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22.01.17 DeGregorio/Kershaw (eds.), Cities, Saints, and Communities in Early Medieval Europe

22.01.17 DeGregorio/Kershaw (eds.), Cities, Saints, and Communities in Early Medieval Europe

In the Roman empire Britain was a remote province and Hadrian’s Wall marked the outer rim. But after an extended Brexit from the continent, in the late sixth century Pope Gregory the Great encouraged the reemergence of Christianity in England. The expansion of Christianity brought the British Isles back into the medieval European (dis)union of post-Roman states, with the result that in the early eighth century Bede could become one of the most learned and significant scholars in Europe even though he lived in a monastery at the east end of Hadrian’s Wall.

The reciprocal connection between the England of Bede and the Rome of the early medieval popes has been one defining theme in the publications of Alan Thacker. Over the past forty years the field of early medieval studies has greatly benefitted from his outstanding scholarship. This volume consists of sixteen chapters presented in Thacker’s honor, as well as a bibliography of his publications up to 2019. The introductory appreciation by Paul Kershaw is especially fascinating for those of us who have not met Thacker in person. This excellent volume is a worthy tribute for a distinguished scholar and his inspiring publications.

One way to measure a scholar’s influence is to note the articles and books that other scholars invoke. Many of the chapters in this book discuss aspects of Bede and his writings, and one citation that recurs is “Bede’s Ideal of Reform.” This was one of Thacker’s first major essays, published in 1983 in honor of Michael Wallace-Hadrill, his doctoral dissertation supervisor. Thacker argued that Bede drew upon the ideas of Gregory the Great to define paradigmatic preachers and teachers. Through his historical and hagiographical writings Bede hoped to improve the pastoral activities of monks and arrest the decline of spiritual standards among laypeople.

In this book the chapters about Bede again highlight his concern for education and reforming society. Jennifer O’Reilly suggests that Bede was well-versed about the controversy over monotheletism at Rome in the seventh century, despite the few direct references in his Ecclesiastical History. Instead, in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark he promoted his version of orthodox theology by refuting this heresy. Faith Wallis demonstrates how in his commentary on Proverbs Bede emphasized the dangers of heresy and intellectual snobbery for educated clerics and monks. Because they were constantly exposed to books and teachers, learned clerics had to guard against elitism. As Wallis notes, perhaps Bede was in part talking about himself (131). Arthur Holder elaborates on “the mystical aspects of Bede’s theology” (266). By suggesting that a select few might receive a vision of God, Bede could remind people of a moment in the future when “earthly existence fades into eternal joy” (282).

Some chapters discuss the making of Bede. Peter Darby discusses the young Bede’s reaction to an accusation of heresy regarding the chronological framework in his On Times. His Letter to Plegwine was an authoritative response: “he seems to have been able to draw out multiple scriptural allusions and exegetical inferences at will” (162). Clare Stancliffe analyzes the influence of Acca, bishop of Hexham. Acca urged Bede to write biblical commentaries; “Acca’s mix of affirmation and challenge were the ideal forcing ground for Bede’s maturation as a scholar” (187). Barbara Yorke discusses Bede’s admiration for Aidan, the Irish bishop of Lindisfarne. “Bede... seems representative of a ‘middle’ party who believed in the correctness of the Roman Easter without feeling it necessary to castigate all aspects of the Northumbrian Irish tradition” (236). Scott DeGregorio highlights Bede’s midlife crisis. In his commentary on First Samuel he was reacting to current political crises, episcopal avarice, and, especially, the departure of his beloved abbot Ceolfrith for Rome in 716.

Bede’s extensive biblical commentaries and exegetical treatises are currently having their moment in scholarship. Recent translations in the series “Translated Texts for Historians” include the commentaries on Genesis, First Samuel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Revelation, as well as other biblical questions. Julia Barrow suggests that Bede “was probably the greatest expert on the Bible writing in the eighth century” (287). His close reading of biblical books also affected his historiographical and hagiographical writings, so that biblical parallels and analogies shaped his thinking about current events and connected his contemporaries with events and parables in the Gospels (299). Janet Nelson emphasizes the influence of Bede’s commentary about the Gospel of Luke on the treatise of Hincmar of Rheims about the divorce of king Lothar II in 860. Like Bede himself, Hincmar could “apply exegetical understandings to particular contemporary political issues” (339).

Thacker has also published important articles about relics and saints’ cults at Rome. “Rome: The Pilgrims’ City in the Seventh Century” is a recent essay that evaluates the reactions of pilgrims to the magnificent churches and numerous shrines at Rome. His discussion implies that the many English pilgrims apparently interpreted pope Gregory’s overture as an invitation to visit the seat of Christianity. Richard Sharp discusses the role of Wilfrid in the conversion and baptism of Ceadwalla, king of Wessex, who died at Rome in 689. Francesca Tinti extends Thacker’s survey to discuss the presence of English visitors at Rome during the tenth and eleventh centuries. By then the visitors included the bishops of Canterbury, as well as King Cnut, who attended the coronation of emperor Conrad II in 1027.

These pilgrimages were one vector for engagement with other European states, including the Byzantine empire. In the mid-650s Benedict Biscop and Wilfrid visited Rome, soon after Byzantine forces had arrested Pope Martin I for condemning monotheletism. Catherine Cubitt assesses the reliability of the description of the cruel treatment of pope Martin included in Audoin’s Life of Eligius, bishop of Noyon. This episode implies that Frankish bishops were still interested and engaged in Byzantine politics. Another intersection with Byzantines is the topic of Paul Fouracre’s discussion of a placitum in Istria in 804. The local complaints about Frankish hegemony show that “the Franks under the early Carolingians may have had the power to annex, but not the means to colonise” (320).

In his essays Thacker has repeatedly highlighted the tension between the local veneration of homegrown saints and the wide distribution of cults honoring saints with an extensive appeal. “Loca sanctorum: The Significance of Place in the Study of the Saints,” published in 2002 in a book about local saints and local churches, is a comprehensive overview of saints’ cults and the distribution of relics in early medieval western Europe. In some regions the cults of indigenous martyrs and confessors long continued to push aside the relics of apostles on offer from Rome.

Some of the chapters offer case studies of cults at particular cities. Mark Handley analyzes the epitaph of the Frankish king Childebert, discovered in a church he had founded at Paris in honor of St. Vincent. Even though the cult of St. Vincent was already widespread in Gaul, this was an odd commemoration. St. Vincent was not a patron who had helped the king to victory, but instead seemed to be an antagonist who had forced him to retreat from his siege of Saragossa in 541. Tom Brown discusses the many saints’ cults that emerged at Ravenna. Although these cults distinguished Ravenna from Rome, they also helped win support from neighbors, such as the Byzantine emperors. All cities built identities around their cults, but this was “a particularly systematic, even brazen, case of such hagiographic promotion” (64). Sometimes the place of a cult was a specific church. Éamonn Ó Carragáin analyzes three altarpieces constructed around 1500 in San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice. Within the church these paintings expanded the liturgical space. “Each of the altarpieces leads the viewer’s gaze from the actual church towards visionary perspectives and landscapes” (393).

The quality of these chapters is uniformly excellent. But many of them are quite dense and even technical studies, and they will appeal primarily to scholars of Bede and early medieval Rome.