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Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation 
by Robert Bartlett.
Princeton, 787 pp., £27.95, December 2013, 978 0 691 15913 3
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Why can​ the dead do such great things? Augustine’s rhetorical question, posed near the end of The City of God, launches Robert Bartlett’s massive, erudite compendium of saint lore. Bartlett never cites the bishop’s answer, which is that feats performed from beyond the grave vindicate faith in the resurrection. The martyrs who so publicly and bloodily died for their faith are alive in eternity. Their miracles prove their truth.

To late antique pagans, however, as well as Jews, Muslims and eventually Protestants, it looked as if the Church were sponsoring a cult of the dead that put the pharaohs to shame. Although the saints were and still are held up as models of courage, faith, energetic evangelism and selfless love, their exemplary lives aren’t the focus of this book, as they weren’t the prime focus of medieval cult, despite the best efforts of hagiographers and preachers. What every pilgrim sought, every church coveted and every altar required for consecration was treasure. Rulers cast their greedy eyes, as William of Malmesbury wrote in the 12th century, on a church with its ‘boxes of gold and silver full of dead men’s bones’. A king might want to melt down that gold to pay soldiers. The wonder-seeking faithful prized the stuff inside: namely, dead bodies or pieces of them – bones, dust, scraps of blood-soaked cloth. So an even more puzzling question arises: why should the holy dead need their mortal remains to do great things?

Other cultures and religions have also venerated their dead, whether ancestors in general or a special class of holy persons – Hebrew prophets, Shi’ite martyrs, Hindu ascetics. Zen masters in China were mummified and then placed in temples, while thousands of stupas enshrine relics of the Buddha. But no culture matches Catholic and Orthodox Christianity for its fascination with what Caroline Walker Bynum calls ‘holy matter’. In Bynum’s account, relics of the saints bear witness to the central paradox of Christian materiality. If the changeless God could become incarnate in corruptible matter, then matter itself must be capable of the holy. Yet holy matter itself remained queasily subject to decay. Popular piety could even understand putrefaction as a negative miracle, a sign that a putative saint wasn’t one. In The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha is shattered when the body of his beloved elder, Father Zosima, decays like any other. Even among the saints, few indeed – a virginal elite among the elite – had incorruptible bodies. Perhaps bones made ideal relics because they regained a measure of purity once purged of flesh. ‘When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone/They shall have stars at elbow and foot,’ as Dylan Thomas wrote: ‘And death shall have no dominion.’ On the other hand, decaying flesh could transmit the holiness of the soul it once sheltered through contact relics. Dirt from a grave, water in which a saint had been washed for burial, straw from his bed, or shreds of her clothing still had power to heal. Women gave birth more easily when stroked by the iron belt of some ascetic who in life would have been appalled by the touch of a female.

After a brisk march through the history of sainthood – from Peter and Paul to the Reformation in just ninety pages – Bartlett turns to a leisured exploration of liturgical commemoration, relics and shrines, pilgrimage, church dedications, personal and place names, images of the saints and literary genres, including hagiography and canonisation protocols. He ends with a chapter on dissent and some reflections that draw on data from anthropology and comparative religion. For a book so deeply grounded in original research (its bibliography of primary sources alone runs to 47 pages and includes seventy manuscripts), the volume is remarkably accessible. Just for fun, I scoured the index for the most obscure saints I could think of: St Lewinna, a forgotten Anglo-Saxon virgin, and the Breton St Winwaloe, son of Gwen the Three-Breasted. Both were present and accounted for. Even the title displays a happy balance between scholarship and readability. Its directness shows that Bartlett read Augustine in Latin (cur et mortui tanta possunt?) – the published translations are much wordier.

Bartlett identifies the three essentials for a saint cult as ‘name, body, text’. Names might be confused and texts could be commissioned, but a body, or at least a part of one, was a sine qua non. Saintly relics were given as royal gifts, paraded through the land on fundraising tours and pressed into service at legal proceedings. Thieves who managed to steal them boasted about it, for obviously no saint could be moved unless he or she wished it. Relic collectors were known to dismember a saint before his flesh had cooled. Churches could compete over relics: several claimed the head of John the Baptist, giving rise to more than one apocryphal tale. St Benedict, author of the Benedictine Rule, was said to lie at Fleury in France and in his own monastery of Monte Cassino outside Rome; both places built up a catalogue of miracles to vindicate their claims. When St Teilo of Wales died in the sixth century, the three churches where he had ministered all wanted his body. So the clergy prayed for a sign, and the next day found three identical miracle-working corpses. Every saint imitates Christ, but only St Teilo imitated the Holy Trinity.

