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FW: TMR 99.01.10, Hen, Culture and Religion (Klingshirn)

Poster: "Garrett, William" <WGarrett@sierrahealth.com>

> Yitzhak Hen.  <i>Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, A.D. 
> 481751</i>.  Cultures, Beliefs and Traditions: Medieval and 
> Early Modern Peoples.  Vol. 1.  LeidenNew YorkCologne: E. J. 
> Brill, 1995.  Pp. xiii, 308.  $100.50.  ISBN 9004 10347 3.  
>    Reviewed by William E. Klingshirn 
>         The Catholic University of America
>         klingshirn@cua.edu
> Rehabilitation of the Merovingians and of the society and 
> cultures of the territories they ruled, underway for some years 
> now, continues in this book.  Rejecting Carolingian (and later) 
> characterizations of Merovingian Gaul as "thinly christianised" 
> and culturally stagnant (p.  2), Yitzhak Hen portrays instead a 
> fundamentally Christian Gaul, whose vibrant "popular culture" 
> was shared by "the vast majority of the population<laity and 
> clerics, peasants and aristocrats" (p. 19).  This definition of 
> popular culture allows Hen to cover a broad range of secular 
> and religious practices and also to argue, as he does 
> throughout the book, that even "high" cultural activities like 
> manuscript production and performance of the mass carried a 
> wide and popular cultural significance.  The Gaul he studies 
> includes most of Roman Gaul and Germany between Clovis's 
> accession in 481 and the deposition of Childeric III in 751 --
> not just territory controlled by Franks therefore, but also by 
> Goths, Burgundians, and other groups.  Thus Caesarius, bishop 
> of Arles from 502-542, can serve as a major source for the book 
> (second in importance only to Gregory of Tours) even though 
> Arles did not fall under Merovingian control until 536/7 (pace 
> Hen, p. 89, who dates this event to 507).  Although the idea of 
> an ethnic, cultural, or geo-political unity called Gaul is 
> something of a fiction, going back at least to Caesar's <i>De 
> Bello Gallico</i>, it is still a useful fiction, provided one 
> respects, as Hen does, the wide regional and local differences 
> that still characterize this extensive and diverse territory.
> Based on the author's Ph.D. thesis (Cambridge, 1994), "revised 
> and partially rewritten" (p. ix), the book retains many of the 
> characteristics of that genre.  It is, however, such an 
> interesting and useful piece of work that these do not appear 
> to be major shortcomings.  After an introduction on sources and 
> aims, the first chapter discusses Merovingian literacy and 
> orality.  This is crucial, since the vast majority of Hen's 
> evidence is written, and in Latin, and he needs to  demonstrate 
> both that the Latin of the sources was more or less identical 
> with the spoken language of ordinary people, and that written 
> sources produced by elites (in whatever language) could 
> represent a popular culture that contained many oral (and non-
> verbal) elements.  The chapter's methods, arguments, and 
> optimistic conclusions will not be unfamiliar to those who have 
> followed recent debates about Merovingian and Carolingian 
> literacy, and especially the signal contributions of  Rosamond 
> McKitterick (Hen's supervisor).  But Hen fills in the picture 
> with Merovingian details--his discussion of Marculf's Formulary 
> is  particularly good--and overall the chapter does its work 
> well.  At a few points optimism about the importance and extent 
> of literacy may not be entirely justified.  While many sermons 
> were written in advance and read out to congregations (p. 33), 
> we cannot conclude that this was generally  true of sermons.  
> Neither Isidore's reference to written homilies nor the 
> practices of Caesarius demonstrate it, and sermon delivery must 
> have remained a largely oral art.  At another point (p. 39), 
> the translation of a phrase from Caesaria the Younger's letter 
> to Radegund overestimates the degree of literacy that could 
> reasonably be expected of entrants into  a monastery.  "Nulla 
> sit intrantibus quae non literas discat" does not mean "admit 
> no one who does not know letters," but rather "no woman  should 
> enter who cannot learn (or is not learning) letters."  In other 
> words, literacy was important, but it could be acquired after 
> entering.
> The next four chapters, on cultural aspects of the Christian 
> liturgy,  constitute the book's largest and most original 
> section.  Hen argues that because Merovingian Gaul was a 
> fundamentally Christian society, its liturgy, the most 
> important ritual expression of its Christianity, should be 
> interpreted as a form of popular culture.  Here is where the 
> earlier argument that the highest and lowest levels of 
> Merovingian society participated in the same popular culture 
> begins to work the hardest, for if we define popular culture as 
> that in which all participated, it is  reasonable to interpret 
> the liturgy, constructed by ecclesiastical elites precisely to 
> express everyone's participation, as an important part of 
> popular culture.  Edward Shils took a similar view of the 
> coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in an article written with 
> Michael Young, arguing that the elements of this civil and 
> above all religious ceremony represented central values widely 
> held by the whole population.  But whether or not the reader 
> accepts this argument (which tends to treat popular culture as  
> a production for rather than by ordinary people), Hen's 
> chapters do a  good job of redefining the Merovingian liturgy 
> as a broadly cultural  problem.  
