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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter November 30, 2021

Citizenship Discourses in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Els Rose

1. A citizenship shared with saints

Mathaee, grates debitas, apostole,

digne tuorum civium iam suscipe,

quos fac ab omni esse tutos crimine,

ut se futuro sentiant examine

tali patrono paruisse strenue.

“Apostle Matthew, justly receive now

The due thanks of your fellow-citizens,

And save them from all sin,

So that they in the Last Judgment may feel

That they have steadfastly submitted to such a great patron.” [1]

This stanza from a hymn in honour of the apostle Matthew flows from the pen of the medicus Alfanus, archbishop of Salerno in South Italy in the late eleventh century. Alfanus authored an extensive corpus of poetry, among which there is a great number of hymns in honour of saints and their feasts. In this collection, Saint Matthew takes centre stage. The apostle is cast as the symbol of the alliance between the archbishop, the Norman ruler Robert Guiscard, and pope Gregory VII in an effort to establish Latin Catholic authority in the south of Italy, a region long dominated by Byzantine and Muslim rule [2]. Alfanus wrote the hymn ‘Apostolorum nobili victoria’ after he had built, together with Robert Guiscard, a new cathedral to house the relics of the apostle Matthew [3]. In previous publications I analysed the stanza as a reflection of the socio-political and religious changes in tenth- and eleventh-century Salerno, expressed in poetic terms as the transformation of the inhabitants of this city into co-citizens of the saint, the apostle and martyr Matthew [4].

When the hymn of Alfanus refers to the inhabitants of Salerno as ‘fellow-citizens of Matthew’, the poet expresses himself in a way that indicates how the notion of being a citizen still had a certain relevance in the post-Roman West. By doing so, Alfanus positions himself in a long tradition of late antique and medieval authors who, after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, continued to use the vocabulary related to the concept of citizenship in classical antiquity. Whereas in modern scholarship the idea of being a citizen is assumed to have given way in the early medieval period to various forms of being a subject ( to king or count, to abbot or bishop ), the semantic field of city, citizen, and citizenship as it occurs in Roman and biblical antiquity appears frequently in a variety of literary sources of this period. Here, we find both civis and its correlates as well as its antonyms such as peregrinus, alienus, barbarus, and the more abstract indications of the world in which one was a citizen: civitas, res publica, oecumene, orbis terrarum, ecclesia. This use of civic vocabulary inherited from the Roman past is marked by semantic change. As Christianity assumed and developed its role as dominant religion, it generated its own ‘citizenship discourse’, one that provided new legal and symbolic meaning and sat often in paradoxical opposition to the ancient definitions.

The present article identifies the sources in which significant semantic changes of civic vocabulary are traceable and relates these sources to the broader social context of the period of transition from the late Roman to the medieval world. The article thus aims at presenting an ongoing research project, discovering new relevant avenues along which the Christianisation of ancient discourse can be studied alongside the possible social implications of this process by paying special attention to the performative impact of these sources.

2. Late Antiquity and the early medieval West in contemporary citizenship studies

The period of late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, marked by radical and fundamental changes in social, cultural, and political structures ushered in by the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the West from the late fifth century onwards, is not generally associated with ‘citizenship’. The world of the early Middle Ages is traditionally seen as a society populated by ‘subjects’, subordinate to either religious or secular lords or both, rather than by citizens with a well-defined degree of political and legal autonomy [5]. This is due to the fact that the early medieval West gradually lost the social structures that functioned as a recognisable background against which the citizen came into relief. The Roman Empire, in which citizenship had been an important marker of distinction between insiders and outsiders [6], between those with and those without legal protection, had transformed into a patchwork of Germanic kingdoms, each with its own legal tradition [7]. The period is also marked by a notable drift from the cities through a shift of socio-economic and cultural-religious focus from the urban centres to the countryside [8], although the degree to and the tempo in which this process occurred differed from region to region.

