Jonathan Smith has defined ritual as ‘above all, an assertion of difference’.1 Rituals in late antique Gaul asserted difference in several ways. They were part of the process by which space could be designated as sacred – the means by which it was made different from secular space.2 Ritualization of action made it distinct from ordinary movement, so that baptism was, for example, not the same thing as bathing. Ritual also asserted difference between people. The distinction between clergy and laity centred on their roles in the Eucharistic ritual, one group offering, the other receiving, so this was the moment when the difference between lay and cleric most mattered, and when it was enacted for all to see. This was when the lay experience of being ‘lay’ would have been most acute. Rituals are therefore central to the analysis of how clergy sought to create and enact differences between lay people and themselves, as well as between sacred and secular spaces and between religious and ordinary actions. Rituals were one of the ways in which the categories ‘lay’ and ‘secular’ were constructed.

They were also a basic element of a lay person’s religious environment. Many lay interactions with their religion would have been shaped by ritual, whether in services at church, at regular festivals and processions, or in engagement with divine power through pilgrimage, prayers or acts of penitence. Some of these aspects will be reserved for discussion in the next chapter on religious behaviours. Here I will concentrate on reconstructing what we can know about the ritual world of the Gallic laity, focusing in particular on the nature and form of the Eucharistic liturgy and on the character and use of processions, either during festivals or as part of communal penance, such as the Rogations. In both cases, clergy attempted to assert control over rituals in the service of hierarchical differentiation; however, they also sought to use them to build the unity of Christian communities through joint solemnized action. These dual goals – differentiation and unity – might seem to be in tension, yet they consistently characterized accounts of ritualized acts.

Rituals have been seen by scholars as mechanisms of both inclusion and exclusion. Robin Jensen has placed great emphasis on the role of ritual in the religious worlds of ordinary Christians. ‘Christian identity’, she recently argued, ‘is claimed, developed, and reinforced through ritual practice as much as – or perhaps more than – by the doctrines articulated by theologians’.3 On the other hand, Torjesen has seen them largely as cleric-centred actions. In particular, she argues that the sacralization of the Eucharistic ceremony, and the exclusion of the laity from it, was one of the key moments of lay differentiation and subordination by the clergy.4 Certainly, liturgical rituals seem to be an ideal mechanism for controlling space and for enacting hierarchy. Nonetheless, in practice they were defined, in the Gallic context, by a diversity and multiplicity that mitigated any such clerical intentions. Moreover, there are suggestions in our evidence that ritual did not always do what clergy thought it should do, or was doing. Our sources made clear that clergy struggled to maintain control over the rituals of the faith. There were many spaces and opportunities for the laity to claim them as their own.

Ritual and ritualization

Before examining the late antique evidence for Christian ritual in Gaul, I need to explain what I mean by ‘ritual’ and how I am using the concept, since it has been a subject of some contention among scholars. Phillipe Buc has argued against the use of ritual as a concept in the early middle ages, pointing out that the textual descriptions we have of events and processes often do not match the social-scientific models of ritual that have been used to analyse them.5 Any overly rigid model of what a ritual is and what it does risks misrepresenting far more than it explains.6 Catherine Bell has tried to address the issue by talking instead of ‘ritualization’, arguing that this focuses attention on what the actors were doing and how they were setting their acts apart from the ordinary, rather than assuming that ritual was something concrete and specific. In this chapter, I use both terms, although with caution. They are useful to describe something that would have been an important part of the worlds of lay people: formal religious acts that deliberately evoked separation from secularity. When lay people attended church and either observed or participated in the Eucharistic mass, they were part of a series of actions that were fixed, repeated and formalized in order to distinguish and privilege them over more quotidian activities.7 When lay people joined a procession through the city on the anniversary of a saint’s death, they were assisting in the process of marking the landscape as sacred by virtue of focusing their attention upon it.8 In both cases, the actions of those involved were deliberately differentiated from the normal processes of eating a meal or walking through the streets of the city. I find the ideas of ritual and ritualization useful to describe what was different.

