Christianization and Commonwealth in Early Medieval Europe

A Ritual Interpretation

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Nathan J. Ristuccia
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nathan Ristuccia’s book, Christianization and Commonwealth in Early Medieval Europe: A Ritual Interpretation, examines the early medieval feast of Rogationtide as instrumental in the development of Christianness in Europe. He writes that Christians were required to participate in the rites of the festival, which “was—with the sole exception of Easter—the greatest feast of the liturgical year” (3). Mindful of Philippe Buc’s criticisms of studying ritual as a mirror into medieval society, Ristuccia maintains that Rogationtide’s purpose was to transform souls through penance and instruction, while also joining Christians locally into “a single commonwealth, united and equal in their submission to a single church” (18). According to Ristuccia, this experience of spiritual transformation and communal participation differentiates such religious rituals from the political ones examined by Buc. Ristuccia focuses on Rogationtide’s historical development, as well as its theological interpretations and legal power for shaping Christianity. Central to the book’s argument is Ristuccia’s claim that scholars should investigate Christianization without modern preconceptions. He provides a brief genealogy of Christianization in order to demonstrate that the concept is anachronistic and, therefore, historically misleading. Rather than viewing Christianization as a process that transformed society, scholars should see that “Christianization is not an event; it is a contentious paradigm for interpreting events,” one that Ristuccia asserts “prevents us from understanding the past” (9-10). Alternatively, he suggests that understanding “Christianness as citizenship” brings one closer to a medieval perspective, since participation in Rogationtide’s penitential procession and doctrinal instruction made one a member of the Christian community.

In chapter 1, the investigation focuses on the creation of Rogationtide in the context of the barbarian invasions and the end of Roman rule in the west. The feast seems to have begun in 472 in the city of Vienne, where Archbishop Mamertus was said to have organized a penitential procession for the community’s protection. The festival—which soon spread throughout Gaul and eventually into the rest of western Europe—generally lasted for three days in the season of Ascension and Pentecost, and it involved both clergy and laity, who engaged in fasting and prayer. Ristuccia argues that the meaning of Rogationtide was flexible, though overall church councils and clerical authors used it to encourage a sense of Christian Romanness as imperial rule fell apart. Chapter 2 refutes the claim that Rogationtide developed out of the pagan Roman tradition of Ambarvalia. Ristuccia identifies syncretism and pagan survival as theological notions akin to supersessionism, which classifies the church as Israel’s successor. Thus, Christian writers often viewed Roman pagans as simply flawed forbearers of Christians. Ristuccia explores both Reformation era and early medieval accounts of Rogationtide to elucidate that their authors used pagans rhetorically to make theological arguments about good and bad Christianity in relation to the procession.

Chapter 3 recreates the experience of the procession using a variety of early medieval sources. Christians gathered on the feast at their baptismal churches to form the church community (plebs), and then processed in penitential dress under clerical direction. Saints’ shrines served as stopping places for prayer, while these holy protectors drove out demonic forces from the community. Rogationtide sermons stressed remorse for sins and solidarity among believers whatever their status, though the procession simultaneously reinforced hierarchy within the community. In chapter 4, Ristuccia observes the problem of ritual failure and the tendency of clerical authorities to discredit their competitors based on the supposed flaws in their processions. Here we see how authors crafted Rogationtide’s meaning to serve their own political ends, while still preserving the feast’s intention of gathering and reaffirming the Christian community. Readers will find the chapter’s case studies interesting, including Gregory of Tours’s account of Avitus of Clermont’s efforts to malign the city’s Jewish community as a threat to Christianness in 576, and Gregory’s stories of allegedly fraudulent holymen who competed with bishops for their flocks. The chapter also considers the 8th century case of Aldebert, the Frankish bishop discredited by Boniface. Ristuccia writes that Aldebert was an east Frankish auxiliary bishop, whose processional liturgy—along with his charismatic powers and reforming tendencies—threatened Boniface’s plans for correcting the church according to his own vision with Carolingian support. The chapter concludes with an examination of the 11th century Patarenes in Milan and its environs, illuminating how the arguments of these reformers and their opponents reveal the flexibility with which Rogationtide’s meaning could be framed. Chapter 5 examines the instructional and ideological aspects of Rogationtide. Ristuccia argues that this was how the feast linked doctrine with praxis. The chapter traces the decline of the ancient catechumenal system, in which adults were educated and eventually baptized at Easter. Additionally, infant baptism was another cause which contributed to its disappearance. Ristuccia suggests that Rogationtide replaced catechumenal instruction by examining sermons written for the feast that frequently explained the theological significance of the Lord’s Prayer to believers. This was particularly important, given that knowing the prayer was required of all Christians. Indeed, the laity prayed the Pater Noster repeatedly during the procession. Preachers used the text to explain the fundamentals of doctrine so that believers new and old understood the relationship of this central prayer to their participation in the Christian commonwealth.

Ristuccia’s book gives us much to consider. His laudable efforts have reconstructed the feast from disparate and often difficult sources, whose interpretation requires great care and invention. Moreover, the book’s theological emphasis and its reframing of early medieval Christianity place it within a growing body of scholarship that enriches our understanding of the early medieval world, while also revealing the ideological and hierarchical forces that shaped the lives of early medieval Christians. This research asks historians to develop what I would call a theological consciousness, one that identifies medieval concepts and phenomena, while bracketing our modern understandings of religion, identity, society, and community. Only by developing such powers of seeing can we further uncover the complexities and uniqueness of early medieval Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Bryan Gillis is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nathan J. Ristuccia is a historian specializing on the history of ancient and medieval Christianity. He received his doctorate in Medieval Studies from the University of Notre Dame. After working for several years as a Collegiate Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, he now teaches Latin at Rockbridge Academy.


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