In the light of these developments, it is easy to overlook the early medieval West as a relevant period to study notions of citizenship. Older but also more recent historiographies on citizenship have ignored the period in roughly three ways. Authors who do include the Middle Ages as relevant for the study of citizenship [9] generally focus on the first half of the second millennium, thus omitting the early medieval period. In the revival of urban life from the eleventh century onwards, ‘citizenship’ as understood in relation to a fixed territorial entity such as ‘the city’ is more easily recognised. With the assumed disappearance of the city in its antique meaning of ‘civic body’ [10], the early medieval West lost its relevance for citizenship scholars. Second, if authors take into account the importance of the Christian religion for the way Europe came to understand citizenship, referring to the Christian conceptualisation of ‘citizenship’ as a complex plural belonging [11], they easily leap from Augustine ( d. 430 ) to Thomas Aquinas ( b. 1225 ), leaving, again, the early medieval period undiscussed [12]. Third, scholars who concentrate on the religious changes of the post-Roman world and their influence on the political, social, and cultural understanding of ‘citizenship’ in the period that followed the end of the Roman Empire, mark the early Middle Ages as the period in which citizenship ceased to be a relevant concept, claiming that all that remained of a universal idea of citizenship was transferred to the spiritual realm and subsequently lost its relevance for the here and now. If scholars recognise the notion of citizenship at all in the written sources of the period, they tend to interpret it as a purely spiritual matter, directing the focus of the people towards the world to come and the life hereafter rather than affecting the ‘civic identity’ of the Germanic peoples that came to inhabit the former imperial provinces. In the words of Ralph Mathisen:

“As the Roman afterglow petered out, Roman concepts of citizenship, whether of a world, a nation, a province, or a city, did likewise, to be replaced in the Middle Ages by models of subjugation to bishops and kings. Any idea of universal citizenship now was transferred from the cosmopolitan city of the secular world to the heavenly city of God, more meaningful in the context of the world to come than in the here and now. Not until the later Middle Ages did ancient-appearing forms of citizenship based on city centers begin to reemerge. And it was only in the Renaissance that Roman concepts of individual citizen liberty, not to mention ideas of world citizenship, reappeared.” [13]

It is primarily this third, exclusively spiritual interpretation of the meaning of citizenship in the early medieval world that needs to be revised by a new look at the relevant sources, as this article aims to demonstrate [14].

3. The semantics of citizenship

The research presented here seeks to trace the occurrence of civic vocabulary in sources of the early Middle Ages in order to gain a deeper understanding of medieval societies between 400 and 1100, and of the intricate relation between Christianity and public identity in this period. This implies that the use of terms referring to the citizen and its correlates is not taken for granted merely as a literary or spiritual construction with commonplace traits, but studied and analysed as a deliberately chosen instrument enabling interventions in social relations and, thereby, affecting the world in which people lived together [15].

The analysis of civic vocabulary as a chosen discourse [16] that has the performative power to change social realities and political identities is not based on a claim of continuity of the institutional application of ancient and late-Roman concepts of citizenship, but focuses on citizenship vocabulary and its continued use in the process of expressing the transformation of public identity within the new political, social and religious settings of the post-Roman world [17].

The Christian use of civis itself, to begin with, is marked by paradox in a variety of sources. When used to refer to the social-political status, it no longer depended on issues of family origin in the sense that it could be gained through birth or adoption [18], but on religious provenance, as we have seen in the example of Alfanus’ hymn in honour of Saint Matthew. With the increasing importance of Christianity and its influence on legislation already within the setting of the Roman Empire, civis started to refer to those baptised as opposed to those who had not gone through that ritual of initiation, making ‘citizenship’ a status that could be obtained through conversion only [19]. In this vein, the classical opposition citizen-barbarian no longer distinguished Romans from non-Romans but, rather, Christians from non-Christians, or orthodox Christians from those Christians whose confessions differed from the Nicaean norm [20]. This could lead to the surprising outcome that pre-Christian Romans were presented as barbarians by inhabitants of the ‘peripheral’ regions outside of the Roman Empire.

The latter paradox is expressed in the work of the sixth-century British monk Gildas, who wrote a moral critique in the time of crisis when the Saxons invaded Britain. The work is difficult to classify with respect to genre. Although it resembles a public address rather than systematic historiography – Gildas himself uses the word epistola[21] – Gildas is often spoken of as a ‘historiographer’ in modern textbooks, and his work is qualified by Julia Smith as ‘the only historiographic description’ of the period of Roman rule in Britain and of the Saxon invasions predating the great historiographer Bede ( c. 673–735 ) [22]. Recent scholarship has signalled the paradoxical use of civic vocabulary in Gildas’ work. Thus, Peter Brown emphasised the role of the term civis, adopted by Gildas to refer not to the Romans but to the Britons themselves as ‘fellow-citizens’ and, by doing so, to distinguish them from ‘unchristian’ foreigners: Romans and Saxons alike [23]. In addition, Peter Turner analysed the use of the term civis as an example of the tendency in Gildas’ work to offer a unifying common identity to a deeply divided people [24]. In a more recent publication, Robert Flierman and Megan Welton have now explored Gildas’ use of civic discourse against the background of moral discourse [25].