I also emphasize, however, that such events were difficult to control. As Bell puts it: ‘ritualized practices afford a great diversity of interpretation in exchange for little more than consent to the form of the activities’.9 The clergy might have been aiming at consensus and unity, two of the goals often claimed for ritual acts, but ritual was an argument for such consensus, not an enactment of it.10 The laity might not always have taken from such rituals what the clergy wanted them to. The case-study of the Rogations, considered at the end of the chapter, provides one possible example of this. I therefore use the terms ‘ritual’ and ‘ritualization’ while giving as much attention as possible to the specificities of our texts, their authors and their situations.

The Eucharistic liturgy11

The Eucharistic liturgy is manifestly important to any history of late antique Christianity – the sacrifice of bread and wine upon an altar and their subsequent consumption constituted the central ritual action of Christianity and participation in it marked membership of the church.12 It was an enactment of the community’s special relationship with God and the obligations which each had to the other.13 It was also an idealized expression of the consensus and fellowship of the Christian community, since it is ‘of necessity and by intention a corporate action’.14 At the same time, however, the Eucharistic liturgy was also the chief ritual which enshrined the difference between clergy and laity. It was therefore simultaneously an expression of Christian unity and of hierarchy within the community. All parts of the Eucharistic liturgy were ritualized to express their difference from the ordinary, to privilege the moment as sacred and as relating to a higher, cosmic reality.15 It was intended to be a highly sensual experience. Every action was slow and deliberate, accompanied by prayer or music.16 For many lay people, it may have been an intense and emotive religious experience.

For something so important, however, the Gallic Eucharistic liturgy has proved frustratingly difficult to reconstruct. Very few written sources describe it before the Carolingian period, and those we do have are fragmentary or difficult to date.17 Louis Duchesne based his reconstruction of the Eucharistic service on descriptions in a text attributed to Germanus of Paris in the late sixth century, but this attribution and the date of his evidence are very controversial.18 Of the few liturgical compositions to survive from Merovingian Gaul, none are earlier than the late seventh century, and none can answer all the questions scholars have about the shape and structure of the liturgy.19 But even if we had the complete written texts we desire, we would still not have a full picture of the liturgical experience, which was about so much more than the words spoken. To understand them fully, we would have to place them in the context of the places, persons, objects, music, aromas, lights and images that were so much a part of the experience.20 Liturgy is not just prayer formulae, as Mathews points out, it is ‘an enormously complex symbol whose message is carried in gesture, motion and display as much as in words’.21 Finally, to complicate the picture, the one thing on which scholars seem to agree is that the liturgy in Gaul was very diverse and that regional experience would have varied widely.22 Each of the liturgical manuscripts which survives contains a different number of masses, commemorates different saints, and lists different reading passages and prayers for the same occasions.23 Bishops were in a position to be quite creative in their construction of some elements of the service.24 Priests in smaller churches, often at great distance from their bishops, could become quite independent.25 It was even possible for lay people to contribute – King Chilperic, for example, was reported to have composed hymns and masses of his own accord.26 There were numerous outside influences on liturgy and very few attempts to impose any kind of uniformity.27 The result was the ‘fruitful confusion so characteristic of Frankish liturgy’.28

Given all of this, reconstructing the liturgical experience of the laity appears a daunting task. However, the church councils did seek to standardize the acts and gestures that constituted the structure of the Eucharistic mass, so that although there may have been a perfectly acceptable diversity of texts used and words spoken, ‘no part of the essential rite would be neglected or even missed out by the celebrant’.29 We can therefore outline these standard elements, which existed at least as an ideal model.30 The celebrant would enter while an antiphon was sung, would greet the congregation and they would reply. According to Germanus, canticles would then be sung and the celebrant would say a prayer. This would be followed by readings, which were usually from the scriptures, although they may have also included readings from the biographies of saints on their particular festivals. These were interspersed with singing by choirs, and the books might also be brought in with a solemn procession. All of this would be followed by the sermon, which was often based on the reading, but might also be an unrelated moral exhortation. There were then some prayers, uttered by the faithful and by the celebrant, which seemingly could vary widely in character. If there were catechumens, public penitents or excommunicants present, they would be dismissed. The elements of the offering were brought in and placed upon the altar, accompanied by prayers and possibly singing. This would be followed by the recital of the names of the dead as well as prayer for them, and the kiss of peace. There was then a sequence of Eucharistic prayers and responses, the fraction of the host, its mixing with the wine and the actual communion. The congregation sang the Pater Noster during the final preparations for this. During the taking of communion, there would have been further singing by the choir. Afterwards, the celebrant thanked God, gave the benediction and dismissed the congregation. This process may have taken between one and two hours, depending on the occasion and degree of elaboration.31

