tours' ghost, would be a form of justice). Nevertheless there is more than enough here to make Mathisen's work stand, and be used, as a book in its own right.