Silks and Bright Scarlet

Christopher Kelly

  • Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD by Peter Brown
    Princeton, 759 pp, £16.95, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 691 16177 8
  • The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity by Peter Brown
    Harvard, 262 pp, £18.95, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 674 96758 8

Sometime in the late 430s, the pious nun Melania recalled a vision she and her husband had shared thirty years before in Rome when they were young and very rich:

One night we went to sleep, greatly upset, and we saw ourselves, both of us, passing through a very narrow crack in the wall. We were gripped with panic by the cramped space, so that it seemed as if we were about to die. When we came through the pain of that place, we found huge relief and joy unspeakable.

Fifth-century Christians – spared the all too obvious Freudian analysis – will have immediately recognised a biblical dreamscape whose suffocating constriction recalled Christ’s uncompromising declaration to his disciples: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ The twenty-year-old Melania and her husband, Valerius Pinianus, took Christ at his word. They interpreted their dream as divine encouragement to follow the equally challenging injunction: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’ But this was no ordinary liquidation. With estates in Campania, Sicily, France, Spain, Britain and North Africa, their teenage marriage had joined two of the wealthiest dynasties in the western Mediterranean. The early deaths of two children only strengthened their resolve to become chaste. Outright rejection of family life was followed by the deliberate dissolution of their vast patrimony. This was one of the most spectacular bonfires of the vanities in premodern Europe.

A few years earlier, in 394, another wealthy and distinguished couple, Meropius Pontius Paulinus and his wife, Therasia, announced the sale of their properties in Spain and southern France. Paulinus was ordained in Barcelona on Christmas Day and moved the following summer across the western Mediterranean to Nola, a small town in Campania where his family owned estates. Paulinus and Therasia settled in the outskirts of Nola at Cimitile (the ‘Cemetery’) near the shrine of a third-century martyr, Saint Felix. Paulinus lived there as the leader of a religious community for the next 36 years, and as bishop of Nola for the final two decades.

But it would be a misstep to think that, in disposing of their assets, Paulinus and Therasia – or their friends Melania and Pinianus, who visited Nola in the winter of 406 – had embraced poverty: they retained control over substantial resources. Shielded from the demands of family, local communities and the imperial tax system, they could use their newly unencumbered wealth to support Christian causes. Paulinus’ steady income ensured that his monastic brotherhood at Nola could continue to follow a simple life of prayer, fasting, vigil and scriptural study. He also funded the construction of a magnificent new church complex that, in its design, its mosaics, its frescoes, its floors set with the rarest marbles, its fountains and garden courtyards, both imitated and eclipsed the grand country houses of his aristocratic peers.

Such extravagant generosity in honour of Saint Felix was an act of undoubted piety, but Paulinus never relinquished his sense of privilege, or his superior social status, or his carefully cultivated network of influential contacts. Above all, like Melania and Pinianus, he never surrendered the twin privileges of the very rich in all societies: the ability to choose how to lead their lives and the capacity to fund their own obsessions. Indeed, compared to the lives of subsistence peasants in the surrounding Campanian countryside, a cynic might have detected in Paulinus’ project at Nola a rather too comfortable strain of ‘designer poverty’.

The anonymous social commentator who sometime between 408 and 414 wrote a radical pamphlet entitled On Riches doubted that the wealthy could ever find salvation, no matter how charitably they deployed their resources. At its root, all wealth was the result of ill-gotten gains, implying exploitation, inequality and, worst of all, a deep-seated urge simply to accumulate. ‘Get rid of the rich,’ he wrote, ‘and you will not find the poor. Let no man have more than he really needs, and everyone will have as much as they need.’ God didn’t want the wealthy to store up their treasure in heaven. The stark and unpalatable truth was that Christ had meant precisely what he said: there was no place for the rich in the kingdom of God – unless, as the author quipped, they were somehow able to find an enormous needle or a miniature camel.

The flight of Melania and Pinianus from the obligations of family and aristocratic society, Paulinus’ lavish charity and the extremism of On Riches are three strands in a complex debate about wealth that shaped the theology and institutions of Christianity in the western Mediterranean in the fourth and fifth centuries. The working out of these various, often divergent points of view is the concern of Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle. One of the great strengths of this humane and thoughtful discussion is Brown’s refusal to rush to its conclusion: the nexus of wealth, charitable giving and salvation that marks a faultline between the ancient and medieval worlds. Brown is fully aware of the backward-glancing temptations of teleology. In his treatment of around twenty notable writers and thinkers, he is as alert and sympathetic to the arguments that failed to win out as to those that would subsequently be canonised as stepping-stones to orthodoxy. Alongside his rich analysis of the impact of thinking about wealth on the development of Christianity, he offers an insightful account of the history of the western Roman Empire from the fourth to the sixth centuries CE. To take just two examples from a long list of quietly revisionist approaches: he interrogates conventional understandings of the aims of Constantine (the first Roman emperor to support Christianity) and of fourth-century conflicts between Christians and ‘pagans’ (a term invented by Christians). Above all, it’s the gloriously ambitious panorama of Through the Eye of a Needle that most impresses. This is a book written in Cinemascope, and like the best intellectual and social history it features a polyphony of voices. Most important, Brown is always attuned to key moments of dissonance.

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