The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 2 (Summer 2015)

The Great Accumulation

The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity

Peter Brown

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 2)

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in the early evening hours of March 13, 2013, he took a name—Francis—that no previous pontiff had chosen. It was a weighty decision to link his papacy symbolically with Il Poverello, the little poor man of Assisi, whose Order of Friars Minor came to be viewed with suspicion by the medieval Roman Catholic Church for its teaching that Christ and the apostles owned no possessions. But in allowing the themes of humility and poverty to shape his papacy, Pope Francis has endeared himself to the many people, within and outside the Catholic Church, who have difficulty reconciling the church’s immense wealth with the teachings of Christ found in the Gospels. Whether in the spectacular Gothic architecture of Notre-Dame de Paris, the sumptuous surroundings of Vatican City, or the glittering mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna, one can sense the seeming contradiction between the church’s lavish expenditure of resources and Jesus’s command to the rich young man that if he wishes to obtain eternal life, he must sell all that he owns and “give the money to the poor” (Mark 10:21, New Revised Standard Version). How can such ostentation stand alongside the radical proclamation in Luke 6:20, “Blessed are you who are poor”? Something, it seems to many, has gone remarkably wrong.

But why did the Catholic Church come to have so much wealth in the first place, and what have been the social, political, and cultural implications of this great accumulation? These are questions the eminent historian Peter Brown, a professor emeritus at Princeton, has spent much of the last two decades answering, nowhere more directly than in his two most recent books. The Ransom of the Soul, an expanded version of lectures he delivered in 2012, follows on the argument developed in his magisterial 792-page tome Through the Eye of a Needle, which was published earlier that same year by Princeton University Press.

Although Brown’s scholarship speaks with profundity and insight to the apparent contradiction within the Catholic Church and Christianity more broadly, his intellectual energy is focused more directly on a problem of a different kind: What was the relationship between the rise of Christianity and the fall of Rome? In particular, Brown challenges one of the central claims of eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon, who in the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire laid much of the blame for Rome’s flagging vigor on the influence of Christianity. Among other ills, Gibbon charged, the Christian church had been responsible for causing “a large portion of public and private wealth” to be “consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion” (I.39).

From the beginning of his career, Brown has resisted narratives of decline, favoring instead the language of transformation. In his seminal The World of Late Antiquity (1971), he framed the centuries before and after the cessation of Roman rule in the West as a time of great religious and philosophical innovation, which witnessed the rise of the Christian church, rabbinic Judaism, Neoplatonism, and Islam. In the years between that book and his last two, Brown helped to reshape the ways in which students of the ancient world think about the development of Christianity. Always trying to discover the deeper streams of change that run beneath great political events, he has consistently resisted notions of religious decline as much as he has challenged facile accounts of social and political decline. Practices and beliefs that earlier generations of scholars dismissed as corrosive superstition, representing a descent from enlightened antiquity to Dark Age barbarism, now appear, thanks to Brown, in a wholly new light.

The problem of the accumulation of wealth that has gripped Brown so thoroughly over the last four decades of his career arguably stands at the nexus of two types of comprehensive change: political and religious. The church’s growing wealth can be viewed both as the cause of the fall of Rome in the West and as a sign of the “greed” that allegedly came to beset the Christian church. Through the Eye of a Needle, which has been amply discussed in other reviews, obliterates Gibbon’s accusation that the flow of wealth into the church’s coffers sapped the Roman state of its treasure and strength. A long and demanding read, even for the specialist, the book shows precisely how Christian bishops from the late fourth century through the sixth transformed Roman civic benefaction into an ideal of care for the poor.

