Book Review: Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity

25 Dec

Bowes, Kim, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). Pp. 363, xvi. ISBN: 978-0-521-88593-5.

The study of the evolution of Christianity during Late Antiquity has traditionally focused on members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy; bishops, clerics and even emperors. In this book Kim Bowes chooses to explore a lesser-known phenomenon; that of religious practice in private spaces with an emphasis on its impacts on the development of the institutional Catholic Church from 300-450. By utilizing an impressive collection of textual sources and integrating these with archaeological evidence in a case-study approach, Bowes casts light on a world which was fully as seminal in shaping Christianity as were public building projects, prominent bishops and doctrinal authorities, public practice, and enabling legislation from Emperors.

The book is arranged into four chapters with a brief introduction. In the introduction Bowes discusses prior scholarship on this issue, or the lack thereof, with particular emphasis on the fact that, “… private devotion is hard to see.” (9) She challenges Christianization models which emphasized consensus-building by stating that, “Typically, ‘dissenting’ elements in these [consensual Christianization] stories were placed under the headings of paganism and heresy, their marginalization reinforcing the primacy of consensus as social-historical paradigm.” (10-11) She sets out a definition of private for the purposes of this study as, “… the practice of ritual outside the space and/or supervision of the institutional church and/or its bishop.” (14) This definition and the discussion immediately following regarding how this impacts her identification of religious space as public or private are essential to the remainder of the book and one the reader will want to return to as he or she progresses through this book.

Chapter one, “An Empire of Family and Friends: Public and Private in Roman Religions,” examines pre-Constantinian Roman religious practice with an emphasis on its impact on the development of later Christian practice. Roman household cults were a substantial aspect of religious practice with many households containing spaces devoted to a deity and engaged in ritual designed to honor their chosen God or Gods. This resulted in the development of considerable private religious space ranging from a room set aside in an urban home to rural villa temples. While occasionally private ritual might be exposed to accusations of magia; ritual practice designed not just to promote a deity but also to harm others; private ritual and space were an important and generally accepted aspect of Roman life.

Interestingly, during this pre-Constantinian period Christianity was moving away from the private toward the public. Certainly this was not in the sense of spaces constructed using public funds or state-supported ritual however considerable evidence exists of the development of Christian communities. These communities generally were sponsored by the wealthier members of society and used what came to be viewed as communal space for religious ritual and activities. The evolution of these communal spaces into household churches where religious ritual, particularly the Eucharist grew increasingly complex promoted, “… the gradual emergence of a monoepiscopate, a single leader for all Christians in a given city.” (50) Bowes contrasts this with private ritual in the home conducted by families. Although authors such as Cyprian and Origen promoted public space for prayer, private and familial ritual were prominent, including communion before meals and prayer. She notes that it is important to recognize that even as private ritual helped bind a Christian community together as members engaged in common practices when they were not together; fears that private ritual was subject to pollution, either through flawed practice or when practiced in the presence of non-Christians, were prominent.

In the next chapter, “Two Christian Capitals: Private Worship in Rome and Constantinople,” Bowes examines how these two cities developed in the wake of Christianity’s legalization. The contrast between these two cities is profound, however they also possess considerable similarities. Rome possessed an extremely diverse pre-Constantinian structure, one which Bowes describes as very heterogeneous and fractured. (64) There were wide differences between groups in ritual and practice. Some were followers of one scholarly tradition, others of another and even Easter was celebrated on different dates throughout the city.

Bowes emphasizes that fourth-century Christianity in Rome very closely resembled that of the third. She notes that large-scale religious building construction in Rome really didn’t gain momentum until the fifth century and, “Given the slow pace of church building, it seems most likely that Christians of the fourth century continued to worship in the same places as did their ancestors of the third, namely in homes or other private spaces.” (73) In fact, Bowes argues against a rapid unification of Christian groups and believes that, “Indeed, rather than erasing Rome’s particulate qualities, Constantine’s conversion may have deepened them, as Rome’s aristocrats and their desperately needed wealth were added to this contentious mix.” (65) In light of this, it is unsurprising that Bowes believes that private spaces and ritual were still a prominent, if not dominant, aspect of religious life in Rome. Arguing against previous scholarship, she believes that the origin of relic cults was through the aristocracy rather than the episcopacy and that private relic shrines were, if not exactly common, far from exceptional.

