Flesh Made Word: Saints’ Stories and the Western Imagination 
by Aviad Kleinberg, translated by Jane Marie Todd.
Harvard, 340 pp., £19.95, May 2008, 978 0 674 02647 6
Show More
Show More

Aviad Kleinberg’s clever, wide-ranging and tendentious book begins by recounting an experience which he cannot quite decide whether to classify as a moment of blinding insight or one of personal weakness. He was watching a television interview with Mother Teresa, in which she told of her first encounter with a dying leper. The leper had asked her why she was caring for him, and she had answered: ‘Because I love you.’ To his own bewilderment, Kleinberg, ‘a sceptic by nature, and when it comes to religious phenomena . . . even more sceptical’, found that he accepted Mother Teresa’s claim unquestioningly. ‘For an instant, at least, I believed that those words were the pure truth,’ and that this absolute love for the leper dying in her arms ‘transformed the scene from a banal act of Christian charity into something heroic, sublime even’.

Doubts followed hard on that moment of surrender. Hadn’t Freud discredited the very idea of the sublime, shown us that ‘when saintliness is not a con, it is self-deception’? Kleinberg, temperamentally inclined to such reductionism, is nevertheless unsatisfied by it, and his book is an extended exploration of the larger implications of his own conflict. What account can we give of charisma, the appeal of extraordinary people in ordinary life? Why did the stories of the saints exercise such power in human society for more than a millennium? Sanctity is a concept which both comforts and alienates. Saints held up a moral ideal to society and were a guarantee that that ideal could actually be lived, if only by the few. They also acted as advocates with God, and transmitted back to earth his healing and forgiving grace. They were an assurance that God existed and cared about suffering and sinful humanity. But the heroically holy were also a reproach to the morally mediocre. These spiritual alpinists climbed high above the humdrum, and the very difference which made them a beacon made them also a reproach to the rest of muddling humanity, caught in the cycle of getting and begetting. ‘Society needed them and resented their holy selfishness.’

The first Christian saints were martyrs, and from the start, martyrs were a problem both for pagan society and for the Church. Problematic for pagan society, because they refused to follow the script written for them by the Roman state. Condemned to humiliating and atrocious deaths as antisocial deviants, their dignity, heroism and even joy in dying challenged (and ultimately defeated) the values of the society which killed them. How could guilty men and women seem so morally superior, so certain of the justice of their cause? Problematic for the Church, because their fortitude established an impossibly high benchmark of discipleship, and because the prestige of the martyr threatened to undermine the authority of the bishop – the saint versus the system. ‘The confrontation takes place between those who hold authority but have no charisma, and those who have charisma but no authority.’ As popular devotion to the saints blossomed round their relics, it became clear that the cult could divide the community, unless the hierarchy could tame it. Saints appealed to many constituencies, served many needs, focused many loyalties, not all of them compatible. But ‘the Catholic Church was often willing to experiment with highly volatile social materials.’ So the bishops became, in Peter Brown’s striking phrase, impresarios of the sacred. They took the bodies of the saints from their shrines outside the cities, and placed them under the altars of their cathedrals. Rather than a trigger for conflicting pieties, the saint became a centre of unity, an episcopal asset. Nevertheless, the popularity of these dead charismatic figures, whose historical reality was often swallowed up in increasingly lurid and fabulous stories, eluded total control, and continually threatened to draw devotees away from what the leaders of the Church considered mainstream Christianity.

According to Kleinberg, resourceful Church leaders responded to this dangerously centrifugal aspect of the cult of the saints by making a pragmatic distinction between official and popular religion. The clerical elite became custodians of the highest standards of doctrine and morality, official guardians of orthodoxy and of the Church’s creeds and commandments. Increasingly, the laity were neither encouraged nor expected to trouble their minds with doctrinal subtleties. It was enough that they obeyed. And popular piety, centred first on the shrines and then on the legends of the saints, was allowed a certain latitude. As St Augustine wrote, ‘What we teach is one thing, what we tolerate another.’ The leaders of the Church, Kleinberg argues, ‘were ready to make many compromises with the “masses”, so long as these masses were not seeking to undermine the leaders’ authority’, and ‘all things considered’, the cult of the saints ‘was perceived as more useful than harmful’.