There were also many other, small-scale services going on throughout the day and week, which the laity could attend, and they were indeed sometimes encouraged to do so. Caesarius instituted daily observance of the canonical hours in Arles in the hope of attracting lay attendance and encouraged lay people to join in the singing of this daily office.32 He also urged his congregation during Lent to attend not only the vigils, but also terce, sext and none.33 Henry Beck argues that there was a night office every week to prepare for the Sunday, that there were solemn vigils before the feasts of Epiphany and Pentecost, and that ‘the daily observance of the Divine Office was the normal practice’ in the south of France at least, but Hen has disagreed with him on this.34 Following the evidence of Caesarius, these offices could also include a sermon.35 Certainly, such daily offices were not always or even regularly attended by lay people – although some did, this would have been very unusual.36 More standard, perhaps, was attendance at the office during Lent – Caesarius emphasized this as part of ideal lay pious practice.37 By the end of the sixth century, it had become the custom to offer public masses in the afternoons several days a week during Advent.38 Requiem and anniversary masses were also offered on a variety of occasions.39 These Christian markers of time therefore could, at least in potential, provide the rhythm of the days and weeks in a lay person’s life, especially if they chose to attend services on a regular basis.

It is not clear, however, how often most lay people did choose to attend services. The obligation to attend church on Sundays was emphasized by church councils, by secular law codes and by miracle stories that described punishments for those who worked when they should have been at church.40 Regular attendance was expected, but the reiterated penalties in legal texts suggest this was not always observed in practice. What is clear is that by the fifth century, actually taking communion when one attended church was less common than it had once been.41 A combination of factors including the enormous increase in the numbers of the faithful, the practice of child baptism, and increasing reverence for the host, with subsequent emphasis on needing to be pure and worthy in order to consume it, had ensured that communion had become relatively infrequent for many laity.42 In 506, the Council of Agde had to dictate that it be taken at least three times a year.43 Otherwise, receiving communion was not an act of lay piety that clergy especially emphasized or promoted.44 In many Gallic cities, it would in fact have been impossible to accommodate the entire baptized community if they had all communicated every Sunday.45 This gradual development changed the nature of the Eucharistic liturgy and the experience of lay people attending it. Many came to church as spectators rather than participants, and the ceremony began to be something done by the clergy, rather than something shared with the whole Christian community.46 We should not project back the situation of the high middle ages – the process of lay exclusion was only just beginning in the fifth century, and the laity still participated actively in the service in many other ways, even if they did not always take communion.47 Venantius Fortunatus could still in the sixth century urge Christians to receive the Eucharist every day where possible and Beck argues that this would indeed have been possible in some areas.48 However, the change from the lay experience in the earliest centuries of the church would have been marked.

