How to Approach Early Christian Poetry
Abstract and Keywords
The Introduction offers a broad setting of the stage regarding the state of research in the still under-researched field of early Christian poetry. By challenging both classicists for whom this literature tends to be ‘too late’, and theologians for whom this literature does not bear sufficient relevance regarding exegetical and dogmatic issues it emphasizes the need for an unbiased look at late antiquity and its insufficient qualification as a period of ‘decline’. Inter- and transdisciplinary literary theories like reception aesthetics and intertextuality, littérature au second degré and the general blossoming of reception studies in classics in recent years enable the fruitful study of early Christian poetry from a fresh perspective. This will not only fill a considerable gap in our knowledge of the history of European literature, mentality, and thought, but will also enable a better understanding of later literature in this tradition, from Beowulf to Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Early Christian poetry, with its beginnings in the middle of the third century and lasting until around 600 AD, continues to be an area that is neglected in research on later ancient literature. The main reason for this is that this literary genre falls between two stools as regards the boundaries of academic disciplines: for classicists, on the one hand, the genre’s chronologically late roots in the ‘decadent’ period of late antiquity, combined with the ‘proper’ classicist’s dislike for things Christian (which had, for instance, not been the case in the seventeenth century), render the genre’s literary quality and merit suspect. Theologians, on the other hand, do not regard early Christian poetry as contributing anything of vital interest to the delineation of a normative theology or dogmatic history; prose texts are seen as having the prerogative in this context. Present-day theologians are supported in this position by the very critical attitude of some authoritative fourth- and fifth-century Christian thinkers towards the phenomenon of Christian poetry which was coming to the fore in their time. Most notably Jerome and Augustine denied value to practically any form of Christian poetry, which was at best an idle waste of time; some 1,500 years later Ernst Robert Curtius in his classic European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages notoriously called biblical epic a genre faux (see in this volume Chapter 2, pp. 62–3). This unfortunate state of affairs is only insufficiently compensated for by the acknowledgement of some literary critics from late antiquity up until early modernity as to the high quality of some of these versifications. It is therefore in scholarly studies on medieval and early modern literature that one is most likely to find consideration given to the artistry, the reception, and the later tradition of early Christian poetry.
There are, however, some notable exceptions to this trend in the discipline of classics, where, in particular, scholars from France (Jacques Fontaine, Jean-Louis (p.2) Charlet), Italy (Roberto Palla, Franca Ela Consolino), the Netherlands (A. A. R. Bastiaensen, Jan den Boeft), Austria (Kurt Smolak, Dorothea Weber, Hildegund Müller), and Germany (Manfred Fuhrmann, Reinhart Herzog, Christian Gnilka, Siegmar Döpp) have made considerable inroads since the Second World War. Inter- and transdisciplinary literary theories like the aesthetics of reception (Rezeptionsästhetik), paratexts, inter- and hypertextuality (littérature au second degré), as well as the blossoming of reception studies in classics in recent years, have facilitated and will continue to facilitate the study of this intricate, elitist, and highly complex body of literature with the philological rigour, intellectual curiosity and unbiased attention it deserves, focusing in particular on its innovative wealth of thought, its cultural context, function, and impact. This will not only fill a considerable gap in our knowledge of the history of European literature, mentality and thought, but will also enable a better understanding of later literary artefacts standing in this tradition, ranging from Beowulf to Milton’s Paradise Lost. This volume presents original interpretations of a wide range of works by predominantly Latin late antique poets and employs an innovative method taking literary devices, classical poetic models, historical context as well as exegetical and theological dimensions into account. By drawing attention to this literary production which is hardly known in the wider community of scholars in the humanities, this volume contributes essential historical information as well as groundbreaking analyses to the current wider debate concerning ownership of cultural products and intellectual traditions. Thereby, the chapters in this volume also engage with the wider, controversial issue of religious in- and transculturation where it pertains to a suppressed class (in our case the very early Christians) taking over cultural products of their suppressors (here the pagan Roman imperial elite). But most importantly, this volume helps to clarify, first, that such attempts at cultural transfer, or even ‘conquest’, are not a new invention or development of postmodern times, and, second, that their legitimacy does not so much lie in the right to own or disown cultural goods, but in the way that those who have access to them use them for varying purposes.
