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Symbolic Territories: Relic Translation and Aristocratic Competition in Victricius of Rouen

David Natal Villazala

In this paper I will explore the social and political meanings of two travels described in Victricius of Rouen’s (d. 404 CE) ‘De laude Sanctorum’.

Victricius wrote the sermon around 397 CE for celebrating the arrival of the relics of the Italian saints, Vitalis and Agricola, which had been sent by Ambrose of Milan. Accordingly, most of the sermon focuses on the healing powers of the relics and the connection with the dwelling sites of the martyrs. In the long initial excursus, on the other hand, Victricius excuses his recent absence from Rouen as he had been requested to deal with doctrinal dissensions and paganism in Britain. Victricius’ allusions to Britain, described as a hostile land separated by the ocean and struggling with paganism and heresy, contrasts with his references to Italy as the centre of the Empire rich in martyrs and holy sites.

Long ignored and attributed to Ambrose, Victricius’ ‘De laude Sanctorum’ has recently received considerable historiographical attention. Gillian Clark (1999, 2001) has focused on the theological and legal aspects of the translation of relics; while Hunter (1999) has explained Victricius’ promotion of the cult of the relics in light of the context of Gallic episcopal factionalism. On the other hand, the initial excursus has attracted scholars interested in the particularities of British Christianity (Croxford, 2003) or its detachment from the Continent (Frend, 1992). Nonetheless, no one -as far as I know- has considered both sections together as meaningful constituents of Victricius’ concerns, and historians have tended to focus on either the excursus or the body of the sermon.

Building on Greenblatt’s (1991) concept of mimetic circulation and Said’s (1978) idea of imagined geography, I will argue that the Italian relics and Victricius’ allusions to Britain helped him to a) describe the dangers of losing touch with the centre of the Empire; and b) flaunt his connections with an imperial-wide network of bishops and aristocrats that included Ambrose, Paulinus of Nola, and Melania, among others.

Although a Gallic by birth, Victricius had spent most of his life travelling around the Empire as a soldier. Back in Gaul in the mid-80s, Victricius was first-hand witness of the progressive detachment of Gallic aristocracy from imperial concerns, what Drinkwater & Elton (1992) called the Gallic ‘Crisis of Identity’. In his first ten years as bishop of the remote community of Rouen he dealt with two different usurpations that spurred dissension among the Gallic aristocracy and episcopate. Written only three years after the last usurpation, ‘De laude Sanctorum’ also addressed this debate. By using classical imagery (such as imperial adventus) for describing the trip of the relics and portraying Britain as the uncivilised, isolated barbarian instead, Victricius defended a close connection with the Christian Empire and imperial-wide episcopal networks against regional strongholds.

Session/Panel Title

Travel, Travelers and Traveling in Late Antique Literary Culture

Session/Paper Number

71.3

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