Scholars generally agree with Mathews that over time ‘the liturgy was gradually made ever more remote, untouchable, inaccessible, invisible’.49 In the eighth century, some prayers were whispered. After 800, the laity could no longer offer the bread and wine for the Eucharist with their own hands, and bread from lay households was no longer deemed appropriate.50 By 1000, clerics faced away from the congregation and ‘the laity were expected to observe from a distance what were now essentially clerical mysteries’.51 What is not clear is what stage this process had reached in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries in Gaul, and in Chapter 2 I raised the question of how much the laity could see of the ceremonies when they attended church. Certainly, many aspects of the drama seem to require an audience which sees and a congregation which is engaged.52 Moreover, although they did not communicate and therefore participate as often as they once had, the laity were not wholly passive during the Eucharistic liturgy. They had to exchange the kiss of peace. They had to respond and sing at various points during the service.53 They were also addressed, engaged and exhorted directly during the sermon. Hen has argued, indeed, that the mass ‘required the full attention, cooperation and participation of the congregation’.54 Given the many clerical complaints about lay inattention, I find this rather optimistic, but certainly it reflects the ideal. A sermon in the Eusebius Gallicanus collection makes clear that the laity were expected both to participate and to listen quietly, at the appropriate moments. ‘It is a serious sin both of lukewarmness and infidelity, standing in the holy place before the presence of majesty, either not to respond, when the psalm is sung, or, not to be silent when the reading is poured into your ears.’55 A number of scholars have recently emphasized the dramatic and performative elements of the mass and the intended impact of these on all participants and spectators alike.56 The singing that accompanied the important moments would have been a central part of this experience, working both to impress and to incorporate the laity at various different points. Add in the other elements of the experience – movement in processions, elaborate dress, incense, light and ritualized action – and the impact upon the laity was potentially profound.57

Furthermore, the liturgy, or elements of it, could be co-opted by the laity in various different ways, demonstrating the difficulty the clergy had in controlling it. One of the most obvious ways in which this happened was through Eucharistic reservation, which was permitted for the sick, but may have been far more widespread.58 This practice took control of the Eucharist quite literally out of the hands of the clergy and made it available for use in private rituals and domestic expressions of piety.59 Indeed, although many members of the clergy insisted loudly that the church was the only authorized site for Eucharistic celebration, domestic celebrations continued in a variety of contexts. Two Breton priests, Lovocatus and Catihernus, were accused of using a portable altar to conduct the mass in the cottages (capanas) of their fellow citizens.60 As we have already seen, the wealthy could have chapels within their homes, where they took communion from clergy who were effectively in their own employ. Each of these examples of ‘private’ religious service created the possibility that sacred rites might be accessed inappropriately by secular people. The laity also took the models of the Eucharistic mass, and of the daily office, and appropriated them in their own personal devotions, imitating clergy and implicitly undermining some of the category distinctions that lay at the heart of the formalized church ceremony.61 The Eucharistic liturgy was therefore important, and looms large in our picture of Gallic religious worlds, but was also a potentially fraught event – the centre of some struggles between clergy and laity over issues of access and control.

The Christian reconstruction of the larger cycles of time may have had even greater impact on the lives of lay people, in the long run. Yitzhak Hen has demonstrated very clearly how the religious calendar developed in a series of cycles: the temporal cycle commemorating the events of Christ’s life, the sanctoral cycle marking the festivals of saints, and the personal cycle marking the major events of an individual’s life in religious terms.62 These cycles expanded enormously over the period we are interested in and each of them involved the laity directly. The number of festivals for saints, both local and ‘universal’, multiplied through late antiquity and into the early middle ages, and these were presented to lay people as a proper focus for their local patriotism and as a basis for their sense of community.63 Furthermore, both birth and death were increasingly marked as Christian moments. By 600, infant baptism had become the norm, and we also see the development of death-bed rituals and votive masses for the dead.64 These rituals made an argument for the centrality of religion to the conception of community – entrance should be marked through a Christian rite, and Christian rites should ensure that one remained a member of the community even after death.65 Any adult catechumens, or the parents of children to be baptized, were supposed to prepare themselves for the ceremony with fasting and regular church attendance for instruction.66 Adult catechumens were taught an outline of the principal doctrines of the faith, while god-parents were obliged to teach baptized children the fundamentals of the Christian virtues as well as the Creed and Pater Noster.67 Baptism ceremonies were moments to remind the entire community of their obligations as Christians, and to enrol them in the ongoing effort to maintain the virtues upon which clergy insisted. The temporal cycle determined times when the laity had to fast, when they could feast, when they had to abstain from sexual relations, when they had to attend church and when they could work. The importance of these behavioural dictates is clear in sermons, which sought to explain to the laity the reasons for the controls upon them and urged the spiritual rewards that would follow from observance. These also provided opportunities for preachers, who adapted their messages to the laity according to the season, stressing particular virtues or mental attitudes in times of joyous celebration or of mournful commemoration. All of these, together with the Eucharistic liturgy, therefore took a central place in the religious worlds of the laity in late antique Gaul, both as a reminder of their position within the church and as an opportunity for pious action.


