Late antique Christianity had its share of celebrities: the martyrs, ascetics, theologians, preachers, pilgrims, and benefactors who left a rugged footprint on the religious landscape. Yet, how shall we describe the “other” Christians—that is to say, those who never held office, wrote a biblical commentary, or dwelled atop a pillar or in a monastic cell? They are generally referred to as the “laity.” Yet can this term capture how these people learned to think, feel, move, and embody this emerging religion? This brief note examines how historians of religion have described and deployed this category, paying particular attention to recent efforts to shift this group from the periphery of religious studies to its center. I propose ways the notion of “laity” might still bear fruit for current efforts to understand late antique Christians as religious agents.

The term “laity” derives from the Greek word laos (“people”) and its cognate laikos/ Lat. laicus (“of the people”).2 In Greek mythology, the term laos was associated with the stones (laas) post-diluvial survivors Deucalion and Pyrrha threw behind them as a way to repopulate the earth.3 Already early on, a certain “thingness” haunted the term, as in archaic Greek poetry, where laos stood for a crowd or population, undifferentiated by ethnicity, language, religion, custom, or culture.4 In the Septuagint, laos stands for a particular society or union as a way to differentiate people from their rulers or upper classes. Its use in the phrase laos theou, “God’s people,” signifies Israel’s special relation to her God. In the New Testament gospels, the term connotes crowd, population, or people, whether as an unthinking mob (Mt 27:25; Mk 11:32) or as a new Israel.5 Early Christians soon expanded this term to denote the congregation assembled for worship. Eventually, “laity” signified passive recipients of clerical ministrations.6

During the Middle Ages, canon law and liturgical practices increasingly deepened the distinction between clergy and laity along vocational, linguistic, class, gender, and educational lines. Despite flourishing lay spiritual movements during in the Middle Ages and the Protestant Reformation’s expansion of the ministries of the laity, negative stereotypes of the laity as passive, disengaged, illiterate, and vulgar persisted.7 The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s sought to reverse this infantilization of the laity by assigning a more active role and opening more (but certainly not all) ministries to baptized Christians.8 Yet, over a generation after these papal efforts, one historian of the laity opens with this grim admission: “A theology of the laity is a well-intentioned mistake,” adding that “laicism in all its forms is always a response to clericalism, one mistake spawning another.”9 Moreover, the prospects of an “extraordinary ordinary” modern Christian being canonized remains an open question among historians of Catholicism.10 As one commentator put it, a “paradigmatic clericalism” has for too long shaped a negative definition of the lay state.11

Beyond Christian studies, the term laity is bound to binaries.12 According to both editions of the Encyclopedia of Religion (1986 and 2005), the word “laity” illuminates the internal diversity for some religious traditions, particularly those with “two modes of pursuing spiritual fulfillment.”13 Thus, “laity” is apt for Christian traditions such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and some forms of Protestantism, as well as Theravada Buddhism and Jainism, which define a symbiotic relation between the higher path of religious virtuosi and the laity that supports and seeks out these renunciants.14 It is less illuminating for religious traditions without ordained clergy. Thanks to ritual studies and gender studies, scholars have noted the importance of the laity for varieties of praxis. In many traditions, women and other lay people practice a vibrant and agentive role through singing, dancing, sacred storytelling, receiving religious instruction, writing/copying/translating sacred writings, food preparation, divination, life-cycle ceremonies, fasts, worship, funerary rites, pilgrimage, and festivals.15

Despite such vital correctives, is the term laity still doomed to remain a parasite or some by-product of clericalism? Some proposed alternatives have included new or revived vocabularies. “Popular” has been, well, popular. In a rich collection of essays, Lucy Grig provides a lucid and systematic genealogy of the term “popular culture” from the 18th through the 20th centuries. As Grig notes, the concept “popular” has had pejorative overtones of unruly mobs or counter-culture, resulting in hierarchies such as religio vs. superstitio or other top-down, two-tiered models that pit so-called “high” culture against “low” culture, “folk” vs. “elite,” and reinscribe false dichotomies within a shared culture.16 Attention to more localized exemplars of “individuality” has been proposed to counterbalance and nuance religious identities.17