This all sounds pretty reductive: Machiavellian bishops and theologians providing sanctified bread and circuses, in order to keep the attention of the rank and file from more serious things, like challenging power structures or resisting mind control. But Kleinberg distances himself from such simplistic accounts of the significance of the saints. He thinks all power, including religious power, is political, but he professes to hold that it is rarely merely political. He deplores the notion that ‘power and domination are keys that open every door,’ because they provide a too simple response to a ‘very complicated question’. Neither saints’ stories nor religion in general are in any straightforward sense ‘the opiate of the people’, and to categorise them as such ‘reflects the poverty of certain historiographical and philosophical schools linked to the contempt intellectuals feel for the lower classes’. Conspiracy theories of religions as systems of dominance or exploitation explain nothing, because there is no straightforward divide between crafty manipulators and the dumbly manipulated. The cult of the saints, like religion in general, was a network of negotiated rather than imposed power relationships, of uneasily coexisting beliefs and complicated social interactions. Church leaders shared many of the needs, attitudes and convictions of those they led, indeed in many cases held these beliefs more intensely. ‘If religion is an opiate,’ Kleinberg writes, ‘it is a drug to which the dealers are probably more addicted than the average consumer.’

Kleinberg’s central concern is to explore the complex and often fraught interactions between charisma and authority. His book consists of a series of close readings of hagiographic narratives from the third to the 13th centuries. His first test case is one of the earliest and most fascinating of such texts, the ‘Passion’ of Perpetua. Vibia Perpetua was an aristocratic young married woman (still breastfeeding her first child), recently converted to Christianity, who was executed in the arena at Carthage in 202. Her ‘Passion’, the work of a male editor, is remarkable for incorporating Perpetua’s own prison diary, the only surviving autobiographical document by a woman from Latin antiquity, and the earliest Christian text of its kind. In it she records her interrogations, and the desperate attempts of her pagan father to persuade her to abandon Christianity and so save her life. The diary also contains detailed accounts of four visions in which Perpetua seeks and finds comfort and strength for her imminent ordeal.

Kleinberg is interested in the light this text throws on the tension between Perpetua’s anxious uncertainties and the exalted religious role of martyr which she has deliberately chosen. At one level, ‘martyrdom’ provided a supernatural framework of reference that reassured and strengthened the victim, a set of clear co-ordinates by which the sufferer could make sense of and endure their own innocent suffering. It was thus a ‘psychological safety net’ for believers in extremis, an opiate in an almost literal sense. But, as Kleinberg observes, if the concept of martyrdom was a safety net, it was one ‘made of barbed wire’. It offered the prospective martyr honour, status and the assurance of heaven. On the other hand, it demanded ‘everything else’. Thinking oneself into the role of martyr, therefore, wasn’t a matter of stepping effortlessly into a well-tried stereotype. So Kleinberg offers a psychological reading of Perpetua’s journal. In it, he sees a frightened young woman feeling her way into an exalted but terrible role, in the process helping to define that role for others; he reads her narrative essentially as a reflection of her inner turmoil.

The problems with this approach become clear in his discussion of Perpetua’s second and third dream visions. These were triggered by a prayer session with other Christians in prison, in which the name of her long dead brother, Dinocrates, came unbidden to her lips. That night Perpetua had a vision in which she saw the seven-year-old Dinocrates (his age at death) confined in a dark, hot and dirty place, the cancer from which he died still eating at his face, and the child himself consumed with thirst. Near him was a fountain of water, the basin too tall for the tormented boy to reach. This is clearly some sort of hell, but in the dream Perpetua is certain that her prayers can bring relief to her brother, who had of course died without baptism. She duly prays, and in a third vision sees him healed, cleansed and happy, playing with the water in the fountain, which now reaches only to his navel, and drinking from an inexhaustible golden cup.

