The Religious Worlds of the Laity in Late Antique Gaul by Lisa Kaaren Bailey
There is a vibrant universe tucked inside this slender book, which is dedicated to the experiences and perspectives of lay Christians in Gaul from roughly 400 to 700. The challenges of such a project are obvious: it is hard to know what anyone actually believes, all the more so when most of your evidence was crafted by ecclesiastical experts. But Bailey demonstrates that this familiar critique is in some ways overly cautious. There may be a lot we cannot know about the life of the laity in Gaul, but there is also a lot we can know, and her study examines the official and unofficial engagements (chap. 1), sacred spaces (chap. 2), urban topographies (chap. 3), rituals (chap. 4), behaviors (chap. 5), and beliefs (chap. 6) through which lay Christians co-created their religious culture in Late Antiquity.
Historians of post-imperial Gaul will find that Bailey has reshuffled the evidence they thought they knew (sermons, councils, hagiography, formularies, epigraphy, and to a lesser extent law codes and histories) into a rich and unexpected portrait. We meet laypersons whose Christianity could be variously characterized as engaged, inventive, or [End Page 527] intense. Some of them could outperform their clergy in asceticism. Others developed competing interpretations of ethical Christian behaviors. We also meet laypersons who identified as Christian but had other priorities, too, like family, work, or civic pride. This is reason enough to be excited about Bailey's study, but the book works for non-experts, too: if you are looking for something for your undergraduates that does justice to the diversity of lay Christian experience in the early Middle Ages, this is the book to assign. After reading it, they—and we historians, too—will be much warier of the concept of "average [!] Christians." The Christian Gaul of Bailey's book is much too multi-dimensional for us to feel comfortable with such a flat generalization anymore.
How have we overlooked these worlds for so long? Cultural historians have been analyzing texts in this way for decades, reading them—as Bailey does—on the logic that texts are built in conversation with audiences and competing conceptual frameworks, and so there will always be hints of real situations that an author seeks to shape. What helps Bailey read as sharply as she does here are two crucial premises that are currently transforming the histories of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The first is that social groups in this period were not homogeneous. Rio, Patzold, and Le Jan (for example) have cracked open the categories of "unfree," "episcopal," and "elite" to show us just how varied and variable the members of these classes were in Gaul. The second premise—which the work of Bowes, Maxwell, and Rebillard (among others) has validated for other late antique societies—is that diverse groups of lay Christians could be active participants in their religious culture, in private spheres but also more publicly, as congregants, donors, exemplars, and interlocutors.
So in taking seriously the possibility that the Gallic laity were a diverse and engaged group, Bailey uncovers a fascinating panorama of lay Christian perspectives. A citizen of Tours named Monegund left her husband to form an ascetic household in a room near the basilica of Saint Martin—but she never officially became a nun. The stately city of Trier welcomed pilgrims to its cathedral complex, but even here Christianity was multifocal: there were many shrines and burials ad sanctos scattered beyond the city center. The Lyon tombstone of a merchant named Agapus commemorated him as a "bay of the afflicted and port of the needy," twining his commercial and Christian activities together (something Gaul's hagiographers never did). The tombstone of a child in Vienne asked his parents to console themselves because he was enjoying eternal life, whereas other mourners envisioned the dead among the stars, in the company of the saints, or comfortably at peace. And a resident of Orléans felt entitled to work in his vineyard on the feast day of Avitus of Orléans, on the logic that Avitus too had been "a working man" (131)!
These snapshots undermine the whole concept of "the laity" that can otherwise seem so stable in the sources. In the language of the bishops' councils especially, laicus functioned as a kind of shorthand for worldliness, in contrast to the professionals' concentration on the otherworld. But that was a strategy of representation. It was an ethical defense and reminder that clerics made to their society and also to each other, and, as Bailey points out, it does not fairly capture the possibility that unordained persons could also be [End Page 528] committed to Christianity in their own ways. And in any case, as Bailey argues, the boundaries between laity and clergy were much fuzzier in reality. "Servants of the church," for example, could include ordained clerics but also humble volunteers, poor people, or unfree persons with legal obligations to work on behalf of an institution. Members of the lower clerical orders often continued to live with their families and dress like regular citizens, and on the flip side laypersons could be intensely spiritual.
So it is a surprise that the complex Christian culture that Bailey sketches still seems characterized by the clergy's ongoing effort to have the upper hand—"to assert control" (103) over the ways Christians understood and enacted their religious identity. We do see a range of clerical perspectives within these pages, but one constant seems to be that the clergy launch various efforts to which lay Christians respond with varying degrees of support or defiance. But what about the laypersons—the sanctimonious, the competitive, the particular, or the officious—who may have taken it upon themselves to prompt or goad their clergy? Other research is suggesting that lay initiative can be an important factor in defining and enforcing Christian behavior, and even in sharpening the distinction (somewhat paradoxically) between clerical and lay identities. When reading Bailey's discussion of clothing, for example, I thought of Miller's Clothing the Clergy (Ithaca, 2014), which attributes the increasing desire to separate and distinguish the clergy through their vestments as much to lay expectations as to the clergy's. Could something similar have been at play in late antique Gaul? (As a side note, Bailey's passing references to "the state" and to "barbarians" [e.g. 32, 83, 160] also imply that these are self-evident power blocs, even though late antique/early medieval political culture was as little bifurcated as Christian culture was.)
Then again, it is not the goal of this book to track a single conflict or shift in social relations. Unravelling the interplay of different visions and forces to explain how and why certain elements of Christian culture changed would have required a more systematic and thematically narrower kind of diachronic history. Instead the Gaul that Bailey offers us here is a tableau of the longer term, and she finds that Christian culture in 700 shared significant similarities to its counterpart in 400, because lay Christians were consistently enriching and complicating their religious culture throughout these centuries. Not only does that element of continuity sharpen our sense of what late antique society looked like; it also makes their history much more interesting. [End Page 529]