We are experiencing COVID-related supply chain delays. Please note, orders are currently taking 10-15 days to be delivered.
We thank you for your understanding and patience.
Penn Press logo
Expectations of Justice in the Age of Augustine

Expectations of Justice in the Age of Augustine examines the complex and varying roles Christian bishops played during late antiquity and how their experiences fundamentally affected Christian ideals of divine justice.

Expectations of Justice in the Age of Augustine

Kevin Uhalde

2007 | 248 pages | Cloth $75.00
History / Classics
View main book page

Table of Contents


1. Calumny: Well Known Reasons Why Justice Fails
Judicial culture
Juridical solutions: Roman law
Popular responses
The bishop's court
Juridical solutions: canon law
Social bonds and boundaries

2. "Judge Like God": What Bishops Claimed to Expect of Themselves
Between perfection and failure
Traditions of judgment and discernment
Spiritual discernment at work
Alternate traditions of discernment	
The exemplary life of bishops
The idea fails

3. Christian Oaths: A Case Study in Practicality over Doctrine
Oaths are social bonds
The public life of oaths
Solemn promises plus some exemptions
Exegetes on swearing
Socialis necessitudo and the need for oaths
Swearing in the land of falsehood

4. Mercy Not Justice: How Penance Became a Worthy Act of Self-Incrimination
A profession of holiness
Preachers of penance
The penitential lives of religious professionals
The heroic lives of penitents
Compunction and discernment for all
The balance of mercy and justice
An end to the scholarly myth of decline and rigorism



Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Expectans expectavi Dominum et inclinatus est ad me
et audivit clamorem meum
(Patiently I awaited the Lord and he turned to me and heard my cry.)
—Vulgate Psalm 39:2

This doubled word deserves attention, for such a graceful repetition is not mere embellishment. Certainly we are able to be expectant, but in a grudging mood. Still we may be patiently expectant when we bear something calmly and with powerful longing.
—Cassiodorus, Expositio Psalmorum 39.2

The life of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (485/90-ca. 580), best known simply as Cassiodorus, epitomized the age of transition in which he lived. One foot rested in the ancient past, for Cassiodorus had impeccable credentials as a late Roman aristocrat. While still a young man, he served as assistant to his father, the praetorian prefect, and then as quaestor. In 514 he was the sole consul in the empire, then master of offices from 523 to 527, and praetorian prefect in Italy for four years until 537. His other foot, however, was in the Middle Ages. He wrote Latin letters on behalf of King Theoderic the Great (ca. 452-526) of the Ostrogoths, the Germanic occupants of Italy whose relations with the imperial court in Constantinople deteriorated into open warfare during Cassiodorus' public career. He began his commentary on the Psalms while still in Ravenna, probably around 538, at a moment of personal transition. He had known what it meant to serve in public life and to wait "grudging" but "expectantly" through its vicissitudes, and now he was facing a new life. It was a whole other life, in fact, for he would live fifty more years, most of them as a recluse on the monastery he founded in Southern Italy, called Vivarium after its pools stocked with fish.

In the "Explanation of the Psalms," the book his medieval readers would know best, Cassiodorus acknowledged his debt to Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Indeed, Cassiodorus' future spiritual and literary career owed much to Augustine and other members of his generation a century earlier. For in their hands, as Mark Vessey has argued recently, the interpretation of scripture had become a new form of authorship, in which one's public life and spiritual life were equally invested and measured out for posterity. Cassiodorus was attuned to Augustine's intellectual universe and especially to his sensitivity with regard to human expectations and divine justice in the Psalms. Nonetheless, Cassiodorus, this former advisor to a barbarian king, lived in a different world from the bishop of Hippo. Studying, reflecting, and writing at his retreat at Vivarium, his fingers stained with ink (we have his marginal notes penned in a few manuscripts), Cassiodorus enjoyed a leisure Augustine and many of his contemporaries had hardly known. For although they too might have wished to measure their lives by the books they wrote, the bishops with whom this book is primarily concerned also had their hands full with the mundane affairs Cassiodorus had left behind in Ravenna.

