For half a century after its publication, in 1952, William Frend's The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa remained the standard narrative on the late antique North African Christian controversy. Among the explosion of recent scholarship on late antique North Africa and the Donatist Schism in particular, Brent Shaw's monumental and magisterial Sacred Violence. African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine (2011) has had the most significant impact on revising Frend's traditional narrative. The book currently under review, itself revisionist, challenges several fundamental assumptions about the Donatist conflict, and its impressive roster of scholars systematically engages with Sacred Violence throughout, challenging its argument in numerous instances. This outstanding and important collection of studies is therefore an appropriate tribute to Brent Shaw, to whom it is suitably dedicated. Based on a 2014 conference held in Sydney, the volume includes fifteen chapters, three of them introductory, followed by twelve studies on a specific topic or theme of relevance to the Donatist Schism; there is also an excellent Bibliography and a useful Index.
Following a general introduction by the volume's editor, Richard Miles (“The Donatist Controversy: Parallel Histories, Multiple Narratives”), John Whitehouse presents an overview of events (“The Course of the Donatist Schism in Late Roman North Africa”) as well as of its main scholarly interpretations (“The Scholarship of the Donatist Controversy”) which concludes with a list of “Key Themes for Future Research” (49–53). Both of Whitehouse's chapters are useful introductions to the topic, particularly for students and readers unfamiliar with the details of this religious controversy, and especially considering that the following chapters mainly address readers familiar with the topic. In addition to outlining the key historical moments of this controversy and its scholarship, Whitehouse introduces key vocabulary and concepts, surveys the main sources, and provides a geographical dispersal of Donatists. On the latter topic, however, his comment that “the concept of a Numidian heartland of Donatism is not valid” (18) is overstated. This conclusion is based on a table reproducing numbers from the Conference of 411 provided by Shaw, yet the table (17) shows clearly that Donatists had the most bishops in Numidia (87, for 54% of the bishoprics attested), whereas Catholics had the most bishops in Proconsularis (97, for 58% of the bishoprics attested).
In “Martyr Veneration in Late Antique North Africa,” Candida Moss presents one of the key themes of the Donatist controversy, one that was present at the very onset of the schism and continued through its duration. In this, as in many other topics of Latin patristics, our knowledge of Western practices and customs often relies on African traditions. As fundamental participants in Christian expressions of identity, martyrs and their cults were stridently contested and often found at the forefront of Christian conflicts. Pursuing this theme, Alan Dearn analyzes how Donatist writers constructed their communal identity through martyrs in “Donatist Martyrs, Stories and Attitudes.” Dearn rightly questions scholarly conventions of bipolar textual identification of works as either Catholic or Donatist (73). The use of alleged Donatist formula such as “deo laudes” as evidence of Donatism is a case in point (74–6). Mark Edwards follows with an adept overview of “The Donatist Schism and Theology,” although he is surprisingly brief on the topic of baptism (112–5) and does not directly tackle rebaptism, an essential Donatist belief.
The traditional narrative situates Donatists in rural areas, with circumcelliones policing the countryside. Hence Cam Grey's judicious exploration of “Rural Society in North Africa.” Arguing against a uniformity of experiences, Grey argues that social and economic concerns trumped religious ones and dominated peasants' interests. Emphasizing the “diversity of micro-regional configurations” (125), he shows that North African peasants preferred small but diversified properties as insurance against agricultural disasters (128). Peasants occasionally acquired agency through self-identity as well as by playing powerful figures such as bishops against rivals (136–9). This thoughtful overview of peasant society sets the stage for Bruno Pottier's analysis of “Circumcelliones, Rural Society and Communal Violence in Late Antique North Africa.” Against Shaw's interpretation of circumcelliones as wage harvesters, Pottier views them as rural ascetics who promoted voluntary martyrdom and usurped the disciplinary powers of bishops, in reaction to the rise in power of the episcopate in this period. For Pottier, circumcelliones considered themselves to be descendants of the martyrs and therefore felt emboldened to judge and chastise bishops (155). He argues that there is no evidence to support the view of Catholic polemicists who asserted that Donatist bishops used circumcelliones as hired muscle to intimidate enemies (158). Instead, the violence of the circumcelliones seemed to have been restricted to Donatist clerics who had converted “as a form of internal discipline” (160).
From Constantine's intervention in the African controversy, immediately following the end of the “Great Persecution,” to Constans' sending of Macarius in 347, and to Honorius' Edict of Unity in 405, Roman emperors' continuous attempts to heal the rift and restore the unity of Christians in North Africa constituted another fundamental aspect of the Donatist Schism. Noel Lenski presents a review of all such documented instances in “Imperial Legislation and the Donatist Controversy: From Constantine to Honorius.” Lenski usefully introduces the diverse “Categories of Legal Communication,” before analyzing imperial interventions, which he divides in four phases (Constantine, Constans, “Détente” from Julian to Theodosius, and Honorius). The narrative is based on an important appendix (197–219) in which he tabulates all documented instances, indicating the type of communication, date, sources, references to previous standard studies, and brief summary of events. This appendix will undoubtedly be a crucial tool for all students of these events for some time to come and we should be grateful to its author for it.