Such attempts to de-center clergy are part of a larger effort to redescribe and rectify the category of “laity.”18 Space plays an important role in such redescriptions. Recent studies of late antique homes, shrines, churches, and tombs as well as ritual movement between and within them through liturgy, pilgrimage, and processions illuminate the kinesthetic and dynamic role of the laity.19 And as studies of material culture suggest, objects such as curse-tablets, amulets, votives, oracle tickets, and other extra-ecclesial technologies further enrich our knowledge of lay practices and mobilities.20

Recent laity-centered scholarly projects offer useful ways to redescribe the laity. The seven-volume People’s History of Christianity series (hereafter PHC) sought to redefine “church” as the “laity, the ordinary faithful, the people,” in an effort to move away from notions of church as a “hierarchical-institutional-bureaucratic corporation,” according to the series editor.21 Two volumes in the series provide essays on Late Antiquity. Each focuses on practices, performances, and devotions. As Virginia Burrus and Rebecca Lyman note for late antique Christianity, it is important to “develop an eye and ear for differences that are not always oppositions.”22 Likewise, Byzantine volume editor Derek Krueger attends to “the religion of the common people,” different “from that of political and ecclesiastical authorities and religious specialists,” within a “shared system of religious practice,” embedded within a shared rhetorical culture.23 Yet, even in these series the categories of laity or people remain susceptible to what David Frankfurter has identified as a “rhetoric of dichotomy and denigration.”24 Through censure, labeling, admonition, and contempt, such rhetoric preempts lay agency.

Can hagiography provide a crisper picture of the laity? Performed for lay audiences at religious festivals and shrines, tales about the saints might model lay behaviors. Yet, with an emphasis on tracking ascetic progress in perfection, saints’ lives tend to portray the laity as supplicant, nuisance or foil to the ascetic heroes. In this genre, lay people constitute a counterimage or threat to ascetic progress or even a refuge for demonic forces that threaten monastic identity. Kosmikoi, as the lay people are sometimes called, appear in these saints’ lives as ascetic “wannabes,” demonic temptations, or shaming devices whenever ascetics miss the mark.25 In ascetic literature, at least, the notion of a two-path Christianity persists, with the precious few casting long shadows over the many forgotten.26

So can “laity” still serve as a heuristically valuable category for Late Antiquity? Can one imagine a laity whose spaces and practices are not portrayed (or so narrowly portrayed) as pockets of resistance to and subversion of clerical norms and instead grounded in disciplinary practice? To see the laity apart from clerical consternation is the challenge before us. When sermons addressed to the laity seek to correct and control lay behaviors and police religious boundaries, the laity’s role is restricted to complying with or chafing against clerical norms. In such scenarios, agency seems only recognized when laity either obeys or rebels. To focus solely on the power of the laity to resist or subvert clerical prescriptions, in the end, perpetuates a “not-X” Christianity shackled to binaries and dual Christianities that have distorted the laity now into Christianity’s third millennium.

There are, however, promising models that expand the notion of lay “agency.” Stanley Stowers has restored agency by differentiating modes of religiosity. Most of the laity is concerned with quotidian matters pertaining to a “religion of everyday social exchange,” whereas their leaders pursue a mode of religion centered on expert literate specialists.27 Also, beyond our late antique wheelhouse, two ethnographies about lay Islamic piety movements in 1990s Cairo offer promising directions for reimagining the laity in late antique Christian cities. Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2005) examines women’s grassroots piety movements in Cairo in the 1990s; and Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (2006) explores how the dissemination of cassette recordings of sermons shape the moral formation of Muslim men in a lower-working-class neighborhood in Cairo at roughly the same time.28 Both anthropologists describe religious agency in sensorial, embodied, and proactive terms. Mahmood asks why women continue to participate in Islamist movements, when, as critics claim, these women abdicate their autonomy and buckle under the weight of custom and tradition. For Mahmood, such notions of innate freedom have underpinned European Enlightenment notions of agency. Instead, she outlines a theory of agency separate from a logic of resistance to and subversion of norms.29 The body, Mahmood insists, is the “scaffolding . . .  through which the self is realized.”30 So dress and behaviors need not signify or represent some interiority. Instead, they can be understood as a means by which to form a pious self.31 Contrary to Western(ized) critics who decry the veil as a tool of women’s oppression and backward traditions, Mahmood’s subjects see the veil instead as a device for agency. As Mahmood explains, the body serves as a “‘developable means’ through which certain kinds of ethical and moral capacities are attained.”32 She outlines a mode of agency that promotes an ethical formation by training the body and will to enact particular virtues.

