The Danger of Historical Models

02 May

I received my first issue of The Journal of Early Christian Studies a month or so ago. I can already see that this will be an interesting and enlightening publication. The $50 I paid to join an organization I’m not qualified to intellectually contribute to and receive a journal I have free electronic access to may seem foolish but I think it will easily be worth it. The other really cool thing? (self-back-patting tangent to follow) Ten years ago, maybe even five, I wouldn’t have understood what the article authors were talking about and today I find the topics very interesting. Maybe I am actually learning something. Oh frabjous day! (love that poem, whatever it’s supposed to mean)

I’ve previously mentioned my dissatisfaction with historians (IMO) wrongly trying to fit historical events into a favorite model. We all(I’m going outside history here – this applies to all disciplines) have our pet theories about various things but just because we find a model valid and useful, it doesn’t have to be universal and there’s no need to try to shoehorn items which don’t fit into it. A few outliers does not invalidate a model or theory. Most importantly, evidence should be looked at and evaluated on its own terms, without contamination from other evidence, models or, as much as possible, our own preconceptions (this last is the hardest for me).

Ann Marie Yasin includes an article, “Reassessing Salona’s Churches: Martyrium Evolution in Question” which calls into question, not the model itself (not completely anyway – see below) but the propensity of historians to assign an evolutionary process to a model, even when the evidence doesn’t support it. In this case, the model is the development of churches centered around the tomb of a saint or martyr. “The accepted model for the birth of Christian sacred architecture traces a line of evolution marked by successive stages of increasing monumentality: martyr’s tombs were transformed from ‘ordinary’ graves to small shrines, and then from modest cult centers to focal points of large, communal basilicas.”(63) While the specifics, including the number of intermediate steps, will vary, in essence this model states that what was once a martyr’s or saint’s tomb becomes a church with the tomb as a centerpiece.

In this article Yasin chooses to focus on three archaeological case studies from Salona, in what once was Dalmatia. Salona is useful for this purpose as, “… more recent scholarship regularly treats Salona’s burial churches as ‘textbook’ cases of martyrium development and deploys them as models with which to reconstruct the architectural developments at other sites.”(62) Salona has a fairly large number of churches housing relics, with substantial remains available for archaeological examination.

Three sites are chosen for closer examination; Kapljuč, Marusinac and Manastrine. Significant problems exist with each of these in reconciling the archaeological evidence with the martyrium evolution model. I will examine Yasin’s argument for each of these. 1

For Kapljuč, considered a focal site for the cult of St. Asterius, in essence there is no evidence that the basilica was built after the tomb – the tomb could as easily have been added after the structure was completed. In fact, the tomb may not initially have been a tomb at all. Yasin says, “Given the current state of the evidence, it is just as possible, or perhaps even more likely, that the pit was not a tomb that pre-dated the church but a reliquary deposit constructed at the time of the building’s foundation, or even added later.”(81-2) While there is evidence that Asterius was venerated at the site, the inscription stating this was added after the church was built and there is nothing to indicate that his remains were ever contained within the church.(85-6) Yasin does not disqualify the possibility that Kapljuč may have contained the remains of one or more saints, simply that there is not enough evidence either way and that applying the martyrium model, as has consistently been done, is,”… because they enable the site to mesh comfortably with, and in turn persuasively reinforce, the evolutionary structure of the conventional model for cult expansion.”(89)

Marusinac is an interesting case where historically, hagiography has been used as the authoritative source for the development of the site, rather than relying on archaeological evidence. Based on a later (possibly tenth-century) text, the area was originally the rural dwelling of a wealthy family which included a cemetery. According to the text, Asclepia, a wealthy member of the family, interred the remains of Anastasius (martyred under Diocletian at the start of the fourth century) and was later buried nearby with her husband. The martyr’s tomb inspired the development of a cemetery area around it and later his remains were translated to a church built on the site. Unfortunately, archaeology does not support this, according to Yasin, “The reading [hagiographic tradition] does not grow out of the material remains uncovered at the site so much as form the framework into which the archaeological evidence has been inserted. This triumphant, evolutionary narrative of cultic and architectural monumentalization thus prescribes rather than describes (my emphasis) the evidence …”(94). There is considerably more evidence for this site which Yasin discusses but the above is the essence of it; archaeologically, there is no basis for considering Marusinac to be a Church built due to the presence of a martyr’s relics. Instead hagiographical tradition has been used to provide a framework of development which fits with the martyrium evolutionary model. As with Kapljuč, there is not enough evidence to say with certainty that Marusinac’s development didn’t follow this model, however there isn’t enough to state that it did either.

