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22.12.05 Fouracre, Eternal Light and Earthly Concerns

22.12.05 Fouracre, Eternal Light and Earthly Concerns

This felicitously written monograph examines the material and social consequences that followed from the provisioning of churches with light in medieval Europe between the fifth century, when the practice became widespread, and the early sixteenth century, when Protestant reformers challenged the custom. While continental western Europe forms the heart of the analysis, the study episodically includes Spain, England, and Italy, and extends as far west as Iceland and Russia to the east. The book makes a compelling case that lighting played a crucial role in the social formation of Europe’s guilds, parishes, and confraternities, and ultimately in the empowerment of the laity, which was responsible for the impressive expansion of lighting by the late Middle Ages and paradoxically the attack on its perceived extra-scriptural extravagance during the Reformation. Eternal Light is divided into an introduction, six chronologically sequential chapters (the first five of which close with a tidy concluding section), and a general conclusion.

The Introduction provides a brisk overview of the chapters, the range of sources (“dispositive, normative, discursive and narrative,” 6), and the historiography. Modern scholarship has had little to say about the lighting of churches outside of a few specialized studies, some of which were undertaken during the nineteenth century and are now obscure, and others of which tend to privilege particular areas or periods, especially the later middles ages, thus largely ignoring the seminal early Middle Ages and the “non-gendered aspect” (13) of the phenomenon. An emphasis here and throughout the study is “the social and political consequences” on “the Zensualität and then [o]n the rise of the Zeche, urban associations dedicated to providing lights that became nodal points of religious revolution” (13-14) in the sixteenth century.

Chapter 1 examines “the scriptural and the customary origins of the use of lights” (19) in late antiquity. Early Christians had been ambivalent about lighting in part because of unsureness about the applicability of Old Testament injunctions that called for lighting of the altar and the tabernacle, and in part out of suspicions about pagans’ use of lighting for funerary or commemorative purposes. As the Christian Church became progressively Romanized, and the Old Testament was interpreted as a figuration of the New, the cultural and theological inhibitions evaporated and the use of lights at the shrines of saints became widespread. Having committed themselves to lighting, in particular by means of olive oil, churches in Europe faced the problem of supply after the fifth century when the western Empire collapsed, the Mediterranean economy became regionalized, and lighting oil had to be sourced locally. Ecclesiastical legislation and miracle stories nevertheless attest to the hortatory insistence that all churches be lit, to the scarcity and preciousness of oil, even in areas where one might expect it to be plentiful, to the organization of endowments and people to support lighting, and to the determined efforts to find substitutes for oil, such as wax.

Chapter 2, “Consolidation of provision: elite practice,” focuses on Francia and Italy where the charter evidence is most robust. In Francia, the effort to provide lighting tended to be an elite phenomenon, as one can see in Bertram of Le Mans’s will for the provisions for his own tomb, the first evidence of commemorative lighting in Francia; and the Frankish kings’ grants of immunity to churches, which generated cash in the form of tolls and fines for the purchase of oil, which appears to have been sourced from Marseilles and taken to the many newly-founded churches in the north, until the early eighth century when disorders in Provence pinched the supply and “the lighting clause tended to drop out of immunity privileges...and oil for cash seems to have come to an end” (61). In Italy, where oil could be provisioned from “small scale production for very local needs,” a wider range of people was involved in provisions “for theluminaria” (66), visible in the donations of properties and tributary people. Although references to these kinds of gifts disappear in Italy too, the positive evidence from Italy and Francia attests to how widespread the lighting of churches had become.

Chapter 3, “Light and power,” examines lighting in the Carolingian period, in particular the responsibility of rulers to provide for it. The chapter mostly presents cases of rulers either giving northern churches lands in Italy as sources of oil, or providing churches with the necessary means to acquire oil. A point of emphasis is the precarial census, which was paid to churches by people who held lands in usufruct, and the strong association of the census, especially in Germany, with the provision of lights. A problem continued to be the lack of oil production despite the apparent demand for it.

Chapter 4 looks at how the phenomenon of lighting developed and proceeded “from below” in the post-Carolingian period, especially within the middle “social layer between the nobility and the dependent peasantry” (108), out of which grew the communal, volunteer associations dedicated to the provision of church lights. This middle layer is visible in estate surveys (polyptychs), which reveal economic growth in the countryside, the expansion of markets of exchange, and the concomitant shift from endowment to the earmarking of supplies for lighting. Professor Fouracre argues that out of this “constituency...the light providers were drawn” (108), indeed that high medieval “guilds and confraternities have their origins in the early Middle Ages as associations formed for religious purposes” (117) of commemoration, especially commemorative lighting. The English evidence for this middle layer of light providers turns out to be “tiny by comparison with the continent” (120); in Italy the local production of oil and the “small-scale donations of lighting materials” saw to the “emergence of confraternities” (128); and in Spain the sparse evidence, once it emerges after 900, suggests elite support for lighting, oddly with wax rather than oil, despite the abundance of olive oil in nearby Al-Andalus.

