Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul

Article excerpt

Yitzak Hen, Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, A.D. 481-751, Cultures, Beliefs and Traditions: Medieval and Early Modern Peoples i (Leiden, New York, and Cologne: E. J. Brill, 1995). xiv + 308 pp. ISBN 90-0410347-3. $100.50.

This book is an attempt to demonstrate that Merovingian Gaul, which is here distinguished from north-eastern Austrasia and the Frankish territories beyond the Rhine, was completely 'Christian': not only was 'secularity' not an option, but paganism was confined to the utmost margins of society from within a generation of the arrival of the Franks. Many will think this an unwise project, given how large and diverse a region Gaul was, how lacunose is the coverage offered by the historical record, and how difficult it is to demonstrate belief and understanding. In an attempt to circumvent these problems, Hen focuses upon Christianity's ritual practices, which he defines as its lowest common denominator as distinct from its intellectual content. He then sets about accumulating evidence that the vast majority of the population organized their lives around the rituals of the Church: that, for example, the annual calendar was governed by 'temporal' and `sanctoral cycles' of the kind prescribed in the surviving mass-books (sacramentaries) of the Gallican Church.

This might seem like a plausible approach, but it is pursued with only minimal respect for how little is really known about how the liturgy was applied in practice. This much is well illustrated by Hen's attempts to reconstruct the `sanctoral cycles' of five different 'locations' in Gaul. He attempts, for example, to infer the sanctoral cycle of Chelles from the contents of the nuns' relic collection, but it is problematic to assume that churches celebrated the feasts of saints of whom they possessed minor relics. Whenever, as sometimes happens in later centuries, both a relic list and a liturgical calendar survive for the same church the list almost always includes the relics of many saints whose feasts do not appear in the liturgical calendar. Hen envisages, furthermore, that all the churches and religious communities in a given city (sixth-century Arles or seventh-century Auxerre, for example) observed the same sanctoral cycle, a very doubtful assumption indeed given that cults were often vehicles for the expression of rivalries between local churches. …

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