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The many woes of a bishop: Augustine’s sermons and Caesarius of Arles

By Shari Boodts

Saint Augustine (354-430) is one of the most influential thinkers of the Western World. His answers to life’s profound questions shaped Western civilization to an unparalleled degree. How did the Middle Ages come to know this great Father of the Church? How did his large oeuvre survive the nearly sixteen centuries since his death? This is the fifth in a series that looks over the shoulder of medieval readers to discover how they shaped Augustine’s legacy, and created an image of the man that has endured to our times.

“No man can be a good bishop if he loves his title but not his task.”

As I already mentioned in the first post of this series, Augustine was a prolific and very talented preacher. While his sermons are today less famous than works like the Confessions and City of God, they were among his most widely used and disseminated works in medieval Europe. For today’s readers too, they have much to offer. Through his preaching, we get intimate, precious glimpses into Augustine’s daily life. Preaching was perhaps the most stable element of his routine as a bishop and in his sermons, we can see him, week after week, year after year, solving difficult problems, giving moral and ethical advice, obliterating heretical enemies, in short, hammering away at the Christian religion, plank by plank and nail by nail.

Medieval men drinking – British Library MS Additional 27695 f. 14

Like all his other works, Augustine’s sermons were taken across the Mediterranean and copied and recopied throughout the Middle Ages. A crucial link in this chain of sermon manuscripts was Caesarius of Arles, who lived from c. 470 to 542 AD.

Any scholar working on Augustine’s sermons has, to put it delicately, mixed feelings about Caesarius of Arles. On the one hand, he helped preserve for us much of Augustine’s preaching that would otherwise have been lost. On the other hand, Caesarius’ sermon collections must be used with extreme caution, because he had no scruples about radically changing Augustine’s text, adding entirely new sections or scratching out what he felt to be unnecessary digressions or overcomplicated arguments. Deemed unreliable and quite boring – especially compared to the great Augustine – Caesarius is something of an underdog among the patristic preachers.

Caesarius of Arles 

But perhaps we should take pity on him. Caesarius became bishop of the city of Arles in the South of France in 502 AD and his job was certainly no picnic. If we look at his sermons, it appears that his congregation was a sinful lot, prone to a number of vices that Caesarius felt he needed to condemn most ardently. Today I give you the many woes of a bishop in sixth-century Arles, and how he harnessed the rhetorical powers of Augustine to bring his recalcitrant flock back in line.

1. Sex and adultery

When it came to sexual promiscuity, Caesarius held remarkably modern views. He did not believe in the then-accepted double standard that condemned women and celebrated men for sexual exploits out of wedlock. Men, he said, should be even better than women at controlling their lust. If they couldn’t, then they had no claim to being the stronger sex.

“For since a man receives his name from manliness and a woman hers from weakness, that is, from fragility, why would anyone want his wife to be victorious against most cruel, bestial lust, when he himself falls conquered at the first attack of it?”

2. A rebellious audience

Caesarius’ audience consisted of a very heterogeneous social group, the product of the region having seen many different consecutive rulers in its recent history – Romans, Visigoths, Franks. Many members of his flock still clung to pagan traditions, such as not spinning wool on Thursdays to honor Jupiter. Especially the lower classes had hardly any knowledge of Christian doctrine. Hence, they had very limited patience. Caesarius’ sermons abound with admonishments to his audience to be on time for Mass, be quiet and pay attention, bow their head during the service and, as one sermon tells us, he had to bar the doors to the church, so the members could not sneak out before the service was finished.

The Roman Theatre of Arles – photo by Carole Raddato / Flickr

3. Drunken debauchery

Finally, Caesarius’ congregation contained many enthusiasts of drunken carousing. Convincing his congregation to practice moderation was definitely an uphill battle.

“They drink so much that sometimes they need to relieve their stomachs, overfilled with drink, by vomiting. Truly, such is their character that these unhappy drunkards, when they gorge themselves with too much wine, laugh at and disparage those who reasonably want to drink only what suffices, saying to them: ‘Blush and be ashamed; why can’t you drink as much as us?’ They say, indeed, that these are not men.”

Caesarius did not waver in the face of his congregation’s reluctance to live a good Christian life and of the challenges posed by the unstable political climate and social diversity in Arles. He devised a strategy to strengthen Christianity’s hold and bring order to his congregation. He used a double-barreled strategy: preach as often as possible and educate his clergymen so they could preach as well. This is where Augustine’s sermons come in. Caesarius collected and edited them to become model sermons to be used by the priests in his diocese as an aid and inspiration. Several of the Augustinian sermon collections that were copied in large numbers up until the 15th century can be traced back to this one man and the fervor with which he executed his task as bishop of Arles.

Next month, as fall draws near, we move North, to the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, where the Venerable Bede serves as a signpost for Augustine’s prominent presence in the monastic centers of Anglo-Saxon England.

Further reading:

L. Bailey, ‘“These Are Not Men”: Sex and Drink in the Sermons of Caesarius of Arles’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 15.1 (2007), 23-43;

N. De Maeyer, G. Partoens, ‘Preaching in Sixth-century Arles. The sermons of bishop Caesarius’, in A. Dupont, S. Boodts et al., Preaching in the Patristic Era. Sermons, Preachers, and Audiences in the Latin West, Leiden-Boston, 2018, 198-231.

Shari Boodts is a postdoctoral fellow at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. You can learn more about Shari at her website or Academia.edu page.

Click here to read more from the series ‘Augustine in the Middle Ages’

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