The Seventeenth International Conference on Patristic Studies was hosted in Oxford in August 2015. Our research group presented the Clerical Exile project in the afternoon workshops on three consecutive days...
“The chapters in this volume all engage to some degree with the central paradoxical tension between clerical exile’s value, on the one hand, as a method of civic and ecclesiastical control and conflict management, and, on the other, as a fundamental element of Christian identity and authority. As Fournier, Mawdsley and Reis show, late antique political and ecclesiastical leaders created boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Christians, and excommunication as well as its spatial enforcement, exile, aided the establishment or at least the illusion of spatial, social and spiritual uniformity. As such clerical exile, as a cultural dividing practice, had the potential for destroying late antique communities. Whether such divisions worked in practice in every case may be doubtful, however, and certainly depended on the circumstances. In Vandal North Africa alone we see extraordinary freedom of movement of exiled clerics, able to maintain networks stretching around the Mediterranean, as Heil shows for the time of Thrasamund, as well as their tight control, as Mawdsley shows for that of Huneric. Yet, exile could be destructive even beyond the time of clerical exile itself. Exile was, as Natal says, a ‘proprietary event’ that had the potential of being divisive long after, and often even due to the return of clerics from exile.
At the same time, clerical exile also had a creative force. As Vallejo Girvès, Heil and Rohmann show, exiled clerics were at the centre of lay, clerical or monastic communities, often all of these, and also may have attracted a local or global following. For some bishops, like Fulgentius, this presented an opportunity to influence the great theological debates of their age. This connectedness may even be true for exiled Donatists, discussed by Engberg, although the meagre evidence for exiled Donatists in Rome and Spain only allows us to speculate about their experience. Astonishingly, as Vallejo Girvès argues, ‘exile colonies’ do not seem to have been suppressed by civic authorities who expected exiled bishops to have a clerical or ascetic entourage. In some incidents, exiled individuals were even put in charge of (admittedly provincial) communities, as those subject to forced clerical ordination discussed by Rohmann. This should remind us that the concept of ‘loneliness’ is socially constructed, and in late antiquity may have been more associated with separation from power and peers than with physical solitude.
Above all, however, late antique clerical exile created stories, stories of persecution, victimhood, redemption and heroism that sought to keep biblical and early Christian paradigms alive for contemporary listeners. Turning exile into a new paradigm of authority for Christian leaders, was, however, not straightforward. As several chapters in this volume show, during the third century and still into the fourth, exiled bishops had to work hard to justify their experiences as suitable models of Christian behaviour, particularly, but not only if they had fled rather than faced violent oppression or death. To do so, as Barry, Ulrich and Reis show, Athanasius of Alexandria and Eusebius of Vercelli dwelled on the suffering involved in exile, but also advertised the importance of bishops’ staying alive and safeguarding orthodoxy ‘in the middle of heretical territory’, perhaps implicitly drawing on the examples of Cyprian of Carthage and Dionysius of Alexandria who had already argued that exile allowed a bishop to fulfil his duty of conversion and pastoral care. Still, the merit of clerical exile remained ambiguous into the later fourth century, Natal demonstrates, when Ambrose of Milan could draw authority from celebrating that he had never ‘deserted’ and hence jeopardized his community through exile. At the same time, some Christian groups even seem to have rejected exile as a source of identity altogether, such as the ‘Donatists’, choosing instead to focus their self-conception on martyrdom and an old-testamentarian concept of the chosen people. Yet, Natal and Heil’s contributions to this volume also chart the utter transformation of exile’s symbolic currency over the fifth century, at a time when the fourth-century exiled champions of Nicaea had gained their equal place in the Christian hall of heroes. Fulgentius of Ruspe’s Vita dwells on its exiled protagonist’s foundation of monasteries, convening of synods and orthodox integrity, rather than the persecution aspect of his experience, even though Sardinia had an acknowledged past in the persecution of Christians, both remote and recent. Yet, by the early sixth century, the exiled bishop could unashamedly be presented as a superior community leader, rather than a victim, because, not despite of having been in exile. In fact, as Vallejo Girvès shows, by this time the prestige of the exiled bishop was so high that it began to rub off on his companions, who start to emerge from the shadows and in some cases are even seen as deserving hagiographies of their own.
This volume argues, then, that clerical exile was, and perhaps more importantly was narrated, as a community event, in the sense that it was a real or metaphorical mechanism of inclusion and exclusion, which both created relationships and drew the boundaries of late antique Christian society. It is therefore appropriate for the research project under whose aegis the volume has been assembled to continue to explore this community-building further, using, adapting and critiquing the most up-to-date methodology to do so: social network analysis.”