To sketch the late antique panorama of such purposes, the volume offers individual case studies that carefully analyse various early Christian poems, mainly written in the Latin West between the fourth and sixth centuries, in order to tackle unresolved or striking, hitherto unnoticed issues in them. But beyond this cumulative interest, as it were, the case studies are united in their aim of making a more foundational point about the very nature of early Christian poetry at large, specifically by demonstrating how early Christian poetry was one expedient and an effective device by which Christianity managed to establish its agenda in a forceful way. By usurping the established authority of pagan poetry as a cultural identity marker, Christianity opened up a plethora of possibilities for invading this pagan elitist cultural space and for (p.3) using it to disseminate Christian messages, thereby making them more ubiquitous, reaching educated audiences of a high social status. This method of usurping cultural techniques that were originally developed by an initially hostile environment in order to endorse one’s own, different purposes proved highly successful. It engendered a powerful, lasting tradition of imitators and successors, and had far-reaching consequences pertaining to the firm establishment of Christianity as a cultural force in Europe. This volume therefore argues that a vital key to understanding the cultural phenomenon of early Christian poetry is the recognition of its function in augmenting the position of its authors and thus enhancing their power to influence people’s actions, opinions or beliefs—in short, by adding cultural authority to Christianity’s message and agenda. This discovery transforms the way we can now look at early Christian poetry: instead of seeing it as derivative and ‘decadent’, depending on a glorious past because of the lack of talent and ingenuity on the part of the early Christian poets, it is now to be recognized as a highly original strategy of establishing itself as a new dominating cultural force in a changing environment, thereby both preserving the cultural past it usurps and contributing to the success and endurance of Christian thought in a time of radical historical transition. In its highly ambitious enterprise, early Christian poetry aimed at nothing less than combining:
(1) a Christianized, classically informed poetic aesthetics;
(2) a personal involvement of the poet with God through the sacrifice of his poetry as well as a relatively frequent and explicit engagement with the readers as the means that unlocks the meaning of the text; and
(3) a generically embedded, all-permeating textual referentiality by performing a versified exegesis of the Bible as the ultimate reference text.
This intricate combination of literary strategies serves the purpose of having maximum impact on the readers in the following ways:
(1) by pleasing the readers by way of poetic embellishment, challenging them intellectually through obscure, enigmatic and/or abbreviated expressions, and making the content more memorable through the use of verse;
(2) by focusing on the poet, God and the readers as the true locations of poetic enactment, in order to provide religious edification; and
(3) by making a genuine, intellectually challenging contribution to scriptural exegesis, in order to contribute an enhanced and deepened understanding of Scripture’s ethical and soteriological messages.
In this way, Christian poetry can be seen not as an alien or false element of religious articulation, but as an integrated part and genuine expression of faith, contributing a fresh form of edification, a new cultural and communicative (p.4) space and an innovative means of biblical exegesis. The Conclusion to this volume serves as a more elaborate exposition of these points and intends to open up further possibilities for new scholarly departures by unlocking the as yet not fully realized richness of early Christian poetry, a poetry that has a lot to offer precisely in times of cultural and political change.
State of Research
When one looks at the last decade or so of research in the field of Latin early Christian poetry, the dominant trend is still to concentrate on individual authors or poems. Examples of this include Roger Green, Latin Epics of the New Testament: Juvencus, Sedulius, Arator (Oxford, 2006); Luigi Castagna (ed.), Quesiti, temi, testi di poesia tardolatina (Frankfurt a.M., 2006); Aniello Salzano, Agli inizi della poesia cristiana latina; autori anonimi dei secc. IV-V (Salerno, 2007); Marc Mastrangelo, The Roman Self in Late Antiquity: Prudentius and the Poetics of the Soul (Baltimore, 2008); Michael Roberts, The Humblest Sparrow: The Poetry of Venantius Fortunatus (Ann Arbor, 2009); Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer and Petra Schierl (eds.), Lateinische Poesie der Spätantike (Basle, 2009); Anthony Dykes, Reading Sin in the World: The ‘Hamartigenia’ of Prudentius and the Vocation of the Responsible Reader (Cambridge, 2011); Martha A. Malamud, Prudentius. Origin of Sin: An English Translation of the Hamartigenia (Ithaca and London, 2011) which contains a substantial interpretative essay; and Gerard O’Daly, Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon (Oxford, 2012). Notably, the long neglected genre of the cento has attracted recent scholarly attention that embeds this genre in a wider literary–historical context, considering both its origins and its reception, by Martin Bažil, Centones Christiani.Métamorphoses d’une forme intertextuelle dans la poésie chrétienne de l’Antiquité tardive (Paris, 2009); Valentina Sineri, Il Centone di Proba (Acireale, 2011); Karl Olav Sandnes, The Gospel ‘According to Homer and Virgil’: Cento and Canon (Leiden, 2011); and by Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed, Proba the Prophet. The Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba (Leiden, 2015; see the review of this book by Gottfried Kreuz in Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum 20 (2016), 197–202, and my review of the original Göteborg Ph.D., 2012, in Samlaren 134 (2013), 251–6).
