A Review of Peter Brown’s ‘Ransom of the Soul’ (2015)

Brown CoverLast summer, I reported a nice little chat I had had with the great Peter Brown about medieval futures. Now Brown’s new book has been out for a little bit, I thought I would share my review of what will no doubt turn out to be another important contribution to our understanding of late Antiquity.

The Ransom of the Soul complements 2012’s epic Through the Eye of a Needle, in which Brown explored the consequences of changing attitudes towards wealth and sin in Antiquity. The new book is not, he insists, a direct spin-off. His argument builds on some important research ideas developed in the late 1990s about afterlife and the end of late Antiquity, here enlivened as three lectures delivered in Vienna in 2012 and reframed by the recent boom in late Antique studies which he played no small part in inspiring. Ransom is still very much connected to the spirit of Needle.

The introduction sets out a contrast which helps to frame the issues well. Simply put, for Cyprian of Carthage (c. 250), death meant that the souls of martyrs joined God while the rest entered a short-term ‘waiting room’; four centuries later, however, Julian of Toledo (d. 688) imagined the ‘waiting room’ to be more like a marathon, with different individuals progressing towards Heaven at different rates. This is a well-known shift but, Brown contends, it is more often described than it is explained by modern scholars. We need to get from the ‘what’ to the ‘why’. And to do that, we need to remember to locate intellectual changes amongst social and economic ones.

Chapter one sketches some of the ways in which these issues intersected in early Christianity. He suggests that early Christians in non-Christian societies tended not to be particularly diverse, socially, which meant that there was not a great gap between rich and poor. This gap became more noticeable after 300 as the Roman Empire increasingly embraced Christianity and, in tandem, Christian societies and practices became more formal and hierarchical. Some of the intimacy of relatives feasting in the tombs of San Sebastiano was lost.

Two lively chapters are dedicated to the thoughts and activities of Augustine – long a central figure in Brown’s writing. Brown is careful to show Augustine engaged in debate, reacting to changing situations around him and the requests of those eager to seek his guidance. Often, it seems, Augustine was ‘discouraging’. Once, Bishop Evodius of Uzalis wrote to the bishop of Hippo, asking about what dreams about a recently deceased young notary might indicate about the progression of the boy’s soul towards Heaven. Not a lot, was the reply.

An important thing about Augustine which Brown conveys well is that he had a long career in writing, during which his ideas developed or changed entirely. (Brown calls him ‘a man of many important silences’ – a curious but telling statement about a figure who wrote so much). We see, for instance, Augustine sharpening up his ideas about the counterbalancing little sins with little actions (such as almsgiving), not just as an intellectual progression, but particularly in response to encountering the ideas of Pelagius on sin. Pelagius, unlike Augustine, believed in big gestures such as the rich giving away all of their wealth to obtain salvation, whereas Augustine thought daily sin was pretty much unavoidable and needed constant maintenance. Here, we encounter sin more like a series of debts to be paid off – another intrusion of the problem of wealth – rather than as load that could only be expiated through ritual and God’s mercy. Augustine did not yet, however, get as far as calibrating that sin-as-debt with the amount of time to be spent in purgatory.

Augustine’s notion of atoning for little sins daily through almsgiving and good deeds – which Brown repeatedly alikens to ‘the creaking of a pump’ – contrasted with the stronger views on penance which developed in Gaul. The nature of political and social change there, so Brown argues, was faster and more pronounced than in Augustine’s North Africa. Figures inspired by the penitential monastic ideals forged in the island foundation of Lérins – Salvian of Marseilles, Caesarius of Arles and more – preached urgency regularly and vocally. Brown suggests, interestingly, that monasticism was not the cause but rather the catalyst of this discourse. New kingdoms, new social orders, were emerging dedicated to God and with a strong sense of the importance of repentance before it was too late.

Many of the processes involved in Gaul were distinctive. Building on an article by Steffen Diefenbach about episcopal authority, Brown argues that the situation in Gaul under the Franks changed the semiotics of spiritual charisma. To reject Roman family and class structures was no longer enough to establish authority – bishops increasingly looked to the power of saints. Civil war and shifting marriage patterns created new pockets of social leadership, a Gesamtadel. We find Gregory of Tours writing his gloomy Histories and his books on the miraculous very much in response to these situations, encouraging people around him to be mindful of Judgement Day. Already, however, he seemed out of step with his own times in many ways.