Saints sometimes came to the people, but people more often came to the saints. In theory, the holy dead could work miracles anywhere, but they did so most readily at their shrines, and so pilgrimage became a huge business. The most celebrated destinations (Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela) had a booming tourist industry: pilgrim badges, or cheap metal souvenirs with images of the saints, were among the few mass-produced objects of the Middle Ages. Pilgrims could be earnest penitents, desperate seekers of healing, or criminals sent by churchmen or courts to atone for their crimes. They might travel in companies, like Chaucer’s fun-loving band on the road to Canterbury – or hope to escape with their lives from the bandits who haunted mountainous pilgrim routes. They might themselves be armed, for no distinction was made at the time between pilgrims and crusaders.

Most shrines kept records of their miracles, and so left behind valuable sources for social and medical history. While saints could heal any illness, the most common miracles were those first ascribed to Jesus: causing the lame to walk, the blind to see, or the deaf to hear. Mental illness – sometimes, but not always, distinguished from demonic possession – was very often cured by saints. Shrieking madmen, dragged from shrine to shrine by their relatives, would have been a familiar sight. The Byzantine martyrs Cosmas and Damian, called ‘the glorious and awe-inspiring doctors’, were revered for their ‘unmercenary’ cures, as they were the only physicians who didn’t charge. But they had a mischievous sense of humour. On one occasion they told a Jewish woman her cancer would be cured if she ate pork. When, after much distress, she agreed to it, the cancer leaped miraculously from her flesh into the meat – resulting in a conversion as well as a cure. The same saints appeared to a sick man in a dream and amputated his cancer-ridden leg. As pioneers in transplant surgery, they replaced it with the leg of a dead Moor. The man awoke to find himself healed, but for the rest of his life, he had one white leg and one black.

Not all miracles healed. The saints could also liberate prisoners, bring rain or fair weather, give children to the barren and bring about victory in combat or in court. But when scorned, they wrought ferocious miracles of punishment. Saints not only avenged blasphemy and irreverence: they also fiercely protected their property – which is to say that of the churches that bore their names. A particularly sensitive issue was observance of their feast days. These were mandatory holidays, normally a boon to labourers, but they could turn oppressive when the calendar became so cluttered with saints’ days as to impede urgent agricultural tasks. St Zoilus, a particularly vengeful Spanish martyr, could not abide peasants who carried on with their harvesting or blacksmithing on his feast. They were liable to lose their impious hands.

Irish saints, as one might expect, performed the most fanciful wonders. St Brigid hung her cloak to dry on a sunbeam; the less famous St Ailbe could draw a hundred horses out of a cloud; St Luguid once purified a vat of substandard beer by dipping his shoe in it. (Afterwards ‘it made everyone very drunk.’) Celtic saints also stand out for their relationships with animals. St Kevin of Glendalough stood in prayer with his hands outstretched for so long that a blackbird laid her eggs in them. Taking pity on the bird, he remained in position until they hatched. St Cuthbert, Bede tells us, spent a night immersed in the sea to mortify his flesh. When he emerged in the morning, two otters warmed and dried his feet. St Ciarán made disciples of a badger, a wolf and a wild boar, who then helped him build his hermitage. One of the saints’ most appealing qualities is their ability to restore harmony between man and beast. St Francis preached to the birds and invented the Christmas crèche, using a live ox and ass, while other saints protected hares from hunters or drew thorns out of lions’ paws. The oddest story is told, once again, of St Cuthbert. Forced by Viking raids to leave Lindisfarne, Cuthbert’s monks were carrying his body from place to place in search of a new home. Provisions had already run low when they discovered that their last cheese had been stolen from its hiding place. Taking counsel, they did the obvious thing and asked their saint to turn the thief into a fox. At once a vixen appeared with a cheese in its mouth, though the guilty monk was nowhere to be found.

