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Johanna Schenk: Traditionsbezug und Transformation. Die Briefe des Avitus von Vienne als Inszenierungen eines spätantiken Bischofs (= Roma Aeterna; Bd. 10), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2021, 291 S., ISBN 978-3-515-12872-8, EUR 56,00
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Rezension von:
Ian Wood
University of Leeds
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Ian Wood: Rezension von: Johanna Schenk: Traditionsbezug und Transformation. Die Briefe des Avitus von Vienne als Inszenierungen eines spätantiken Bischofs, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2021, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 6 [15.06.2023], URL:

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Johanna Schenk: Traditionsbezug und Transformation

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The central concern of Johanna Schenk is the varying self-representation of a late-antique bishop, Avitus of Vienne, in his dealings with fellow bishops and with members of the secular hierarchy. He appears as aristocrat, literary figure, cleric and theologian. In the latter roles, as Schenk insists, he looks back to Ambrose and Augustine - and she also mentions Claudianus Mamertus, but this is something left unelaborated. Her study begins with an overview of earlier scholarship on Avitus, and more generally on letter-collections, which is followed by a brief sketch of the life of the bishop of Vienne and of the history of the Burgundians in Gaul. The account of Burgundian history is largely traditional, being dependent on the work of Justin Favrod and Reinhold Kaiser. The extent to which the narrative is questionable is not examined. Essentially, Schenk follows the line laid down by Gregory of Tours, without admitting as much, even though his reconstruction of events has been regularly called into question since the days of Bruno Krusch. The extent to which Schenk follows an outmoded historical model is clear from her reference to Gregory's Histories (Historiae or Decem Libri Historiarum) as the Historia Francorum: the title Historia Francorum has been dispensed with for decades, and reflects a misunderstanding of the bishop of Tours' text. She does, however, note the current emphasis on the romanitas of Gundobad and Sigismund. With regard to the Gallo-Roman aristocracy and its culture, we are given a clear, but very general, précis of current views. As for the question of aristocratic bishops, this is also extremely general, and downplays recent critiques of Bischofsherrschaft (although the limitations of episcopal power are properly noted in the comments on individual letters). A little more detail is provided for relations between the metropolitan sees of Arles and Vienne, which are briefly, but precisely, delineated.

This contextualisation provides an introduction to the meat of the volume, which offers a useful commentary on a selection of individual letters within the Avitan corpus. Among those discussed by Schenk are letters dealing with bishops. She examines Avitus' correspondence with Victorius of Grenoble, especially that dealing with a case of incest, picking up theological and canonical references, and an echo of Sidonius. She considers the bishop of Vienne's exchange of letters with his brother Apollinaris, bishop of Valence, notably those on the death of a sister - though the identity of the sister is only considered in a note. Here the emphasis is firmly Christian. Among the letters to other bishops is one to Caesarius of Arles, relating to Maximian of Trier, which puts particular stress on biblical parallels to his treatment for blindness. Letters to popes are analysed, not least for their information on relations with Constantinople and the Greek Church, where Avitus writes as representing the Gallic episcopate. The reading is precise but provides little of the known background to the exchange, thus limiting its value for the historian of the period.

From the letters to secular figures, Schenk singles out one to the Burgundian official Ansemundus and another to Avitus' cousin, Apollinaris, the son of Sidonius, as well as a theological tractate addressed to Gundobad. In the first of these letters Schenk rightly notes the limits of episcopal power. There is a brief discussion of Ansemundus, which is useful, but it does not register the recent work of Nathanaël Nimmegeers on Vienne or Beate Schilling's study of 'Ansemundus dux' published in Archiv für Diplomatik 2000. This is followed by an extremely detailed analysis of the bishop's letter to the Burgundian official, dealing with a problematic and politically delicate case involving the impregnation of a nun. There is an equally detailed examination of Avitus' letter to Apollinaris, following his return to favour with Alaric II, where the bishop shows a keen awareness of the work of Sidonius and more generally presents himself as a member of an enduring literary community.

