16.05.20, Phelan, The Formation of Christian Europe

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Carine van Rhijn

The Medieval Review 16.05.20

Phelan, Owen M. The Formation of Christian Europe: The Carolingians, Baptism, and the Imperium Christianum. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. 312. ISBN: 9780198718031 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Carine van Rhijn
Utrecht University

How and why did baptism become such a central ritual in the time of Charlemagne? How did this sacramentum contribute to the shaping of the Imperium Christianum, and what role did it play in the so-called "Carolingian Renewal"? In this book, Owen Phelan argues that "baptism, understood as a sacramentum, both provided a conceptual foundation for a Christian Empire in Europe and offered a medium for the communication and the popularization of key beliefs and ideas featured by the Carolingian Renewal" (1). What this means in practice is that the author approaches Carolingian politics, religion, and culture through one "keyhole": he analyses all of these subjects via Carolingian texts about baptism. This method has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it creates much room for the analysis and interpretation of primary sources, which allows the author to reconstruct how exactly Carolingian ideas about baptism (and, via baptism, about politics and religion in a wider sense) came into being, and how such theories were expressed in different ways by different people. On the other hand, however, the keyhole does not allow the reader to see much beyond the central subject of baptism, even when important overlapping themes (such as Christian kingship or pastoral care) would have provided the context needed here. All the same, the author has a number of interesting things to tell us.

Perhaps the most convincing element of the book is the author's treatment of a wide range of primary sources that discuss baptism. He skilfully analyses the relevant terminology, and shows a thorough understanding of the way in which the meaning of complex concepts changed over time. The first chapter is concerned with the term sacramentum, which in the Late Roman period had mostly juridical meanings and was used, for instance, to denote "the oath of allegiance that bound soldiers together" (12). Early Christian authors, most notably St Augustine, added Christian connotations of allegiance to God. What the Carolingians inherited via Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Isidore of Seville, was a layered concept which integrated the legal with the theological: sacramentum was used for the ritual of baptism, but also for the oath of allegiance that all Charlemagne's subjects had to swear. In short, swearing a sacramentum came to have theological connotations, while the rite of baptism implied allegiance to God and membership of the community of the baptised.

The second chapter builds on this by explaining how the sacramentum of baptism became what the late Susan Keefe has aptly called a "cornerstone of Carolingian society," or even, as Phelan claims (with some exaggeration), the very "foundation" of the imperium Christianum (48). Since Charlemagne and his circle aimed at the establishment of a Christian empire, baptism did not only make a person into a Christian, but simultaneously into a subject of the God-appointed Frankish ruler. As a logical consequence, defeated peoples such as the predominantly non-Christian Saxons had to be baptised in order to become part of the Empire, whether they liked it or not. The ritual provided even wider possibilities for building Christian communities: godparenthood served to create bonds of kinship and political allegiance, while the catechumenate offered opportunities to educate the candidate in Christian morals and behaviour.

Chapter 3 focuses on Alcuin of York, arguably the most important intellectual at the court of Charlemagne, who, according to Phelan, "designed and advocated an approach to Christian formation based on the sacramentum of baptism" (94). The direct impetus for Alcuin to formulate his thoughts on the subject was the conquest of the Avars, after which in Alcuin's view the Franks were morally and politically obliged to convert them in order to ensure their salvation. Here, Phelan discusses an important issue, namely that of conversion and baptism at sword-point. Alcuin argued strongly against the forced conversion of the Saxons, pointing out that good conversion was slow conversion with enough time for preaching and teaching. Only in this way would converts be truly convinced, which would prevent them from lapsing after baptism. Alcuin explained his ideas about conversion, education, and baptism in his famous baptismal exposition Primo paganus, which was widely read and copied throughout Carolingian Europe. The same ideas also found their way into a whole range of other texts Alcuin wrote, ranging from saints' lives to learned tracts, with which more or less every type of audience could be reached. Thinking about baptism, in other words, was not confined to a small court coterie, but extended to much wider circles.

