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.

One clash, on which the book pivots, took place in North Africa between the spiritual mentors of some of the great families of Rome (including Melania and Pinianus) and Augustine, bishop of the prosperous port town of Hippo (Annaba in Algeria). On 24 August 410, an army of Visigoths sacked Rome. This was not a smash-and-grab barbarian horde streaming down the Italian peninsula intent on rape and destruction: Alaric’s troops had been enmeshed in the shifting military strategies and dynastic disputes of the Roman Empire for a generation. The war-weary Goths were after money. ‘Far from being a bloodbath,’ Brown writes, ‘the Visigothic sack of Rome was a chillingly well-conducted act of spoliation.’ Many grandees, their mansions shattered and looted, abandoned the no longer Eternal City and crossed the Mediterranean to the safety of Carthage (modern Tunis) and their large estates in the fertile hinterland of the Medjerda valley.

Some of the most prominent of these ‘refugees’ brought with them a view of Christianity fixed firmly on extraordinary acts of renunciation. Such spectacular gestures as Melania and Pinianus’ dissolution of their possessions, or the decision of well-bred (and eminently marriageable) maidens to live in sequestered chastity, were given theological force by the British monk Pelagius, who arrived in Rome around 390, and quickly gained the confidence of a charmed circle of wealthy Christians (including Melania’s mother). Pelagius might rightly be reckoned the last great proponent of free will in the ancient world. Human nature, as intended by the Creator, was whole and sound; it was not undermined by some dark inner weakness. Nothing held Christians back in their pressing obligation to follow God’s law. ‘Only those who do not want to change their lives persuade themselves that they are up against “human nature” itself.’ Christians aiming at self-improvement need look only to themselves: ‘Spiritual riches cannot be there, unless they come from you alone.’ This was a tough doctrine; Brown argues that it might have had a particular appeal to a Christian upper class now exiled from Rome and eager to parade its superiority. ‘Robustly aristocratic and optimistic … they were views that seemed to privilege a group of special givers – great renouncers or open-handed families of the super-rich.’ Just as power and position rested on wealth, so salvation depended on its voluntary divestment. This was the privileged paradox of a competitive creed: only those who already possessed could cash in on the rewards of renunciation.

The central chapters of Through the Eye of a Needle – perhaps the most exhilarating – expose the rift between Pelagius’ views (now given new currency in North Africa) and those of Augustine. The ‘Pelagian controversy’ was a key moment in the formation of a set of ideas that has remained central to Christian thinking on sin and redemption. For Augustine, Pelagius’ claim that individuals were self-sufficient left no room for God’s forgiving grace: Pelagius’ assessment of human nature was ultimately cold-hearted in its dismissal of those who failed to live up to his ideals. By contrast, Augustine’s theology was keenly aware of humanity’s imperfections – ‘Sins never cease seeping in from the waves on the sea of this world’ – and of the pressing need for lifelong spiritual rehabilitation. Christ was the physician of the faithful: ‘Persevere in the doctor’s care; put up with his orders as with unpleasant medicine.’

Augustine’s embrace of human frailty was, in the late Robert Markus’s striking phrase, ‘a vindication of Christian mediocrity’. The cry of the Lord’s Prayer – Dimitte nobis debita nostra, ‘Forgive us our sins’ – was a persistent, penitential reminder of humanity’s need for divine forgiveness. A Christian was a work in progress. And as Brown observes, laying out one of his core arguments, ‘Augustine never doubted that prayer for forgiveness should be accompanied by almsgiving … [he] placed behind the largely unreflecting practice of expiatory giving the heavy weight of a view of human nature that made daily expiation a necessity.’ Wealth was not to be vaporised in some prodigious Pelagian potlatch: it was to be given to the Church and its good causes. ‘A community of sinners was to be a community of givers.’ In framing his advice to the wealthy, Augustine cited 1 Timothy 6:17-18 (from a New Testament letter attributed to Saint Paul): ‘Command the rich of this world not to be proud. Let them be rich in good works, let them give readily, let them share.’ What was at stake was an individual’s inner state of mind. Against the rallying cry of the anonymous author of On Riches (most likely a Pelagian ultra) – ‘Get rid of the rich and you will find no poor’ – Augustine proposed a different, more introspective slogan: ‘Get rid of pride, and riches will do no harm.’