Comparing centre and periphery from a chronological perspective, Ian Wood signalled a similarly paradoxical contrast in the use of the term barbarus. The traditionally pejorative term used to distinguish insiders ( citizens ) from outsiders ( non-citizens ) in Greek and Roman Antiquity was co-opted in the fifth and sixth century CE by the barbarians themselves as a proud nickname suitable to underline their equality with the Romans. Moving away in time from the chronological centre of imperial Rome, the seventh century witnessed the revival of the pejorative use of the term, again to indicate ‘otherness’ and to express ‘disparagement’ or even enmity [26]. This otherness, however, no longer equals ‘non-Roman’, but, in general, ‘non-Christian’. This is visible, for instance, in Bede’s historiographic work. The fourth book of his ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum’ ( IV.2 ) illustrates his use of the word barbarus, opposing it to the ‘most Christian kings’ the British Isles started to have from the Christianisation by pope Gregory the Great ( 590–604 ) and his missionary Augustine of Canterbury ( d. before 610 ) onwards: “Never had there been such happy times since the English first came to Britain; for having such brave Christian kings, they were a terror to all the barbarian nations [ … ].” [27]

The development of new semantic contents of words and terms is not merely linguistic Spielerei. As Bernhard Jussen has demonstrated with regard to the boundaries between Christians and Jews in late antique communities, new semantic contents influenced and shaped new social relations between insiders and outsiders [28]. The relation between insider and outsider is perhaps the most eye-catching paradox in the semantic changes of citizenship vocabulary. A variety of early medieval Christian sources testify to a reversal of the relation between the semantic opposites civis, the insider, and peregrinus, the outsider [29]. The paradox is portrayed emblematically in the Christian missionary, beginning with the apostle Paul, who is by definition a traveller ( peregrinus ) and therefore a stranger in his mission area [30]. By converting the inhabitants of the region where he fulfilled his mission to the Christian religion, the missionary established a new, now Christian community, characterised by new divisions of insiders and outsiders with all their social and legal implications.

In order to recognise the relevance of citizenship discourse in the period highlighted in this article, I will examine a cluster of familiar yet semantically never static terms filling the semantic field of civis and civitas from the later fourth century until the beginning of the twelfth [31]. In order to study the impact of Christianity as the new dominant religion in this period, the present study investigates the interplay between citizenship and the Christian religion.

The relation between citizenship and religion is studied extensively for other historical periods. Josine Blok, for example, demonstrated how participation in religious activities constituted citizenship in classical Athens. She uncovered the importance of participation in the reciprocal relation between gods and humans for citizens, both male and female, and thereby provided an entirely new understanding of the classical concept of citizenship [32]. With regard to the medieval period, however, the use of civic vocabulary and its significance for the framing of a new public identity, which overlapped in large measure with religious ( Christian ) identity, has been neglected hitherto. The understanding of citizenship as a unique modern concept bound to concrete territorial entities, as we have seen above, is responsible for this blind spot. More recent studies, by which the present project is inspired, approach ‘citizenship’ not as attached to one historical and/or political constellation or to a specific local and concrete territory, such as a ‘city’ or a ‘state’, but as a dynamic social and cultural ideal, adapting itself to changing political, cultural and social circumstances [33]. Civic vocabulary and its semantic changes, more precisely the lexicon of civis and its correlates, is thus a tool that enables us to study how medieval authors addressed issues of identity in terms of membership and participation, and thereby framed processes of socio-religious inclusion and exclusion which concerned all layers of society. In the following section I will give an overview of the kinds of sources in which citizenship discourse occurs. The analysis of this discourse will benefit from and contribute to newly developed readings of these texts as reflecting and framing the formation and transformation of social, cultural, and political identities in the early medieval world [34].

