Tag Archives: social history

After Leo, then what?

Me at Leo’s tomb, St Peter’s

My current research is embroiled in the next steps of my project on the letters of Leo the Great — editing, translating, and writing a commentary on them. If I live to see the end of this, what will my next big project be? I will stick with papal letters if I’ve not tired of them, but from a different perspective.

I would want to write a social history of Latin Christianity in the long (papal) fifth century — Siricius in 385 to Symmachus’ death in 514. The core sources would be the papal letters, although I am not afraid of using corroborating evidence or challenging them with contrary evidence as I go. One of the frustrations I had with Crisis Management in Late Antiquity is that, since it was a study of only one body of evidence, all sorts of other questions of how bishops dealt with crises were excluded, or at least potential answers were excluded. I don’t want to do that.

The question I would pose would be a sidestep of papal history and episcopal self-fashioning in late antique Rome. Instead, I would ask, ‘What do these letters tell us about everybody else? Especially the laypeople.‘ What is everyday life like for the fifth-century citizenry of the cities to whom the popes write? Papal letters, like other episcopal letters and canon law documents, are responding to situations. What situations are they responding to? What are the ramifications? How does this fit in with other evidence?

Some of these situations have been studied already, but my angle is not, ‘What does this tell us about Innocent or Celestine?’ Rather, my angle is, ‘What does this tell us about the lives of these ‘ordinary’ people?’

If I’m tired of papal letters by then — as I may well be — a book on the devotional expectations of fifth-century Italian preachers of their lay audience would be of interest, assessing Leo the Great, Peter Chrysologus, and Maximus of Turin. All-too-often visions of late antique piety are concerned with monks or with what these preachers would have considered ‘deviant’ practices — so what did they recommend, and what is its meaning in its own place and time?