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108

NOTES AND STUDIES


A NOTE ON SERMO

HUMILIS'

would be in the title given them on their feast days, Linus (23 Sept.) and
'Cletus' (26 April): Con}. Pont., presumably, instead of P.M. The list of Popes
in the Amuario Pontifido would also need altering, but that should present no
difficulty, as only a few years ago the unfortunate duplication of Cletus and
Anacletus was corrected there, and in the calendar the feast of Anacletus (13
July) was suppressed at the same time. The. occasion might also be taken to give
back to 'Cletus' his original name both in the calendar and in the Commumcantei
of the Mass, where both the 'Missale Francorum' and the 'Stowe Missal' read
Andeti. There is, then, some ancient justification for restoring at least the
latinized form of his name Anacletus.
1
E. Auerbach, literatursprache und Publikum in der lateimschen Spdtantike und
im Mittelalter (1958), chapter i, draws attention to the term in the title here.
The present note is intended as a corrective to what seems to be his excessively
literary approach to the development of this characteristic of style. Its origins
reach also into important pastoral realities.
2
MacMullen, 'Roman bureaucratese', Traditio, xviii (1962), pp. 367 f., for
references.

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How did Church notables in the fourth century communicate with


the great mass of their followers ? Before Constantine, Christians of the
lower classes were perhaps as often teachers and missionaries to the
upper classes, as the other way around. Thereafter, leadership passed to
men of exceptional education and of at least respectable family: Basil,
Eusebius, Synesius, Ambrose, and scores of others pre-eminent for their
culture and sophistication, whose background entitled them to esteem
in any circle, Christian or pagan, religious or secular. The world they
lived in was peculiarly aware of rank expressed in forms of address,
costume, manners, and even in degrees of privilege before a court of law;
their intellectual training was the object of an incredible homage earned
by its rarity;J they were marked out in several ways for isolated eminence.
Moreover, the middle class not only in a social but in a cultural sense
had been severely depleted over the course of the preceding century,
leaving someone like Augustine separated from his parishioners by a
wide, wide gulf. Had he not been reminded by the duties of his calling,
he would seldom have crossed it. Yet it had to be crossed, to continue
the mission to succeeding generations and to give guidance as new problems of faith arose. Communication between high and low in society
was as important as it was increasingly difficult.
The clearest barriers were actual differences in language, not so much
within urban congregations as in rural ones. The majority of the population, of course, lived on the countryside. Apart from dialect-differences
which we might assume, as even today a small farmer in Spain or Sicily
can hardly be understood by city folk, the peasants of large areas of the
Roman empire spoke neither Latin nor Greek but some native tongue

NOTES AND STUDIES

109

G. Bardy, La Question des langues dans Viglise ancieime (1948), passim;


MacMullen, 'Provincial languages in the Roman empire1, A.JJP. lxncvii (1966),
pp.

1-14.

Access to this large general subject through Bardy, pp. 30, 40 f., 65, 68 f.,
and E. Tengstrfim, Donatisten und Katholiken (1964).
3
P. de Labriolle, La Crise montamste (1913), pp. 6a f. (with references in the
notes there); T. Save-S6derbergh, Studies in the Coptic Manichaean Psalm Book
(1949), pp. 156, 165, and passim; F. Dfllger, 'Kiingeln, Tanz, und HSndeklatschen im Gottesdienst der christlichen Melitianer in Agypten', Antike und
Christentum, iv (1934), pp. Z45-64 passim, on the very interesting indigenous
roots of Meletian music.

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Syriac, it might be, or Coptic, or Celtic, or any of a dozen others1


