Books > Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and worshippers from the martyrs to the Reformation

27 February 2014 | by Robert Bartlett

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and worshippers from the martyrs to the Reformation

Only the holiest of heroes

Reviewed by Peter Marshall
Princeton University Press, 816pp, £27.95
Tablet bookshop price £25.20          
Tel 01420 592974

The question here is St Augustine’s, pondering the wondrous miracles of the saints. A more fundamental question – “what’s a saint?” – is posed by the devils in Newman’s Dream of Gerontius. They supply their own answer: “a bundle of bones, which fools adore”.

Robert Bartlett does not think medieval worshippers were fools, but he shares with the devils an emphasis on bodily remains, and a perception that “the real life of saints, as saints, is when their cult is active”. In an extraordinarily thorough and ambitious work of scholarship (the index alone runs to 50 pages), he sets out to survey every aspect of the “making” of saints during Christianity’s first millennium and a half: canonisation, official and unofficial; national, regional and local patterns of devotion; relics, images, shrines and miracles; saints’ days, church dedications and naming patterns; hagiography and sermons. Some of this draws on previous scholars’ work (always generously acknow­ledged); much is painstaking original research on a daunting array of sources.

Once, all Christians were “saints”. It was the Roman persecutions which produced a unique category, the martyr. The end of persecution might conceivably have “sealed” a finite number of martyr-cults. But martyrs were soon joined by a new type of saint – “confessors” who had lived in particularly resolute ways. Thereafter, the sociology of saints produces patterns, but few immutable rules. Saints were usually men, but the proportion of women increased over time, a quarter or more by the end of the Middle Ages. Virginity was a distinct advantage to being recognised as a saint, but never a formal requirement. Most were clergy, and among the laity, royalty was over-represented, but they were drawn from all classes. It was not even essential to have been a human being: the angels Michael and Gabriel had their own cults, as, in ­thirteenth-century France, did St Guinefort, a loyal greyhound “martyred” when it was wrongly suspected of killing a child it was ­trying to protect.

This famous case underlines a key finding: that saint-making was often a localised, ­unofficial business of popular acclamation, or at best the action of an indigenous bishop. For the centralising papacy of the High Middle Ages, this was an unsatisfactory state. “Only the Pope can canonise saints”, announced Innocent IV. But of the thousands of saints venerated in medieval Europe up to 1500, a mere 78 were canonised by formal papal process. Compare this to the 482 created by John Paul II. The “age of canonisation”, Bartlett reminds us, is not to be sought in the Middle Ages at all, but in the late twentieth century.

The relative lack of central direction allowed saints’ cults across Europe to express local and regional identities, though Bartlett usually finds this sitting alongside “a sense of the shared collective identity of the Church as a whole”. The contrasts between East and West are notable: the fashion for stylite (pillar-mounted) saints never really caught on in the West, and nor did the Orthodox predilection for Old Testament saints. There was unexpected cross-fertilisation in 1204, when a rampant Crusading army looted Constantinople of its countless and priceless relics, the most notorious example of a pattern of medieval “pious” thefts.

Saints worked miracles through their relics, yet innumerable hagiographical writings encouraged people to admire the virtues of saints while they lived, as well as expect blessings from them after their death. Such accounts belong to the culture in which they were composed. For modern tastes, St Odilo of Cluny sounds a rather prim child, “surpassing all his contemporaries in wisdom and good behaviour, so that he was considered by everyone, not a boy, but an old man”. St Francesca Romana (1384-1440) was reported to possess a “superinfused grace of recognising the faults of others”.

In handling material which, even to modern Christian ears, frequently sounds bizarre and improbable, Bartlett is sensitive and surefooted, his tone never mocking or irreverent, though sometimes amusingly wry. Regarding miracles, Bartlett does not (unlike some scholars) think the question of “what really happened” to be illegitimate, but he does not advance explanations of his own. He is admirably sceptical about some of the crasser claims of modern theorists, such as the idea that hagiographical descriptions of sexualised violence to virgin martyrs must have served to satisfy male erotic desires (“it is difficult enough to identify the sexual tastes of people one knows; those of people hundreds of years ago are even harder to fathom”). Bartlett incisively compares saints’ cults to the worship of pagan gods and ancestors, while eschewing trite “substitution” theories popular since David Hume claimed “the heroes in paganism correspond exactly to the saints in popery”. Christianity’s rejection of blood sacrifice, of institutionalised divination and of ancestor-worship meant that its saints could never be “the same” as earlier demi-gods, and, in a final chapter, Bartlett draws instructive contrasts with patterns of sainthood in Judaism and Islam.

Given the scale and ambition, it seems almost churlish to suggest things a reader might be left wondering. Bartlett’s chronology runs “from the martyrs to the Reformation”, but he has very little to say about the latter, or its remarkable outpouring of violence and anger towards the cult of the saints. One chapter does identify a seam of “doubt and dissent”, but does not discuss whether such attitudes were becoming more prevalent, or probe very far how the cult of the saints might have provoked ambivalent feelings among the orthodox as well as heretics. Bartlett stresses the adaptability and malleability of Christian veneration of the saints, and its (continuing) ability to fire the imagination of believers. Yet he seems disinclined to evaluate the ultimate significance of saints’ cults for the moral mission of Christianity. In places, one feels so bedazzled by the variety of trees that it can be hard to discern the contours of the wood. Yet this landmark book leaves no doubt about the mark saints have left on the cultural landscape of Europe – from the beaches of St Tropez (site of devotion to the martyr St Torpes) to the streets of Merthyr Tydfil (“place with relics of St Tudful”).

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