In addition to these contributions, there are now steps being taken to go beyond the analysis of individual works and poets of late antiquity and to pursue a better understanding of the poetic and aesthetic principles that guided this period in particular. The ultimate aims are to define more clearly the specific peculiarities of literary aesthetics in late antiquity in comparison to the preceding classical period, to elicit its distinctive ambitions and the (p.5) different functions it accords to its poetic products in a changed cultural and political environment, and, finally, to outline the innovative characteristics of such a late antique poetics and their still too often unrecognized impact on later literature. Early Christian poetry in particular is characterized by a strong emphasis on the personal connection between the poet and his or her work which is of salvific significance, on including the exegetical traditions and scholarship relating both to the Bible and to classical pagan authors, and on the eschatological dimension of all human endeavour, including poetry. Recently this has been attempted in various ways, but scholars in general agree that the last word has not yet been spoken regarding this complex issue. As a pioneer in this respect the late Reinhart Herzog merits special mention: a selection of his important, ground-breaking articles on late antique poetics has been edited by Peter Habermehl, under the title Spätantike Studien zur römischen und lateinisch-christlichen Literatur (Göttingen, 2002). In a collection of articles co-edited by Willemien Otten and myself, Poetry and Exegesis in Premodern Latin Christianity (Leiden, 2007), the contributors demonstrate from various angles how early Christian poetry in general, and versifications of Christian exegetical prose works in particular, not only helped to generate a specifically Christian aesthetic perception, but also enhanced the results of the biblical interpretations themselves. Several articles by Marco Formisano deal with more general aspects of late antique poetics, in particular his ‘Late Antiquity, New Departures’, in Ralph Hexter and David Townsend (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature (Oxford, 2012), 509–34. Not entirely convincingly, Formisano draws attention to ‘three textual aspects which…are new and specific to late antiquity in comparison with earlier periods’ (511): first, knowledge, second, panegyric, and third, fragmentation, dislocation, and replacement. Apart from the fact that these textual aspects can already be encountered in works from the earlier classical period, further elaboration is needed as to what their defining contribution to late antiquity is as distinct from earlier periods. There also still remains work to be done as to their specific late antique shape and function in contrast to the earlier classical period when they were also already in use. Finally, it cannot be claimed that these three textual aspects exhaustively demarcate the key characteristics of Christian poetry. The monograph by Aaron Pelttari, The Space that Remains: Reading Latin poetry in late antiquity (Ithaca and London, 2014), concentrates predominantly on the poetic output of Ausonius, Claudian, and Prudentius, with the aim of establishing poetic principles of Latin late antique poetry. Pelttari correctly emphasizes the importance of a strong reader already inherent in late antique poetics, its historical distance from classical literature and the new meaning which is thereby engendered, but leaves out completely the essential exegetical dimension of this poetry. Particularly illuminating is the substantial chapter in Anders Cullhed, The Shadow of Creusa: Negotiating Fictionality in Late Antique Latin Literature (p.6) (Berlin, 2015), 471–602, entitled ‘Poeta Christianus: from Ficta to Facta in early Christian poetry’, which highlights the complete rejection of fiction by early Christian poets in explicit opposition to their pagan predecessors. In contrast to these pagan predecessors, Christian poets, supported by Christian prose theorists like Augustine and Gregory the Great, championed allegory and allegoresis as vehicles of truth—the truth which they monopolized as being revealed and conveyed by Christianity alone. Thus, they also linked their poetry closely to their own character and personal salvation.