by which they were cut off from the main currents of Christian belief.
Heresies arose more often and naturally in out-of-the-way parts of
Phrygia, Cappadocia, Mesopotamia, Pontus, or Africa, than in more
central areas, partly because of the difficulty in supplying remote areas
with leaders able to talk directly to their congregations. Cause-and-effect
connexions, beyond absolute demonstration but fairly clear, can be
drawn between Coptic and Gnosticism, Punic and Donatism.* More
specifically, Augustine (De haeres. 87) speaks of a local haeresis rusticana
Abelomi vocantur, punica declinatione nomimswhose origins in
linguistic isolation he implies, and (Ep. 209. 2f.; cf. 66. 2) he sees the
need of getting at a Donatist stronghold only 40 miles from Hippo
through the appointment of a bishop 'suitable to the position, and who
knows Punic'. Jerome follows the same line of reasoning when he writes
to a correspondent: 'You are afraid, I suppose, that with my fluent
Syriac and Greek I shall make a tour of the [Syrian] churches, lead the
people into error, form a schism' (Ep. 17. 2).
But further concessions were needed if one wanted to make contact
with half-foreign peasants. As they were largely illiterate, the written
word would not do; but songs were more effective because they spread
easily and could be easily learnt and remembered. It is most striking
that Montanist, Valentinian, Basilidian, Marcionite, Priscillianist,
Meletian, Donatist, and Manichaean hymns are known to have been
written and circulated,3 to say nothing of the music of the orthodox.
Hereto emphasize again only evidence that seems direct and conclusivepeople of the time, at least in Egypt, recognized the importance
of musical missionizing among the lower classes. Sunt enim Aegyptii...
novarum rerum usque ad cantilenas publicas cupientes, 'revolutionaries
even in their popular songs' (SHA Firmus, &c, 7. 4); and Arius 'composed songs to be sung by sailors, millers, and travellers, and others of
the same kind, which he adapted to certain tunes . . . and thus seduced
the unlearned by the attractiveness of his songs to his own impiety*
(Philostorgius, Eccl. hist. 2. 2), exactly as Augustine, 'to reach the atten-

HO

NOTES AND STUDIES

Someone said to the blessed Arsenius, 'How is it that we gain nothing


from so much education and learning, while these rustics and Egyptians
have won such virtues ?' Abbot Arsenius said to him, 'We gain nothing
from the study of the universe; but these rustics and Egyptians have
won virtues from their own labours.' Abbot Arsenius once questioning
some old Egyptian about his private philosophy, another man, observing
this, said, 'Abbot Arsenius, how can you, who have so much Roman and
Greek learning, question this rustic about his philosophy?' But he
answered him, 'I know Roman and Greek learning, but I have not yet
learnt the alphabet of this rustic.'6
The great majority of Christians were simple people, in all periods.
That was inevitable, and inevitably an occasion for the sneers of pagans
like Celsus (Origen, Contra Ceh. i. 27; 3. 18; 3. 44). Christianity
appealed to 'the vulgar and illiterate', 'stupid low-class folk', he said.
Christians answered: 'knowledge' (specially defined) came not from
' Retract, i. 20; cf. Ep. 54. 34, and Soz. Hist. eccl. iii. 16, on Ephraim's Syriac
hymns
to answer the unorthodoxy of Harmonius.
1
Rarely explicit; but cf. Pap. Giessen 40, II (A.D. 215); Plin. Ep. 7. 25,
rebutting prejudice against the quasi rustici; Apul. Apol. 9. 1; 10. 6; 16.10;
23- 5; 7- 2; F- Halkin, 'L'Apologie du martyr Phileas de Thmuis', Anal. Boll.

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tion of the humblest masses and of the ignorant and obscure, and to
fasten to their memory as much as we can', composed anti-Donatist
hymns.'
People of Augustine's social standing (though not he himself) felt
contempt for peasants.2 It was a feeling to be rebuked, as a visiting
bishop to Cyprus was rebuked for using a fancy periphrasis, 'Take up
thy couch and walk . . .''Art thou greater than He who uttered the
word "bed", that thou art ashamed to use his words?'3 Better, instead,
deliberately to prefer the simpler words. Jerome says of a biography
that he wrote, that 'for less educated readers we strove much for a
lower tone',4 and Augustine and others made similar concessions in
works directed at a general audience.5 Two pleasant incidents illustrate
both the snobbery that might prevent understanding between high and
low, and the good sense that might promote i t

bcxxi (1963), p. 11, a judge referring scornfully to the aypoJxouj.