In what is perhaps the most thought-provoking contribution to this volume, Neil McLynn questions numerous long-standing assumptions regarding the Conference of Carthage in 411, “the supreme courtroom drama of Roman imperial history” (220), in “The Conference of Carthage Reconsidered.” Against Augustine's polarizing view, which dominates modern accounts, McLynn questions the assumptions that 411 constituted a Catholic victory, that it was a “straightforward collision […] between two coherent sides” (222), and that the mission of the official in charge, Marcellinus, was to implement Honorius' agenda by obtaining a Catholic victory. Instead, McLynn insists that Marcellinus' friendship with Augustine followed rather than preceded the conference, that he remained an impartial judge, and that his order to have precise records of the debate “was intended not so much to promote Catholic truth but rather as an insurance policy to protect Marcellinus himself” (225). Against the idea of a unified Catholic bloc, McLynn sees a small group of leaders imposing its decisions on the majority (237), as some outbursts of dissent at the meeting seem to attest (238–43). “Lack of coordinated planning” (244) on the Donatist side and “fundamental disagreement about the tactics to be employed” (245) were only overcome by their arrival en masse at the Gargilian baths, despite Marcellinus' order to limit their numbers to deputies, which would have given Donatists the impression of a successful conference for their side.
The next three contributions focus on yet another crucial aspect of the Donatist Schism, the texts through which Catholic and Donatist writers engaged each other. Richard Miles explores the wider implications of the topic in “Textual Communities and the Donatist Controversy,” arguing that each side attempted to project a binary world in which religious identity was fixed and stable, glossing over the “ambivalence” of daily life (252). The range of texts that Miles considers is impressive, but it is unfortunate, especially as the volume's editor, that he presents the traditional view of the 411 conference without engaging with (or referring to) McLynn's revisionist interpretation (273–80). In the same vein, he ascribes to Augustine a momentous role in defeating the Donatists (“their great destroyer,” 280), thereby neglecting the importance of imperial intervention through legislation and its enforcement apparatus, which Jennifer Ebbeler rightly highlights in “Charitable Correction and Ecclesiastical Unity in Augustine's Contra Epistulam Parmeniani.” Indeed, she argues that Augustine changed tactics following Honorius' Edict of Unity in 405, explaining and reinforcing his belief in the importance of correction for Christian unity. In the last of this textual triad, Éric Rebillard examines the context for nineteen of Augustine's anti-Donatist works in light of new discoveries (Dolbeau sermons) in “Augustine in Controversy with the Donatists Before 411.” He shows that Augustine knew more about Donatism that he disclosed before his ordination in 391, and that Contra Epistulam Parmeniani and De Baptismo are closely connected to “the intense Catholic lobbying of the imperial court for qualifying Donatism as a heresy rather than a mere schism” leading to Honorius' edict of unity in 405 (315). Rebillard's chapter will constitute an important read for anyone interested in any of these anti-Donatist works.
In “Tracing the Donatist Presence in North Africa: An Archaeological Perspective,” Anna Leone tackles the reviewing of archaeological evidence related to Donatism with mastery, stressing the need for regional studies and questioning the prevalence of Donatism in rural areas. This is a problematic task because, as she explains clearly, most of the data is problematic or from excavations not meeting contemporary standards. Yet in doing so, she shows the numerous issues involved with Frend's interpretation, mostly based on such early archaeological evidence. Finally, in the last chapter, Jonathan Conant addresses the survival of Donatism beyond 411 in “Donatism in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries.” A recent debate (to which the present reviewer contributed) on whether Catholics or Arians absorbed the Donatists during the Vandal period prompted Conant to revisit the evidence in a very astute and level-headed chapter that concludes, appropriately, that “whatever reconciliation did take place in Africa between dissidents and Catholics (or, for that matter, Arians) was probably piecemeal, highly contingent and deeply contextualized in local circumstances” (361).
As the above summary hopefully makes clear, this is an important book amidst a flurry of recent scholarship on late antique North Africa, and especially in the wake of Brent Shaw's reexamination of the Donatist controversy in Sacred Violence. Along with recent scholarship, some of the most notable arguments (Dearn, Pottier, McLynn, Miles) invite us to question the hardline identity separation that Augustine and our other Catholic sources present. Grey, Leone, and Conant argue against a uniformity of experiences that past scholars tended to assume when dealing with religious communities such as the Donatists. Lenski, Ebbeler, and Rebillard underline the importance of considering the impact of imperial involvement alongside the role of Catholic bishops such as Augustine, Alypius, and Aurelius. The clever mix of introductory chapters, either to the subject as a whole or to more specific themes, along with more pointed analyses, make the book accessible to readers not necessarily familiar with the intricacies of the Donatist Schism. It should also be of interest to students of religious violence, sectarianism, religious identity formation, and North Africa as an historical and geographic region.