The fourth chapter shifts the main focus to what Phelan calls "Christian formation" (147), by which he means a range of ways to teach Christian morals, some of which were connected to the baptismal ritual. At the centre of such education were the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, which every catechumen ought to learn by heart. Such knowledge would arm every Christian against, for instance, the dangerously mistaken ideas of adoptionism. It is in this context that Charlemagne's famous circular letter about baptism of 813 is discussed, in which the emperor enquired how exactly baptism was conducted in the dioceses of his empire. Charlemagne's letter gave rise to lively debate, and stimulated the production a large corpus of very varied texts. What most of them have in common is that they underline the importance of the ritual and of the moral instruction that went with it; on a more detailed level, variation abounds. The many and diverse answers which the court received show at the same time how it was most of all a "unified message" that was considered to be essential, and not so much one uniform liturgy (157), for "effective formation did not require liturgical uniformity" (172). This is an important idea that could have done with some more attention (for instance via the substantial dossier of baptismal expositions gathered by Susan Keefe). After all, many historians think that Carolingian correctio was meant to lead to ritual uniformity, and Phelan's discussion shows how this notion should be reconsidered at least regarding the ritual of baptism.

A few intellectuals of the later ninth century and their thoughts about baptism take centre stage in the last chapter, which aims to show how ideas first developed in the time of Charlemagne became internalised, even when the imperium Christianum started to crumble in the second half of the ninth century. Jonas of Orléans, Dhuoda, and Nithard clearly built on such inherited ideas about baptism as a vehicle for moral instruction. Here, at the end of the book, Phelan shows how such instruction was by no means confined to the catechumenate, but reached all corners of the empire via sermons, liturgy, and other forms of pastoral care. Phelan's continuing emphasis on the centrality of baptism starts to feel a little artificial here: surely baptism was an important vehicle for moral instruction, but at the same time there were clearly many other ways to teach lay Christians--some, such as preaching, doubtlessly more significant. That "baptism provided the foundation" for the Christian empire of the Franks (263) is therefore somewhat surprising as a conclusion in the light of this last chapter, for it seems to have been moral instruction that was at the heart of the matter, with the ritual as an important, integrated means to this end.

Phelan has written a thorough and detailed study of the way in which thinking about baptism was, at least for some time, a central part of Carolingian political-religious ideology. The author is at his best when carefully unpacking the primary sources that shed light on this process. That baptism and moral instruction went hand in hand in order to create a Christian society was part of this ideology, and in that sense it is a pity that Phelan did not pay more attention to what exactly it was that constituted such teaching, with all its variations and internal contradictions. It is at this point that the book shows some unbalance: Phelan sticks to baptism as his central point, to which moral instruction was, in his view, auxiliary--at the same time it becomes clear that such instruction was not confined to the context of baptism but took many different paths, such as via sermons, penance, and other forms of pastoral care.

Would it, one wonders, not be better to interpret baptism as one vehicle for moral instruction instead of focussing on instruction as one aspect of the ritual? What is missing here are some reflections on the wider context of pastoral care and all the different types of moral education it provided.

Another issue is the extent to which the author tries to stretch some of his conclusions. The statement that "the common sacramentum of baptism justified for Charlemagne a role in the church analogous to his role in the world as a king" (63), for instance, does not do justice to the sources, which nowhere indicate that any intellectual of the day considered baptism to be the foundation of Charlemagne's authority. An analysis of Christian rulership and developing notions of ministerium would have been helpful here, if only to connect the level of individual Christians to that of the ruler, who was considered to be responsible for the salvation of his subjects. By the same token, I do not see how baptism could usefully be interpreted as "the basic ordering concept for the Carolingian Renewal" (64). Again, no-one would argue against baptism as an essential ritual for all Christians, which for a while enjoyed a lot of high-level interest, but in the context of the Carolingian reforms, there were surely other issues that were deemed equally, or more, important.

This is, then, a book that provokes discussion, while it rewards the reader with a careful analysis of the way in which baptism became a channel for the moral education of Charlemagne's subjects, and for shaping them into one Christian community. Even though the ritual could take many shapes and forms, the formation that connected those undergoing it no doubt contributed to the unity of Charlemagne's Christian empire--Gregory the Great would have approved.

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