Writing and collecting letters in late-antique Gaul: interpreting the absences and presences in the manuscript tradition of Avitus of Vienne

Dr. Becca Grose

Letters served a variety of functions in late-antique Gaul, from allowing friends to keep in contact, to serving legal notices, forging political and religious alliances, and negotiating the exchange of captives and relics. Even Gallic demons received messages on papyrus, although they didn’t always appreciate them: in the Life of the Juran Fathers, one demon boasts that exorcists may use up to a boatload of Egyptian papyrus, but it won’t do any good as the demon will only communicate with a holy man in person (Vit.Pat.Iur. 142). Even the threat of letters was valuable: Gregory of Tours reports how a blank sheet was given to Saint Martin, to urge local royals to cooperate before the saint wrote back (Greg.Tur. DLH V.14.)

Avitus of Vienne († c. 518-9 AD) did not write to any saints or demons that we know of; however, he did write to a range of figures across Gaul and the Roman Empire. A selection of his letters are preserved in two manuscript traditions and the fragmented remains of one sixth-century papyrus (Ms. BNF Lat. 8913-4.) For the first manuscript, we have only the early-modern editio princeps by Jacques Sirmond; for the alternate tradition, we have a high-medieval manuscript (Ms. Lyon, Bibliothèque de la Ville 618). The content of the two manuscript traditions is very similar, and the Lyon manuscript only contains four additional letters. This limited manuscript tradition of Avitus’ work, and the existence of an early papyrus, allow us to raise some useful questions about how manuscript tradition can inform our study of late-antique and early-medieval letters.

The similarity between the two primary recensions of Avitus’ letters suggests that they both drew on the same, lost source, although this was not necessarily the only, or original, recension.  The collection of Avitus’ letters that Gregory of Tours († 594 AD) read consisted of ten books, mirroring that of Avitus’ relative, Sidonius Apollinaris († c. 485-6 AD.) However, the two manuscript traditions of Avitus’ letters that we possess do not replicate this. Instead, Ian Wood and Danuta Shanzer suggest that the archetype of the extant collection was based on Avitus’ filing system. (Shanzer & Wood 2002, 55-56).

Figure 1. Sixth-century Gallic handwriting is quite different to later scripts. Here, we see the name of Avitus in the papyrus (Avitus ep(iscopu)s) and above it, a gloss by a later reader. Ms. BNF. Lat.8913 f. 3v. 
Source & image credit : gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France 9r, S. Avitus, Viennensis ep. , Homiliae et Epistolae, fragmenta. Latin 8913 | Gallica (bnf.fr) 
Reproduced under a non-commercial licence, all rights remain with the BNF.

However, the collection we possess now is not more authentic or less orchestrated than clearly-curated letter collections like Sidonius’. Instead, the apparently ad-hoc compilation of letters reveals some shared, telling absences that both limit the conclusions we can draw from analysing Avitus’ epistolary networks and suggest new approaches. To assess the problems of the extant collection, it is useful to consider three types of inclusion: correspondents; letters; and non-letters.

The recipients of Avitus’ extant letters fall into three general categories: Burgundian rulers; fellow bishops from Burgundy; and political and religious authorities in the imperial capitals of Rome and Constantinople. Aside from one letter to Clovis, if Avitus wrote to bishops in the north of Gaul, wider Italy, or Spain, they have not survived. Likewise, if Avitus wrote to women, he or his compiler didn’t see fit to archive or distribute these letters.

The small differences between the collections permit us some hypotheses. The Lyon manuscript contains four letters that do not appear elsewhere, three of which are addressed to recipients in the Lyon area and seemingly allude to aggressive attacks on Lyon (Epp. 6, 50, 58.**) It’s tempting to wonder if the attacks were Frankish, and whether the absence of the Frankish world from Avitus’ letter collection was an orchestrated Merovingian affair that these letters escaped by surviving separately in Lyon’s episcopal archives. This hypothesis is supported by Epistula 8, which exists only as a papyrus fragment and challenges the conversion narrative of Clovis that we see enshrined in Gregory of Tours’ account. Finally, there are four letters, detailing Avitus’ theological politics against internal and external factions, that do not seem to have survived within main collection, and were conserved only by their recipients (Epp. 7, 34, 41, 42.)  While more research is needed, the omission of significant external letters in preference for local ecclesiastical matters suggests that an early recension targeted local readers, and the differences between the traditions hint that a recension of Avitus’ letter collection was realised under Merovingian rule.