The bishops who held office during Augustine's adult life, between roughly 370 and 430, lived and worked through massive changes in politics, society, and religion that would affect their successors, directly or indirectly, for generations to come. This book is concerned particularly with the way these bishops explained the failure of justice to themselves and their followers. Augustine and his near contemporaries were no more or less successful at handling justice than other late antique or early medieval bishops. However, perhaps in part because the challenge of representing divine justice while simultaneously engaging in and even presiding over the mess of worldly justice was still novel for church officials, we can find ample evidence of their frustration and whatever measures they sought for relief. The couple of generations of Christian intellectuals who figure prominently here were no ivory tower recluses. On the one hand, their elite status connected them with other elites around the Roman Empire, within both the church and secular government. On the other hand, their professional occupation as bishops forced them into contact with the middling and lower ranks of society and filled their days with the sorts of activities that made communities hum—business deals, litigation, gossip, violence. In this respect, bishops in Augustine's day were not so different from those Cassiodorus would have known.

During the fourth through the sixth centuries, Christian bishops were intellectuals, legislators, patrons, judges, and pastors. To adequately fulfill just some of these roles meant juggling disparate skills and responsibilities that fit together awkwardly more often than not. Bishops' broad occupational experience with both the philosophy and the exercise of justice shaped not only the ideal of the episcopal office, but also created a practical sounding chamber for Christian notions of justice and salvation. Theory and practice—one affected the other. So on the one hand, for example, in his De civitate Dei ("The City of God"), Augustine employed a classical text as an intellectual sounding chamber for a Christian theory of justice. By substituting Christ for the ideal statesman whom Cicero (106-43 BC) had described in De re publica, Augustine redefined the place of justice in human society. "The City of God" then demonstrated the result in historical and theological terms, as Robert Dodaro has shown with meticulous care. On the other hand, though, Augustine and other bishops also lived with the result of the Christian transformation in their own communities. Their experience with the way legal procedures and judgment worked on the ground compelled bishops to question whether anyone could be guaranteed justice on earth even from bishops, God's own representatives. As a result, Christian ideals of divine justice fundamentally changed to accommodate the unpleasant reality of worldly justice and its failings. The implications of this transformation resonated within Christianity for centuries and directly affected religious life, from the performance of penance to how people conceived of the Final Judgment.

This book illuminates the decisive but subtle processes by which this happened. It focuses on the age in which Augustine lived, a slice of time across which we may trace the complexities and contingencies of those processes. Keeping them in focus will also require that we sometimes move backward and forward in time, examining the different ways church leaders represented their own authority, conducted mundane and sacred affairs, and communicated with lay Christians about justice. The sources resist this project in a number of ways. From a very rough estimate of a thousand bishoprics in the western regions alone of the Roman Empire, the experiences of only a handful of bishops are sufficiently represented in the written record for us to be able to discern not only their professional ambitions but something of their personal success or failure. But it gets worse. A thousand or so western bishops lived and worked among as many as twenty million laypeople, the smallest fraction of whom enjoy even an oblique reference in the sources. Did these ordinary people ever expect to receive justice? Where did they look for it? Were they ever satisfied? We must content ourselves with exploring the vestiges their expectations and experiences left in the material that survives: secular and ecclesiastical law, theological treatises, sermons, saints' lives, liturgical prayers, letters, and inscriptions.

Because of these limitations in the evidence, the present investigation is in equal parts an intellectual history and a social history, building upon and sometimes departing from recent scholarship in both these areas. As an intellectual history, it examines legal structures and customs within the church and surrounding the church in the world at large. Caroline Humfress' recent work has been important in this context, for it demonstrates with clarity and precision the ways in which Roman law shaped Christian doctrine with regard to the definition and proscription of heresy. The legal expertise of bishops—whether real, imagined, or exaggerated by bishops themselves—is important to this study as well. But so is the application of this expertise in mundane society. Beyond the intellectual developments of the Christian clerical world, this study is an attempt to sense the presence of a lay world, which "waited expectantly" (expectans expectavi), in the words of the psalmist, for justice.

