Envoys and Political Communication in the Late Antique West, 411-533

By Andrew Gillett | Go to book overview
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Chapter 4
THE SAINT AS ENVOY: FIFTH- AND
SIXTH-CENTURY LATIN BISHOPS'
LIVES

Through the intercession and merit of the priest, a king was restrained, an
army recalled, provinces spared from devastation.

Constantius, Vita Germani Autissiodorensis, 28

Besides Sidonius' Panegyric on Avitus, the most extensive dramatisations of embassies in late antique Latin literature occur in several hagiographic Lives of bishops. Scenes of bishops undertaking legations to rulers on behalf of their communities are well-known attestations of the increasing involvement of the episcopacy in public functions, in turn a reflection of the annexation of the office of bishop by members of the provincial aristocracy.1 Such tableaux also appear to give evidence of a concomitant ebb of municipal and imperial authority, a vacuum filled perforce by the church. This latter impression is misleading.2 Embassies appear in late fifth- and early sixth-century hagiography precisely because the undertaking of legations was a common but prestigious political occurrence in secular centres of power, carried out by non-ecclesiastics

1 On bishops and aristocracy: M. Heinzelmann, Bischofsherrschaft in Gallien: zur Kontinuitat römischer Fuhrungsschichten vom 4. bis zum 7. Jahrhundert (Beiheft der Francia 5; Munich, 1976); S. J. B. Barnish, ‘Transformation and Survival in the Western Senatorial Aristocracy, c. AD 400–700’, Papers of the British School in Rome 56 (1988), 138–40.

There is no single overview of late antique/early medieval hagiography pending the completion of the multi-volume Hagiographies, ed. Guy Philipart, 2 vols. to date (Corpus Christianorum; Turnhout, 1994, 1996), but valuable surveys of recent work include: P. Fouracre, ‘Merovingian History and Merovingian Hagiography’, Past and Present 127 (1990), 3–38; Julia M. H. Smith, ‘Early Medieval Hagiography in the Late Twentieth Century’, Early Medieval Europe 1 (1992), 69–76; Patrick J. Geary, Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY, 1994), 9–29; I. N Wood, ‘The Use and Abuse of Latin Hagiography in the Early Medieval West’, in E. Chrysos and I. Wood (eds.), East and West: Modes of Communication (The Transformation of the Roman World 5; Leiden, 1999), 93–109. For literary analysis of the genre: E Lotter, Severinus von Noricum: Legende und historische Wirklichkeit (Stuttgart, 1976), 37–59; C. Stancliffe, St Martin and his Hagiographer: History and Miracle in Sulpicius Severus (Oxford, 1983), 86–102; W Berschin, Biographie und Epochenstil im lateinischen Mittelalter, 3 vols. (Stuttgart, 1986–91), esp. i, section iv, ‘Bischofsleben der Spatantike’, 193–266.

2 Cf. the cautions against exaggerating the degree of municipal secular authority held by bishops prior to the mid-sixth century (for the West) in Liebeschuetz, Decline and Fall of the Roman City, esp. 143, 144, 154, 156–7.

-113-

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