There are some other absences in Avitus’ letter collection if we compare it to those of his episcopal contemporaries: letters of introductions, required by canon law when anyone, especially a clergyman, travelled to a different ecclesiastical province. Although we don’t possess any epistolary formula books from late-fifth or early-sixth-century Gaul, it’s quite possible that they existed and included templates for these letters. The absence of these letter types from Avitus’ letter collection might suggest that they were provided pro forma and there was no original letter to be written or preserved. The exception, a letter of introduction for Maximinus of Trier to Caesarius of Arles, may well have been written separately, even if a formula book existed, given Avitus’ relatively junior status vis-à-vis the men he was ostensibly introducing. The absence of these letter types may thus reflect a contemporary difference in how letters were designed and sent, and maybe that Avitus’ office sent enough to process them separately.

Yet, in the sixth-century papyrus fragments, we find a surprising presence alongside the letters:  homilies. These fragments are our sole source for Avitus’ homilies. To modern audiences, there is a considerable difference between letter and sermons: the presence of the speaker and a difference between the oral and written word. Yet, both were often read aloud to the same Burgundian court audiences. The existence of both texts in the same sixth-century papyrus raises important questions about whether contemporary audiences considered Avitus’ letters to be a significantly distinct type of communication from his homilies or if, instead, both existed on the same literary continuum. Conversely, two texts that share the same form as other letters from Avitus to the Burgundian king, Gundobad, are listed separately from the other letters in the Lyon manuscript and are categorised as books (libri.) The reason for the distinction is not clear: one possibility is that these texts were designed primarily to be read or analysed over a wider period rather than as a performance. If so, the distinction between theological letters and quotidian letters may have been greater to contemporary readers than the difference between letters and sermons. More research is needed to assess these hypotheses, and further our understanding of epistolary communication and letter collecting.

Figure 2:  A modern statue of Avitus in the town of Saint-Avit (Drôme).
Image credit : Gachepi, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Avit_sculpture.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Becca is a postdoctoral researcher in late antique Christianity at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her doctoral and postdoctoral work focuses on the social, cultural and religious transformations of the Western Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, with special emphasis on Burgundy. In addition to her CONNEC project work, she is currently co-editing a volume on Erasure in Late Antiquity with Kay Boers, Rebecca Usherwood and Guy Walker.

Twitter: @becca_grose; Project: @ERC_CONNEC

The ERC CONNEC project, directed by Dr. David Natal, is digitally mapping the letter and text exchanges attested in the works of Avitus of Vienne, Augustine of Hippo, Paulinus of Nola, and Gregory the Great.  Our project database, also featuring the work of Dr. Victoria Leonard and Dr. Alice Hicklin, is now live. For updates, check our Twitter account ( https://twitter.com/ERC_CONNEC) or website (https://connectedclerics.com/.)

* Ms. BNF Lat. 8913 and 8914 are digitised here S. Avitus, Viennensis ep. , Homiliae et Epistolae, fragmenta. Latin 8913 | Gallica (bnf.fr) and here S. Avitus, Viennensis ep. , Homiliae et Epistolae, fragmenta. Latin 8914 | Gallica (bnf.fr).  The editio princeps by Sirmond can be consulted here: https://archive.org/details/savitiarchiepisc00avit.  At the time of writing, Ms. Lyon, Bibliothèque de la Ville 618 is not available to consult online.   

** This blog uses Peiper’s numbering in the MGH edition: https://www.dmgh.de/mgh_auct_ant_6_2/

Cover Image: Avitus came from an episcopal family, as represented in a later icon of Avitus of Vienne (centre) with his brother Apollinaris of Valence (left) and relative Mamertus of Vienne (right.) Image credit: Joachim Schäfer, Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon, Mamertus von Vienne – Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon (public domain.)

Recommended Reading:

For an introduction to manuscripts & their terminology:
 Lexicon Terms and Search (hmmlschool.org)

A – Glossary for the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (bl.uk)
Teachable Features – Teaching the Codex


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Shanzer, D. and I. Wood. Avitus of Vienne. Letters and Selected Prose (2002.)

Tyrrell, V.A. Merovingian Letters and Letter Writers (2019.)

Williard, H.D. “Writing and literary culture in Merovingian Gaul.” European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire 21.5 (2014): 691-710.

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