So this is not a book only about bishops. If bishops figure prominently in its pages, it shows them from an unaccustomed viewing point. For, unlike much of the current attention given bishops, this book considers the impact of bishops' incompetence rather than their competence. Bishops were challenged to carry out what was, after all, an impossible task—to harmonize the conflicting demands of spiritual purity and worldly administration within Christian communities. These local communities were complex, growing larger and more complex over the course of the period under examination, often sharing space, overlapping, and conflicting with communities that followed different traditions and even different leadership, as well as Jewish and polytheistic communities. Unlike conventional intellectual histories, the stress throughout this book is less on the discourse among religious elites than on the discourse between religious elites and the rest of society. The experience of bishops with a range of judicial situations was often frustrating for themselves and their followers, but ultimately it was productive. On the edge of failure, adaptation took place. During these centuries, perhaps more than any other until the sixteenth century, a combination of historical factors and institutional conditions lowered the screen between religious beliefs and social practices, and Christian society changed as a result.

Change and continuity

The following chapters sometimes range across a broad span of time in order to explore continuities related to religious leadership, the crafting of law, judicial procedures, and popular responses where such responses are discernible. These continuities give coherence to an otherwise tumultuous age. For few historical periods furnish us with less information about the conduct of daily life and the experiences of people outside of a narrow elite than this, the beginning of the proverbial Dark Ages, the last centuries of antiquity, the first centuries of the Middle Ages, the postclassical, post-Roman, or sub-Roman world. Yet one thing can be said. The more we come to know this period, the more we realize that, in certain crucial respects, the world of the later Roman Empire—a world so different from the ancient world before it that we call it by a different name, late antiquity—lived on in western communities deep into the sixth and even the seventh centuries. This book traces some of these slow processes across the long span of Late Antiquity and examines them more closely during the age of Augustine.

All the same, if late antique society knew only continuity, there would be no history to write. Until fairly recently, this era in western history was far more famous for its discontinuities, still made most memorable for us in images of barbarian hordes rushing down from the frosty north to spoil the sun soaked south. J. B. Bury's lectures on "The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians," for example, remain in print more than seventy-five years after their publication in 1928. One suspects that they attract readers, less for their nuanced argument about gradual barbarian assimilation, than for their vivid descriptions of the "dismembering" of the western empire. Of course, considerable evidence exists, and articulate proponents remain, to support the argument that foreign peoples did indeed destabilize the Roman Empire decisively during the fourth and fifth centuries. Yet it is something more romantic, surely, that explains why titles of otherwise sober scholarly works continue to evoke notions of sudden invasion and utter collapse neatly consonant with the title of a recent videogame, "Rome: Total War™—Barbarian Invasion."

Less popular than the barbarian hordes but easily as influential is a narrative of religious discontinuity within Christianity itself, epitomized in two related myths that still inhibit our understanding of this transitional period. One is the myth of Christianity's decline, according to which the general quality of humanity sunk steadily toward its Dark Age nadir. Its plot, like that of invading barbarian hordes, is compelling and familiar from its repetition by countless authors and so can be sketched in broad strokes here. Almost simultaneously with the conversion of Constantine (r. 312-337) and the triumph of Christianity in the fourth century, churchmen and laypeople set to work devastating a spiritual landscape that once had been fertile. Christians after Constantine, so the story goes, watched while a Golden Age receded into the past, a lost moment when pastors had been sensitive to the needs and abilities of their followers and ordinary Christians were committed to spiritual excellence.