For Kleinberg, the quenching of the thirst of Dinocrates is a dream resolution of Perpetua’s guilt about her own unweaned child. He takes the fountain reaching the boy’s navel (umbilicus) to be a symbol of Perpetua’s own unbroken but suppressed attachment to the child she has abandoned by opting for martyrdom. The dream Dinocrates, Kleinberg argues, is also a surrogate for Perpetua’s own tormented anxiety in the face of her coming ordeal. But this resolutely psychological reading obscures the larger ideological issues embedded in the narratives, and which may indeed be their main point. He notes, but is uninterested in, the fact that many scholars believe Perpetua’s prison diary emanated from the ‘New Prophecy’ or Montanist movement, which the mainstream church was soon to reject as heretical. Montanists taught that the chief source of divine inspiration was neither the text of the Bible, nor the hierarchic church, but the living Spirit revealing himself especially through women prophets and seers. In this movement charisma certainly took precedence over authority.

In North Africa, this conflict was intensified by questions about who had the power to forgive sins. The clergy increasingly claimed this as an exclusive clerical prerogative, but it was widely believed that prospective martyrs, suffering for the faith, could remit sins more surely than any bishop or priest. In this light, Perpetua’s certainty that her prayers will liberate the unbaptised Dinocrates from his place of darkness, torment and thirst, and enable him to drink and bathe in inexhaustible streams of water, takes on a more than merely personal aspect. The martyr’s prayers here become a post-mortem substitute for baptism, making ecclesiastical absolution and sacraments superfluous. Kleinberg notes the way that later redactions of Perpetua’s story edit out psychological and personal conflicts and anxieties from her story, and present a routinised portrayal of martyrdom. Given his interest in the interplay between charisma and authority, however, it is astonishing that this larger tension in Perpetua’s visions is never discussed.

Nor does Kleinberg elsewhere entirely avoid the crudely reductivist political readings which in theory he deplores. With the establishment of Christianity as the religion of empire, martyrdoms ceased, and the reverence for the martyr was transferred to the monk. Heroic asceticism now conferred the prestige and strangeness which sanctity demanded. Kleinberg offers close readings of a number of stories from Palladius’ Lausiac History, tales of the early Desert Fathers which provide unrivalled insight into the hold that this early ascetical movement exercised over the Christian imagination. In one such story the heroically austere abbot Macarius is given a box of sweetmeats for the monks in his monastery. One of them, Valens, refuses his share, because he thinks that to accept it from the hand of Macarius would be to acknowledge his inferiority to the abbot. Subsequently, the devil decides to deceive Valens, and appears to him in a vision disguised as Christ surrounded by angels. Valens adores this demonic ‘Christ’, then goes to the monastic church as the monks assemble for Mass and declares: ‘I have no use for communion, for I saw Christ this very day.’ The monks respond by chaining him up for a year: together with their prayers and their disregard of his boastings this punishment ‘healed him of his too high opinion of himself’.

Kleinberg sees this story as a straightforward struggle for power. Valens has challenged Macarius’ status as abbot, and for this alone he is coerced into subjection: ‘In the community of outsiders, outsiders are not tolerated.’ Valens’ vision of Christ was not necessarily demonic, though the monks chose to regard it as such. Valens did not deny the value of communion, merely claimed he had no need of it, since he had met Christ himself directly. The giveaway, Kleinberg thinks, is the presence of shackles in this monastery deep in the desert. This story and others like it are all about power and subjection, the coercion which is the inevitable concomitant of community: ‘where there is a city, there are chains.’