This prevalence of the private sowed the seeds of hostility among Rome’s bishops as they may have viewed this both as dangerous doctrinally as well as a threat to their authority. Titular churches, built through donations of the aristocracy, private ritual and asceticism and even theological debates taking place in homes all served to diminish episcopal authority. While the conflict between public and private was not extreme, it was a developing undercurrent which would grow in later years.

Constantinople’s story was obviously different, however Bowes demonstrates that it was notable for the many similarities with Rome. While a vibrant yet diverse and fractured Christian community was not extant before Constantine established his new city, much of the worship and ritual took place in private spaces and within homes. “Already in the mid fourth century, private neighborhood churches, private martyr shrines, and eventually, private ascetic and charitable foundations formed the backbone of Constantinopolitan Christian life.” (103) Contrary to what Bowes terms “the Constantinian myth-machine,” (107) little imperial church-building is evident before the Theodosian dynasty. Until that time, virtually all church building was through private efforts. While the lack of an existing Christian community on the scale of Rome might indicate a more unified, structured system, this did not, in fact, take place as various groups and members of the elite resisted this, notably expelling John Chrysostom from the city and the bishopric, at least in part due to his inability to navigate the complexity of the local Christian landscape. While numerous efforts were made to unify the city under a single hierarchy, it was not until Justinian that this was substantially achieved. In Constantinople, monks and elites were at least as influential as ecclesiastical authorities and, “… in the new Rome, short-lived bishops mostly worked hand-in-glove with the bureaucrat-church builders who constituted the principal element of religious continuity.” (124)

In chapter three, “‘Christianizing’ the Countryside: Rural Estates and Private Cult,” Bowes moves to the rural West. Through an analysis of estate and villa construction in combination with textual evidence she discusses private churches, often used as places for religious ritual for all members of an estate. She is careful to note that there is little evidence that these spaces were used as part of an active conversion effort in rural Western Europe. She discusses how frequently pagan spaces were converted for Christian ritual and how often it is difficult to distinguish between pagan and Christian uses in some rural structures, particularly mausolea. She examines several geographic regions and discusses their differences such as, for example, North Africa which had a relatively large number of rural bishops, even estate-bishops, when compared with areas such as Gaul and Britain.

There are significant differences between these regions however a common thread is that of rural Christianity being primarily practiced in private spaces. Except for in North Africa, rural bishops were few and far between and the parish system of organizing rural churches did not become established until the sixth century. It was in these rural areas that significant bishop-elite conflict first arose. Bowes believes that, contrary to most scholarship which she believes has been overly reliant on clerical textual sources which emphasize unity and religious primacy, bishops and aristocratic elites were less allies than competitors. “Estate-based communities were simply different from those envisioned by the episcopate . . . tensions accumulated: inward-looking estates versus distant episcopal cities, genuine local power versus theoretical diocesan authority, wealthy rural elites versus impoverished urban bishops.” (188)

The closing chapter, “Ideologies of the Private: Private Cult and the Construction of Heresy and Sanctity,” discusses how private worship often was criticized by religious authorities, even as it was promoted by ecclesiastical authors, particularly as a sign of ascetic practice. As heresy became an increasing concern, private worship was often labeled as secretive and a sign of heretical practice and belief. While private ritual was never labeled as equivalent to heresy, it was symptomatic and often discouraged. Edicts against Arians, Manichees and Priscillianism all name the home as a site where heretical worship and ritual were practiced. At the same time, authors such as Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose and Jerome promoted the home as highly desirable for asceticism and even as a means of defense against the corruption of the world. In particular, the home was promoted as an extremely desirable location for female ascetic practice with women even discouraged from participating in public worship. (207)

Bowes concludes this book with a summary of her previous arguments and by touching on sixth and seventh century developments. As Christianity became more established and the episcopal hierarchy more secure, accusations of the private as a heretical refuge diminished. Bishops increasingly asserted their rights of supervision over estate-based churches and prohibited ritual such as the eucharist and baptism from being conducted in private spaces. She considers the Council of Chalcedon to be, “… a watershed in the growth of episcopal hegemony; monasteries and domestic churches alike were emphatically located inside an episcopally governed community, their actions monitored by an ever-keener episcopal gaze.” (223) Despite this assertion of episcopal authority, private ritual and space continued to be an important part of Christian life; indeed, few palaces were built without an accompanying chapel. While the public-private balance had shifted, it continued to be a balance and a continuing point of contention, one which Bowes believes impacts Christianity to this day.