4. Citizenship discourse: the sources

To follow the development of civic vocabulary and its social implications in the early medieval West, a variety of written sources present themselves. The common denominator of these sources is that they contributed to the redefinition and further framing of communities and their socio-political, cultural-religious, and legal characteristics, in short, the complex ‘multiple identities’ [35] of Western Europe’s post-Roman inhabitants. This is a very broad starting point, from which the focus needs to be narrowed to more specific corpora.

In an examination of the relation between religion and notions of citizenship, sources are central that deal with the development of a religious thought-world, i. e., in a Christian context, the development of theological thinking in late Antiquity and the early medieval world. A second relevant source of information is the impact of this religious thought-world on concrete legislation, rephrasing civic identity in accordance with Christian thinking [36]. A third kind of sources relevant for this discussion are narrative corpora, telling the stories of peoples, persons, and specific communities. These corpora include not only historiographic texts that tell the story of a specific people – of which we have seen the examples of Gildas and Bede in the previous section [37]. They also comprise hagiographic texts that tell the stories of Christian ‘role models’ [38], the saints, and through these stories reshape political and social relationships [39]. They include just as well the Christian genre of ‘apocrypha’, highlighting the fate and deeds of biblical persons in narratives that were excluded from the biblical canon but contributed nonetheless to the pallet of Christian foundation myths [40]. Finally, a fourth corpus of texts is formed by those texts that played a role in Christianity’s ritual practice of worship, or liturgy, such as prayers and chants, hymns like the text discussed at the beginning of this article, and sermons, all textual sources used in a performative context and contributing to the redefinition of social and spiritual life in their close interrelation [41].

To examine the use of civic vocabulary in this broad spectrum of written sources will not only bring to light the living and performative power of the semantic cloud of civis and civitas in the early medieval world. It will also add to our understanding of how textual sources in this period contributed to the self-understanding of communities and individuals, and how their membership and participation in the Christian community at large was defined and furthered. The study of the shifts in meaning of the many terms in the semantic field of civis will bring to light how in this period ideas of membership and belonging were connected both with religious ideals that transcended terrestrial life, and with civic participation in temporal reality. Civic identity in this period was a dual belonging, defining membership of the spiritual community ( ‘heavenly city’ ) in terms of conversion to a Christian way of life ( conversatio ), which deeply affected the social relationships within the terrestrial community [42]. The sources under investigation express the tensions and ambivalences this dual belonging caused in human relationships, and use terminology rooted in ancient and biblical citizenship discourses in order to shape new patterns of social inclusion and exclusion, membership, belonging and participation.

4.1. Late Antique Legacy: the patres and Late-Roman Legislation

Patristic Legacy

The writings of Christian authors dating to the period of transition from the post-apostolic age to the early Middle Ages, known as ‘patristic’ literature, form an important foundation of the medieval thought world. As Christian authors living and working in the late Roman Empire, in which the notion of citizenship was still a relevant political and legal marker, the patres were the first producers of semantic change in the lexicon surrounding civis and civitas, providing important models for early medieval thinking on these issues. The analysis of this lexicon addressing matters of public identity, belonging, and participation, and its shifts in meaning that occur in the patristic corpus, is an important starting point to study the development of these themes in the ( early ) medieval period. How did these ecclesiastical leaders appropriate civis and civitas, and how did they relate to secular Christian rulers? This question will be addressed in this and the next sub-section.

When studying the Christianisation of civis and civitas the African bishop and theologian Augustine ( 354–430 ) cannot be overlooked. While this author is famous for his immense contribution to the development of the idea of civitas to think through the position of Christians in the mundane world [43], the expression of these ideas in his other renowned and, throughout the Middle Ages, highly influential work, the ‘Confessiones’, has received far less attention so far. Yet we find in this work an illustrative example of the use of civic vocabulary to present family relations in a radically new way. In ‘Confessiones’ book IX, also known as ‘The life of Monica’ [44], Augustine meditates on his deceased parents Monnica and Patricius. Augustine’s close relation with his mother Monnica is well-known and well-studied [45]. While she is staged as an important participant in the conversations reported in Augustine’s early works such as ‘De beata vita’, in ‘Confessiones’ she is presented first and foremost as a devout Christian. Augustine’s portrayal of his mother in the latter work highlights this devotion in terms of servitude and submission. At the very end of ‘Confessiones’ IX, however, where Augustine requests all future readers of his ‘Confessiones’ to pray for his parents, the register suddenly changes:

