Popular culture and populist puritans

My final post on this summer’s IHR Earlier Medieval seminars (though it wasn’t actually the final paper of the term) is about Lucy Grig’s paper on “In search of late antique popular culture (via Caesarius of Arles)”. Lucy was looking at Arles in the early sixth century, a city possibly at the cusp of the ancient and medieval worlds. (Its greatest moment had been in the fourth century, when it had won imperial favour under Constantine). She was particularly interested in looking at how popular culture might be embedded in and interacting with “high culture” and quoted Stuart Hall (the modern cultural theorist) on the tensions between popular culture and the dominant culture which tries to reshape it.

Those attempts to reshape popular culture are very clear in Caesarius’ sermons (or at least the sermons attributed to Caesarius – Lucy said for her purposes it wasn’t essential if they were all his personal work). His sermons do seem to be aimed at a wider cultural group than before, even if there’s argument about who exactly the audience are, and they’re certainly trying to reform popular culture. Some of the things he complains about, like attending theatrical spectacles, may be purely a trope. It’s unlikely the amphitheatre and theatre in Arles were still going by his time; their sites seem to have been used for spolia from the fifth century.

But in sermon 6, which is written in the form of a dialogue with various “rustici”, we do seem to have something reflecting actual practices. Caesarius insists that being illiterate is no excuse for not following God’s commandments – you can still listen to someone reading to you. If you can remember “shameful love songs”, why can’t you learn and remember the Creed? If you’re bothered enough about your vineyard to get good advice on taking care of it, why aren’t you bothered enough about your soul to ask experts about that? Caesarius’ rustic man may not be the lowest of the peasants, if he’s got his own vineyard, but he certainly sounds to have his own culture, and it’s one that Caesarius wants to change. Other sermons of Caesarius show him co-opting the local land-owning elite into policing their subordinates and controlling their own household, as well as encouraging his audience to inform on their misbehaving neighbours.

This looks like the active attempt to attack current forms of popular culture; Lucy briefly also mentioned hints at what might be intended to replace this. Caesarius wanted lay people to learn psalms and hymns by heart, partly because if they were singing in church, they wouldn’t have time to gossip there. Augustine composed popular hymns, such as a peculiar abecedarian hymn against the Donatists. (This has apparently been described as the first pop song, even though it would have taken 35 minutes to perform – I think references to prog rock popped up either in the talk itself or the discussion afterwards, though we also had Charlotte Roueché saying that Acts 19 has a crowd crying out acclamations to Diana of the Ephesians for two hours, so 35 minutes against the Donatists isn’t long).

So is this another case of cultural hegemony attempting to stifle popular culture, which in turn resists it, in the way Stuart Hall talks about? Yes, but there’s also something interesting and different here. Peter Heather, in the discussion afterwards, was pointing out that pre-Christian/non-Christian authors (he mentioned Themistius as an example), simply didn’t give a damn about popular culture. Themistius was part of a very elitist culture in which the only rational people worth bothering about were the educated and leisured. This only changed in the fourth and fifth century because Christianity said everyone had souls. Caesarius fulminated against the lives and culture of the plebs because they mattered to him as people in a way that they hadn’t to previous cultural elites.

In this, Caesarius is part of a whole group of populist puritans visible in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages: I’d link him with other religious reformers such as Augustine, John Chrysostom, Jonas of Orléans, and to a certain extent Hincmar of Rheims as well. They’re all men who want to interfere in the lives of others: puritanical about sex and dirty songs, but also attacking the ill-deeds of rich and powerful men. Caesarius condemns male drunkenness and promiscuity; Chrysostom denounces wife-beating and those who don’t help the poor. Jonas and Hincmar too both condemn oppression of the less powerful. They were moralists who didn’t take the moral status quo of the ancient/early medieval world as acceptable: the other side to their puritanical nature was a genuine concern for the poor and vulnerable. Many religious moralists now only seem to worry about sex; it’s interesting to have a reminder of a time when moralists were concerned with all aspects of their audience’s lives.

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