The site of Manastrine is different from the above two because not only is there not enough evidence to support the traditional model, in this case evidence exists which contradicts it. This is the site of a large, three-aisled basilica which according to tradition was built in the mid-fifth century over the tomb of Domnio, martyred under Diocletian. Recent excavations have revealed that the portion of the basilica built over what was considered the martyr’s tomb was not the first portion constructed. Instead, the earliest built portions housed the tombs of a line of Salona’s bishops. It is possible that these tombs were constructed in some relation to the (supposed) tomb of Domnio, however this relationship is not obvious and even if this were so, one would expect the section over Domnio’s tomb to have been built first. Based on the date of construction of sections of the basilica, as well as the relative lack of emphasis placed on the (supposed) martyr’s tomb, there is no evidence for the traditional martyrium model (this does not, strictly speaking, eliminate the possibility). The construction seems to indicate that its focus was to celebrate the bishops rather than to highlight the single tomb of a martyr.(107-11)

Where this article appealed to me is that it is an example of how important it is to examine evidence independently, without preconceptions, and to not allow other, unrelated evidence to influence findings and conclusions. 2 Yasin does not specifically deconstruct the entire model, however she does infer that it is possible that with enough additional site examination, the model may be invalidated. At this point she says, “Moreover, not only does the conventional model for martyrium evolution provide an overly confident and homogenous picture of cult development, it also narrows the range of inquiry to a single trajectory. Because the model cannot account for anomalous aspects of the sites, it steers investigation away from them.“(111)(my emphasis) She believes more sites need to be examined critically without relying on this model, either to deconstruct it if necessary, or at the very least to update it and account for sites which don’t fit. 3

NOTE: OK, I’m embarrassed. I just did a search of Bill Caraher’s Blog to get the link for his review/summary of Yasin(2009) to include in note 3 and came across his discussion of this very article. So I suggest you read it and, where he and I disagree, if we do – as I’ve just spent three hours putting this post together I’ve obstinately decided not to edit mine but to post it and THEN read his – you should probably go with him. In my defense, I did mention that I was behind on reading blogs.

1 I’ll apologize for the length here rather than in the text. Initially I was only going to look at Yasin’s argument for one of the sites but this will allow me to expand on and summarize my notes. This very well may be more useful to me than readers but one of the functions of this blog is to include information I’ve come across so I can come back to it later.

2 Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 9-780199-212965. was the first to show me that regional development must be examined independent of other regions and without preconceptions. Guy Halsall took this one step further for me in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-521-43543-7. He provided a statement I haven’t forgotten related to possible Barbarian settlement in Roman regions, “The archaeological data permit no association of these graves with trans-Rhenen settlers. Without assumptions based on the simplistic use of written sources no archaeologist would assume these were the graves of immigrants.”(159) Every now and then I read something which wakes me up, almost like a slap in the face. Halsall’s statement did this regarding the need to evaluate evidence on its own merits first before turning to other evidence be it textual or, as with this article, a preconstructed model. These made it on my most influential books list for those reasons.

3 If you want to go into more depth on sacred space-making two books I’d suggest are Yasin’s Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2009). ISBN: 9780521767835. This was reviewed/summarized by Bill Caraher a little while back. The other is Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0-521-88593-5. For a review of this one, I’m going to recommend me. (No, I’m not at all pretentious!)

Yasin, Ann Marie, “Reassessing Salona’s Churches: Martyrium Evolution in Question,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20(2012), pp 59-112.


Posted by on May 2, 2012 in Archaeology, Hagiography, Religion


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2 responses to “The Danger of Historical Models

  1. Joan Vilaseca

    May 3, 2012 at 6:28 am

    I am with you on that. Models, as a kind of simplificaction, are intrinsic to historical knowledge (in fact, to any scientific enquiry, i think), but the very moment they start making assumptions, they become an unwanted cliché. In the case of martyrs, there’s clear evidence that death and sacred sense has been closely related since prehistoric times, but to believe that the remains of an individual (saint) who supposedly died centuries ago, can be somehow identified, is simply spurious IMO. The martyrium evolution models heavely depends on it, so I think it’s quite natural that a close inspection reveals his faults. The model existed probably as an idea on ancient christian thinking, and that’s also a very interesting research area.

    • Curt Emanuel

      May 3, 2012 at 7:25 pm

      Yes, we can’t do without them, certainly for teaching purposes anyway. It’s when they get in the way of free thought, or become sacred in and of themselves that they become a problem. Good luck with your blog and site move. Hope that works well for you. You’ve done a tremendous amount of good work with that. Your source collection is tremendous.


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