The Ransom of the Soul takes up the problem from a different perspective by examining the way in which wealth served as a conduit between the present world and the hoped-for hereafter. Elegantly written and eminently succinct, the book preserves in large measure the voice of the original spoken delivery. It almost has the feel of a travelogue, with Brown guiding the reader from the fertile plains of third-century North Africa to the harsh forests of eighth-century Germany. The narrative reflects Brown’s long-standing insistence that the first millennium of the Christian era was a time of both continuity and change. He opens with several Gospel texts that promote the view that wealth is not so much divested as “transferred” from this world to the next. Jesus is quoted as telling the rich young man to give to the poor so that he might “have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 10:21). As a way of demonstrating how indebted medieval Christians were to this conception of religious giving, Brown juxtaposes Jesus’s words to the rich young man with the story of a sixth-century Roman cobbler, who each week gave alms to the poor at the shrine of Saint Peter. Each time the cobbler performed this act of charity, a pious man in Rome received a vision of a brick being added to a glorious heavenly mansion. The cobbler was, quite literally, storing up treasure for himself in heaven by divesting himself of it on earth. Where other historians may imagine only a vast chasm between the first and sixth centuries, Brown reveals continuities and connections, in this case by showing how the recorded words of Jesus gave a distinctive shape to the medieval notion of giving.

But, of course, there can be no historical narrative without change, and this is what most interests Brown. And to locate its sources, he focuses primarily on changing views of the soul’s journey after death and the shape of the cosmos. If we are tempted to believe that the church followed the money, Brown has it the other way around: Attitudes toward wealth and giving changed in response to new beliefs about sin and the afterlife. Characteristically for Brown, these changes are not explained away by major political events, such as the accession of Constantine in 306 and the deposition of the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476. Far more determinative of the way the church thought about and used money was a slow rethinking of how bonds were formed between the living and the dead, and what those in one realm could do for those in the other.

Brown traces several broad movements. The first is a change from concern with the afterlives of martyrs to concern with those of ordinary Christians who neither lived nor died heroically. In the writings of the earliest Latin Christians, it was imagined that martyrs were immediately transposed to heaven, where they could intercede on behalf of the living. Those who lived more mundane lives were believed to abide in a shadowy place of rest until the final judgment and the resurrection of the dead. A new landscape, however, opens before our eyes in the writings of Augustine, who dominates the book’s middle chapters. Inhabiting a far more thoroughly Christianized world, Augustine trained his gaze on the non valde boni—the “not altogether good” who made up the vast majority of his congregation. Their lives were marked by the accumulation of small debts—minor sins against God and their neighbors—that could be expiated through alms giving. Brown argues that it was Augustine of Hippo who ensured that subsequent generations of Western Christians would link repentance with the giving of money to the poor and the church.

The second major movement is a complete re-imagining of the cosmos itself. In the ancient world, it was thought that the dead—or at least the elite or holy dead—ascended to the stars, where they enjoyed eternal life. Christians believed this as fervently as their “pagan” neighbors. But in the fifth century, especially in Gaul, the journey of the soul after death became a much more hazardous and uncertain proposition. It was no longer a rapid ascent, but a bitter struggle in a foreign landscape dotted with demons and devils. The only hope of a successful journey lay in performing radical acts of giving in life and in soliciting the assistance of the saints and the living after death. If one could construct an elaborate shrine to a saint and ensure burial next to that saint, it was imagined that one’s postmortem journey would be easier and more likely to succeed. It is here that we begin to move toward the medieval understanding of purgatory, with Brown’s narrative ending on the cusp of its emergence.

It would have been easy for medieval Christians, as Brown so eloquently puts it, to see how “some of that imagined treasure had, as it were, dripped back to earth,” in the form of great shrines and churches. And with little effort, we ourselves can continue to witness the legacy of this new vision of the cosmos and the afterlife, which encouraged the wealth of innumerable Christians deposited in heaven to drip back, sometimes slowly and sometimes rapidly, into the present world.

Debates over the appropriateness of this great accumulation of wealth will surely continue unabated—as they have since before the time of Francis of Assisi himself. But Brown’s Ransom of the Soul provides a more nuanced, textured, and sympathetic view of how this system, strange though it may seem to us, came to be in the first place. Brown presses us to imaginatively inhabit a world in which the religious and the commercial do not constitute separate zones, but collaborate to hold the cosmos together. At the end of this remarkable tour, we may even be inclined to agree with our guide: “Perhaps it is we who are strange.”

Karl Shuve is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. His first book, The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.2 (Summer 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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