From the bishop's correspondence with Gundobad, Schenk selects the Contra Eutychianam Haeresim, which is perhaps not the most representative of Avitus' exchanges with the Burgundian ruler, although it does usefully complement the work of Uta Heil, whose exemplary Avitus von Vienne und die homöische Kirche der Burgunder has relatively little to say about the anti-Eutychian tractate. Schenk submits Avitus' language and theology to minute and extremely extended analysis, but one could have wished for a little more explanation of the sheer oddity of his response to events in Constantinople, which he clearly did not understand, and for which one needs to turn to Mischa Meier's biography of Anastasios. Certainly, Avitus presents himself in this work as an exponent of catholic orthodoxy, but his doctrinal confusion ought to receive more attention.

The fact that Schenk provides a detailed analysis of a selection of letters, rather than the whole surviving corpus - and that itself is only a random selection of the letters written by Avitus - means that we are given what can only be a partial account of Avitus' self-presentation. Among the gaps are the letters that reveal a lighter side to the bishop, notably the strange satire purportedly written by Leonianus, the archdeacon of bishop Maximus of Geneva to the vir spectabilis Sapaudus, which gets no more than a brief comment, although Schenk does note Avitus' use of humour and irony elsewhere. Perhaps a more significant gap when considering the self-presentation of a bishop is the absence of any consideration of Avitus' sermons, and in particular the (admittedly fragmentary) sermons preached on special occasions, which we know were originally preserved alongside the bishop's letters (unlike those which were preached in the regular course of the liturgical year). We are told more than once that he was a preacher, but the point is scarcely illustrated. Yet it was surely above all as a preacher that he presented himself to the public.

Having examined a handful of individual letters, Schenk provides some comments on the extremely problematic nature of the Avitus corpus, which survives in one very fragmentary papyrus codex which combined letters and homilies for specific occasions, one twelfth-century manuscript from Lyon that contains the majority of the surviving letters, and Sirmond's edition, which published the text contained in a now-lost manuscript in which the order of the letters differed from that in the Lyon manuscript. To the letters contained in the manuscripts and edition of Sirmond a few letters preserved elsewhere may be added. Schenk returns to the problem of the transmission of the letters in a later section, where she discusses the order in which they are preserved. And this is followed by reference to the various descriptions of the Avitus corpus in early medieval sources. Why this information is held back to the closing pages of the book is something of a mystery. It might have been better to deal with the problems of the transmission of the text and their implications at a much earlier stage in the argument. We can be certain that the Avitan corpus as we have it is the result of Carolingian and Capetian intervention. And Schenk has next to nothing to say about what is surely a key to an understanding of Avitus as a sixth-century figure: the fragmentary papyrus codex. When she talks of the two Avitus manuscripts she clearly has only the Lyon manuscript and the Sirmond edition in mind.

Between these discussions of the text and its survival Schenk offers an overview of Avitus' various groups of correspondents: his suffragans, other bishops in Burgundian territory, bishops under both Visigothic and Ostrogothic rule (though it is by no means clear that Riez was Visigothic at the time that Avitus wrote to Contumeliosus), popes and patriarchs, laymen in Constantinople, secular aristocrats in the post-Roman West, and the Gibichungs themselves. Exactly why this more general survey has been detached from the earlier analysis of individual letters is unclear. The discussion of lay correspondents in Constantinople has implications for an understanding of the Contra Eutychianam Haeresim, but this is only noted at this late stage.

In other words, this provides a good analysis of the self-representation of an individual bishop in a number of letters, which are the subject of close commentary. Anyone working in detail on the letters studied here will find it useful to have Schenk's work at hand. It is a classic example of a work of lateinische Philologie, and one that registers the significance of theological writings. But it adds little to an overall understanding of the period. Moreover, for the most part, the letters are discussed without being precisely contextualised: for instance, the letters to Gundobad and Sigismund need to be understood within very specific contexts, but no dates are given. Indeed the book as a whole is a book almost without dates: something that reinforces the impression that it gives of being a study in philology and not in history.

Ian Wood