This is a very useful book. It is copiously referenced and rigorously researched, though the author-date citation method used is a hindrance. It is very well illustrated with 54 maps, plans and images. Bowes utilizes a great deal of archaeological evidence, particularly in chapters two and three, to form her case-study approach in analyzing private spaces and their uses. She has done an admirable job of integrating these with textual references and demonstrates a great deal of knowledge of the source material. This has been an under-represented area of study and this work shows the importance of integrating archaeology and not relying only on textual sources authored by ecclesiastical authorities for information on the early church and Christianity.

If there is a true criticism, it is with chapter one. The structure of Bowes’ argument is somewhat disorganized for this chapter as she uses authors such as Cicero for evidence of first and second century practice and integrates various geographic regions in a somewhat haphazard manner. Much of this information is useful, however relying on first-century CE authors such as Philo and Seneca rather than those from the Roman Republic and providing more structure during discussions of different geographic regions, as she did in her third chapter, would have made this section easier to follow.

Bowes has authored an impressive book which provides something of a roadmap for future study. The impact of private ritual on the development of Christianity in different geographic regions, such as she broadly covers in chapter three, is a fertile area for future research. The same analysis she provides for the years 300-450 will be useful for other periods, particularly to the beginning of the seventh century. In this work she has shown the necessity of a more critical analysis of textual sources in light of archaeological evidence where writers such as Gregory of Tours, portraying a fourth and fifth century church-building movement initiated by religious figures, must be analyzed against the evidence of estate and villa churches built by secular elites. This book is informative, interesting, and useful. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in the development of Christianity in Late Antiquity.


Posted by on December 25, 2010 in Books


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3 responses to “Book Review: Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity

  1. Medieval History Geek

    December 25, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    I am not a pedant and have never included this in a book review in my life. After some discussion with myself I decided to add this as a comment rather than in the review itself. This book had considerable typographical errors in the text. A few typo's are inevitable in any work of 150,000 or so words and I ignore them, however they were more frequent here than I recall ever seeing. I didn't start tracking them until I realized the extent but, for example, page 205 includes, "A treatise directed to virgin's [sic] living in their parent's [sic] homes …" and page 213, "One [sic] these women …"This is an excellent book – really good – and I hope that in subsequent editions, or if a pb edition is released, some of these can be corrected. There were just too many of them for such a quality book.

  2. Jonathan Jarrett

    December 29, 2010 at 12:49 am

    I've always figured that the physical quality of a book is something that should at least get a mention in a review, myself. Obviously it shouldn't be taken to reflect on the author, but since we happily refer to publisher-chosen things like reference systems, how likely a volume is to fall apart, whether it looks and feels nice in the hands, how heavy it is, I think these are all fair, if not necessary, things to mention. One of those things is surely editorial care, though I think it's also relevant to say whether or not this makes it difficult to use. I speak as a man who's found three typoes in the introduction of his own book that he would have liked to have caught, so I'm prepared to receive as well as dish out here…

  3. Medieval History Geek

    December 29, 2010 at 3:38 am

    It's tough – the copy editor didn't get it done. I may be seeing something that isn't there but quite often it seems that proofing has consisted of running text through a software program and those make mistakes too.And something that drives me batty is that if I'm in a hurry to get something out I can read it over 3-4 times and I'll keep missing the same error. It amazes me. If I have 12 hours and can re-read it the next day I'll find it. I do this, not exactly all the time but often enough that I wonder at what particular form of brain-lock or gap in my visual-cognitive functioning is going on. I always try to have someone else proof my work but that doesn't always happen.


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