Similarly, Hirschkind articulates a comparable “lay technology of the self.”33 He is interested in how listening to cassette sermons fosters an affective, full-bodied, gestural, and kinesthetic receptivity, which he calls “agentive listening,” a mode of audition that goes beyond simple cognition or the transmission of information.34 For Hirschkind, the listening has a different effect, which he describes as more “therapeutic” than informative. Such “absorptive listening” of sermons promotes the listener’s cultivation of dispositions, affects, and sensorium attuned to the formation of a moral self. Stressing the passional over the cognitive, Hirschkind offers a new modality for the lay person, who experiences a mode of “therapeutic audition,” in which they bypass cognitive religious labels or boundaries.35 I am not suggesting late antique Christians shared the same technological, historical, and epistemic conditions as post-colonial Egyptian Muslims. Yet, their conception of an agentive subject apart from the modern state offers some uncanny affinities with late antique religiosity.36 For our purposes, both anthropologists have limned a conception of an embodied laity that might allow a bolder reimagining of how late antique Christian audiences lived into the sermons, hymnography, and liturgies they experienced.

Mahmood and Hirschkind offer us a more generative notion of agency, one which calls for greater attention to the performative, sensory, affective, and collective dimensions of religious subjects. Such a robust concept of laity opens up new possibilities for interrogating lay experience in general and, I wish to suggest, the history of the emotions in late antique Christianity. As historical and cultural anthropologist Monique Scheer points out, an emotion is something we do and not just something we have.37 Yet, too often we overlook such performative, sensory, gestural, and collective dimensions of affect.38 There are promising approaches to the ritual and performative aspects of lay emotions. For instance, in a recent article on compunction, Andrew Mellas highlights how the performance of a text in the course of the liturgy “opened an affective space where compunction could be perceived and felt.”39 Efforts to redescribe emotions as performed, emplaced, kinesthetic, and embodied open up worthwhile new directions for seeing the laity as agents and not just as an audience waiting to be persuaded, instructed, or corrected.

In this brief essay, I have proposed to retain the term laity. To do so requires jettisoning binary frameworks and seeking a more fulsome appreciation for an agentive laity. I have sought models of laity not dominated by clerical norms, approbation, or control, and open to the possibility of a more robust degree of agency. Rather than seeing the laity as those who ape or annoy ascetics or as passive recipients of clerical ministrations (with the occasional resistance or subversion), we may gain a fuller sense of who were the preacher’s audience or the liturgy’s congregation. Models from outside antiquity may provide fresh insights. Much as African divination practices have nuanced studies of local religion in Roman Egypt or contemporary cognitive sciences have yielded new insights into the lasting effects of hate-mongering sermon series, so too might ethnographies of Islamic modernity illumine some aspects of Christian laity in Late Antiquity.40 To be sure, there remains the danger of projecting our nostalgia or illusions on the laity, as Lucy Grig cautions in her historiography of “popular culture.”41 I believe we can resist this romanticization by tending more carefully to the kinesthetic, embodied, and performative experiences of ancient Christians. Only then, may a nuanced appreciation for the affective lives of Christian lay people emerge.



The author thanks David Frankfurter and Lucy Grig for the invitation to present an earlier version of this paper at the International Conference on Patristic Studies (Oxford 2019) and Kyle Dillon for research assistance.


Henry George Liddell et al., ed., A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), s. vv. “λαϊκός,” “λαός”; J. F. Niermeyer, ed., Mediae latinatis lexicon minor (Leiden: Brill, 1993), s. vv. “laîcalis,” “laicatus,” “laicus”; Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, s. v. “laicus,” accessed March 19, 2020,


Pindar, Olymp. 9.42–46, discussed in Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 1:165.


H. Strathmann and R. Meyer, “λαός” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964–76) 4:29–57, esp. 30. On “thingness” as a relational term, see Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28 (2001): 1–22, esp. 4.