Finally, mention must be made of a remarkable and much undervalued contribution, namely the compact, immensely learned, and insightful contribution by Martin Hose, Poesie aus der Schule. Überlegungen zur spätgriechischen Dichtung (Munich, 2004) which compares late antique Greek and Latin poetry from the fourth to the seventh centuries. Hose establishes as the foundational characteristic of late antique Greek poetry that it is based on certain grammatical and rhetorical exercises as they were taught at ancient schools and universities. He emphasizes that late Greek poetry never really emancipated itself from this institutional context, and therefore shows distinct differences from its late antique Latin counterpart: late antique Greek poetry is meant to have an impact purely in written form, and not, for instance, as performed in a liturgical setting; it serves a propaedeutic purpose without having a value in itself, and therefore lacks the edifying function late antique Christian Latin poets accord to their works. Finally, late antique Greek poetry does not aim at emulating its classical predecessors, but has as its core goal the adequate imitation of these unrivalled models. This forms, again, a striking contrast to the claim of late antique Christian Latin poets that they surpass their predecessors and present something radically new. Hose concludes that while late antique Greek poetry can rightly be called a form of rhetorical exercise, late antique Latin poetry with its focus on the exegesis of the Bible as its super-hypotext contains new hermeneutic potential. The importance of Hose’s study cannot be overestimated and deserves further exploration regarding the vast field of late antique Greek poetry and perhaps Byzantine literature in general. Its results regarding the characteristics of late Latin Christian poetry are entirely in accordance with the findings presented in this book. Without claiming to have the final word, the volume presented here intends to make a defining contribution to this discussion by establishing authority as a new and fruitful paradigm to be taken into account when looking at late antique poetry and poetics. By exploiting the paradoxical quality of authority as both usurping a position of dominance while at the same time also having an integrating and stabilizing function, Christian poetry is in this volume thus understood as simultaneously claiming a culturally relevant position while at the same time opening up the Christian tradition to pagan culture which it thereby incorporates and preserves.
Part I (‘The Poetics of Authority in Early Christian Poetry’), starts with an overview (Chapter 1, entitled ‘Tradition and Innovation: The Transformation of Classical Literary Genres in Christian Late Antiquity’) of the transformation of traditional classical genres in late antiquity, a chapter examining the notion of early Christian literature as an amalgamation of old and new literary forms and concepts. This chimes with the modern definition of literary genres as open systems with fluid boundaries, consisting of a set of characteristics which can overlap; thus one work can potentially be classified under more than just one literary genre. The principles advocated in modern literary theory, especially ‘family resemblance’ and participation instead of essentialism, are helpful for an improved understanding of late antique literature, as they manage to accommodate both historical changes in a literary genre, and the emerging formation of hybrid genres for which both the Hellenistic age and late antiquity are famous. This literary transformative development was not exclusive to Christian, but also took place in the pagan literature of late antiquity. Despite its reputation as ‘decadent’, the period of late antiquity also managed to create new, innovative literary genres, specifically designed to serve new cultural needs and purposes. This period can even boast a literary work that eschews any kind of categorization by way of genre, namely Augustine’s magnificent Confessions: unique in literary composition, it is a work of genius that is so intricate and complex that it cannot be placed in any one literary genre. The chapter concludes that the cultural transfer achieved by early Christian writers is as much about remembering as about forgetting the past in order to free capacity for a new worldview.
This more general overview is followed by a study (Chapter 2, entitled ‘The Test Case of Epic Poetry in Late Antiquity’) that concentrates on the poetic genre that was held in highest esteem in pagan antiquity, namely the epic. Here again both pagan and Christian poets were at work in late antiquity in order to modify this genre. This chapter examines how epic, considered the grandest of all classical literary genres, was transformed in late antiquity in order to make its cultural potential include the service of Christian ends. The rich spectrum of possible uses of the epic genre is illustrated through concrete examples from the Latin tradition organized into five, not necessarily exhaustive, types: (1) Mythological epic: Dracontius, Medea (Romulea 10); (2) Panegyric epic: Claudian, De Bello Gildonico; (3) Allegorical epic: Prudentius, Psychomachia; (4) Biblical epic: Avitus, De Spiritalis Historiae Gestis; and (5) Hagiographical epic: Venantius Fortunatus, Vita S. Martini. The chapter concludes that Vergil maintains his dominant position as the Latin epicist whom later Latin epicists felt compelled to emulate. Likewise, epic style, figures of thought (like personifications, or the Muse) are either transformed (p.8) or Christianized, but rarely abandoned. Moreover, the authoritative function of epic as explanation of the world largely yields to more pronouncedly specific political or ecclesiastical purposes. The intriguing question as to why this period did not manage (or bother) to produce ‘long’ epics anymore can only be answered in a speculative way.