Peter Brown and Saint Augustine go back a long way. In 1967, Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography offered a compelling psychological portrait of a highly original thinker set against the social and political landscape of North Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries. Through the Eye of a Needle pushes that enterprise, and its sense of place, even further. Particularly striking is the emphasis on Augustine’s sermons rather than the formidable theological tracts (On the Trinity, City of God, Confessions) that supplied the building blocks of the biography. Compared to the polished prose of these masterworks, the sermons seem urgent and raw – particularly the 26 new sermons identified in 1990 by the patient Parisian scholar François Dolbeau in a dull-looking 15th-century manuscript in the Stadtbibliothek in Mainz, one of the most important discoveries of new textual material from the ancient world in the last fifty years. Unlike the five hundred other surviving sermons (roughly a tenth of Augustine’s total output), those preserved in Mainz had not been extracted, edited or cut down. They are Augustine’s words as he uttered them before his congregation, recorded in shorthand by stenographers. Here ‘is the living voice of Augustine the bishop, caught, in turns, at its most intimate and at its most routine’, Brown excitedly remarked, reviewing the evidence in an epilogue to a new edition of Augustine of Hippo in 2000.

In the ‘Dolbeau sermons’ it is possible to hear Augustine thinking aloud. Sermons in the early Church were delivered extempore to a standing congregation. There were no pews and no pulpit. The preacher moved from his seat in the apse into the body of the church, where he stood, perhaps beside the low railings of the altar, face to face with the faithful. The sermons – which might run for an hour, sometimes longer – deliberately targeted various groups. They lend a sense of immediacy to the working out of Augustine’s paramount concerns: the unity of the Church and the undivided community of believers. ‘He made clear that, as their bishop, he viewed his congregation as an absolute democracy of hearts, levelled beneath the gaze of God.’ In considering the Gospel injunction to the rich man, Augustine agreed that the ungenerous rich would not pass through the eye of a needle. But perhaps sensing a smug ripple of satisfaction somewhere in the listening crowd, he then observed that Christ had also put on parole any Christian who ‘hugged himself and laughed out loud when it was said that the rich will not enter into the kingdom of heaven … But you too, just see whether you will enter. What if, as well as being poor, you are greedy; what if you are both weighed down with want and on fire with avarice?’

Augustine’s sermons are one side of an argument. It would be a mistake to think that his congregation always agreed, politely applauding like a bored university audience at a grand public lecture. The stenographers who took down the Dolbeau sermons also recorded heckles and chants. In January 404 in Carthage, Augustine was so irritated by the rowdy behaviour of those waiting to hear him speak that he returned to his seat in the apse. Some in the church were prepared to forgo the sermon, shouting: ‘Fac missa, Fac missa’ – ‘Get on with it, get on with the mass!’ Such moments are a sharp reminder that Augustine’s view of the Church is to be understood not only from his subtle theological arguments, but also in the context of his engagement in the weekly rhythm of sermonising in front of a diverse, critical and sometimes outspoken congregation.

In asking the Christian faithful to think of themselves as a community of the sinful bound together by a redemptive regimen of prayer and almsgiving, Augustine aimed at a pastoral theology that both embraced and supported his congregation, while undermining their comfortable complacency. Certainly, Augustine would have had some sympathy with Pacianus, the late fourth-century bishop of Barcelona, whose Lenten sermon on penance was directed at those who had expressed themselves entirely satisfied with their own mediocrity: ‘It is good that we are middling persons [mediocres]. It is not for us to live in houses sheathed in marble, to be weighed down with gold, in flowing silks and bright scarlet. But all the same we have our little places in gardens and by the seaside. We have good quality wine, neat little banquets and all that goes with a sprightly old age.’

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It is in this context – of a Church of ordinary Christians – that Augustine also aimed to tease out the implications of that chilling command of Christ’s which had so impressed Melania, Paulinus and Pelagius: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’ The imaginative charge of this Gospel injunction is the focus of Brown’s latest book, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity, which is not a leftover from Through the Eye of a Needle, but takes the inquiry in a fresh direction to explore the relationship between God and gold in late antique Christian debates about the afterlife.

