Book Review: Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul

12 Sep

Jones, Allen E., Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul: Strategies and Opportunities for the Non-Elite. New York: Cambridge University Press (2009). Pp 379, xi. ISBN: 978-0521762397.

In this book, Allen E. Jones sets out to provide a new perspective on the degree of social fluidity in Merovingian Gaul. He believes that in discussing this region and period, society was not divided into two classes – elite and popular. Individuals could and did move from poor to elite and the strategies used by the lower elite to move higher, and for the non-aristocrats to move into the ranks of the elite, were similar. He presents his argument through a detailed analysis of textual sources, most particularly Gregory of Tours but also by examining others such as Caesarius of Arles. While social movement among elites is presented as a comparison, this book focuses on the poor and the writings of Gregory and others are given a detailed examination to discover evidence of social fluidity among the lower classes of society.

Chapter One, “Introducing Barbarian Gaul,” examines the current perspectives among historians. Jones discusses his belief that several current constructs are in error. He believes that during this period Gaul should not be discussed in terms of Northern and Southern (Frankish and Roman) or Christian and pagan. He believes that Gaul has been largely Christianized by this time, albeit with pagan influences, and he discusses it as such. He provides an overview of what will be his argument against a two-tiered social model by posing the question, “What would become of the ‘two-tiered’ model if one were to discover that important social behaviors and activities among people from Gaul’s various social ranks differed only by a matter of degrees?” (p15) He intends to construct a microcosm through a detailed textual analysis of individuals, a prosopographical approach and, “Ultimately, this study relies upon interpretations of collective biographical data extracted from literary sources.” (p17)

In Chapter Two Jones discusses the sources. The sources themselves – Gregory, Avitus, Caesarius, Venantius Fortunatus, etc. – will be well known to any student of the period. However here Jones sets out the context within which he will use them. For example, he believes that Gregory can be read as a valid source of historical events, but he must be used in context, considering Gregory’s objectives and prejudices. This is an extremely valuable, well constructed section of the book and is vital to the remainder.

Chapters Three and Four titled, respectively, “Social Structure I: Hierarchy, Mobility and Aristocracies” and “Social Structure II: Free and Servile Ranks” proceed to examine the biographical data for evidence of social mobility. Jones uses examples from sources to discuss methods of “social climbing” which various individuals used. Examples of these methods include; marriage and the acquisition of land through marriage; taking advantage of one’s literacy; patronage and service; visions and acts of healing; conspicuous acts of public service such as building a church and; military service. Jones details why he believes elites of this period should be discussed as aristocrats, but not as members of an aristocracy or aristocratic class and discusses how the Merovingian royalty worked to avoid the development of a definable, entrenched aristocratic class. Numerous examples are provided detailing how individuals achieved social advancement. These examples encompass both the elite and non-elite and he compares and contrasts methods used by these two groups to show how the strategies were similar, whether for a lower level aristocrat becoming a Count or Bishop, or for a slave advancing to the priesthood. It is important to note that Jones stresses that the divide between an aristocrat and a wealthy freeman was generally less than that between a wealthy freeman and a slave.

Chapters Five and Six discuss two classes of the poor; prisoners and pauperes associated with a church. Jones describes how each of these groups might achieve social advancement. For prisoners he spends significant time detailing their role in what he terms “The Ritual of Miraculous Release.” This ritual was used by ecclesiastics to promote or develop the cult of a saint. One aspect of this included a prisoner or prisoners being miraculously released from their prison or bonds when visited by a dream or vision of a saint, or when a procession honoring a saint or carrying relics passed nearby. For pauperes similar, miraculous occurrences are found in the sources. A role of a Church paupere might include, beyond providing a visible example of the local church’s beneficence, guarding the poor box or the church itself. Sources detail how thieves were found “miraculously” unconscious in the act of thievery or how the local saint physically repelled the intruder. Jones believes that both of these cases – the miraculous freeing of prisoners and the repelling of invaders – involved ecclesiastics arranging or explaining the event to promote the local saint. In the first case, the freeing of prisoners was likely arranged with secular approval and in the second, defense of a church by pauperes was explained as a miraculous intervention. In each case, the prisoners and pauperes found opportunities for advancement. A freed prisoner might become identified with the saint and church while pauperes often were rewarded for their service.

The final two chapters of the book discuss Merovingian healers. Chapter Seven examines physicians while Chapter Eight covers sorcerers and enchanters. Jones discusses how through providing a service to Gallic society members of both groups found opportunities for advancement. In examining the sources he finds that physicians were generally well-respected and that, while Gregory might advocate that healing from St. Martin was more effective than that received from a doctor, he retains a high opinion of physicians and considers them to be a valuable part of society. Enchanters, faith healers, etc., receive different treatment from the sources. While Gregory denounces them, here Caesarius provides the most specific argument; that their power comes from the Devil and that he will happily heal the bodies of the sick, so long as he kills their soul. Nonetheless, Jones provides evidence of how enchanters and faith healers are able to advance and are viewed by the community as providing an essential service.

