Fachbereich Geschichtswissenschaft

Rewriting Christian History: Ancient Martyrs and Catholic Modernity in Nineteenth-Century France

Although recent scholarship has chronicled nineteenth-century nationalism’s impact on the disciplines of history and archaeology, historians have given far less attention to the role of religion in this evolving relationship. Whereas in the 1830s, Catholic scholars in Europe had begun to question the value of scientific objectivity promoted especially in German historical research, by the 1870s, they openly rejected modernist approaches. Consequently, as these disciplines shifted from the arena of learned societies to academic settings, clerical scholars faced significant marginalization among their lay peers. 

This study uses the excavations of the Jesuit archaeologist Father Camille de la Croix (d.1911), and especially his discovery in Poitiers in late 1878 of a sixth- to seventh-century mausoleum, the Hypogée des Dunes, to assess the implications of disciplinary professionalization. This partially subterranean mausoleum, which de la Croix interpreted as a Poitevan martyrium (shrine for martyrs), contained stone sculptures, human remains, grave goods, and a painted inscription commemorating 72 martyrs. Although warned that there was no evidence for local martyrs, de la Croix tenaciously held firm to his claim that these were not relics of martyrs from Rome. While no one doubted that archaeological research could supplement the limited documentary sources for this period, de la Croix’s faith-guided reading of the Hypogée des Dunes tested the resolve of secular academics who aimed to make archaeology scientific. By the 1890s, this controversy and others contributed to a parting of ways between practitioners of Christian and secular archaeology.

While in Tübingen, I focused on the part of my study that examines claims made by nineteenth-century clerical scholars that Gaul was converted to Christianity in the first century by the apostle Martial, alleged to have participated in some of the key events in Jesus’ life and to have been a follower of the apostle Peter. Not only did Martial travel with Peter from the eastern Mediterranean to Rome, but he then reluctantly left for missionary work in the Gallo-Roman territories and achieved great success in combatting paganism. Nineteenth-century understanding of Martial’s activities was based on the works of the eleventh-century monk, Ademar of Chabannes, whose writings were first viewed suspiciously in this period but were not definitively identified as forgeries until the 1920s. Since de la Croix’s claims regarding the Hypogée des Dunes relied heavily on his belief that the southwest of France had been converted to France in the period of the persecutions, it was crucial for me to understand more about the reasons for the unraveling of medieval accounts of Martial’s journeys. The critical challenge of the textual basis for Martial’s legend enables me to examine how faith-based value systems shaped the methods and interpretations of devout Catholic archaeologists.

For further information about Bonnie Effros, please look here.