“[ … ] and grant that so many as will read this work will remember before your altar Monnica, your handmaiden, together with Patricius, once her husband, through whose body you have brought me into this life – how I do not know. May they remember with devout affection those who were my parents in this transitory light, my siblings in Mother Church with you as our father, my fellow-citizens in the eternal city of Jerusalem, to which your people on its journey longs from its exodus to its return [ … ].” [46]

This passage marks the change in the relationship between a son and his parents, who all converted to Christianity at some stage in their lives, a change that is established by the belonging of each family member to the Church. The son and his parents are depicted here as brothers and sisters in the Christian family with the Church as their Mother and God as their Father. Taking one step further, Augustine describes his parents as “fellow-citizens in the eternal city of the heavenly Jerusalem”. With this qualification, he reverses the traditional relationship between the father, to whom the son is subordinate [47]. Even more remarkable is the shift in the approach to the mother. Augustine consistently presents his mother Monnica, whose presence in the ‘Confessiones’ serves theological and moral rather than autobiographical purposes [48], as a female slave or handmaiden of Christ ( famula, ancilla, serva ) [49]. In this passage – the only passage in Augustine’s entire oeuvre where he mentions his mother’s name [50] – Monnica is ‘promoted’ to the status of civis, participating in the heavenly citizenship of the Christians. The metaphorical use of civis in this patristic text marks the change in social relationships under the influence of religious conversion. As Peter White explains, the metaphor needs to be read anagogically: it is a reference to participation in the heavenly city yet to come, and to be enjoyed, in Augustine’s theological thinking, only after the Last Judgement [51]. At the same time, the change affects and connects the afterlife, the realm of the deceased parents, with the saeculum, where the son lives on.

Legal Legacy

More earthbound shifts in social and legal relationships, in which citizenship vocabulary is leading, are found in the legacy of legislation issued under the first Roman emperors who favoured Christianity, mainly in the form of the ‘Codex Theodosianus’ that collected the laws issued from Constantine ( 312 AD ) until the middle of the fifth century. The ‘Codex Theodosianus’ was compiled in the 420s and 430s and remained an influential source for the development of legislation in the post-Roman kingdoms [52]. The collection of late antique leges introduces the Christian religion as an essential part of communal life and civic ( social and legal ) identity. Book XVI of the Theodosian Code collects a number of laws in which legal distinctions are made between Christians and non-Christians within the Roman Empire. These laws discuss groups and individuals who did not convert to Christianity or chose a variant deviating from mainstream ( ‘orthodox’, or catholic ) Christianity [53]. Jews, pagans, heretics, and apostates are declared alieni in the Theodosian Code, which means that they were outsiders, expelled from the right to participate in prestigious offices ( dignitates ) within the civic administration [54]. Pagans are declared ‘criminals’ in ‘Codex Theodosianus’ 16. 10. 25, and their religion is defined as ‘superstition’ [55], while heretics are explicitly excluded from public office [56]. The Theodosian Code is an important reflection of the Christianisation of the Roman world in late Antiquity, and as such a crucial source to be examined for shifts in meaning of civic vocabulary under influence of the changing role Christianity had started to play as the sole legitimate religion in the late Roman Empire. The example Salzman provides with regard to the criminalisation of pagans and paganism is illustrative of this shift in meaning and its far-reaching social implications. Similarly, the example of the exclusion of heretics from participation in the government body emphasises the close connection between religious and public identity in the world of late Antiquity. A recent contribution on Leo the Great’s interference with imperial legislation demonstrates the potentially close collaboration between bishop and emperor in legalising the rights and duties citizens are entitled to – and the lack thereof in the case of non-citizens [57].

4.2. Liturgical Texts, Liturgical Performance

Similar patterns of overlap between public and religious identity become visible when studying the liturgical language of the Church for civic vocabulary. The extensive corpus of liturgical prayers, chants, and hymns is a rich source of a Christian “appropriation and revalorization [58]” of this civic terminology. The domain of worship pre-eminently offers the possibility to provide Christianity with a firm foundation, anchoring the new religion in existing yet radically transformed patterns of both social relations and the imagination of the world in ( religious ) rituals and texts [59].