This is an important book. Jones provides clear, abundant evidence in support of his model of social fluidity. His arguments are well structured, well written, and easily understood. The book is surprisingly readable for one which takes such a close look at textual evidence. While he does not take on other interpretations head-on, he does seek to refute some previous work, particularly Valerie Flint’s belief that paganism continued to be a potent force in Merovingian Gaul. 1 Jones believes that pagan influences may be seen, however Gaul at this time was largely Christianized.

If there is one criticism I have, it is that Jones virtually ignores archaeological evidence. Granted, his is a book about textual evidence, however archaeological evidence has been used to argue that Gallic social structures were becoming more hierarchical and entrenched at this very time. Jones chose to provide his argument without attempting to refute these opinions. I think the book would have been even stronger had he chosen to do so. 2

Nevertheless, this is an excellent book. The evidence provided is considerable, the textual sources are examined in detail and Jones’ argument is clear, well-reasoned and powerful. Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul is a book which should significantly influence studies of Merovingian Gaul for years to come.

1As discussed in Valerie Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, Princeton, Princeton University Press (1991). This book happens to be the first I ever wrote a review for, nearly ten years ago which you can find on Amazon. Not my best but we all have to start somewhere.

2See Bonnie Effros, Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Middle Ages, Los Angeles: University of California Press (2002), pp 9, 130. She believes the reduction in the number of lavish burials in row grave cemeteries during the Sixth and Seventh Centuries points to an increasingly entrenched aristocracy which made ritual expression of status less important. To be fair, this process appears to have begun in the Sixth Century and accelerated in the Seventh, beyond the period covered by Jones.


Posted by on September 12, 2010 in Books


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7 responses to “Book Review: Social Mobility in Late Antique Gaul

  1. James Mitchell

    September 13, 2010 at 1:26 am

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful review. It confirms my idea that Franks living in the Frankish heartland — an axis running east-west from say Belgium over Metz to wherever the Bavarian border was momentarily located — were living very different lives, and where (according to the Royal Frankish Annals) the nobles never stopped fighting. So at least as far as Merovingia as a whole is concerned, there must have been a big disparity between north and south, where Gallo-Roman culture lingered on and where Christianity itself had a lengthy tradition — there had been already 18 bishops at Tours before Gregory!I've always wondered where one could draw a suppositional border between Merovingian Gauls and Merovingian Franks.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    September 13, 2010 at 2:54 am

    ??? Not sure where you got this from the review since it makes no mention of nobles fighting (not to say they didn't – at least a fair amount though that's hard to quantify and doesn't appear to be notably more or less than happened with the Romans) and specifically states that Jones does not believe that Gaul should be discussed in terms of Northern or Southern – Frankish vs Roman. He believes that with the possible exception of peripheral areas such as Frisia or Thuringia Gaul can be looked at as an area of cultural unity.Anyway, in answer to your question, according to Jones there was no border and Gaul shouldn't be discussed in those terms. Not to say his word has to be accepted. I don't see a big difference in the level of Christianity between different areas of Gaul but there seems to be evidence that Roman Institutions survived longer in the South than in the North. OTOH, archaeological evidence doesn't show, for example, any notable differences in funerary customs.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    September 13, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Thanks for this review, Curt, it sounds a fascinating book. I particularly like the way it seems to try and lodge hagiography back into a wider social context, although I do wonder if he isn't taking what could be read as literature rather too, well, literarily. Do chains really have to fall off someone for stories to be told about it? But, on the other hand, once stories are being told about, wouldn't you try and arrange it… Complex webs of influence on and by texts, which maybe he tackles; the excursus on how to save Gregory might also be useful from this point of view I guess? Anyway, this becomes a thing to pick up at Leeds I think!

  4. Medieval History Geek

    September 13, 2010 at 10:59 am

    There's the question – someone needs to write something titled Rehabilitating Gregory just to get everything out in the open. There's probably been an article somewhere I've missed but I think something book-length might be worthwhile.While I was reading this section, the question kept popping into my mind; "OK – a bishop arranged for a bunch of folks to escape. Wouldn't someone find out about it and blow the lid off it?"Then again, who would they tell? You'd think their buddies and wives would know but would that really matter? Not like they could Tweet about it or tell Wikileaks. And they likely got something out of it anyway, even beyond being free.Jones goes into some detail on how these arranged escapes might happen, not so much on influences on Gregory, how that Bishop-Count relationship may have worked, etc.I know one thing. It's been nearly 10 years since I really read Gregory, beyond flipping through for a notation. And he seems to be undergoing quite the recovery as a source lately. Keeps popping up in papers anyway. I need to re-read.

  5. Jonathan Jarrett

    September 14, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Similarly, he's been at the front of my when-the-urgent-stops pile for quite some time now. Alas, the urgent hasn't stopped.

  6. James Mitchell

    September 14, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Personally I'd have trouble with the view that social relations in 7th-c. "Gaul" would bear much resemblance to those prevailing in let's say Metz or the Rhine Valley, where Gallo-Roman heritage was mainly absent. That's what interests me personally, but never mind all that: the more I can learn about "Gaul," the better I can resolve my own issues. Also, I think we are fast reaching/have already reached the point where nobody can read everything about the early middle ages, which makes the work you're doing so valuable. My $.02!

  7. Medieval History Geek

    September 21, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    I agree – I think the Eastern edge of what Jones was discussing was Trier. Guess I had a bout of spatial dyslexia for those who saw "Western" earlier.


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