Scholars have recently become very interested in processions as moments when ritual and urban space particularly connected. Cecelia Feldman-Weiss has argued that processions were integral to the creation of the ancient city as a ‘place’, while historians working on Christian pilgrimage have emphasized how processions, along with other types of ritualized movement, served to sacralize urban topography.68 Palazzo argues that a procession which moved through a city could be a way of compensating for the fact that it was impossible for the inhabitants of a city to congregate in a single church – this was in fact the best way to express their sense of themselves as a unified community.69 A procession enabled the participation of a wide range of community members; indeed, this ‘representativeness’ appears as an ideal feature of a religious procession in a number of texts.70 An idealized penitential procession described by Gregory of Tours consisted of clergy from different parts of the city, together with abbots and monks, abbesses and nuns, children, laymen, widows and married women.71 In the account of the procession through Arles on the occasion of the festival of Genesius, the preacher emphasized the joint action of the faithful and described how everyone was equally struck by terror as the bridge collapsed, sending their fellow citizens into the waters of the Rhône. Saved by the power of the martyr, however, they all emerged safe on the other side. ‘The procession of all came out, just as it had gone in’: mothers, virgins and children, differentiated but now together.72 The ritualized procession could therefore be an expression of communal piety that united all its members, even as the clerical texts insisted on the careful distinction of roles within the faith community.

Processions could be regular events as part of a particular festival, as was the case in Arles. In Tours, likewise, the inhabitants would process from the cathedral to the church of St Martin, as part of his celebrations. Other processions were responses to specific situations. When the plague threatened to hit Reims, Gregory described its inhabitants taking the shroud from the tomb of the former bishop Remigius. Then ‘with candleholders and candles burning above the crosses, they joined voices in chants and journeyed around the city as well as its villages’.73 They could even be initiated by an individual. For example, Gregory of Tours tells of how Bricius, bishop of Tours, was falsely accused of unchastity. ‘To justify himself to the people, he placed burning coals in his cassock and pressed them against his body and went in procession with the whole mob to the tomb of Saint Martin.’74 In each of these cases, lay participation was paramount. They needed to walk, in a ritualized fashion, and they needed to undertake particular acts both to prepare themselves and as they went. When Childebert besieged Saragossa, Gregory reported that the inhabitants of that city ‘dressed themselves in hair-shirts, abstained from eating and drinking, and marched around the city walls singing psalms and carrying the tunic of Saint Vincent the martyr. Their women-folk followed them, weeping and wailing, dressed in black garments, with their hair blowing free and with ashes on their heads.’75 Processions were ideally ritualized moments of time and motion, exempt from the normal secular pattern of events. When the saints entered heaven, one Eusebius Gallicanus preacher insisted, they did so in a procession.76 This was sacred movement. In Reims, Gregory reported that the plague did not advance beyond the boundary set out by the procession.77 In the case of Saragossa, meanwhile, the besieging troops were reputedly so terrified by the procession that they withdrew from the city. ‘It was quite unimaginable’, Gregory commented, ‘that God in His compassion would not be swayed by the prayers of these people’.78 The ritualized movement of the procession was depicted as warding off evil.


As Catherine Bell points out, ‘most symbolic action, even the basic symbols of a community’s ritual life, can be very unclear to participants or interpreted by them in very dissimilar ways’.79 Rituals in late antique Gaul could be interpreted and used in a variety of ways, making them difficult to control. To illustrate this, the final section of this chapter takes a close look at the Rogations. These rituals began as an emergency response to danger, when Mamertus, bishop of Vienne, instituted them in the 450s.80 After this time, however, the Rogations were adopted elsewhere in Gaul and became regularized as an annual occurrence. They involved a three-day long sequence of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, vigils and processions through the city.81 The Rogations were supposed to involve all members of the Christian community.82 The whole enterprise, however, was organized by and focused on the bishop, as the orchestrator of his community’s penitence. Unity and hierarchy were therefore ideally both in evidence.