To illustrate this, we will now concentrate on a specific but wide-spread example of a shift in meaning in citizenship vocabulary: the Christian appropriation and revalorisation of the biblical and classical phrase orbis terrarum within a liturgical context. Perhaps the most famous locus of this phenomenon is the prose hymn ‘Te deum laudamus’, which is generally but without historical certainty ascribed to the Milanese bishop Ambrose ( † 397 ). The hymn was sung on every Christian Sunday and feast-day throughout the medieval period [60]. In this fourth-century hymn, we find a radical change in the significance of the notion orbis terrarum through the phrase Te per orbem terrarum sancta confitetur ecclesia. The hymn appropriates and christianises the designation of a global universe. A Christian view on the global world is fed both by biblical texts ( particularly in the book of Psalms ) and by classical authors. The latter primarily associated the phrase orbis terrarum with emperor Augustus, to indicate the universality of the Roman Empire under his rule that governed ‘the whole world’ [61]. The image of the Roman Empire spanning the orbis terrae under one ruler, Augustus, is present already in the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke ( Lc 2.1 ) starts the Nativity pericope with a reference to the census that Augustus called for by edict, ut describeretur universus orbis ( ‘that all the world should be registered’ ) [62]. The coincidence of Augustus’ census and Christ’s birth was famously theologised by the early fifth-century historian Paulus Orosius in his ‘Historiae’ ( VI.22.6–8 ), who explained it as an expression of Christ’s wish ( uoluit ) to be a Roman citizen [63].

Whether the author of the ‘Te deum’ was Ambrose or a contemporary, in the medieval period the hymn had great authority. A legend surrounding its origin linked the hymn to the baptism of Augustine administered by Ambrose, who sang these verses when Augustine went into the font. The legend is found in the influential liturgical commentator William Durandus of Mende, but goes back to a much earlier medieval tradition on the composition of the ‘Te deum’ [64]. The legend testifies to the reverential awe in which the hymn was held throughout the Middle Ages. Not only did it sing the Christianisation of the ‘whole world’, its position in liturgical worship was expressed in global terms as well, and early on. According to the early sixth-century bishop Cyprian of Toulon it was sung “throughout the world” ( toto orbe ) [65].

The Christianisation of the orbis terrarum is further highlighted in other kinds of liturgical texts, such as the prayers for the liturgical celebration of Mass. Thus, the phrase occurs in prayers composed to commemorate the apostles during their feast-day. An example is found in the Blessing at the end of the Mass for Saint Peter’s Chair, celebrating Peter’s episcopacy in the late seventy-century Burgundian ‘Missale Gothicum’:

Benedictio. Supra caelorum agmina sedens, toto orbe terrarum pugillo concludens, uotiua hoc hodierni dies sollemnia celebraturos peraudi. Amen. Vt qui sancti patroni nostri Petri tuique apostoli festa colimus, per eius intercessionem tibi placiamus. Amen.

“Blessing. You who are seated above the hosts of heaven, you who contain the entire orb of the earth in your hand, hear those who will celebrate the solemn rituals on this day. Amen. So that we who celebrate the festivities of our holy patron and your apostle Peter will please you through his intercession. Amen.” [66]

The phrase occurs frequently in prayers recited during the Mass for the shared martyrdom of Peter and Paul, as is illustrated by the example taken from the even earlier collection of, probably Roman [67], prayers for Mass:

Deus qui hunc diem beatorum tuorum Petri et Pauli martyrio consecrasti: da aeclesiae [ tuae ] toto orbe terrarum diffusae eorum semper magisterio gubernari, per quos sumpsit religionis exordium.

“God, you who have consecrated this day through the martyrdom of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul: grant [ your ] church spread around the world to be governed by their teaching always, through whom it assumed the origin of faith.” [68]

Omnipotens sempiterne deus, qui ineffabili sacramento ius apostolici principatus in Romani nominis arche posuisti, unde se euangelica ueritas per tota mundi regna diffunderet, presta, ut quod in orbem terrarum eorum praedicatione manauit, christianae deuotionis sequatur uniuersitas.

“Almighty and eternal God, you who have through an ineffable mystery placed the just law of apostolic rule in the city named Rome, whence the truth of the Gospel spread throughout all kingdoms of the world, grant that the universal community of Christian devotion may follow what emanated from their preaching to the entire orb of the earth.” [69]

The apostles, Peter and Paul first but no less the others that complete the circle of Twelve, are agents of the missionary work that constituted this Christianisation of the world. From the apostles, claimed to have brought Christianity to the far corners of the globe as we will see further below [70], other missionary martyrs are profiled similarly as adorning the church throughout the world through their martyrdom. This is expressed in a prayer found in the seventh-century palimpsest sacramentary preserved in the Munich codex 14429 and of mixed Irish-continental origin. The text, included in the Mass for the apostle Matthew, commemorates the martyrs, “through whose diverse triumphs of their [ … ] passions the entire church throughout all the world is adorned” ( uniuersa per orbem terrarum decoratur aeclesia ) [71]. Thus, the phrase orbis terrarum signals a new outlook on the world as a Christian world. As such it is a crucial expression to reconsider the continuation of the idea of being a citizen of the world in Latin literature, also after the end of the Roman Empire in the West.

4.3. Citizenship Vocabulary and the Cult of the Saints

The study of the social role of saints as reflected in late antique and early medieval hagiographies has a long history in the twentieth century [72]. In more recent works, a reading of hagiography as ‘persuasive literature’ is central, composed not as a reflection of contemporary society but rather as a conscious programme aimed at constructing the legal, political, and social relations that formed and transformed early medieval society and its policies [73]. In the light of this approach, the question of the relation between saints and Christian understandings of citizenship and civic belonging presents itself.

From the very beginning of the cult of the saints in the West, holy people and their bodily remains after death redefined urban space as well as urban economic, cultural, and religious life. The case of Martin of Tours is illustrative of the shift in urban geography which the cult of the saints could procure. When Martin died in 397 as bishop of the metropolis civitas Tours, his cult and veneration as a special patron saint started almost immediately and spread through the medieval West [74]. The ‘Life of Martin’ written by Sulpicius Severus just before the saint died added greatly to the saint’s popularity [75]. The cult in Tours, with a large new basilica built on the saint’s remains in the second half of the fifth century, effectuated a shift in the urban geography of this ancient city. While ancient Roman civic life focused on the area within the walls, the fifth century found the ancient city of Tours virtually abandoned. In this period, social and economic activity moved to the cemetery outside the walls and centred around the basilica where Martin was buried and where pilgrims visited to celebrate the saint [76]. In the eleventh century, the new urban complex became known as Martinopolis: ‘City of St Martin’ [77].

Just as the cult of the saints transformed urban geography, so it redefined the identity of citizens. Membership in the local Christian community was expressed by means of the lexicon of civis, where citizens defined themselves as ‘fellow citizens’ of a local patron saint [78]. In the complex multi-ethnic and multi-religious culture of the eleventh-century Italian peninsula under Byzantine rule and frequently confronted with the threat of Muslim invasions, the bishop of the South Italian city of Salerno chose the saintly apostle Matthew as the city’s patron to mark the transition from Byzantine to Catholic Christianity, as we have seen at the beginning of this article. The citizens of Salerno were henceforth defined as ‘fellow citizens’ of the apostle Matthew [79].

The apostles in general take a special position in Latin hagiography. From a perspective of modern scholarship, the written accounts of their lives and works are often considered within the framework of the extra-biblical writings also known as Christian apocrypha. From a medieval standpoint, however, and one that takes into account the manuscript transmission through which the texts have come down to us, the apostles are an integral part of the literature on saints, collected and copied to feed the liturgical and spiritual or devotional commemoration of these saints [80].

As is the case with hagiography, the ‘Acta’ or, in Latin more often, ‘Virtutes apostolorum’ have recently and increasingly raised scholarly interest in the social world behind these widely spread writings on biblical protagonists. Precisely their anonymous or pseudepigraphic character made them initially less accepted as authoritative texts than the biblical accounts on and attributed to their acts and testimony [81]. A dismissive attitude towards much of the ‘apocryphal’ literature goes back to the earliest ages of their existence but could never prevent their copious distribution, in Latin and in a variety of vernaculars. The apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, translated from Greek from the fourth century onwards, had a wide circulation in the early medieval period as a presentation of the apostles as the first missionaries who spread Christianity ‘to every corner of the world’ ( orbis terrarum ), as we have seen above [82]. The topicality of the apocryphal writings is indicated by the notable increase in manuscript copies in the eighth and ninth centuries [83], when military campaigns and Christian mission were intertwined in the complex effort to create or recreate a Christian Empire [84]. The apocryphal Acts did more than just filling in the biographical lacunae in the biblical New Testament with regard to the life of the apostles. These writings represent Christianity’s universal claim inherited from Roman imperial rhetoric, translating Augustus’ orbis terrarum into a Christian oecumene[85].

The apocryphal Acts are relevant in the investigation of civic language in post-Roman Latin literature also for the ways in which they present the apostles as the embodiment of specific elements traditionally seen as part of Roman citizenship discourse. One of those key aspects is the freedom ( libertas ) that characterises citizens and distinguishes them as citizens from those who lack personal or public forms of freedom. Libertas as a civic quality presents itself in various layers, which include the freedom to express oneself in the face of rulers ( libertas dicendi ) [86]. This aspect of citizenship discourse is a relevant example of the Christianisation of ancient citizenship discourse, a process of ‘appropriation and revalorisation’ that starts already in the New Testament [87]. The apocryphal Acts follow up on the Christianisation of libertas as an apostolic prerogative. The apocryphal writings portray the apostles as perfect imitators of Christ, not only in the way they ended their lives as martyrs, but also and emphatically in the specific character of their acts of bearing witness, which preceded and elicited their violent deaths [88].

Already in the canonical New Testament, the apostles are presented as the embodiment of free speech. In the canonical Acts, Luke uses the Greek παρρησία or the derived verb παρρησιάζοmαι[89], as does Paul in a number of his letters [90]. In the Latin translation of these passages in the ‘Vulgate’, the most frequent translation of the Greek technical term for free speech is fiducia. This is explained by Irene van Renswoude as presenting a shift in emphasis: from the freedom with which the message is conveyed ( libertas, licentia[91] ) to trust in the message [92].

In the apocryphal Acts, conversely, the lexeme libertas does occur to express the freedom of speech the apostles embody, and thereby pulls their performance in a political discourse of libertas. An example of this is found in the apocryphal Acts of Paul [93]. In the Latin rewriting of this early Christian text, the lexeme libertas comes up next to fiducia to express the nature of Paul’s preaching at the moment of his arrest by Nero’s men: “They found the apostle while he was instructing the people with great boldness and liberty ( cum magna fiducia et libertate ) about the miracles of Christ” [94]. The civic notion of libertas dicendi is added to the biblical concept of fiducia.

The apostolic prerogative to speak frankly is echoed in a sermon held by Pope Leo on 29 June 441 to celebrate the apostles Peter and Paul as martyrs of Rome. In this sermon, Paul comes forward as the answer to the loss of dignity and liberty Rome suffered under the atrocity of Nero’s reign [95], enflamed by vices. The answer to such tyrannical rule based on insanity ( insania[96] ) is found in suffering through martyrdom. This suffering is framed as profit ( maximum lucrum ), for the martyrs gain eternal felicity while the church grows: non minuitur persecutionibus ecclesia, sed augetur[97]. Thus, both the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Leo’s liturgical sermon in commemoration of Paul’s martyrdom portray the apostle as an agent of free speech. Both present the libertas dicendi used by the apostle in a political setting, as a weapon against tyranny to restore the libertas oppressed by Nero.

5. Conclusion

A longue durée approach to the semantic transformation of civic vocabulary inherited from the ancient past and the examination of this transformation in a wide array of written sources shows how the semantic fields of civis and civitas created a new citizenship discourse by granting new meanings to ancient words in the changing political, social, and religious constellation of early medieval Europe. This approach also enables us to uncover how these new meanings reflected and furthered new social and religious communities, framing identities through new patterns of inclusion and exclusion. The complex interplay of continuity in use and discontinuity in contextualised meaning of ancient terminology is characteristic of the contrastive character that underlies the construction of Christian communities. Previous scholarship has characterised the construction of early medieval Christian communities as a history of “discord, not of unanimity” [98]. The ‘discord’, or at least the tensions caused by the demarcation of new boundaries between insiders and outsiders, between those who inhabit the civitas christiana both here on earth and in the hereafter and those who are and remain strangers to it, is reflected in the continuous use of citizenship vocabulary, which tends to mark these boundaries in a particular way. The dominant claim in textbooks that citizenship as a concept is difficult to use for the medieval period because of the danger of anachronism [99] holds no longer. This general assumption must be replaced by a more nuanced acknowledgement of the vital role citizenship language and terminology played in the early Middle Ages, the social implications of which ask for further inquiry.

Published Online: 2021-11-30
Published in Print: 2021-12-01

© 2021 Rose, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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