Gregory’s world was very much still framed by the old cities of Roman Gaul. In his ‘Epilogue’, Brown sketches some of the ways in which Gregory’s enterprises contrasted with those from the seventh century. Columbanus brought from Ireland an older spirit of Gallic Christianity and harsh penitential discipline. The spread of monasteries into the north and east of the Frankish world shook off some of the urban-centric points of reference as they established important spiritual nodes in forests and countryside. Pious aristocrats made a show of asceticism in order to highlight their rejection of the worldlier trappings of the powerful. Most of all, we start to get fully-formed visions of the afterlife, such as those by Fursa and Barontus. In terms of theological debate, there is little here which wasn’t discussed in Augustine’s world – only ‘the gradient was sharper’.

Indeed, Brown concludes by wondering what had really changed. He feels that the Antiquity he knows had really gone by the middle of the seventh century, and places the changes in perception of the afterlife central to this:

When the bond between living and the dead, constantly cemented by the rituals of the church, became a cosmos of its own – a subject of deep preoccupation, the stuff of visions, and the object of regular prayers and the donations of millions – then we can say, around the year 650 AD, that the ancient world truly died in Western Europe.

What this means, to Brown, is that Christian imaginations of the afterlife had shaken off the hierarchies of old pagan models to establish something more in tune with penitential cultures – even if most people involved were still drawing on the same core repertoire of ideas. One could tease more out of that comment about ‘donations of millions’, given the emphasis on socio-economic factors on the way to the conclusion. It ties in with one of the central themes of Through the Eye of a Needle: the way that Christianity was evolving after the Fall of Rome in the West changed economic activity and flows of wealth through new forms of pious behaviour. (See also here the idea of a ‘ritual economy’, as non-wine-producing regions needed to import wine for the Eucharist). Now what Brown seems to be saying is that awareness of Judgement – both interim judgement and the Last Judgement – is what gave this change in behaviour compelling. From this perspective, it might be interesting to revisit some of the old debates about the end of late antiquity, such as the apparent collapse in aristocratic demand for luxury goods (see Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages and, within our present theme, cross-check Ian Wood’s recent piece in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society). It is easy to write about politics and socio-economic factors as if they are hard explanatory factors, while religion and culture are not. What Brown is reminding us, is that ideas can lead to substantial change in behaviour and, with that, societies can be transformed.

Ransom brings all the joys and challenges one expects from Brown’s oeuvre. He brings his examples to life with a sharp and direct prose style which is highly engaging and which captures a distinctive voice. Indeed, this is not a style many scholars could emulate – it is more evocative than it is ‘scientific’, and it is punctuated more for rhetorical effect than your standard academic prose. Brown also deals in the Big Picture with an authority few can rival (well, he is 80 this year…). He is not indifferent to manuscript traditions, historical theory and the problems of interpreting sources, but he mostly leaves the dirtier work to other scholars – often with warm recommendations supplied prominently in the main prose. It reminds me of what someone once said about Jinty Nelson’s work: ‘she has clearly read and understood all the technical and theoretical things, but she never feels the need to bore you with them’.

Still, are we actually getting the Big Picture? Anyone who wanted to know how Brown’s arguments fitted into current orthodoxies and debates about the big changes in late Antiquity are left with considerable work to do, even if it would be unfair to ask of more from Ransom’s lean 211 pages. Brown repeats on a couple of occasions that Western Christendom is distinctive compared to Eastern Christianities, Islam and Judaism when it comes to attitudes towards judgement and afterlife and the social contexts of both, but the key points of comparison are left at best under-sketched. Again, one might concede, he cannot do it all. Finally, he talks an awful lot about the Last Judgement for someone who does not talk about the apocalyptic. Okay, I have a vested intellectual interest here: there is a lot of Augustine and Gregory of Tours in The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages (2014), so I often felt that he was only telling part of the story with regards to the eschatological moods and undercurrents involved. I think, more or less, our arguments are complementary – certainly Lizzie Boyle seemed to suggest so at a recent conference – but they might both need a bit of fine-tuning in relation to each other.

So: go read and enjoy Peter Brown’s latest book, for it is good. And remember to take seriously the power of eschatological thought to shape society at a fundamental level.