Making saints

Peter Burke

  • Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom 1000-1700 by Donald Weinstein and Rudolph Bell
    Chicago, 314 pp, £21.25, February 1983, ISBN 0 226 89055 4
  • The Norman Conquest and Beyond by Frank Barlow
    Hambledon, 318 pp, £22.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 907628 19 2
  • Miracles and the Medieval Mind by Benedicta Ward
    Scolar, 321 pp, £17.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 85967 609 9
  • The Great Debate on Miracles: From Joseph Glanvill to David Hume by R.M. Burns
    Associated University Presses, 305 pp, £17.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 8387 2378 0
  • Saints and their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History edited by Stephen Wilson
    Cambridge, 435 pp, £35.00, December 1983, ISBN 0 521 24978 3

There may not be any royal road to the understanding of an alien or half-alien culture – contemporary Japan, or the Medieval West – but one path which appears to lead into the interior is the study of that culture’s heroes. If we can only discover why, say, kamikaze pilots or Medieval saints have been singled out for honour, so the argument goes, the basic values of the culture which admires them will be revealed.

The idea of using the saints of the Catholic Church as a kind of historical or sociological litmus paper goes back at least as far as the beginning of the century. In a paper published in 1913, the gifted young anthropologist Robert Hertz, soon to be killed in the First World War, studied the cult of Saint Besse as an expression of the values of an Alpine community, ‘taking us inside the consciousness, otherwise so distant and so closed, of the mountain people’. In his Medieval Village (1925), the Cambridge historian G.G. Coulton had the idea of looking at the social origins of the saints, using for evidence a random sample of some three hundred taken from Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints. His conclusion, expressed in a characteristically polemical way, was that ‘not one tenth of those to whom the Catholic Church now prays can be claimed, with any show of probability, as coming from the less wealthy three-quarters of society.’ Since Coulton’s time, this prosopographical approach to sanctity has become more and more popular. The American scholar John Mecklin studied the saint as a ‘culture type’ in 1941. In his book Altruistic Love (1951), the Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin refined Coulton’s analysis by investigating the social origins of some three thousand saints. He concluded that ‘the centuries of the maximal production of saints by the wealthy, more privileged middle strata are the 14th and 15th centuries, while those by the less elevated middle strata are the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.’ This thesis of the rise of the middle class into sanctity was still much too crude, and it was criticised and refined by a Belgian sociologist, Father Pierre Delooz, in his Sociologie et Canonisations (1969). Since then, a number of historians have tried their hand at the prosopography of the saints. Michael Goodich has attempted to draw ‘a profile of 13th-century sainthood’, André Vauchez has studied the later Middle Ages, and now two specialists in Italian history, Donald Weinstein and Rudolph Bell, have surveyed the whole of Western Christendom from the year 1000 to 1700.

This peculiar form of upward social mobility exerts a fascination which may owe something to the sensation of teetering on the edge of blasphemy, or of parodying sociology, as well as to the promise that implicit values will be made explicit. As an approach to past attitudes and values it is, however, no primrose path, no short cut, but a route beset by pitfalls and considerably more indirect than it looks. The basic problems have been set out, clearly and persuasively, by Delooz, whose book remains the most important study of the subject. In the first place, it is important to bear in mind that ‘one is never a saint except for other people’ – in other words, that the history of the saints is fundamentally a history of collective perceptions. Secondly, the mode of designating saints has changed. If, like Coulton, Sorokin and others, one lists saints born in the 13th, 14th, 15th centuries and so on, irrespective of the dates of the canonisations, one is not comparing like with like.

In the early Church sanctity was an unofficial phenomenon, as it still is in Islam. Some individuals became the object of cults after they were dead, and some of these cults spread outside their original locations. However, the process of saint-making gradually became more formal and more centralised. First the bishops became involved, acting, as Peter Brown puts it in his brilliant study The Cult of the Saints, as ‘spiritual impresarios’. Then it was the turn of the Popes, such as Urban II in the 11th century, Calixtus II in the 12th and Gregory IX in the 13th. As Professor Barlow reminds us in an essay reprinted in his new collection, it was Calixtus II who canonised Hugh Abbot of Cluny in 1120. It was Gregory IX who both set up the Inquisition and formalised the rules of procedure for canonisation. I doubt whether this was coincidence. Like a good lawyer, Gregory was concerned with the precise definition of both saints and heretics, and he used similar methods in both cases: trials.

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