Bishops and People: Looking for Local Religious Life in Late Antiquity


Keywords: Late Antiquity, popular Christianity, local Christianity, Christian bishops, late Roman world, local religion


The religiosity of late antique and early medieval communities in the Mediterranean world has been vigorously examined and debated. This religious life has been called (among many other terms) ‘popular Christianity,’ ‘local Christianity,’ the ‘second church,’ ‘Religion zweiter Ordnung,’ and ‘the third paganism.’ In my article, I analyse late antique religious life from the viewpoint of encounters—between the ideals of the ecclesiastical elite and the people’s local cultic practices. These practices, embedded in the local communities, varied by regions but we can see similarities in the interaction of bishops with their local population. I will show how the ecclesiastical writers portrayed local cultic practices in negative terms as another religion (‘paganism,’ ‘idolatry,’ ‘demonic/ diabolic practices’), divergent from their own (‘Christianity’), or even as a distortion beyond ‘proper’ religion (‘magic’, ‘superstition’, ‘sacrilege’). In my analysis, I discuss and test various approaches that scholars have developed to understand the tensions between the bishops and the local people: David Frankfurter (local religion), Rubina Raja and Jörg Rüpke (local lived religion), and Nicola Denzey Lewis (magic as lived religion), Lisa Kaaren Bailey (lay religion) and Lucy Grig (popular culture). My focus is on the western Mediterranean world from the fourth to sixth centuries, and the cases of polemical encounters I analyse come from the writings of North Italian, Gallic and Hispanic bishops (Paulinus of Nola, Maximus of Turin, Philaster of Brescia, Caesarius of Arles, and Martin of Braga). I also compare the North Italian, Gallic and Hispanic situations with those in North Africa depicted by Augustine of Hippo.


How to Cite
Kahlos, M. (2021). Bishops and People: Looking for Local Religious Life in Late Antiquity. Entangled Religions, 12(1).