For evidence that at least the myth of an early Christian Golden Age was operative in antiquity, there is a discernible nostalgia for Christianity's imagined heroic past in the sermons of bishops from throughout our period such as Pacian of Barcelona in the fourth century and Caesarius of Arles in the sixth century. The roots of the decline myth are almost as deep, appearing in early medieval writers including the monk Jonas of Bobbio. His biography of Columbanus, written in 639-43, described how that saint brought the hope of salvation to Northern Gaul, a region Jonas claimed was devoid of spiritual promise before Columbanus arrived. Those roots of the myth sustain a hearty tradition flourishing still today in the work of distinguished historians such as Arnold Angenendt and Jacques Le Goff. Their visions of the Middle Ages rely in part on a bleak view of its origins in what Angenendt calls the "eclipse" and Le Goff calls the "stagnation" of Christian intellectual culture that accompanied the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In his Birth of Purgatory, Le Goff cuts even the invading barbarians slack for their part in launching the Dark Ages, because "the 'responsibility' for the decline in the general cultural and spiritual level was not borne by the 'barbarians' alone." He goes on to explain that "the fact that the peasant masses, the 'barbarians' within, took up the Christian religion was at least as important as the fact that invaders from outside the Roman world took up residence inside it. The 'barbarization' of Roman society was in part a democratization." The 'barbarization' or 'Germanization' of western Christianity has its own story with its own authors. It is enough for us to agree with Le Goff that "here matters become still more complicated" and then to leave such generalizing narratives otherwise alone.

Nevertheless, the fifth century was not the end of a Golden Age. For one thing, the Christian Golden Age never existed. It was no more real than the Roman Golden Age, when Saturn ruled the earth and Justice dwelled in person among humankind—although both Golden Ages had meaning for some Christians living in the late Empire. The historians who have perpetuated the notion, moreover, have used the myth of decline to help explain another, corollary myth—that of ecclesiastical rigorism. This myth insists that the fifth century was the beginning of a long period of neglectful rulership when Christian leaders became caught up in the machinery of their institution and disregarded its spirit. The notion is most discernible in modern histories of the sacrament of penance and its development during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Cyrille Vogel was the most prolific commentator on what he alleged to have been the church's "systematic refusal of any indulgence adapted to human weakness" during our period, but Vogel was hardly alone. More recently, medievalists have worked at revising the entire history of penance. The fifth through seventh centuries remain a crucial period of transition, and Mayke de Jong, Peter Brown, Éric Rebillard, and Robert Meens have led a reconsideration of both the decline and rigor myths in the context of understanding how sin and forgiveness worked. We seem close to being able to write a new history of Christianity, one no longer bound by the old myths whose "grand narrative," as De Jong calls it, still persists.

The tenacity of these myths is understandable. Following the history of Christianity from its earliest centuries to the Middle Ages and the age of reformations, moving from council to council and heresy to heresy, from one reform movement to another, through successive alliances and conflicts with secular princes, perhaps it is easy to get caught up in the apparent momentum of its progress. In reality, however, more or less after the conversion of Constantine, like a heavy truck hitting a steep grade, the processes of Christianization had shifted into a lower gear, providing greater traction and slower velocity than before, and our attention must shift accordingly. After Christianity became an imperial and later a royal religion, church leaders willingly or not locked pace with slower developments in the life of religious communities, less interesting to later generations of spectators focused on institutional, sacramental, and theological milemarkers looming in the distance. But these slower developments were where the expectations of bishops and their followers came into closest contact, especially over timeless questions of justice.

To emphasize continuity over disruption, to argue for what Peter Garnsey and Caroline Humfress have called "creeping change" and "'creative' evolution" between antiquity and the Middle Ages, is to join company among many historians of the late ancient and early medieval worlds. Legal historians, for example, once might have emphasized dramatic changes in law resulting from Christianization and Germanization during this period. But now Maurizio Lupoi and the late Patrick Wormald have written about smooth transformations and "shared culture" leading directly to a European "common law." Similarly on the ground, this was not the first time in history that people hoped to win judicial satisfaction or at least enjoy some degree of personal security. These were stable desires that political upheaval, social disruption, and religious revolution hardly affected. Christianity made very little difference, moreover, in the devices, techniques, and procedures that supplied and controlled justice in real life. The single-most outstanding factor of change in the way elites handled justice and ordinary people experienced it was the rise in the person of the bishop of an official who bridged the theory and practice of justice, the subject around which the following chapters revolve.

