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22.06.09 Graumann, The Acts of the Early Church Councils

22.06.09 Graumann, The Acts of the Early Church Councils

In his absorbing new study of late antique church councils, Thomas Graumann lays to rest the notion that these councils only fully turned to the business of producing a written record of their decisions when oral discussions were entirely concluded. Rather, Graumann argues, councils from their very commencement were “exercises in textual practices” that were virtual “feast days for [participating] ecclesiastical (and civil) functionaries and administrators” (1-2). Consequently, his study of conciliar acta effectively treats these documents as works-in-progress, examining both the practical and rhetorical concerns that dictated their ultimate form and content. As Graumann acknowledges at the outset, his evidentiary scope is rather narrower than that suggested by his title: this is a study primarily of “direct speech” conciliar protocols, in particular those produced during the first half of the fifth century.

In recognition, however, that conciliar documentation appeared in a diversity of forms during Late Antiquity, Part I of the study directly addresses this variation. Graumann details briefly the murky origins of conciliar activity in the early Christian era, and its comparatively more marked and regular occurrence by the third and fourth centuries. While these early councils recognized the importance of preserving and communicating their decisions, notably via epistolary exchange, Graumann characterizes the diversity of forms assumed by conciliar acts as a “scale of possibilities” or “spectrum,” which at one end was represented by the “direct speech narrative record of transactions that portrays live speech-acts in sequence and retains the words uttered during deliberations,” while the other end consisted of those acts that simply recorded their legislative and/or judicial decisions (28). Acta also could fall between these two extremes; Graumann observes, for example, how the sententiae of the Council of Carthage (256) and the acts of Council of Serdica (343) both ostensibly recreate speech while still obscuring the deliberations and debate underlying their decisions. This variation in documentary practices was not indicative of a lack of institutional maturity, however; Graumann argues convincingly that council presidents and scribes consciously selected a form of communication that best suited their purposes.

Part I concludes with a case-study of the acts of the Council of Carthage (411), in which Graumann perceives not only an effort by Catholic North Africans to demonstrate the legitimacy of their “victory” at the synod, but also Donatist efforts to undermine this messaging. At the council, stenographers representing both sides took shorthand notes on wax tablets that subsequently were transcribed into a longhand parchment version (the scida or scheda), which, in turn, required participant confirmation prior to its final deposition within a public archive. Despite the ostensible care taken to demonstrate a legitimate and fair process of recording the council’s business, Graumann observes that there still were procedural objections raised by the Donatists, such as the reading aloud of shorthand minutes prior to their transcription and confirmation.

Part II examines efforts by conciliar participants to evaluate the authenticity of the documentation that they cited in their deliberations and acts. For example, in the imperial inquiries (April 449) into the trial of the accused heretic Eutyches held during the previous year, an effort was made to determine the authenticity and origins of those copies of the trial protocol in the possession of the participating parties. In such investigations the visual inspection of documents and the identification of their archival provenance could prove crucial. Graumann, for instance, recognizes a similar interest in the “concrete materiality of records” (59) at the subsequent Council of Chalcedon (451), at which imperial letters that also appeared in the acts of the Second Council of Ephesus (449) were read from an official imperial registry codex to ensure their absolute authenticity. Similarly, the Ephesine acts themselves were purposefully consulted at Chalcedon via a schedarion, i.e., an authoritative, but not yet published, original meant for archival preservation, i.e., an “author’s master-copy or working exemplar” (68). Unlike the imperial letters, this schedarion took the form of a roll rather than a codex, which--as Graumann convincingly argues--was an ideal format for conveying the original progression of conciliar discussions. This concern for authenticity did not diminish in later centuries, although it did become more obviously performative, even “theatrical,” and Graumann observes that within a conciliar context such efforts constituted a “solemn and deliberate enactment of the required purging of the church’s teaching from false thinking...philology provides the means to safeguard orthodoxy” (103).

Parts III and IV turn from councils’ use of existing material to their production of new texts, and the complications inherent in secretarial work. A conciliar notarial “chancellery,” as Graumann demonstrates, had to determine what statements required recording and when to indicate the use of the council’s collective voice, while also fielding requests by council presidents for omissions, additions, and corrections. The “translation” of shorthand notes into a longhand version similarly required editorial decision-making, and Graumann shows convincingly that conciliar participants--not only the scribes themselves--had the approved final version in mind throughout this process, thus undermining any simplistic distinction between the oral and the written word in the conduct of conciliar business. Conciliar leaders also gave serious consideration to the order of incorporated records within their acts, in some cases possibly preparing in advance reading copies of rolls with the intention of later physically affixing these to the council’s written protocol. Participant subscriptions--which constituted written assent to decisions reached orally--similarly could be pasted onto schedaria after the council had concluded its business.

In the fifth and final part of his study, Graumann turns to the compilation, communication, and preservation of conciliar acts. The creation of a council record necessitated not simply the organization, but also the unification, of materials both physical and textual (e.g., through the incorporation of cross-references). The process of “dossierization,” with the inclusion of supplementary documentation, as Graumann shows, began early, even while a meeting still was in session, but also was directly “linked to the reporting and dissemination of official records and its effects at both the sender’s and the recipient’s end of the dispatches” (281). Although the archival originals of council protocols took the form of rolls, the codex was the preferred form for the preservation and transmission of the full dossiers. While the imperial government by the sixth century sometimes assumed the responsibility for the production of “official editions” of council acts, this had not consistently been the case in earlier centuries. Graumann observes that while council leaders (and emperors) could disseminate documentation and rulings, it was not even assumed that all participants would receive copies of the completed acts. Not only did publication and archival preservation not necessarily entail the wide availability of complete council records, as Graumann concludes: “[The] reading of conciliar acts appears to have been an infrequent occupation and exceptional interest in most centuries. Council acts were not the handbooks of discipline and doctrine constantly on the imaginary desks of ancient ecclesiastical hierarchs and scholars, nor were they...the favoured texts for meditative rumination in monastic cells” (296).

Yet, Graumann’s own study confirms the historical significance of conciliar acts as complex fusions of multiple texts and voices, which were joined together as material objects of transmission and preservation. Despite its purposefully selective evidentiary scope and its occasionally difficult and often technical approach, it offers a compelling and sophisticated model for the study of council texts as more than mere transcriptions, but rather as complex and ideologically infused objects reflective of those conditions and circumstances that ultimately informed their content. It should be read by all students and scholars interested in the ecclesiastical and intellectual history of Late Antiquity.