As such tales suggest, saints’ Lives reveal a tension between historicity and edification (or entertainment). Some vitae were begun while their subjects were still alive by writers who knew them. Athanasius’ Life of the Egyptian hermit Antony and Sulpicius Severus’ biography of Martin of Tours, both from the fourth century, became models of the genre. Several medieval saints, among them Francis, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Becket and Catherine of Siena, have Lives that are both richly textured and historically grounded, miracles notwithstanding. Hildegard of Bingen’s hagiographers even included her memoir. Yet there are many saints about whom next to nothing is known. When an incipient cult had to be justified from little more than a name, a relic and a rumour of miracles, a professional hagiographer might be called in. The same Hildegard who so helpfully dictated part of her own Life composed two more for her obscure patron saints, Rupert and Disibod. She may have drawn on oral tradition and now lost sources, but much of her material stemmed from visions and what contemporaries called inventio (‘discovery’). When all else failed, hagiographers could resort to plagiarism. Gregory of Tours explained why one should speak of the Life rather than the Lives of the saints: ‘Although there may be diversity of merit and power, one life of the body [of Christ] nourishes them all.’ On that principle, no one’s the worse if episodes from a few old Lives are lifted verbatim to flesh out new ones.

Sadly, the modern Church insisted on actual existence as a requirement for sainthood, with the result that many favourites (including my patron, St Barbara) were decommissioned in the 1960s. Other casualties included the dog-headed St Christopher and St Catherine of Alexandria, who was said to have bested fifty pagans in philosophical argument. Medieval authorities may have been more credulous, but they too had their limits: the Dominicans tried hard, though in vain, to uproot the cult of St Guinefort, a martyred greyhound. The cases of partisan political figures were more delicate. In Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, princes assassinated in dynastic struggles had long been revered as saints. Tempers ran so high in late medieval England that one man’s traitor could be another man’s martyr. Lancastrians claimed miracles at the tomb of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, beheaded in 1322, while Yorkists venerated their archbishop Richard Scrope, executed in 1405. Despite periodic repression, both cults persisted until the Reformation. Another class of dubious martyrs were children supposedly murdered by Jews, such as the hapless William of Norwich in 1144. William’s cult, obsessively promoted by an anti-Semitic monk, was the first of many ‘blood libels’. Their grim legacy helps to explain why the canonisation of Edith Stein – philosopher, Jewish convert, nun and martyr of Auschwitz – aroused such bitter criticism.

For liturgical purposes, saints were grouped in hierarchical choirs. After the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Michael and the apostles, the most prestigious were martyrs, followed by confessors (such as doctors of the Church, bishops, hermits and monks) and, in a special category, virgins. Curiously, Byzantium and Venice revered Old Testament saints, such as Job and the prophets, but most Western churches didn’t. Married saints remain exceptionally rare, for part of their fame lay in rejecting that unfortunate state. St Alexis, whose Life was among the first set down in French, abandoned his bride on their wedding night with a lesson on the transience of earthly bliss. Seventeen years later, he returned incognito, only to spend the next 17 years living beneath the stairs in the family home. Alexis illustrates the influence that even the most apocryphal Lives could have on real people: his legend survives in a deluxe manuscript made for Christina of Markyate, a determined 12th-century virgin who imitated Alexis on her own wedding night. Half saint and half romance heroine, she dodged repeated assaults on her virginity, eventually managing to get her marriage annulled and become a nun. She might have achieved sainthood herself had her biographer not left her Life unfinished.