Ch. 1 Calumny: Well Known Reasons Why Justice Fails

By the late fourth century, bishops were engaging the machinery of worldly justice in the capacity of judge, arbiter, plaintiff, and defendant. In the late Roman Empire and in the kingdoms that followed in the west, secular rulers allowed bishops varying degrees of judicial authority in religious and worldly affairs. For the western successor kingdoms, bishops were among the expert custodians of Roman laws, procedures, and administration. Of course, we must be careful not to exaggerate the degree to which the idea of judicial expertise translated into institutional reality. For one reason, as Richard Helmholz observes in his recent survey of church law and administration in medieval England, most regional churches lacked the Roman Empire's institutional resources for implementing the laws their leaders esteemed. "The institutional life of the church could not be securely tied to legal rule, no matter the aspirations of its bishops," Helmholz writes. "The short of it was that the laws so highly regarded by many of the church's leaders did not add up to a regime of government by law." Perhaps not, although we also should not discount the evidence that legal expertise did not expire altogether and that clerics continued to practice the law alongside secular lawyers, even if on a diminished scale—all of which Detlef Liebs has demonstrated for the Merovingian regions.

There is another reason, however, for us to look beyond the laws in order to understand how justice worked. For at the same time that the church preserved some familiar judicial forms, a variety of other ways for settling arguments, cementing relationships, and getting what people wanted existed outside of courtrooms and audience chambers. Options ranging from legalized venues of arbitration to the illicit use of trickery, magic, or violence provided both alternatives and supplements to regular courts, contributing to what Jeffrey Bowman recognized in a later period as a "kind of ordered irresolution in the judicial process" that maximized the range of options for potential litigants, even if it could not guarantee them success. Here too bishops played important roles. Within most local communities, they were a more accessible source of judicial authority than any imperial or royal official.

Although informative documentary evidence for actual business conducted in bishops' courts during our period is scarce, we get a sense of what both bishops and disputants expected by examining the problem of calumny (calumnia), a perennial topic of Roman law and soon of ecclesiastical law as well. Bishops joined emperors and their legal experts in trying to confront the problem of calumny as a juridical dilemma, capable of a juridical solution. Calumny included false accusations as well as spurious litigation intended to harm or harass defendants. In edicts and canons spanning centuries of legislation, authorities repeatedly attacked calumny with a limited arsenal of weapons: procedural requirements, rules of evidence, prohibition of certain types of accusations, and sanctions for convicted violators.

Calumny, however, was also a social problem, catching bishops uncomfortably between the abstract certainty of divine justice and the inescapable uncertainty of human society. This timeless trap was a byproduct of human interaction, what Augustine of Hippo followed Cicero in describing as "social bond" (socialis necessitudo), and which centuries later continues to draw the attention of philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, who describes how "our insecurity is inseparable from our sociability." Shame, vulnerability, self-doubt: these aspects of uncertainty are as important as trust and certainty to holding society together. For, as Nussbaum suggests, "if we think of ourselves as like the self-sufficient gods, we fail to understand the ties that join us to our fellow humans. Nor is that lack of understanding innocent," for it leads to the breakdown of social bond.

Set against the demands of "social bond," the campaign against calumny was a failure by any realistic measure. Juridical solutions could not work and even made things worse by adding further layers to judicial complexity that likely favored crafty calumniators over naïve innocents. When we trace the problem of accusations through a sample of ecclesiastical sources, we shall find that various bishops reacted differently to the fallibility of their own procedures and institutions. At the end of the day, however, they did not ignore or isolate calumny as an incurable disease of the secular world. Instead, the ideology of Christian unity and leadership absorbed the prevention of calumny as a religious virtue. Thus our attention to the procedures of fairness brings us to the heart of what made the episcopal office distinctive and what makes it central to this study: bishops straddled the theory and the practice of justice, the letter of the law and its application.

