Caesarius of Arles Day: Report

This weekend, Lucy Grig at Edinburgh hosted one of those rare conferences where every paper was a treat, progress was made, and there was a great warm feeling of scholarly solidarity. The World of Caesarius of Arles gathered together an impressive cast list which included Bill Klingshirn, Simon Loseby, Conrad Leyser, Lisa Bailey, Peter Heather and Ed James, which allowed a thorough reappraisal of where Caesarius studies are and where they might go. (Caesarius’s monastic rules, sadly, received little attention, as did his interest in textiles, but one cannot have everything).

Bill Klingshirn started things off on the Friday evening with a lecture on studies of Caesarius in the saint’s fifteenth centenary (1970-2043), in which his own book Caesarius of Arles: The Making of a Christian Community in Late Antique Gaul (1994) of course remains a highlight. Caesarius began really as a figure of interest to missionaries (see below) and, with that in mind, Klingshirn wondered if the missionary aspects of the bishop’s pastoral work was in need of reassessment. Klingshirn also outlined some of the different Grand Narratives’ that have appropriated Caesarius, including Robert Markus’s ‘dark’ assessment of a world crumbling to Diem’s recent efforts to locate the origins of medieval monasticism in the bishop’s work. Within this, he emphasised how he had tried to think of the Mediterranean ‘face-to-face community’ when he talked about the making of a Christian community – and indeed how, after reading Cam Grey’s recent book, he thought we should talk about communities plural, urban and rural. He maintains quite correctly that there is something a little bit too determinist about suggestions that ‘naissance’ is a better word than ‘making’, but he also noted that these arguments have been made in French where there is no word to translate ‘making’ directly.

Simon Loseby got things moving on the Saturday morning with a paper on the town of Arles itself, drawing expertly on both the scattered written descriptions of the town and the on-going archaeological work of Marc Heijmans and team. ( He began with the exchange between Caesarius and his elder contemporary Ruricius of Limoges who, upon being chided by the bishop of Arles for not attending a council, wrote snarkily that it was ‘better for a town to be famous for its bishop than for a bishop to be famous for its town’. This led into a discussion of the importance of Arles as a centre which benefitted greatly from imperial patronage from the fourth century onwards and from its role in trade heading from the Mediterranean up the Rhône. What is evident about its eventual ‘decline’ is that from the fifth century onwards there was a partial dismantling of impressive public structures such as the forum, combined with the building of private structures on formerly public, paved areas. Yet far from this representing ‘squatters’, all evidence shows that well-to-do people were involved, including bishops. And bishops were involved in their own new prestige buildings, with one recently discovered church featuring an apse 55m long, making it the largest known Late Antique church in Gaul.

Curiously, Simon pointed out, it is hard to see Caesarius’s role in any of this, not even in his writings.

Our host, Lucy Grig, was up second. She is currently preparing a study of popular culture in Late Antique Gaul and one of her routes into this difficult subject is Caesarius’s condemnation of people celebrating New Year’s Day (sermon 192). The kalends of January was important in the Roman calendar because it was the day that new officials were elected but it had also become a time when people feasted and dressed up as animals, or even engaged in some cross-dressing. Caesarius’s problem was that this kind of behaviour didn’t conform to his standards for Christian behaviour and so, Grig argued, in his sermons he used the condemnation to establish a model for conflict between popular and dominant culture. Usefully, Grig tried to keep the ‘Christian vs pagan’ thing at arms length, not least because we are probably dealing with a mixed Christian-pagan-secular culture rather than simple binary clash.

But can we use Caesarius’s sermons – over 200 of them – to say anything about his world? Many of the sermons edited as his by Germain Morin a century ago had to be rescued from anonymity or from being attributed to other writers, notably St Augustine of Hippo. The problem, as Conrad Leyser demonstrated, was that Morin had no scientific methodology for his assertions. Having copied out the Maurists edition of Augustine’s sermons, Morin simply believed that he could detect Caesarius’s voice. There has been a tradition of criticising the work, from Engelbrecht to Axelson, but it is too often forgotten. We should see the editions for what they were: efforts by the Abbey of Maredsous to secure resources for its missionary work in Brazil and Africa. In the meantime, we are left with no certain reasons for accepting any attribution and probably need to start again by unpicking the manuscript tradition of each sermon or idea. This could be a big project.

Lisa Bailey’s work will no doubt contribute significantly to reassessing the sermons. Her analysis of the use of scripture in the Caesarius sermons picked out a number of concrete themes which distinguished them from, say, Augustine’s or those in the Eusebius Gallicanus collection. Many of the sermons encourage the audience to reflect on the meaning of certain passages, but not to devise new interpretations. They also reveal agonised efforts to  establish the precise meaning of difficult sections of the Bible. There is a repeated concern to claim the Old Testament for Christianity from Judaism. To put this all another way: the sermons fostered a sense of textualised community in a manner quite distinct from in the fifth century. There are, then, distinctive voices, even if their connection to Caesarius – or anyone else – needs further identification.

After the excitement about the sermons, there was a return to more traditional historical territory in the last two papers. Peter Heather triangulated the relationship between Caesarius, the popes, and King Theoderic of Ostrogothic Italy to suggest that Caesarius’s position as papal vicarius most likely had Theoderic’s approval – despite the bishop’s catholicism and the king’s Arianism. He also posed the sensible question of whether the Church experienced ‘a transformation of the Roman world’, following the spirit of Julia Smith’s ‘Did women have a transformation of the Roman world?’, Gender & History 12.3 (2000). If the Church was built on imperial authority structures – including Theoderic’s – then the fragmentations which followed Justinian’s failed attempts to reconquer the West in the 530s-550s must have had a powerful effect. For Caesarius, this meant the ‘improvisation’ of turning more towards the legitimising authority of local kings. But there is more work to be done on this subject, not least in response to last year’s Through the Eye of a Needle by Peter Brown.

To finish the day, Ed James talked about Caesarius in comparison to that other famous sixth-century bishop, Gregory of Tours (bishop 573-594). This was well-framed: the two bishops were effectively ‘outsiders’ to the communities of their episcopal towns, which meant that they were in constant struggle to assert their authority (something not helped by dramatic regime changes). So how did they make themselves heard? Here they differed markedly. Caesarius adopted an austere manner which accentuated his spiritual ‘otherness’, while Gregory spent much of his early years in Tours writing histories to promote St Martin and himself. The differences are likely as much a reflection of the different genres in which the figures wrote as anything, and certainly highlight the different geographical situations of the two. Nevertheless, James concluded that here we can see how quickly Caesarius’s late Roman world gave way to the new politics and the new-style Church of the Merovingian World.

And so, after seven stimulating papers, that was that. There is clearly much work still to be done on Caesarius – especially concerning the sermons – and this conference will have provided fertile ground for further thought. Happily, there are plans afoot to publish something, which will help things develop. In the meantime, I headed home, got Morin’s edition of the sermons out of the library, and started to rework the Caesarian section of my next book in response to Leyser’s challenge…