Strathmann and Meyer, “λαός,” 4:50–55.


G. W. H. Lampe, ed., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), s. vv. “λαϊκός,” “λαός.” On the growing divide between clergy and laity, see Mary B. Cunningham, “Clergy, Monks, and Laity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, ed. Robin Cormack, John F. Haldon, and Elizabeth Jeffreys (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 527–38, esp. 534.


André Vauchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices, ed. Daniel E. Bornstein, trans. Margery J. Schneider (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993); Yves Congar, “Laïc et laïcat,” in Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire (Paris: Beauchesne, 1932–95), 9:79–108.


Vatican dogmatic constitutions, such as Lumen gentium (1964) followed by the Vatican decree Apostolicam actuositatem (1965), turned renewed attention to new opportunities for lay ministries that provided deeper engagement with the Church. See and (accessed 23 March 2020).


Adrian Hastings, “Laity,” in Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh S. Pyper (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 374–75, esp. 374. More recently, helpful studies of late antique theologies of the laity include Ottorino Pasquato, I laici in Giovanni Cristosomo. Tra Chiesa, famiglia e città, 2nd ed. (Rome: LAS, 2001); Laurence Brottier, L’appel des « demi-chrétiens » à la « vie angélique ». Jean Chrysostome prédicateur entre idéal monastique et réalité mondaine (Paris: Cerf, 2005). On liturgical and architectural mediation and separation between clergy and laity, see Thomas F. Mathews, The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971), 127; Sharon E. J. Gerstel, Beholding the Sacred Mysteries: Programs of the Byzantine Sanctuary (Seattle, Wash.: College Art Association in Association with University of Washington Press, 1999), 6–10; Robert F. Taft, “Byzantine Communion Spoons: A Review of the Evidence,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 50 (1996): 209–38; Béatrice Caseau, “L’abandon de la communion dans la main (IVe–XIIe s.),” in Mélanges Gilbert Dagron, Travaux et mémoires 14 (Paris: Association des Amis du Centre d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, 2002), 79–94.


Ann W. Astell, “Introduction,” in Lay Sanctity, Medieval and Modern: A Search for Models, ed. Ann W. Astell (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 1–26, esp. 22.


Michael Sweeney, OP, “Beyond Personal Piety: The Laity’s Role in the Church’s Mission,” Commonweal (March 8, 2019) (accessed 23 March 2020).


On the slippage between so-called “emic” and “crypto-etic” categories, see David Frankfurter, “Ancient Magic in a New Key: Refining an Exotic Discipline in the History of Religions,” in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 3–20, esp. 6. See also Talal Asad, “Toward a Genealogy of the Concept of Ritual,” in Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 55–82, esp. 57–58. Michael L. Satlow, “Disappearing Categories: Using Categories in the Study of Religion,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 17 (2005): 287–98.


F. Stanley Lusby, “Laity,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones, 15 vols., 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 8:5286–91.


Lusby (“Laity,” 5286–91) highlights the term’s usefulness for Christianity, Theravada Buddhism, and Jainism, while noting its limits for Hinduism, the religions of Japan, and Islam, and its anachronism for post-temple Judaism. See also Helen Hardacre, “Laity,” in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Robert E. Buswell, Jr., 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), 1:445–49; Dale C. Allison, Jr. et al., “Laity,” in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, ed. Christine Helmer (Boston: De Gruyter, 2017), 15:616–24, esp. 620–21.


Leslie C. Orr, “Laity,” in Encyclopedia of Women and World Religions, ed. Serinity Young, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1999), 2:567–69.


Lucy Grig, “Introduction: Approaching Popular Culture in the Ancient World,” in Popular Culture in the Ancient World, ed. Lucy Grig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 1–36.


Éric Rebillard and Jörg Rüpke, “Introduction: Groups, Individuals, and Religious Identity,” in Group Identity and Religious Individuality in Late Antiquity (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 3–12. On the implications for displacing religious identity, see Ellen Muehlberger’s thoughtful review in Catholic Historical Review 102 (2016): 375–76. For recent efforts to de-center patristic definitions of religious identity, see Isabella Sandwell, Religious Identity in Late Antiquity; Greeks, Jews, and Christians in Antioch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Lisa Kaaren Bailey, The Religious Worlds of the Laity in Late Antique Gaul (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).