But Kleinberg’s reading falsifies the story. He suppresses Palladius’ introductory sentences, which declare that Valens had been induced by demons ‘to be very proud’, becoming ‘so puffed up that he despised the Communion of the Mysteries’. For the narrator, therefore, the sin of Valens is not his challenge to the power of the abbot, but his refusal to be the recipient of gifts, first the sweetmeats, then the eucharist. This refusal springs from an inflated sense of his own holiness and self-sufficiency, manifested above all in his claim that he no longer needs the ordinary means of grace for all Christians, the sacraments, because he now has access to superior private revelations. Kleinberg asks, ‘How did Macarius and the other fathers know that Valens had had a demonic vision,’ since in every respect it resembled ‘genuine’ visions of Christ? The answer is that they applied the criteria by which the Christian Church has always tested such claims, ‘by their fruits you shall know them.’ An apparition which leads to holiness and humility may be from God: an apparition which leads to arrogance and the rejection of the common sacramental life, cannot be.

Kleinberg’s surrender to reductionism is even more obvious in his discussion of the legend of Francis of Assisi. For him, Francis, the most popular of all Christian saints, is also the prime example of purely charismatic power in conflict with hierarchic authority. Francis was ‘a joyful ascetic’ who took risks in order to ‘place some of the most radical ideas of his age at the service of the Church’. His teaching on absolute poverty was based on ‘individual experience . . . heroic action and personal expression’, not ‘collective discipline and inactive contemplation’. He blurred the distinction between the religious and profane worlds, refusing ordination himself (in fact he was a deacon) and giving uneducated laymen the right to preach. His followers saw in him an eschatological figure, a second Christ, inaugurating a new and more hopeful age.

Kleinberg sees all this as profoundly subversive: if Francis was an ‘alter Christus’, he implicitly made redundant the Vicar of Christ, the pope. ‘At most, the pope enjoyed a technical superiority. There was no need for a frontal attack on the Church of Rome and on the pope.’ Kleinberg sees the saint’s famous ‘Testament’, in which he tried to resist the watering down of his ideals within the rapidly expanding Franciscan order, as a subversive document which has no use for the Catholic Church. In Francis’s world-view, according to Kleinberg, ‘there is nothing positive about the priests,’ for he considered the Church as ‘a source of impurity from which he sought to protect his order’, rejecting, for example, all ecclesiastical privileges or protection from the Roman Curia. Though he expresses respect for the clergy, this was not for any merit he saw in them but merely ‘because that is his will’.

None of this survives close attention to the texts. Francis rejects ecclesiastical privilege in his ‘Testament’ not because the source of those privileges, the papacy, is contaminated, but because even papal privileges and protection are a form of wealth, and he wanted his order to make its way in the world like himself, naked, humble and unprotected. For Francis, the Roman Church is always the Holy Roman Church, and he did not use the word ‘holy’ lightly. There were many spiritual movements in his time which did reject the papacy as impure, but Francis insisted on absolute adherence to Rome as a condition of Catholicity. And his elaborate respect even for wicked priests was no mere arbitrary exercise of willpower. As he makes clear, he ‘fears, loves and respects them as my masters’ because in them ‘I see the image of the most sacred body and blood, which they receive and which they alone transmit to others.’ Kleinberg glosses this insistence on the sacramental power of the clergy as ‘in a sense, technical . . . nothing positive’. This is a breath-taking dismissal of Francis’s perception that the clergy are the indispensable channels of the Church’s sacramental life, and hence of the presence of Christ himself.

For Kleinberg, Francis is ultimately a defeated figure: ‘in the end it was the Church that prevailed.’ Francis, he claims, was ‘deposed’ from the leadership of his own order, and subsequently marginalised. In fact, Francis voluntarily resigned the leadership of the order in 1219, partly because his health was breaking down, partly because he was increasingly drawn to an eremitic life, and partly because he was indeed uneasy at the drift towards greater organisation and discipline which the spectacular growth of the order had made necessary. But he personally nominated his successors, Pietro Catani and Elias of Cortona, who both consulted and deferred to him in everything, and he remained until his death the moral centre of the order, a Mandela in retirement.