The final chapter in this part (Chapter 3, entitled ‘Reappropriation and Disavowal: Pagan and Christian Authorities in Cassiodorus and Venantius Fortunatus’) deals with the method of handling authorities in late antiquity in general: intertextual allusion and the manipulation of the culturally powerful literary past were indispensable for any writer in establishing their own voice, both in prose and in verse. Two rival traditions constituted the self-awareness of Christian intellectuals up to the sixth century: (a) the originally pagan tradition of education and knowledge as represented by the liberal arts, and (b) a Christian tradition of prophetical truth as conveyed by the Scriptures which surpassed all human knowledge. This is illustrated by Cassiodorus and Venantius Fortunatus, two representative figures of the sixth century, a time when classical education threatened to perish. The chapter demonstrates how with the work of Cassiodorus Christian literature takes its place beside the secular canon of literary artefacts and knowledge, and how in the work of Venantius Fortunatus, who is sometimes called the last classical and the first medieval poet, Christian poetry finally manages to create its own, exclusively Christian, authoritative poetic canon. The chapter concludes that in the sixth century there is no uniform response to the feeling of political, social, cultural and intellectual crisis. While either continuity or discontinuity with the past authorities could be claimed, eventually both tendencies converge in order to create a Christian self-awareness and cultural identity that is satisfied by its own horizon as the new and only norm, resting on canonical authority.
Part II of the collection (entitled ‘Christian Authority and Poetic Succession’), makes use of the notion of literary succession, or self-conscious and pronounced secondariness, a model that has been successfully applied to pagan, early imperial writers, particularly epic poets, and also, more recently, to imperial satire. The chapters in Part II all demonstrate how the notion of secondariness is taken consciously to extreme forms, specifically in the cento and in the poetic versifications of prose texts that were normally considered already to have a particular authoritative relevance in themselves. These intertextual techniques are not exclusively Christian or late antique inventions, nor are they the only literary techniques known to late antiquity; but they constitute an essential aspect of the literary poetics of late antiquity, namely, the awareness that there is a common canonical body of literary artefacts known to all members of a specific cultural, elite group which can be used to communicate ‘new traditions’ while preserving group coherence in a dialectic of preservation and emulation. Taken in this oxymoronic way, such literature while transforming tradition also keeps these transformed authors (p.9) alive as an indispensable foil in order fully to grasp the meaning of the newly created, derived text while—paradoxically—at the same time also offering a new and challenging interpretation of the hypotext. From this perspective, such secondary literary artefacts can be seen as an expression of ‘classicism’. The original source texts regarded as canonical and therefore worthy of ‘reuse’ can be pagan (Vergil and Euripides respectively, in Chapters 4 and 6), the biblical text itself (as demonstrated in Part III, Chapter 8), and even late antique Christian prose texts (Eucherius of Lyon in Chapter 5). In Part II of the book attention is also given to somewhat later texts and authors from the medieval period in order to demonstrate the endurance of these techniques across the centuries both in the Latin and in the Greek traditions (Chapters 5 and 6).
In a cento, a writer uses fragments from texts of canonical authors (Genette’s ‘hypotext’) taken out of their original context to create a new work (Genette’s ‘hypertext’), which one could call ‘literary patchwork’. Chapter 4, entitled ‘Sex and Salvation in the Vergilian Cento of the Fourth Century’, innovatively differentiates between the predominantly parodical aim of pagan centos and the predominantly exegetical aim of Christian centos, and illustrates the implications and consequences of this distinction by analysing the centos of the fourth-century writers Ausonius and Proba. While both poets were adhering to a classicism that sees Vergil as indispensable for conveying a culturally convincing message, they managed to exploit the authority and embedded polysemy of the hypotext for diametrically opposed messages. Thus the chapter programmatically demonstrates that the literary genre of the cento, instead of being erroneously open to the accusation of epigonality, is a highly original and complex literary form.
The fourth-century Eucherius in his prose story entitled Passio Acaunensium Martyrum relates how during the persecution under Diocletian a whole army of Christian soldiers suffered death as martyrs at Acaunum in the Swiss Alps. His brief prose narrative had a rich reception which manifests itself in, among other things, several little-known poetic paraphrases. The versifications of Eucherius’ Passio by Venantius Fortunatus, Walafrid Strabo, and Sigebert of Gembloux are analysed in Chapter 5 (entitled ‘Versifying Authoritative Prose: Poetical Paraphrases of Eucherius of Lyon by Venantius Fortunatus, Walafrid Strabo, and Sigebert of Gembloux’) regarding their poetic technique, literary intention, and socio-historical context. The chapter highlights the most important changes in these paraphrases in comparison with their prose hypotext. Particular attention is paid to the question as to whether one can observe (a) specific exegetical additions only possible because of the versification, and (b) changes regarding the paraphrastic technique and characteristics through the ages, namely, from late antiquity to the Middle Ages, as exemplified by the selected authors. The inclusion of two somewhat later texts in this chapter is meant to demonstrate the endurance as well as the flexibility of these poetic techniques over the centuries.