These themes emerge strongly in several of our accounts of the Rogations. In a letter in his collection, Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of Clermont, invited a friend to return to the city to take part in this relatively new ritual, as a demonstration of piety.83 In praising the Rogations, Sidonius contrastingly characterized previous public prayers as insufficiently ritualized and therefore ineffective. They were, he claimed, ‘irregular, lukewarm, sparsely attended and, so to speak, full of yawns; their purpose was frequently obscured by the disturbing interruptions for meals, and they tended to become for the most part petitions for rain or for fine weather’. The new ritual, however, had brought ‘prayer and fasting, psalmody and lamentation’, it had become ‘a festival of humbly bowed heads’ and a ‘fellowship of sighing suppliants’.84 In another letter on the Rogations, written to the bishop who had first instituted them, Sidonius presented them as enormously popular, and as uniting a previously divided community in an act of ritualized unity, a model also evoked by Avitus of Vienne in his sermon on the Rogations.85 In a Eusebius Gallicanus sermon that was probably preached just after the Rogation period, the congregation was described as ‘one soul, equal, in consensus’.86 Caesarius ordered that no one in the community should leave the church on these days, because this would be equivalent to deserting an army.87 For Geoffrey Nathan, therefore, the ritual of the Rogations was an enactment of community consensus, with the bishop at its forefront. ‘The inclusion of the whole population was paramount – success required totality. The bishop, as a leader, a symbol, and a guide, trained the physical ablutions of the community upon a spiritual purification.’88

However, the only evidence we have for how the ritual elevated the bishop and created consensus around him is the evidence of the bishops themselves. We do not know whether the laity found the previous public prayers as inadequate as Sidonius declared them to be, and we cannot assume that they were approaching these new prayers and processions any differently. Our sources suggest a complex picture. For example, the ‘petitions for rain or fine weather’, derided by Sidonius Apollinaris, appeared central to the Rogations in some other accounts. In a sermon in the Eusebius Gallicanus collection, the preacher assured his congregants that ‘we are about to obtain through prayer that the lord forbids infirmities, plagues, tribulations; he drives away the evil of pestilence, of hostility, of hail, of drought; he brings together the proper mixture of weather for the safety of the body, for the fertility of the earth, he concedes peace of the elements and tranquillity of the times, he dismisses sins, he withdraws the scourges’.89 Caesarius once used the occasion of the Rogations to lead the congregation in prayers to end a threatening drought, and another time to seek relief from excessive floods.90 Gregory of Tours told of how during their Rogations the people of Rodez petitioned their bishop, Quintianus, to intone a particular prayer in a time of drought: ‘Blessed pontiff, if you devoutly intone the antiphon, we trust so much in your sanctity that we believe that the Lord will immediately deign to grant us an abundant rain.’91 Sure enough, after the bishop had chanted, the people had sung, and they had all processed to the gate of the town, ‘a heavy rain fell upon the whole land, so that they were lost in admiration, and said that it was due to the prayers of this holy man’.92 This was still a story, told by a bishop, which placed a bishop at the centre of the action, but it puts Sidonius’ view of the purpose of the Rogations in a different perspective. Nor did the Rogations always appear as sacrosanct, or enforcing reverence for the bishop. In other tales told by Gregory, a bishop feared attack during a Rogations procession, and ended up breaking away from it to flee for his life, while another bishop had his authority publicly challenged during the Rogations and on one occasion a king led the Rogations instead of a bishop.93 In the Eusebius Gallicanus sermon, meanwhile, the preacher complained specifically that some members of the community were not buying into the ideal of consensus – they were refusing to engage in the general abstinence, and were sceptical about what it would achieve.94 My point is that even clerical elites did not have a single interpretation, response to or image of what this ritual was for, or what it achieved. Our default assumption should be diversity in the lay experience as well.


Rituals were one way in which the clergy asserted difference between the sacred and the secular, marking the laity as a distinct group and delineating spaces in religious terms, at the level of both individual buildings and entire cities. Rituals were, however, only assertions. As we have seen in previous chapters, lay people did not always concur with clerical perspectives and a multiplicity of interpretations and responses were possible even within a pious Christian framework.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!