Ch. 2 "Judge Like God": What Bishops Claimed to Expect of Themselves

Furthermore, from their first emergence as spiritual leaders in the early centuries of Christianity, bishops administered justice in the daily lives of their followers. Meanwhile justice was a key attribute of their spiritual authority. Like late antique emperors, who adopted the Hellenistic concept that a sovereign is "living law" (empsuchos nomos), bishops represented divine justice in all its impeccable, indefatigable, unyielding, but merciful glory. The ideal bishop-judge was a manufactured personality that came to be associated with the episcopal office and its occupants, an identity which made sense of their disparate qualifications and obligations—ascetic, pastoral, and judicial authority, which Claudia Rapp in her recent book examines with an admirable balance between clarity and nuance. In its purest form, this personality provided individual bishops with a sense of professional and spiritual continuity. Their office supplied them a profile, moreover, to match what freshly ordained bishops soon would discover to be a dissonant chorus of demands and expectations that were impossible to fulfill.

For at the same time, more like middle-level government officials than princes, bishops could not escape the pathetic failure of justice within human society, among good Christians, and in their own churches and courtrooms. To their chagrin, bishops were unlike most other lawmakers of the time. Although they celebrated their own stellar attributes of justice as much as any emperor or king, their authority was also sunk deep in the vagaries and failings of human society. We shall weigh the ideal against reality by looking at how Ambrose of Milan, one of the key early proponents of episcopal justice, responded to the failure of justice in a particular judicial case. Although the ideal of the bishop-judge persisted throughout our period and beyond, real bishops were caught between the "glory of forgiving," as one imperial edict characterized episcopal justice, and "a demand for justice that far outstripped the bishops' ability to satisfy it."

That bishops made exceptional judges became a commonplace in late antique and early Byzantine Christian literature. In treatises, vitae, and epitaphs, authors embroidered their subjects with scriptural allusions and suggestions of aristocratic refinement. For their part, bishops were likely to grumble about the time they lost handling legal matters, none more famously than Augustine who, according to his fellow bishop and biographer, Possidius of Calama, at least, viewed his role in resolving disputes "as forced labor that took him away from better things." In order to place such perceptions in a broader context, we must have a sense of how justice worked outside of episcopal audience chambers. Fortunately, recent studies by Jill Harries, Tony Honoré, Christopher Kelly, Detlef Liebs, and Caroline Humfress have explored how law, administration, and legal science worked and sometimes failed to work in the fourth and fifth-century empire. Bishops were part of a larger world, a world with its own legal culture that did not revolve around their anxieties and which had its own, persistent problems bishops had to learn to handle. The provision of justice was one of those problems, which bishops, partly out of necessity and partly of their own volition, chose to make their own. Whether or not bishops resented the reputation they earned over time for being exceptional judges, and whether that reputation was deserved, it became a fundamental component of episcopal authority.

One specific attribute of the ideal bishop-judge was the power to discern obscurities (discretio, diakrisis)—an attribute that had a range of religious, social, and legal applications. In polite society, letter writers might address difficult questions to a bishop as a "spiritual brother who judges all things," imbued with the "spirit of revelation," as Paulinus of Nola (ca. 354-431) addressed Augustine before joining him in the episcopal ranks by becoming a bishop himself. Indeed, bishops began to resemble the jurists Ulpian (d. 228) had once called "priests," in that both bishops and jurists were charged with "distinguishing (discernentes) lawful from unlawful, aiming to make men good not only through fear of penalties but also indeed under allurement of rewards." Reactions to this expectation were not uniform. "How am I an 'oracle of the law,'" Augustine of Hippo responded to a person asking for clarification on a scriptural matter, "when I do not know many more things than I do know about its latent and hidden secrets?" Sincere or not, his reservations do not appear to have been shared widely among bishops. Dionysius Exiguus (d. 526/556), himself a legal expert, hoped his editions of church law would restrain bishops otherwise inclined "to respond from within themselves, just as from a hidden oracle." Emperors, however, had recognized bishops' power to discern secrets and "judge like God," a power that "searches out and reveals many things" that could not be disclosed in ordinary courts of law.

