A fragmented history of lay piety

Kate Cooper’s The Fall of the Roman Household (CUP, 2007) is a very interesting book, but its title is misleading and because of its structure it takes quite a while to work out what its subject actually is. It’s best described as ‘An analysis of late antique senatorial Christianity with special reference to the treatise ‘Ad Gregoriam in palatio’’, but that’s not a title to sell many copies.

Kate Cooper has worked on the text ‘Ad Gregoriam’ before (both in The Virgin and the Bride and in several subsequent articles: see her list of publications), but her main focus has previously been on the gender aspects of the treatise. In this work she looks at in connection with a number of other late antique texts by and addressed to western aristocrats in the late fourth to early sixth century, Her argument is that there was a sustained attempt by authors to inspire men and women in such circles to a Christian life, while respecting their cultural traditions. In a world where traditional Roman values were under threat from economic, military and social problems, such texts aimed to show how the good aristocrat could also be a good Christian. These men and women did not need to abandon their literary culture, their marriages or their households, as the ascetics claimed: instead they could remain in the world, yet sufficiently detached from it.

The parallels in principle with my own work on Carolingian lay nobles are striking, and yet when I look for actual connections, there are hardly any. Carolingian authors of lay mirrors and other moral texts addressed to the laity do not draw on these earlier works, nor come to the same conclusions about the most important moral precepts such people must obey. Kate Cooper argues that the texts she discusses are poorly transmitted, with early medieval monastic librarians tending not to preserve them, but I think there is a more significant reason and that the discontinuities in texts for the Christian laity lie further back.

There are at least two other earlier attempts before the fourth century to produce moral guides for a Christian lay life. One is Clement of Alexandria’s Paidagogus, from the late second century, the other, even further back, is the pastoral epistles of St Paul (or one of his followers), with their ‘household codes’. Cooper mentions St Paul briefly, but not Clement, which I suspect reflects the lack of influence of these earlier works on her texts. Why don’t these texts for the laity form more of a tradition?

Cooper describes ‘Ad Gregoriam’ as a ‘time-capsule’ and contrasts the cultural specificity of Cassiodorus’ work (very firmly mid-sixth century) with the timelessness of the Benedictine Rule, written at about the same time. I think that may provide the key. Texts which discuss how to live a Christian life in the world must of necessity discuss that world and one’s role in it, in a way that inevitably binds the text to a specific culture. Once that culture changes substantially (as in the post-Roman world), the content may become meaningless to a new generation.

In contrast, it is far easier to write a ‘timeless’ work which focuses on detachment from the world, as most of the great spiritual classics do. Some ascetic authors indeed seem to have deliberately striven for such a timeless, non-specific quality in their work, such as John Cassian or Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy, works which as a result could be appreciated by readers for centuries. It is possible to write such works for a lay audience (John Bunyan did it with Pilgrim’s Progress) but only at the cost of saying nothing about the realities of lay life. The minute an author starts talking about marriage or families, they are liable to fall back into the specificity of their age and to lose some of their connection to later readers. Only the literature of world rejection can, at least sometimes, remain outside the currents of time, in its own disconnected eternity.

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