For some Christians, the relationship between charity and salvation could be understood in straightforward terms. In building his magnificent shrine for Saint Felix at Cimitile, Paulinus of Nola claimed to have transmuted his worldly wealth into redemptive treasure. Faith ‘transforms our wealth according to God’s law,’ he said, ‘making it no longer brittle but eternal, removing it from earth and setting it in heaven’. But for Augustine, salvation could not be procured so easily. There were too many risks. At its best, Augustine suggested, almsgiving might be thought of as venture capital, in Brown’s words ‘a form of traiecticium, a cash purchase in advance that could lead to a “killing” elsewhere’. But as every North African merchant made wealthy by long-distance maritime trade knew all too well, not every speculation secured an argosy. An outlay in this world did not guarantee a return in the next. Nor could the sinful hope for a windfall, praying to the saints to intercede for them at the terrifying reckoning of the Last Judgment. In Augustine’s view, the prospect of divine clemency threatened to undermine the hard necessity of daily prayer and penance. ‘The image of Christ as the ever-generous, good emperor and of the saints as supportive patrons would encourage sinners to lie low and wait until Christ declared a general amnesty at the Last Judgment.’

Nor could the charitable ever be sure that their benefactions would outweigh their sins. Ordinary Christians, heavily freighted with the depressing burdens of human imperfection, could never hope to expiate their sins in one lifetime alone. How then could they be saved? Augustine, as Brown notes, ‘insisted that those who had sinned lightly would not go straight to hell, suggesting that they had a chance to change in the other world, at some time in the uncharted period between their death and the Last Judgment’. In the twilight zone between heaven and hell a purging fire – ignis purgatorius – might consume the chaff of worldly existence. ‘That straw would have to be burned off before the soul was considered worthy to enjoy the presence of Christ.’ For Augustine, the ignis purgatorius was the last-chance saloon of the soul. It was an imagined rupture in the timelessness of the world beyond the grave as the not-too-sinful departed were delayed (but for how long?) before they could continue to heaven.

This was not a fully worked out part of Augustine’s thinking. (The invention of Purgatory was largely the work of medieval theologians.) But the ignis purgatorius was, like so much of Augustine’s theology, born of a concern with the ambitions and limitations of the solid middle ground of his congregation: not the valde boni (the ‘altogether good’), the saints and martyrs with an assured place in heaven, but the non valde boni (the ‘not altogether good’) who needed the Church for the long haul to salvation and a timely relief from eternity to square their accounts with the Almighty. Here too Augustine pushed hard against the supporters of Pelagius, obsessively focused as they were on perfection, and the steep hierarchies of an imperial society in which great persons such as Paulinus of Nola could spend his family’s accumulated wealth to build a glittering shrine to his patron saint, or an extravagantly charitable couple such as Melania and Pinianus could afford to bypass bishops. (The saintly couple eventually made their way from their estates in the Medjerda valley to the Holy Land, where they founded monasteries and imagined themselves as avatars of the apostles.) In 418, a delegation from the North African Church, lobbying the emperor and court in Italy, secured the formal condemnation of Pelagius as a heretic and the expulsion of his followers from Rome. In one sense, this was a needless victory. Looking back, the blaze of wealth – and the equally spectacular renunciations of the super-rich – seemed to belong to a distant golden age. ‘Men … with revenues drawn from everywhere and properties that stretched throughout the Roman world,’ Eucherius, Bishop of Lyon, reflected in the early 430s, ‘now appear to us figures in a fairy tale.’

