The Medieval Review 15.10.24

Garver, Valerie L. and Owen M. Phelan, eds. Rome and Religion in the Medieval World: Studies in Honor of Thomas F. X. Noble. Church, Faith and Culture in the Medieval West. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014. pp. xxviii, 349. $139.95 (hardback). ISBN: 9781472421128 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Jacob Latham
University of Tennessee

In Rome and Religion in the Medieval World, Garver and Phelan have assembled an all-star line-up to honor a fellow all-star, Thomas F.X. Noble. Like many such line-ups, "team" chemistry may not have much opportunity to develop, yet individual talents surely shine. In this volume, the honorand himself and his scholarly interests (or at least references to his publications) hold the diverse roster together--altogether appropriate for a festschrift--while anyone interested in religion and culture in early medieval Europe will find something: modest (and not so modest) readings of literary texts, persuasive analyses of material culture, theoretically sophisticated (and at times challenging) explorations of ritual practices, and a demanding discussion of the reception of a Carolingian text in the early modern period. The editors, former discipuli Nobilis as they style those who earned a PhD under the direction of T.F.X. Noble, seem to have recognized the range of subjects and approaches and so allowed the individual essays to speak for themselves, rather than forcing them into artificial categories--though some broad organizational scheme as well as some concise contextualization in an introduction and a conclusion would have helped to situate the contributions and to guide the reader.

The volume opens with a short tribute to Noble and a list of his publications and completed PhDs up to 2013, before jumping right to the essays, many of which may be grouped under the broad rubric of literary or textual culture. Giselle de Nie, "'Whatever Mystery May be Given to My Heart,'" considers baptismal imagery in Arator's poetic interpretation of Acts, emphasizing its likely impact on an audience living in the devastation wrought by the reconquest and subsequent Lombard wars. In particular, de Nie addresses the theme of spiritual fertility through the metaphor of burning water, whose possible sources, especially Revelation and its late antique commentaries, she traces. The next contribution, John Contreni, "Getting to Know Virgil in the Carolingian Age," explores a little known life of Vergil (MS Laon, Bibliothèque Suzanne Martinet, 468). This life differs from other Carolingian vitae Virgilianae in a number of respects because it may have taken shape before them, perhaps in a school dominated by Donatus' rather than Servius' Virgilian commentary, and drew upon early sources (mainly Donatus, Servius, and Orosius). Contreni helpfully concludes the essay with a Latin text and English translation with explanatory notes of the Laon life.

Walter Pohl, "Why Not to Marry a Foreign Woman," analyzes the implicit use of the Hebrew Bible in a letter from Pope Stephen III to Charlemagne and Carloman urging them not to marry a daughter of Desiderius, the Lombard king. According to Pohl, even though the Hebrew Bible received little direct mention, its authority undergirded the letter, whose outrageous xenophobic rhetoric reveals fault-lines between Rome, Franks, and Lombards. In the end, imperial universalism defeated the chauvinism represented in the letter in the Carolingian construction of a Christian society. David Ganz's "The Astronomer's Life of Louis the Pious," examines the genre of Carolingian ruler biography: its relation to other forms of history writing and its particular features. Drawing upon classical models, early medieval biographers sought to memorialize the character of exemplary individuals in biographies which were then often combined into a kind of serial biography of kings on the model of the Historia Augusta (HA) for late Roman emperors and the Liber Pontificalis (LP) for the bishops of Rome. Early medieval biographies were especially concerned with the essential virtues of the ruler (dominated by piety, unsurprisingly, in the case of the Astronomer's Louis), which differentiates one biography from another and allows biography to serve as a kind of mirror of princes.

In "Paschasius Radbertus and Pseudo-Isidore," Mayke de Jong also addresses Louis, but from the other side as it were. More specifically, de Jong argues that the second book of the Epitaphium Arsenii, a eulogy for Wala (Arsenius), former abbot of Corbie and cousin of Charlemagne, does not shine direct light on events from 833, during which Wala and Paschasius were said to have provided Pope Gregory IV with writings, often considered the decretals of pseudo-Isidore, to justify his role as mediator in the dispute between Louis and his sons. Instead, the book, which was composed in the 850s, reveals an extended and internal Frankish process by which monasteries sought to protect themselves and their power from laity and bishops alike by appeal to Rome. An appendix with an English translation of the relevant chapters from the Epitaphium Arsenii brings the essay to an end. Rosamond McKitterick's "Rome and the Popes in the Construction of Institutional History and Identity in the Early Middle Ages" argues that the LP, itself modeled after the serial biography of Roman emperors whether Suetonius or the HA, provided a model for other institutions to develop their own histories--for example Gregory of Tours, Historiae Book Ten. Leiden Universiteitsbibliotheek MS Scaliger 49, containing a martyrology, a necrology of Fulda and Mainz, Easter tables, and an epitome of the LP, represents another way that the LP aided in the construction of institutional histories. The epitome, itself adapted for specific purposes, frames local history at Fulda and Mainz in a broader, usable past which emphasizes episcopal succession as the core of institutional identity. This essay, too, closes with an appendix with a transcription and translation of the epitome.