(p.10) The Greek cento Christus Patiens takes about one third of its c.2,600 iambic trimeters from tragedies by Euripides, telling in dramatic form the story of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Chapter 6, entitled ‘Jesus Christ and Dionysus: Rewriting Euripides in the Byzantine Cento Christus Patiens’, is the one chapter in this volume that deals with a Greek text, because the techniques found there and the literary analysis of this cento provide illuminating comparisons with Latin centos. The chapter argues that for metrical and lexical reasons the cento’s much disputed authorship has to be decided against Gregory of Nazianzus and in favour of a twelfth-century anonymous Byzantine author. An analysis of the adaptation of the Euripidean verses demonstrates that this cento is not mere learned play. The aim of this poetic transformation was to reveal the true, hidden sense of the famous pagan original, by employing various different modes of transferral and alteration, which confirms the findings in Chapter 4. This chapter’s transformative contribution consists in elaborating the cento’s ultimate and highly original goal of contrasting the vindictive pagan destroyer Dionysus with the merciful redeemer Jesus Christ presenting in this Christian anti-tragedy a new and different worldview.
Part III (‘Poetic Authority in Rivalling Cultural and Theological Discourses), builds on the parameters and criteria developed in the previous sections and demonstrates how poetry, understood as having a culturally authoritative function, can be understood as negotiating fundamental cultural and/or theological issues. It is, of course, not possible within the boundaries of this volume to give a comprehensive overview of this phenomenon, so this final section concentrates on three fundamental issues as illustrative examples, namely culture (Chapter 7), progress versus decadence (Chapter 8), and sainthood (Chapter 9), and analyses how they are reinterpreted in a specifically Christian poetic framework.
The theories about the origins of culture discussed in Chapter 7, entitled ‘Culture as Curse or Blessing? Prudentius and Avitus on the Origins of Culture’, are instances from a Christian point of view of a way of systematic thinking about notions of culture that were developed in classical times, either in verse or in prose. In so-called foundation narratives, pagan antiquity could explain the origins of culture either in a mythological or in a rationalizing fashion. Early Christianity also engaged with these lines of thought, demonstrated in this chapter by looking at the poets Prudentius and Avitus, and by investigating how pagan models were received in varying Christian contexts. The chapter concludes that from the fourth to the sixth centuries one can observe a shift from a sceptical to an increasingly positive attitude towards the possibility of establishing a Christian culture, and that both these attitudes were being developed with reference to pagan classical cultural traditions.
Christianity favours a linear model of historical development, and has therefore an inherent interest in the notions of progress and decadence, which form the topic of Chapter 8 (‘Christianity as Decadence or Progress (p.11) in Pseudo-Hilary’s Paraphrastic Verse Summary of the History of Salvation’). As already demonstrated several times in this volume, late antique Christianity partly takes inspiration from pagan classical models. But its archetypal textual matrix for elucidating the specifically Christian explanation of the purpose and meaning of history and the world is the creation narrative in the biblical book of Genesis which can be understood as a Judaeo-Christian aetiological, or foundation story of the origins of the world and humanity. The fifth-century paraphrastic verse summary of the Bible by an anonymous poet (the so-called Pseudo-Hilary) confronts, similar to Proba (see Chapter 4), the creation narrative with selections from the New Testament in order to delineate a universal Christian history of salvation. Most remarkably, this chapter illuminates the partly approving, partly critical usage of the pagan poet Lucretius whose Epicurean worldview was generally considered incompatible with Christian principles.
Although recent research in particular has, under the significant influence of Peter Brown, increasingly paid attention to the phenomenon of the ‘holy man’ and ‘holy woman’ in late antiquity, the focus has been primarily on socio-historical aspects. In this context, the hagiographic epic of Latin late antiquity has so far mostly been ignored, and even investigations of hagiography as a literary phenomenon pay little attention to this innovative genre created by the Christian tradition. In order to explain the rich and as yet almost entirely unexplored intellectual dimensions of this particular form of hagiographic discourse, Chapter 9 (‘How Far Can Sainthood Go? St Martin of Tours in Two Hagiographical Epics of Late Antiquity) illustrates two different concepts of holiness by analysing Paulinus of Périgueux (fifth century) and Venantius Fortunatus (sixth century), who both paraphrased the prose Life of St Martin (Vita Sancti Martini) and the Dialogues (Dialogi) of Sulpicius Severus (fourth century) in hexametrical verse. In doing so, they represented their different theological worldviews which will also be analysed.