3
Soz. Hist. eccl. i. 11, aKlfnroha for KpdfifSaTovthough note that in the fourth
century as today, the semi-educated loved to use big words: Shenoute, for
example (J. Leipoldt, Schemitc von Atripe (1003), pp. 60-61), or the writer
quoted in H. I. Bell, Jews and Christians in Egypt (1924), p. 83.
4
Ep. 10. 3: propter simplicities quosque, multum in deiiciendo sermone laboravimus.
5
Auerbach 47, adding Soc. Hist. eccl. iii. 1: 'Our account being the history
of Christianity, let it be humble and lowly, for clarity's sake.'
6
Apophthegmata patrum: De abbate Arsenio 5-6 {P.G. 65. 88 f.from the first
half of the fifth century).

haer. 7; Jerome, Ep. 14. 11; 22. 29; 53. 1 f.; Soz. Hist. eccl. i. 13; G. J. M.
Bartelink, '"Philosophic" et "philosophe" dans quelques oeuvres de Jean
Chrysostome', Rev. d' ascitique et de mystique, xxxvi (1960), pp. 482, 48792 (with
references); A.-J. Festugiere, Les Moines d'Orient, i (1961), pp. 24 n. 2, 77, 89.
2
[Clem. Rom.], Recog. i. 9; Arnob. Adv. nat. i. 58, Scriptures ab indoctis
hommibus etrudibus scripta sunt. . . trivialis et sordiduz sermo est; ibid. ii. 6; Lact.
Div. inst. 5. 1, Scriptures amlia, inepta, vulgaria existbnantur . . . Eloquentia enim
saeculo servit. . . ergo haec quasi humilia despicit; and Aug. De doctr. christ. ii. 13.
19 f. On the character of Church Latin and Greek, among many studies, see
S. G. Kapsomenos, 'Das Griechische in Agypten', Mus. Helveticum, x (1953),
pp. 251 f.; C. Mohrmann, 'Le latin commun et le latin des Chretiens', Vigiliae
ckrist. i (1947), p. 9; Auerbach, pp. 48 f.
3
Auerbach, pp. 31 f.; A. Dihle, 'Antike HOflichkeit und christliche Demut',
Studi italiani difilol. class, xxvi (1953), pp. 189 f.

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NOTES AND STUDIES


in
studying but from living in a certain way; and those who had acquired
this knowledge could defeat their cleverer opponents in debate. As to
the first boast, it rested on definitions strange to the ancient world.
'Wisdom' was a matter of morality,1 and what had been counted as
sapientia or philosophia, especially the literary and rhetorical learning
that most prevailed, as it was secular and earthly, had no value at all.
It was knowledge, perhaps, but not of the right things. As to the second
boast, among monks of Egypt and the eastern provinces generally, many
favourite stories went around (e.g. Soz. Hist. eccl. i. 17) of the simple
confessor or ascetic out-arguing mere worldly cleverness, or of being
'simple men, but remarkably profound and cultivated speakers', or the
like. Through such stories, it was possible to strike back at the superior
airs of one's enemies.
It followed from the character of Christianity at its very birth, and
throughout the early centuries of its history, that humble people had
to be listened to, for the extraordinary wisdomof the new kind
that they could impart. A consequence often discussed by modern
scholars was the creation of a different standard of style, indeed, of a
different language. Writers ignorant of all tricks of eloquence, of the
vocabulary of elegance, ignorant even of grammar and spelling, nevertheless deserved reverence,2 though justifications for this view that were
offered to pagan intellectuals, or sometimes to the more fastidious
among Christians, must have seemed odd and paradoxical. Odder still
was a further argument, that a humble way of talking should be preferred for its own sake.3 This doctrine spoke out sharply against the
social prejudices and tendencies of the time which were touched on at
the beginning of this note. Together with other evidencethe invention of new vernacular literatures, in Syriac or Coptic, accommodated
to local conditions; the employment of songs and music to reach the
illiterate; the readiness to lower one's style of writing; the willingness
r
See passages often discussed, in [Clem. Rom.] Recog. i. 62; Tert. Depraescr.

112
NOTES AND STUDIES
to adopt a democratic tone, without condescension, in dealing with the
lowly; and the defence of colloquial speechtogether with all this, the
preaching of humility by Church leaders who themselves belonged to
the highest social class, shows how seriously they considered the
problems of communicating with the mass of their congregations.
RAMSAY MACMULLEN

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