Chapter 5, “Lights and social formation in the central Middle Ages,” focuses on the censuales between 950 and 1200 and asks whether the requirement to provide light drove changes in social organization in Germany and France. The question is set within the “feudal revolution” debate about the putative transformation of Europe in the central Middle Ages. Despite the shared Frankish past and traditions in France and Germany, censuales developed most conspicuously in Germany as a class of ecclesiastical dependents tied to the service of lighting churches and drawn by all appearances from areas where the population of unfree peasants was high. The censuales “as a distinct category of people” gradually eroded, as some were submerged within the growing towns of high medieval Europe, which won privileges of freedom; while others “became independent farmers or slipped under the control of secular lords who subjected them to heavier burdens” (172-73).

The disappearance of censuales did not mean the disappearance of popular enthusiasm and support for lighting. The expanding doctrine of Purgatory demanded ever more lighting as the living commemorated the dead to speed their cleansing in the afterlife. Chapter six examines the impact of commemorative lighting on the growth of confraternities and the growing demand for wax during the late Middle Ages as lay people organized the funding for lights. This was true throughout western Europe, but in Germany “the declining power of the bishops in the face of the rising influence of the[d] lights at the center of struggles to control cathedrals” (193), struggles that would erupt in the Reformation, a flash point of which was Purgatory, the commemoration of souls, and the associated expense of lighting. The irony is that the lay organizations that were so enthusiastic about lighting suddenly attacked the tradition as unscriptural and idolatrous.

The book makes a strong case that the provisioning of lighting contributed to the social formation of Europe and to the Reformation. That argument is sometimes obscured by incessant qualifications of the evidence, or conversely, by conclusions that suddenly become more certain than earlier discussions indicated. In chapter four, for example, readers are told that “[i]n the first chapter of this work it was shown that writers in England from the seventh and eighth centuries took very seriously the Mosaic injunction to keep lights of the purest olive oil burning before the tabernacle,” and that “at the same time there were indications of a severe shortage of olive oil in England” (118). Yet the discussion in chapter one concludes that “[f]rom such slender evidence little can be said about the use of lights in England at this date, and we remain completely ignorant about how they were provided for” (37).

It was also not always clear to me what type of lighting was under examination at any one time. The problem appears in the first chapter where lighting could take the form of Old Testament injunctions to light the altar, commemorative lighting of tombs, and what looks to me to be the generalized lighting of a church, such as the large lamps and candelabras in Constantine’s churches. Drawing these distinctions throughout the study would seem to be important, since commemorative lighting, at least until the later Middle Ages when doctrines of Purgatory saw to its expansion, presumably would not have required the fuel that general lighting would have.

This raised a related issue that left me puzzled: fuel supply. Professor Fouracre is, as he always has been, close to the sources, but on an issue like lighting that fastidiousness turns out to have limitations. The study would have benefited from a historiography more thoroughly engaged with archaeology and economic history, which could have profitably stretched the documentary sources. Professor Fouracre is insistent that Europeans really tried to light churches specifically with olive oil, an assertion that raises the issue of supply in a corner of the world that until the later Middle Ages was, by all (written) accounts, largely bereft of it.

A consequence of this approach is a tension in the study between use and supply. Carolingian kings are said to have given northern monasteries Italian lands for oil, except that we are also told that hardly any was produced in Italy, or if it was, production was limited to small amounts for local use, yet the study maintains that oil was crucial and that the (limited) documentary evidence demonstrates that. If, for the sake of argument, Italian estates had supplied oil to the north, would that not have entailed transport and supply lines, in short, a web of long-distance distribution, in defiance of the assertion that no oil market as such existed? The puzzle is compounded by the documents, which only speak of a few well-heeled monasteries in the north. It is difficult to surmise that Carolingian kings expected that churches in mass would successfully have been lit with oil, which the study implies, even as it argues that there was hardly any oil, even in Italy. One suspects that churches in the north probably used more tallow than the study allows. Eternal Light does devote some attention to wax as a substitute for oil, but tallow appears briefly merely to demonstrate that Carolingian rulers found its use embarrassing and ordered that churches burn oil, an admission that perhaps hints at tallow’s wider use. In any event, written sources that urge the use of oil, often for reasons of liturgical tradition and Biblical precedent, have limitations that might have been fruitfully compensated with a deeper engagement of archaeological and economic studies. Be that as it may, Professor Fouracre’s long-awaited study of lighting has pointed out, as excellent research does, avenues for further investigation.