Jonathan Z. Smith, “The ‘End’ of Comparison: Redescription and Rectification,” in A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age, ed. Kimberley C. Patton and Benjamin C. Ray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 237–41.


On approaching the ekklesia as “assemblages and collectives,” see Cavan W. Concannon, Assembling Early Christianity: Trade, Networks, and the Letter of Dionysios of Corinth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 48–55. Recent studies have directed more attention to the preacher’s audience, e.g., Carol Harrison, The Art of Listening in the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Jaclyn L. Maxwell, Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and His Congregation in Antioch (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Mary Cunningham and Pauline Allen, ed., Preacher and Audience: Studies in Early Christian and Byzantine Homiletics (Leiden: Brill, 1998).


Some instructive efforts include Luke Lavan, Ellen Swift, and Toon Putzeys, eds., Objects in Context, Objects in Use: Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2007); David Frankfurter, Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018); David Frankfurter, ed., Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic (Leiden: Brill, 2019).


Denis R. Janz, “General Editor’s Foreword,” in Byzantine Christianity, ed. Derek Krueger, People’s History of Christianity, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), xiii-xv, esp. xiii.


Virginia Burrus and Rebecca Lyman, “Shifting the Focus of History,” in Late Ancient Christianity, ed. Virginia Burrus, People’s History of Christianity, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 1–23, esp. 5 (emphasis mine).


Derek Krueger, “The Practice of Christianity in Byzantium,” in Byzantine Christianity, ed. Derek Krueger, People’s History of Christianity, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 1–15, esp. 9. As Jaclyn Maxwell points out (“Popular Theology in Late Antiquity,” in Popular Culture in the Ancient World, ed. Grig, pp. 277–95), the laity was no less capable of contemplating cosmic order, theodicy, and salvation.


David Frankfurter, “Beyond Magic and Superstition,” in Late Ancient Christianity, ed. Virginia Burrus, People’s History of Christianity, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 255–84, esp. 257.


E.g., Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed., Cistercian Studies Series, No. 59 (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1984), Sisoes, 18, 21 (pp. 216–17); Felix 1 (p. 242). Besa. V. Shenoute, 91–92, in The Life of Shenoute by Besa, trans. David N. Bell, Cistercian Studies Series No. 73 (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1983), 69.


The terms are borrowed from Ramsay MacMullen, The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200–400 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 101. On the “two Christianities,” see 108–11.


Stanley Stowers, “The Religion of Plant and Animal Offerings versus the Religion of Meanings, Essences, and Textual Mysteries,” in Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice: Images, Acts, Meanings, ed. Jennifer Wright Knust and Zsuzsanna Varhelyi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 35–56.


Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012 [orig. 2005]); Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).


Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 167.


Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 148.


Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 159.


Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 148, quoting from Asad, Genealogies of Religion, 76.


Hirschkind, Ethical Soundscape, 39.


Hirschkind, Ethical Soundscape, 70, 73, 79, 83.


Hirschkind, Ethical Soundscape, 23.


I thank Dr. Emilio Spadola for guidance on how Hirschkind’s notion of a “counter-public” (cf. 116–17; 232 n. 3) applies to the study of pre-modern subjectivity.


Monique Scheer, “Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and Is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bourdieuan Approach to Understanding Emotion,” History and Theory 51 (2012): 193–220, esp. 194.


Yannis Papadogiannakis, ed., Emotions, vol. 9 of Papers Presented at the Seventeenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 2015, Studia Patristica, vol. 83 (Leuven: Peeters, 2017).


Andrew Mellas, “Tears of Compunction in John Chrysostom’s On Eutropius,” in Emotions, vol. 9 of Papers Presented at the Seventeenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 2015, ed. Yannis Papadogiannakis, Studia Patristica, vol. 83 (Leuven: Peeters, 2017), 159–72, esp. 172.


David Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1998); Wendy Mayer, “Preaching Hatred? John Chrysostom, Neuroscience, and the Jews,” in Revisioning John Chrysostom: New Approaches, New Perspectives, ed. Chris de Wet and Wendy Mayer (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 58–136.


Grig, “Introduction,” 33.