A second group of essays may be clustered under the rubric of material culture and/or ritual practice. Maureen Miller's "The Sources of Textiles and Vestments in Early Medieval Rome" investigates the production of liturgical vestments, often from imported fabric or thread which confirms the continued, if diminished, vitality of long-distance trade and communication. At Rome, the papacy likely had workshops "manned" by female slaves or dependents who either wove vestments themselves or added embroidery, panels, and other decorations to imported fabric. The scant evidence, mosaics in particular, suggests that early clerical vestments were relatively subdued and likely wool or linen--expensive and ornate silk was seemingly reserved for church hangings and altars cloths--until the late Carolingian period when vestments served to signal heightened clerical distinction. In "Prolegomenon to a Study of the Vienna Coronation Gospels," Lawrence Nees attempts to clear away some legendary accretions that have obscured the study of the so-called Vienna Coronation Gospels. This manuscript occupies an important crux in art history in part because it has often been said to have been buried with Charlemagne, though on paleographical grounds it postdates his death. Nees then traces the legend back to its medieval roots, especially the account by Adhémar of Chabannes of the opening of Charlemagne's tomb under Otto III. With some of the clutter cleared and the recent publication of a facsimile of the book, Nees concludes with questions and suggestions for a renewed study of the manuscript.

Julia Smith's "Care of Relics in Early Medieval Rome" and Rachel Fulton Brown's "What's in a Psalm?" both examine what may be called the materiality of ritual practice. Smith explores the Sancta Sanctorum, an altar box with an early medieval relic collection that has remained largely intact and in situ. Most importantly, the assorted objects were typically preserved in paper wrappers and labeled, offering insight into the circulation and collection of these highly portable forms of sacrality. Smith ends with an appendix that presents a summary table of the type of relic (person and place) and date of the label. Brown, too, pays particular attention to the materiality of ritual in a theoretically savvy analysis of the theory and practice of prayer. As Brown argues, prayer was fundamentally a matter of paying attention to God so that God would return the favor. And so, even though monks would have memorized the Psalms, a material book, in this case London, British Library MS Arundel 60, helped to focus attention (among other things). Indeed, a recent work in the sociology of education confirms that readers pay closer attention when reading an old-fashioned print copy than skimming something on a screen (Naomi Baron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World [New York: Oxford, 2015). The essay concludes with an appendix briefly describing the manuscript, the Arundel Psalter.

The final two essays of this second group focus on ritual practice. Janet Nelson's "Opposition to Pilgrimage in the Reign of Charlemagne?" argues that Charlemagne sought both to protect and to regulate religiously motivated long-distance travel. On the one hand, sanctioned pilgrimage to acceptable shrines or cities undertaken by a good (typically male) person for the right reasons was a valued and dynamic component of early medieval religiosity. On the other, aimless wandering for superstitious motives was condemned. In "Christening, the Kingdom of the Carolingians, and European Humanity," John Van Engen offers a wide-ranging and, at times, scattered consideration of baptism (here labeled christening to emphasize that the ritual makes one Christian and part of Christendom) in the Carolingian imagination of society. Though the essay raises more questions than answers, it argues that christening, as a kind of social drama, forged a Christendom based on Christianitas, which at times took on the connotation of humane or civil behavior.

The volume ends with something of an outlier, Karl Morrison's "Towards Evolution," the longest and most difficult essay of the group. The primary conclusion seems to be that four seventeenth-century authors (Jean Daillé, Louis Maimbourg SJ, Christian Nifanius, and Nicolaus Schaten SJ), whom Morrison considers receptors of the Libri Carolini or Opus Caroli Regis contra Synodum though only one of them engaged substantially with the text itself, prefigured or were part of a shift in thought toward evolutionary theory. In their polemics, Daillé vs. Maimbourg and Nifanius vs. Schaten, the authors apparently drew upon and developed patterns of thought which prepared the way for the eventual acceptance of evolution, a transformation that Morrison likens to Kuhn's scientific revolutions.

In the end, this volume does exactly what a festschrift should do: it honors its dedicatee. A collection of some of the brightest scholarly stars of the early medieval sky cast their light upon the work of another luminary. All the same, in addition to an index of manuscripts and a general index, further editorial guidance could have helped. The contributions varied widely in terms of interests, aims, evidence, approach, and especially scope, and so it would have helped the reader if the editors had herded the proverbial cats in some organized manner and framed the volume with an introduction and a conclusion. Such additions not only would have oriented the reader, but also could have made connections between the essays and the honoree more evident and substantial. Even without such guidance, a reader will surely identify which all-star contribution most piques his or her curiosity.

Copyright (c) 2015 Jacob Latham

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