In the final chapter (‘Conclusion: Authority as a Key to Understanding Early Christian Poetry’), the overall hypothesis of this volume is drawn together in a reflective way, taking as a starting point the observation that classical pagan poetry in general makes a claim to divine inspiration, thus deriving authority from a supernatural source. Accordingly, it bases the validity of its message on a foundation beyond argument, which has consequences both for the relationship between poets and their poems, as well as between poems and their readers. In Christian late antiquity the divine foundation of poetry had to be renegotiated, and as a consequence authorities, aesthetics, and arguments had to be given a new role and a new foundation in the Christian poetic discourse. The Conclusion summarizes various possibilities and their consequences, also looking at the issue in terms of how far pagan poetry already foreshadowed such a development. In order to illustrate various possible paths Christian poets chose in order to reconfigure the (p.12) traditional function of poetry of adding weight to one’s message, the specimens taken into consideration include Commodianus, Prudentius, the Carmen adversus Marcionitas, Prosper of Aquitaine, and Venantius Fortunatus. The Conclusion promotes the view that early Christian poetry as a phenomenon can best be understood as an attempt at producing a genuinely Christian form of cultural authority.
The fresh programmatic perspective proposed in this volume invites a changed appreciation and evaluation of early Christian poetry in general. Understood as a form of cultural authority, Christian poetry employs aesthetic as well as rhetorical and exegetical techniques in order to get across novel and potentially controversial ideas to a target group that would recognize some of the formal principles of these literary artefacts and their established function in culture and society. Already in the early fourth century, the Christian intellectual Lactantius attempts to make this function fruitful for the phenomenon, only just emerging, of early Christian poetry, namely, in his Divine Institutions 1.11.24 ‘The task of a poet consists in transferring those things that have factually happened, into other forms by altering them through oblique presentations accompanied by some sort of embellishment’ (officium poetae in eo sit ut ea, quae vere gesta sunt, in alias species obliquis figurationibus cum decore aliquo conversa traducat). Based on this and other similar statements, scholarship has concluded that the defining characteristic of early Christian poetry is to render historical truth not by presenting the crude facts but by altering the material by way of alienation, enigmatization, and ornamentation. This volume goes beyond such a ‘rhetoricizing’ or formalistic assessment of early Christian poetry and advocates a fresh appreciation of early Christian poetry with the main reward being the unlocking of its hitherto unrealized potential as having the ambition of claiming a cultural space that negotiates and forms the basic values, aims and foundation of a society. By adopting a change of perspective from which early Christian poetry is viewed, this volume’s chapters taken together should be seen as a programmatic plea for taking seriously the willingness, ambition, and ability of the early Christians to engage fully with the rich possibilities of combining the Bible as their authoritative religious text, the classical pagan literature as a powerful, established formative force, and their own nascent literary tradition, with concrete cultural and societal consequences.
Looking beyond this volume, the Conclusion maps a possible agenda for future scholarly engagement with these texts, founded on the methodological principles presented in this book. The chapters in this volume show that the (p.13) acculturation of pagan forms in order to promote Christian concepts evolved in dynamic and ever-changing ways which constantly interacted with various external forces. Moreover, reception studies in general could be made aware through these case-studies that while it is in principle possible to concentrate on single strands of reception (such as Ovid in Milton, Vergil in Augustine), this approach will never afford a complete picture of the literary techniques, methodologies and conceptual issues to be found in texts ranging from late antiquity up to until at least the nineteenth century and perhaps even beyond. The generally open and effective engagement with surrounding cultural forces and developments, visible from Christianity’s very beginnings, can be seen as an essential aspect of Christianity’s continuing survival and success through the ages and in different regions and nations. The book reveals that early Christianity was not a hermetically sealed uniform body, but rather that it displays a rich spectrum of possibilities in dealing with the past and with its cultural environment. Christianity demonstrates an impressive will to engage with and make creative use of the surrounding cultural modes of expression, thereby developing diverse and changing responses to historical challenges. By demonstrating throughout that authority is a key in understanding long denigrated and misunderstood early Christian poets, this book reaches the conclusion that early Christian poetry is an art form that gains its justification by adding cultural authority to Christianity. Thus, in a wider sense, this book engages with recently developed interdisciplinary scholarly interests in aspects of religion, in this case of Christianity, as cultural phenomena. Rather than being confined to the role of producing a firm set of normative moral and dogmatic codes, Christianity can thus be regarded as a fruitful and effective generator of cultural customs, institutions and identities in a dynamic and open way that enables it to adapt to a changing environment.