Kleinberg, however, sees Francis’s long-term defeat, his transformation from a subversive radical leader to a miracle-working saint, admired rather than imitated, as embodied in his early biographies. The spontaneous radical Francis had been preserved in the reminiscences of his close circle of friends. Their memories, set down in writing in the 1240s, were drawn on by Francis’s official biographer, Thomas of Celano, to present an honest picture of the saint’s ‘charismatic rigour’. But in 1263, Kleinberg insists, the order decided that the story of Francis ‘had to be reworked so as to tone down the radical elements, a task so important that the minister general of the order took it upon himself’. The result was St Bonaventura’s Legenda Maior, the tame official Life which would be the dominant account of Francis until the 19th century. Kleinberg sees Bonaventura’s book as a deliberate emasculation of the ‘old, tattered, uncompromising beggar’, an ecclesiastical reworking of earlier portrayals of the prophetic Francis designed to neutralise every dangerous element and make him a plaster saint. Three years later the order called in all other lives of Francis and ordered their destruction.

This account of the triumph of the institution over the prophet is a familiar one, first advanced by the great liberal Protestant Franciscan scholar, Paul Sabatier, more than a century ago. It contains elements of truth, but overall it is grossly misleading. The myth of the deliberate smothering of the radical Francis can be sustained only if one views it in isolation from what was happening in all the other major religious orders in the mid 13th century. It is anachronistic to treat these texts as biographies in any modern sense. They were ‘Legendae’, texts to be read liturgically, during the divine office in church, and in the refectory and chapterhouse, to formal assemblies of the brothers and sisters. In this context, the proliferation of many such Legendae made for confusion. The 13th century was a period of organisational, legal and intellectual innovation and systematisation, one of the golden ages of Western intellectual development. From the 1240s, most of the religious orders were trying to tidy up and improve their liturgical books, to ensure uniformity in all the houses of the order, and to secure authentic texts for use in these solemn contexts. No one has ever suggested a conspiracy to smother the personality or ideals of St Dominic in the other great order of friars, the Dominicans, but from 1249 the Dominicans, even before the Franciscans, were calling in the miscellaneous books in use in their houses, and imposing uniform texts for use in the liturgy. In 1260, the Dominican General ordered all Dominican houses to read only the Life of St Dominic contained in the official lectionary, and forbade the composition of any new Lives. Similar moves for textual uniformity were afoot among the Cistercians and Benedictines. Bonaventura’s Legenda Maior, therefore, was not part of a Franciscan and papal conspiracy to smother the real Francis, but one example of a much more widespread search for order and authenticity in religious life. In composing his Life of Francis, Bonaventura, one of the best minds of his age, drew conscientiously on all the major sources available to him. His portrait of Francis is an honest, orderly and balanced attempt to represent all aspects of the saint’s character and teaching as Bonaventura understood them. His portrait of Francis is indeed less vivid than some of the earlier sources, but dullness is not a crime, nor is it evidence of a conspiracy to quench the spirit of the founder.

In the end, Kleinberg suggests, the subversive element of saints’ stories lay not so much in their celebration of subversive people, as in their ability to smuggle folk and pagan elements into the heart of Christianity. The legends of the saints with their ever more spectacular miracles ultimately ‘banalised’ the supernatural, but in the process, he thinks, they provided a bridge between the world of the sacred and the world of profane culture. Saints’ lives belonged to the people, and they did not stick to the Church’s rules. Whatever popes or preachers might say, for ordinary people miraculous protectors like St Christopher mattered more than founders of the faith like St Paul. Like the secular folk tales they often resembled, the legends of the saints swam in the opposite direction from Christian orthodoxy, because rather than ‘offer logical explanations’, they gave expression to ‘the irreducible plurality of the world’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences