Philadelphia Seminar of Christian Origins 2017-8, Meeting #7
Cam Grey (University of Pennsylvania Press): Sacred Landscapes of Germanus: Phenomenology, Movements, and the Holy Man as Relic
Whatever Germanus (ca.375-446CE) fears, it’s not ghosts. Or at least, so his biographer Constantius tells us:
"He was once making a journey in winter and had gone fasting and weary all day long. It was put to him that the approach of night made it necessary to make a stop somewhere. There was a house at a little distance, obviously uninhabited, with its roof partly fallen in, and all overgrown owing to the neglect of the neighbors. In fact, it looked almost as if it would be better to pass the night in the cold in the open air than to face the dangers and horrors of that place, particularly as two old men declared that it was so terribly haunted as to be quite uninhabitable. But as soon as the man of blessings heard this, he made for the horrible ruin as if it had been a most desirable residence."
- Constantius, Vita Germani 10
In hagiographical literature, the sensing bodies of holy people link intangible divine realities with the visible world. For this reason, the veneration of saints and their bodies has been one of the focal points of scholarly interest in late antiquity. But, as Cam Grey argued, when we conceive of ancient people moving through landscapes as felt, experienced, and active, we can approach understanding how late antique authors wrote saints’ bodies from a road less travelled.
As Grey suggested, Germanus, first a high-level imperial administrator and then bishop of Auxerre, in central Gaul, is a particularly good example to dissect the link between holiness, textual meaning, and movements. According to the Vita, Germanus does what holy men are supposed to do. He heals, exorcises, and produces contact relics. He intervenes with the imperial fisc to obtain tax relief for his city. He inspires those around him, such that he can even lead an army to victory against a coalition of Saxons and Picts. A network of monuments to Germanus spanned much of the region in later centuries. But the Vita also narrates a life in constant motion. As Grey pointed out, while many saints travelled to and stayed at the site central to their cult, Germanus circled away from Auxerre and then back again – travelling as far as Britain. Even when Germanus dies, the procession carrying his body back to Auxerre prompts an outpouring of activity, including the enthusiastic maintenance of the necessary roads.
Grey approached Germanus by narrating his own gradual attraction to phenomenological method – how ways of being in the world galvanize alternative accounts of phenomena and subjectivity. While working on the Roman Peasant Project in Tuscany, his excavations highlighted how scholarly analyses of local spaces differed from the way local people framed their own experiences. If people who experienced places frequently did not use the terms of scholars – then what are scholars doing with those terms? And how much more so might our accounts of the experiences of ancient places obscure what ancient people themselves would have said about them? As a result, Grey suggested shifting from reading texts in terms of network, which emphasizes stable accounts of nodes, to meshwork, which focuses on linkage, motion, and the way that people moving in space make meaning by the act of movement, and thus impress on texts.
By examining Germanus with the lexicon of meshwork and movement, his mobility, and the responsiveness of the people of the land in marking it on his behalf, starts to look like an act of careful attention on the part of Constantius, competing for authority in his own Auxerre. Is Germanus co-opted to support the inscription of ecclesiastical consensus in the landscape of late Roman Gaul? Or does a later cultic practice co-opt the associations with Germanus already inscribed into the landscape? In either case, Grey suggested, phenomenological approaches equip a reading of Germanus that circumvents the truth or fiction of his Vita, and emphasizes instead the agency of those for whom a narrative of Auxerre’s significance spoke truer if it were articulated through the moving body of Germanus and its effects – both on the Gallic population and on the Gallic landscape.
What does all this have to do with our understanding of ancient Jewish knowledge? While Constantius mentions Jews rarely, as a stereotyped set of polemical others, Grey’s emphasis on phenomenology and the inscription of meaning in landscapes drew a range of comparisons that illuminated Jewish texts from antiquity and beyond. For example, the way in which the Vita embedded divine power in material things resonates with the critical anti-Christian arguments of Judah ha-Levi’s Kuzari– which attacked Christian thinking for abstracting the divine from the world – and Joseph Luria’s “discovery” of the tombs of the sages after his migration to Palestine. Similarly, like much recent work on Palestinian rabbis, the agency of Constantius in his biographical writing intersected with not just the ecclesiastical meshwork of the episcopal authority of the bishop of Auxerre, but also the complex machinery of the later Roman regional administration, the cursus publicum, and how it marked space, divided place, and classified populations. The phenomenological approach also uncovered another possibility for the Vita itself – how does landscape respond to Germanus? Does Germanus share a uniquely responsive relationship to the geography of late antique Gaul? Does it inscribe its meanings on him, and what meanings are given to a landscape to inscribe?
Phenomenology, especially within the academic study of religion, often evokes spectres of uncritically approached to “real religion.” Drawing on the phenomenology of movement – landscape made knowable through movement in it – Grey explored an alternative way to get to know ancient sources. What were their sites of memory? How did they inscribe meaning on their landscapes, and how might their agency and the agency of the places they knew be inscribed, further, on the writings they made?
Cam Grey (Classical Studies, University of Pennsylvania) is a social historian of the later Roman Empire and post-Roman west, with a particular emphasis on how marginal populations navigated and negotiated their environments. His most recent book Constructing Communities in the Late Roman Countryside (Cambridge, 2011) examine the complex agency of peasant populations in the later Roman empire.