The promotion of this attribute in letters, laws, sermons, treatises, epitaphs, and biographies provided bishops with a means for reconciling the spiritual and secular demands of their office. At the same time, the claim to discernment increased the scope of their religious authority, for reading the secrets of hearts was an ability the Desert Fathers claimed as well. In the late fourth and fifth centuries, ascetic authority and episcopal authority overlapped, interacted, and came into conflict. Discernment has never been the primary focus of the scholarship but it has been a recurring theme: Claudia Rapp, Conrad Leyser, Andrea Sterk, and George Demacopoulos have made the most recent contributions to this subject, while Philip Rousseau's 1978 study remains the essential starting point. Understanding this specific aspect of the relationship between asceticism, pastoral care, and religious authority in turn helps us better to comprehend bishops' stake in the legal tradition of discernment. By fusing discernment with judgment and associating this singular ability with the power to absolve sinners, bishops claimed a unique position of authority over their rivals.

Ch. 3 Christian Oaths: A Case Study in Practicality over Doctrine

Calumny, failed leadership, and the prevalence of sin were reminders of an unchanging fact: uncertainty was endemic in human communities, Christian or otherwise. The swearing of oaths was one method of controlling uncertainty within society. All sorts of political, social, ethnic, and religious elements contributed to individual and group identities in western communities during the late empire and after. However, as we shall see in the case of the late fourth-century landowner Publicola, a Christian whose overseers accepted "demonic" oaths from his "barbarian" employees, these sorts of identity were of less consequence than the particular terms on which people formed relationships. The political oaths that scholars have studied most, similar to the oaths clergy swore upon ordination, served to identify those who swore with a state or institutional hierarchy. Examining other kinds of oaths, however, can move us beyond the ordered appearance of hierarchies and increase our analytical control over "the lability of the relations and trajectories" that the cultural historian Roger Chartier has said "define identities." Within and outside of their immediate social circles, people made agreements and alliances that sometimes reinforced, sometimes contravened, and sometimes ignored political, social, ethnic, or religious boundaries.

Oaths were more than simple instruments. The swearing of oaths established the terms of interaction, the vocabulary of community, and the limits of trust between individuals and between groups of people. Oaths were malleable in ways that political, social, ethnic, or religious identity often was not: formulas, vocabulary, gestures, and names could be changed to fit the occasion, much the same as the legal tablets Elizabeth Meyer has studied so brilliantly. In part because they were flexible, oaths occurred in almost every aspect of social conduct. A theologian like Augustine of Hippo, who spent almost half his long life as a bishop and involved with the mundane affairs of ordinary Christians, was unable to keep his theoretical position against oaths separate from the persistent demands of real society, where oaths were commonplace. Conveniently for the purposes of this study, oath swearing was both a discrete and persistent source of aggravation for Augustine, with the result that it generated a considerable trail of evidence. At the same time, it was a problem with larger implications for how Christians should understand the workings of justice on heaven and earth, as the bishop of Hippo was well aware.

Augustine's complex opinions about Christian oath swearing, traced closely over the span of two decades, reveal something unexpected: the indelible impression that commonplace expectations of justice made on a powerful intellect. This impression was the product of continuous negotiation conducted throughout an entire career between a bishop and his congregants over what measures for controlling uncertainty and securing trust were acceptable, given the limits of worldly justice. It was a subtle impression, of course, for Augustine never budged on what mattered most to him: Justice exists only in Christ. Robert Dodaro observes that "Augustine's views on justice and society stem more from his analysis of the capacities and limits of the human soul than from his thinking about social and political structures." He was a philosopher, in modern terms, not a political scientist. What we learn from studying Augustine on oaths, however, is also what Augustine learned, that thinking about social and political structures was not the same as living with those structures and explaining their effect on everyday human life. Oath swearing challenged Christian writers to explain their philosophy's relevance to the real world. In this case theology, far from smothering social history, takes us deep into the risks of ordinary human interaction.