Although few tried to become saints, by the end of the Middle Ages almost everyone was named for one. Early Christians might still bear the names of pagan deities, such as Dionysius or Isidore (‘gift of Isis’), but over time the proportion of ‘Christian names’ like John, James and Peter for men, or Mary, Catherine and Margaret for women, steadily grew. It never became mandatory to have a saint’s name, though by the 15th century an Italian bishop could inveigh against the choice of ‘pagan’ names like Lancelot. The diffusion of personal names can indicate a saint’s waxing or waning popularity. St Anne, the Virgin’s mother, became popular only in the later Middle Ages, as did Mary Magdalene – hence the founding of Magdalen College, Oxford in 1458 and Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1542. We find very few medieval Josephs: the foster father of Jesus wasn’t firmly established as a saint until the early modern period. For most of the Middle Ages he was the divine cuckold, a figure more of fun than of reverence. Not all saintly naming is so obvious: the Scottish ‘Malcolm’ derives from Máel Coluim, meaning ‘cropped one (or servant) of St Columba’. Saints have left a lasting imprint on the map of Europe, not to mention the Americas. Boston is ‘Botolph’s stone’, perhaps originally a stone church dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon abbot. Welsh ‘merthyr’ derives from Latin martyres, though the term can refer to the relics of any saint. Thus Merthyr Tydfil is ‘the place with relics of St Tudful’. Domrémy, Joan of Arc’s birthplace, is named for St Remigius; the ‘dom’ is short for dominus, ‘lord’ being an old honorific for saints.

In the later Middle Ages, many saints’ shrines were overshadowed by those of the Virgin Mary and Christ, whose relics included vials of holy blood, wonder-working hosts and the crown of thorns, for which St Louis built the spectacular Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile de la Cité in Paris. Nevertheless, saint cults remained potent in Christian Europe until the Reformation, and still are in Catholic countries. Bartlett discusses two strains of intermittent resistance, one broadly sceptical, the other theological. ‘A bubbling broth of mockery, disrespect, doubt, disbelief, disdain and derision’ coexisted with fervent worship. Saints’ Lives themselves report the taunts of sceptics, the better to showcase their conversion or punishment. The prevalence of fraudulent relics was widely criticised. Chaucer’s Pardoner tries to con the simple with phony relics, including ‘the shoulder-bone of a holy Jew’s sheep’, prompting one outraged pilgrim to exclaim:

Would that I had your bollocks in my hand
Instead of relics in a reliquary!
Let’s cut them off, I’ll help you carry them;
They’ll be enshrined in a hog’s ripe turd!

One source reports a charlatan who travelled England with a troupe of 24 men, presumably actors, to feign miracles and promulgate saint cults for profit. A more serious line of attack came from the Lollards, a heretical movement of the late 14th and 15th centuries. From the early Church to the Reformation, dissidents had objected that worshipping a multitude of saints detracted from the glory of the one true God and his Son, the only mediator between God and men. For the more radical Lollards, images were mere idols and money wasted on statues and pilgrimages would be better spent on the poor, in whom Christ revealed his true image. Despite orthodox rebuttals and savage repression, these sentiments persisted until their 16th-century triumph.

In regions which remained Catholic, that upheaval had little effect on the veneration of saints. The great change came in the 20th century, with the rise and spread of effective medicine. Medieval saint cults had sprung less from piety than from sheer human need: for a mother with a sick baby, an artisan with failing sight, a husband whose young wife was marooned in labour, the virtues of a saint paled before the hope of a cure. The history of Guglielma of Milan, reputedly a Bohemian princess who had renounced her inheritance for Christ, is instructive in this regard. A canonisation bid seriously backfired, prompting an inquisition instead. It turned out that her saint cult was cover for some inventive heretics who revered Guglielma as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, and claimed she had consecrated a female pope. Needless to say, in 1300 her bones were exhumed and burned. Her cult revived in the 15th century, with a new and spurious Life, and she soon developed two specialties: relieving headaches and helping new mothers whose milk had run dry. It wasn’t the rediscovery of her heresy but the development of aspirin and infant formula that in the mid-20th century stemmed the tide of pilgrims to her shrine. One of the few saints whose cult actually grew is St Jude, patron of lost causes, to whom the faithful still turn when medicine fails.

Pope John Paul II, now himself a saint, canonised 482 people during his long papacy, compared to 78 by all the medieval popes combined. Very few of these new saints enjoy widespread fame. Although two miracles are still required, they must now be vetted by medical experts, so turning thieves into foxes no longer qualifies. The demand for miracles feels archaic; in the modern cult of saints, national and ethnic diversity counts for more – along with exemplary lives. Holy matter, in an age so often decried for its materialism, matters less. Even if the sainted dead still do great things, 21st-century Catholics ask first what they did on earth.

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