> After a useful survey of liturgical texts in chapter 2, Hen 
> reconstructs the Merovingian mass and the temporal cycle of the 
> church year in chapter 3.  He reminds us that the mass was not 
> only a solemn and holy ritual, nor only a ceremonial expression 
> of church-political consensus and communal solidarity, but also 
> an impressive dramatic production intended to have an emotional 
> effect on the individuals who attended.  I am not certain 
> whether we can call that effect catharsis, as Hen does (p. 80), 
> or what it would mean if we did, but it is interesting to ask 
> what feelings the mass produced in any Merovingian Christian, 
> and an indication of the value of this book that it even poses 
> such a question. 
> The saints are the subject of chapter 4.  After cataloguing the 
> sanctoral cycles of four dioceses (Arles, Auxerre, Poitiers, 
> and Utrecht)  and one monastery (Chelles) and summarizing 
> recent work on Merovingian relics and saint' cults, Hen shifts 
> to the effects of saint veneration  on individual Christians.  
> In a mutual exchange of words and actions  (which Hen argues, 
> perhaps unnecessarily, had no direct continuity with  Roman 
> patronage), saints performed cures, answered prayers, listened 
> to complaints, and resolved disputes, and the grateful 
> recipients of their favors attended their shrines, made 
> donations, and prayed for additional  benefits.  The 
> relationship is depicted as emotional and direct, a view that 
> complements rather than contradicts recent work by Raymond Van 
> Dam and others on the social and institutional aspects of 
> Merovingian piety  toward the saints.
> Chapter 5 focuses on rites of passage in the Merovingian 
> liturgy.  The chapter begins with a substantial and useful 
> discussion of marriage blessings, prayers, and masses.  It then 
> discusses the Barbatoria, which marked the ritual first cutting 
> of a young man's beard and was celebrated by prayers in the Old 
> Gelasian Sacramentary.  Rites of baptism and burial are 
> discussed less comprehensively, and mention is also made of  
> liturgical interventions in daily life:  prayers and masses for 
> rain, the growth of crops, and safe travel.  The principal 
> value of this chapter for many readers will be its use of 
> liturgical books as materials for Merovingian social history, a 
> promising enterprise in which Hen has made a good start.  The 
> chapter also marks a transition to the book's third  and final 
> part, on the cultural elements of Merovingian daily life.
> Chapter 6 is entitled "Superstition and Pagan Survivals," and 
> Hen mostly follows the underlying implications of these 
> polemical terms.  The issue, however, is not whether 
> traditional polytheism was widely practiced in Merovingian 
> Gaul--clearly it was not--but what the persistence of 
> traditional religious practices might mean.  Here I would 
> disagree with Hen's effort to downplay the extent of such 
> practices and their continuity with traditional religion.  
> Rather than posit a high degree of rupture between traditional 
> and Christian practices, or to judge all Christians by a 
> normative Christianity that may only have existed in the minds 
> (and writings) of clerics, it seems preferable to see the 
> persistence of 'pagan' practices as evidence both of religious 
> continuity and of Christian adaptability, and to question the 
> ideological screen that Christian writing puts in the way of 
> these conclusions.  This objection aside, Hen's survey of 
> Merovingian 'paganism' is useful, not least because it does 
> stay close to the texts, and is capable of analyzing them 
> critically.  I found the discussion of anti-Merovingian 
> propaganda in Carolingian hagiography (pp. 197206) 
> particularly incisive. 
> The final chapter is a miscellany entitled "Merovingian Secular  
> Culture."  As Hen observes, extracting 'secular' elements from 
> the mainly  ecclesiastical sources for Merovingian culture is a 
> difficult operation, and this chapter does not avoid all its 
> pitfalls.  There is an encyclopedic tendency at work here that 
> surveys even categories with little or no Merovingian evidence, 
> for instance childrens' games (pp.  21213) or markets and 
> fairs (pp. 23134).  There are also occasional lapses, for 
> instance the identification of Salvian of Marseille as a  
> bishop (p. 237) or the assertion that "no amphitheatre has yet 
> been found in Arles." (p. 219)  Other evidence could be 
> interpreted differently.  I find it difficult to believe that 
> Caesarius's criticism of gambling  (serm. 61.3, 89.5, 198.3) 
> was really a criticism of lot divination (pp.  21415), a 
> practice he and his fellow bishops were quite capable of  
> condemning directly (Council of Agde [506], can. 42).  It is 
> true that  Caesarius's criticism of an "innocent" game seems 
> harsh, but that is the kind of rigorous language he 
> characteristically employed for amusements of which he 
> disapproved.  Despite these minor problems, however, the 
> chapter has many strong points, especially the long section on  
> Merovingian drinking (pp. 23449).
> There are a few mechanical problems that readers (and the 
> publisher) should be made aware of.  The Greek quotation in 
> note 1 on page 1 has several typographical errors, and its font 
> differs in size from that used elsewhere in the notes (n. 63, 
> p. 220).  On page 188 there are words  missing from the clause 
> that begins "and therefore, it is more than  probable that the 
> early penitentials."  At several places in the text and notes 
> (e.g., p. 176, n. 130; p. 200, n. 267), footnote numbers are 
> too large and displace the lines in which they occur.  But 
> these are minor  irritations in what is otherwise a 
> refreshingly candid and thoroughly  welcome contribution to the 
> field of Merovingian and early medieval studies.  
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