Ch. 4 Mercy Not Justice: How Penance Became a Worthy Act of Self-Incrimination

Even when bishops gathered in council among the company of their colleagues in what we may consider a legislative environment, justice was a difficult affair. The records and decrees surviving from church councils that met throughout Western Europe and North Africa during Late Antiquity occasionally capture the noise of bishops at work. They envisioned themselves to be hammering out the principles of justice hot from the forge of pentecostal consensus—for bishops said the Holy Spirit was active in their assemblies. But in the midst of the very same councils, we also catch glimpses of justice sometimes failing and sometimes producing an undesirable mess. What happened when bishops had to judge one of their own colleagues? At a council in Marseilles in 533, for example, the bishop of Riez, whose improbably apt name was Contumeliosus ("abusive"), threw himself at the feet of laypeople, an abbot, and fifteen of his fellow bishops, confessing to the unspecified but "many foul and disgraceful acts" for which he had been summoned. Along with financial reparations, his colleagues charged him to do penance in a monastery for his crimes. Mercy was an important component of episcopal justice not least because bishops were among its common recipients.

Penance was the most subtle and perhaps successful means by which spiritual leaders negotiated the tensions between divine and worldly justice. First, penitents shared the burden of these tensions with their bishop by becoming judges in their own guilt or innocence. Second, the show of mercy did more than hint at a bishop's power to withhold that mercy should he deem fit. It also blurred the lines between guilt and innocence, and thus between certainty and uncertainty. Penance produced truth through painful interrogation, much the same as whips and scalpels were believed to work on criminals. Agony helped to crystallize essential truths out of the chill fog of doubt and deception. Unlike the tortured subjects of ordinary judicial inquiry, however, when the suffering was over, penitents found themselves refreshed, even reborn as heroes. The mercy of the church was a salve for the wounds that worldly justice so often inflicted, for the spirits torn and the expectations shattered in its hard, precise, uncompromising gears. Penance, moreover, provided an occasion to rise above human uncertainty, to momentarily transcend "the shared frailty of human flesh," in Peter Brown's words, and to glimpse the union of salvation and justice.

Long ago in the third century, the bishop Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) famously insisted, salus extra ecclesiam non est—that there existed no salvation and, by extension, no truth or justice outside the church. A half-century later another native of Africa, Lactantius (ca. 250-ca. 325)—rhetor, author, and tutor to a child of the first Christian emperor—was the first to claim outright that Christians owned justice. Lactantius drew on scripture as well as classical texts, especially Cicero's De re publica, as Augustine would a hundred years later, in order to make his argument that justice could not exist without Christian piety. Later, however, between the fourth and sixth centuries, whether in Augustine's North Africa or Cassiodorus' Italy, we find ourselves far removed from the clear boundaries and sharp certainty Cyprian and Lactantius had evoked. Also remote but looming in the future are the ages of Carolingian, Lateran, and Protestant reform, when nostalgia for the Golden Age of early Christian devotion was matched only by contempt for the alleged apathy of lukewarm Christians in the three centuries following the conversion and rule of Constantine. Then and only then did certainty revive and boundaries resurface between ecclesiastical rigor and spiritual decline, between episcopal responsibility and personal liability, between public humiliation and private confession, between divine and worldly justice, between expectation and practice. The discrepancy between ideology and reality remained, of course, to plague reformers and frustrate historians. What distinguishes our period is that some Christians had confronted that gap head on: although their efforts to bridge divine and human justice ultimately failed, they incidentally exposed to our examination a substratum of ordinary religious, social, and judicial expectations.

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2022 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved