Monday, April 05, 2010

Medieval Literature I Didn't Know: Late Antique Version

I haven't had time to do one of these for awhile, my apologies, but while other topics molder on the pile of things to address, I thought I'd remind myself and others of the series. My Spring Break is over and while progress was made on some fronts, one front that met with no progress was blogging. I have to say I enjoy this venue very much, and hope the two of you reading do too.

To the literature I want to talk about AVITUS. Who? the Googles! There are two Late Antique figures with this name. The first is the Western Roman Emperor of the mid-fifth century. The second is the subject of this post, Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus, bishop of Vienne in southern France in the late fifth-early sixth century. The text I'm interested in is his poetic treatment of the Biblical text in his De spiritualis historiae gestis. But before the literature, a few words about the author.

The city of Vienne was at the time under the Burgundians, who like other Germanic tribes in the successor states were Arians. Sigismund, who was king from 516 on, taking over from his father Gundobad. Avitus succeeded in converting Sigismund from Arianism; the newly converted king established a monastery. When Sigismund's son opposed him and his new wife, he had his son strangled to death. Then in remorse and repentance, Sigismund entered his own monastery. Sadly, he emerged in 524 to lead his Burgundians against the combined forces of the sons of Clovis. With his brother, Sigismund lost. He took the monk's habit in his monastery but was quickly found and brought a prisoner to Orleans. The Franks had Burgundy. Sigismund's brother had escaped, rallied the Burgundians, and for a time retook and held onto his kingdom...but that's another story. On the rallying of the Burgundians, Clotair I of Orleans had Sigismund killed, his body tossed in a well, and then Clotair marched on the Burgundians.....all this is covered in Gregory of Tours history.

The Burgundians, even after absorption into the burgeoning Frankish kingdom, considered Sigismund a martyr and eventually he was canonized.

But this is getting me far afield from Avitus....

Avitus was as anti-Arian as they get. He was probably born in Vienne where his father was also bishop, a practice that I recall Columbanus later in the century complaining about. Anyway, Avitus set himself the task of exterminating the Arians, first by gaining the confidence of Sigismund's father, and then converting Sigismund--which of course meant that the whole kingdom converted. Avitus was also an opponent of Semipelagianism, a theological position that seeks a middle ground between the extremes of Pelagianism and Augustinism (utter free will vs. utter predeterminism to oversimplify), and monks at Marseille were in the early fifth century the chief proponents. But the idea wasn't condemned as heresy until after Avitus was dead (c. 517 for Avitus, 529, Council of Orange for Semipelagianism). He was also outspoken on the Acacian Schism in Constantinople, a schism that Boethius as I recall talks about in one of his theological tracts. Last, but not least, Avitus was a supporter of the early papacy as bulwark against heresy and unifier of orthodox Christians writing Si papa urbis vocatur in dubium, episcopatus videbitur, non episcopus, vaccilare (if the pope of the City is called into doubt, then it appears that the episcopate, not just one bishop, teeters.) He is also known for his congratulatory letter to Clovis when Clovis was baptized a Catholic.

That is pretty much all that is known about Avitus' life. His literary output included letters, homilies, and poetry. Let me mention a little something something about each before turning to the main topic of the post. His letters are important because they are one of the few sources outside of Gregory of Tour's history that give insight to into Gaul in the late fifth and early sixth century. Among those letters are that to Clovis mentioned above, letters to Sigismund, letters on the previously mentioned theological questions, letters requesting prayers and relics, esp of the True Cross, and other matters. Danuta Shanzer and Ian Wood translated the letters into English in 2002.

We know that there were homilies. Only a few have come to us. It it to be hoped that someday homiliaries, far too many of which have yet to be edited and published, may uncover more or uncover currently known homilies misattributed.

In addition to the biblical poem, there is a longish poem in 666 hexameters on Virginity that he composed for his sister the sister, Fuscina...she became a nun-yes, it's a very old joke.

One other item to mention quickly is one I have not even looked at or heard of, but a theological tract Contra Eutychianam Hæresim libri II, 2 books against the Eutychian heresy--Eutyches was an anti-Nestorian (Christ having two distinct natures: the human one he was born with, the divine one he later acquired: no union of the human and divine was possible, and so Mary could not be called "God-bearer". Eutyches flipped this on its head and essentially argued the monophysite position--one nature resulting from the fusion of human and divine. Avitus took Pope Leo I's position that has now become orthodoxy in the West: 2 natures united in one person.

Ok, enough of that sort of theology.... De spiritualis historiae gestis is a poem in five books written in hexameter verse. The first three books largely deal with the Creation of the World, the Fall, and the Expulsion from Paradise. Books 4 and 5 deal with the two other episodes in the developing catechism of the church: the Flood and the Crossing of the Red Sea. The last two, books 4 and 5, deal with these events as typology of baptism....the method by which the Christian returns to Paradise. So one might call the first three books an examination of Paradise lost and the latter two of Paradise regained. I hope you'll forgive the Miltonian references, though Milton is believed to have been influenced by Avitus. Something interesting happens in book 3: the first part of book 3 deals with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the judgment of God on Adam and Eve, but then Avitus turns to dealing with the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man from the Gospel of Luke. Avitus' purpose in introducing this story into the tale is to illustrate that the Rich Man in the parable repents, but he repents TOO LATE. Likewise, in Avitus' treatment, Adam and Eve weep tears of repentance on leaving the garden, but these extra-biblical tears of repentance come too late. In other words, the Original Sin was a pardonable one *if only* they had repented when God confronted them instead of after his judgment was rendered. The whole work to some degree appears to be an attempt not just to render the Bible into poetry, but to deal with the semipelagian issues of the day.

Sadly, so far as I know Avitus' poem has not been translated into English. It has been edited and included in the PL, the MGH, and I believe if memory serves in the Sources Chretienne series. I haven't checked CCSL and like series yet. There is an Italian edition that has both Latin and Italian. Ian Wood did a study of Avitus nearly 30 years ago, and there is a study of his poetry, though I don't own it and so can't say how much of the poem is translated. Should there be free time someday, I need to read the Creation portion for an article partially written. I'll let you know what I find in a future post. In the meantime, I give you the Literature I Didn't Know: Avitus of Vienne De spiritualis historiae gestis.