In the fifth century, the Roman Empire downsized dramatically as its former territories in France, Spain and North Africa were broken up into barbarian states. These disruptions should not be thought of simply as ‘invasions’: this was a long-drawn-out process in which the barbarians were pulled further into the empire by the exigencies of civil war and the opportunism of usurpers. The western Roman Empire – always dangerously fissiparous – fragmented into a constellation of little Romes rather than a set of defiantly post-Roman states. In these shrunken societies, under the watchful eye of bishops, churches stood out as stable institutions providing solidarity and cohesion. In confronting the problem of the rich man and his salvation, what dominated the thinking of Christians in an impoverished and irreversibly post-imperial western Mediterranean was, as Brown says, ‘a combination of Paulinus of Nola’s poetic sense of the romance of treasure placed in heaven by a spiritual exchange with Augustine’s sad emphasis on daily giving as a remedy for daily sin’. Shares in heaven were not only for the very wealthy. Even ordinary Christians could imagine their celestial investment portfolios augmented with each charitable act. The vision of one pious late antique person (recorded by Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century) gave such transactions concrete form: with each benefaction the almsgiver contributed directly to the construction of his own mansion in heaven – golden brick by golden brick. A surge in charitable giving in this world was matched by an ethereal housing boom in the next.

Augustine met such encouraging visions with a dispiriting reticence. ‘What even the pious saw in dreams and visions,’ Brown notes, ‘was not necessarily what they would get in the world beyond the grave.’ Others preferred the aristocratic confidence of bishops like Paulinus, who was secure in his belief that in building for the glory of the saints he had successfully transferred his wealth from earth to heaven. But for many Christians, as The Ransom of the Soul makes clear, this was also a transaction suffused with fear and anxiety, most acutely at the moment of death. ‘Behold,’ warned Salvian of Marseille in 435, ‘the staff of the Sacred Tribunal awaits you as you leave this life. The torturing angels and ministers of undying punishments stand at the ready.’ Fifth-century bishops convinced of the impending terrors of the Apocalypse insisted that well-directed charity was the safest means of avoiding damnation at the Last Judgment. ‘Donations were made, first and foremost, for the remedium – for the healing and protection – of the soul in the other world.’ Transferred to the treasury of the Church, this was now, in Brown’s resonant phrase, ‘wealth subtly touched by expectations of eternity’. In the robust terms of the benefaction of Theodila to the shrine of Saint Dionysius (Saint-Denis, now in the northern suburbs of Paris) in April 627: ‘“The world perishes and those things that are in the world” (1 John 2:17). That, however, which has been transferred to the churches, to the shrines of saints or to the poor never perishes, and is reckoned an everlasting reminder of justice.’

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Two centuries before the pious Theodila, the heretic Pelagius had advocated a Christianity fit for superheroes. It was the faith of an elite band who had demonstrated that extraordinary feats of denial were possible, and insisted that they were necessary for salvation. It is all too easy to think of Pelagius’ condemnation by Augustine and others as a retreat of Christianity from its radical mission – now a compromise religion for a fallen world in which the consequences of sin could be paid off in advance. But that, as Brown rightly warns, ‘is to merely echo the high-minded language of the ascetic movement’. What such criticism misses – and what both of Brown’s recent books so brilliantly capture – is the hard-fought debate about alternatives to renunciation. Those who did not put the Gospel text about the rich man and the eye of a needle at the centre of their thinking did not somehow miss – or deliberately fail to grasp – the point. ‘Rather,’ Brown suggests, ‘they had surrounded their use of wealth with a different imaginative charge from that of the advocates of radical renunciation. This charge empowered their daily acts of kindness and generosity.’

It is Peter Brown’s great achievement to have demonstrated so clearly that what might be taken for granted as ‘part of the common sense of Latin Christianity’ is tightly bound up with the history of the western Roman Empire and its dissolution in the fourth to sixth centuries. That common sense represents the triumph of the (mostly silent) Christian middle ground – the non valde boni. The victory of mediocritas has its own radicalism in the far-reaching institutional and theological consequences of an inseparable coupling of Christian charity with the expiation of sin. Almsgiving was central to the construction of Christian communities in late antique and early medieval Europe. The well-managed use of wealth for pastoral objectives was fundamental to the development of the Church as an institution and to the working out of Christian views of the afterlife. In the end, the disturbing dreams of Melania and Pinianus, or the punitive preaching of Pelagius, should be matched by an undistinguished verse inscription set into the floor of the north aisle of a large and beautifully decorated late antique church in Tigzirt on the Algerian coast: QVAERITE CORDE PIO CAELVM PAVCISQUE TESELLIS, ‘Seek heaven with a pious heart and by donating just a few cubes of mosaic.’