Two instances of much later Christian cultural products, both the chosen book cover and the quotation at the beginning of the book, are meant to illuminate by different means what this volume identifies as crucial aspects of the nature of early Christian poetry—aspects which will recur in later periods. The cover picture is a circular painting by the Bolognese painter Donato Creti (1671–1749), located in the Collezioni Comunali d’Arte di Palazzo d’ Accursio, Bologna. It is entitled Humility, an allegory of one of the four cardinal Christian virtues, and was painted about 1719–21, in oil on copper, with a diameter of 79 centimetres. Creti painted the personification of Humility in a way that carefully includes selected symbolic elements well known to his viewing audience from an old figurative tradition. His main aim was to combine narrative with beauty and iconographic clarity, to form a composition at once naturalistic and classical. So, despite his heavy reliance on traditional symbols, his overall composition and artistic execution are entirely his own. In this, as in his ambition to achieve technical perfection of his craftsmanship, he mirrors the efforts of early Christian poets. The overall (p.14) dominant colours in grey and blue shades as well as the cut of the tunic-like shirt express humility in dress and attire. This is enhanced by Humility’s head and hair being partly covered by a brown veil and by the total lack of jewellery. On the other hand, the fine lustre of the clothes and their rich folds suggest abundance. Her torso and her head are stooping and bending down, her eyes are cast down. Particularly striking is the gesture of her two hands that are folded in front of her chest. This gesture indicates complete submission under a higher principle, but it also indicates complete self-awareness and complete involvement in this principle. In a similar way Christian poets tend to emphasize their existential involvement in, and the salvific significance of, their poetry for themselves and potentially also for others. The accompanying features also point in a twofold direction. To her right hand sits a small lamb, embraced by a winged putto. Not only does the lamb suggest humility accompanied by gentleness, but it is also a hint at the apocalyptic lamb, Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself on behalf of humanity. Self-sacrifice is the utmost marker of humility. The putto represents the heavenly dimension of this virtue, and is at the same time a figure already familiar from the classical pagan tradition. The crown at the feet of Humility points on the one hand to her humble relinquishing of all ostentatious power, but also to the ultimate power and glory of the lamb. Thus, humility is associated closely with ultimate triumph and victory, a paradox one can also detect in Christian poetry.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), classicist, philosopher, and satirist, as quoted at the beginning of the Conclusion (see p. 215), had highlighted poetry’s ability to add authority and credibility to prosaic truth statements, exploiting poetry’s rhetorical and aesthetic ability to elevate, enchant, and thereby to persuade. In contrast, for the German writer Reinhold Schneider (1903–58), specifically Christian poetry is characterized by its fracturedness, its provisionality, and its innate quality of pointing beyond itself. Schneider was under the shock of the traumatizing events of the Second World War when he wrote the following words:
Christliche Dichtung ist Fragment, Baustätte ungebauter Dome, zertrümmerndes Mal ungestaltbarer Vision, brechende Brücke, Pfeiler im Strom, geborstene Säule. Die Trümmer weisen auf den, der kommen wird unter Aufhebung der Zeit; sie nehmen das Zerbrechen der Erde voraus. So werden sie zu Zeichen und Zeugen der Wahrheit. Daß sie die Wahrheit, die frei macht, ins Herz senken, ist ihre einzige, ihre unabdingbare Macht.1
[Christian poetry is a fragment, a building site of un-built cathedrals, a demolishing monument of an unshapeable vision, a breaking bridge, a pier in a current, a burst pillar. The fragmented pieces point towards him who will come when time will be abolished; they anticipate the earth breaking up. Thus they become signs (p.15) and witnesses of truth. It is their only, their inalienable power that they enable the truth that liberates to sink into the heart.]
This background enabled him to flesh out the paradoxical nature of Christian poetry between the fragmented and the fulfilled, between transience and eternity, in a particularly powerful way. It is the merit of Schneider’s formulation to capture the very essence of Christian poetry as not exhausting its function in rhetorical embellishment and psychological persuasion. By its very nature as a genre that partakes in both earthly conditions and divine truth—however fragmented by necessity—Christian poetry is part of the history of salvation; it anticipates God’s final coming at the end of time and is simultaneously able to instil truth and freedom in its readers already in the present. (p.16)
(1) Reinhold Schneider, Der Bildungsauftrag des christlichen Dichters (Zurich, 1956), 47.