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.

Side by side with the formally canonised saints, defined by the centre of religious authority, Rome, there survived informally-chosen holy people, but their cult was local not universal, and permitted not obligatory. This two-tier system lasted till the end of the Middle Ages, or, more exactly, till 1523. There followed a hiatus of 65 years during which no more saints were made, a hiatus which looks like a failure of nerve on the part of the Popes at a time when their claims to authority were being questioned and the cult of the saints dismissed as ‘superstition’. It was only in 1588, when the Catholic counter-offensive was well under way and the reigning Pope was the vigorous Sixtus V – who had no lack of nerve – that saints began to be made again, starting with Diego of Alcala. The revival of saint-making was accompanied by another step in the central control of the sacred, or the right to define the sacred. This was the foundation of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, a standing committee of cardinals whose responsibilities included canonisations. Pope Urban VIII made the process of selecting saints still more rigorous in the early 17th century. Sanctity was defined in terms of a ‘heroic’ degree of virtue – an idea which goes back, via Aquinas, to Aristotle. The methods for recognising the possessors of such virtue became more bureaucratic, in Max Weber’s sense of the term: in other words, recruitment procedures were standardised and formalised. In the trials for sanctity the evidence was graded and labelled with increasing care. Many were examined, but few were successful: a mere 55 men and women achieved sanctity between 1588 and 1767. There was a further centralisation of the sacred at the expense of local, unofficial or ‘wildcat’ devotions. The supernatural world was being brought into line with the political world of absolute monarchy or even ‘enlightened despotism’ – for the finishing touches to the new system were added in 1734 by the canon lawyer Prospero Lambertini, who later became Pope Benedict XIV. There are obvious analogies with the ‘heavenly bureaucracy’ of traditional China and the posthumous promotion of certain mandarins – though the absence of trials in the Chinese system is a striking difference.

Weinstein and Bell are well aware of these trends, just as they are aware of the work of Pierre Delooz. They have a similar concern with ‘collective mentality’, as they call it, and have entitled the second part of their study ‘Perceptions of Sanctity’. They discuss changes over time, notably the decline, as they see it, of popular devotion to the saints around the beginning of the 18th century. This is why their survey comes to an end in 1700. Yet the two authors follow in the statistical footsteps of Sorokin and the others as if change was insignificant. They have undertaken the ‘multivariate analysis’, as they call it, of the ‘statistical profiles’ of 864 saints who lived between the years 1000 and 1700, as if the sources were homogeneous, which they are not, and as if sanctity had the same meaning over this long period, which is equally far from the truth. Despite their remarks about the importance of the history of perception, they cheerfully study the saints as a special sort of witness to the values of the period in which they lived, although some of them did not become special, were not canonised until centuries later – John Berchmans, for example, who died in 1621 but was made a saint only in 1888. As a formally-defined group, saints surely bear witness to the values of the age in which they were canonised. What is more, it is necessary to look not only at the period but also at the groups or even the individuals responsible for particular canonisations, and Weinstein and Bell fail to do this. It is not sufficient for the historian of mentalities to say, with the Church, that these 864 individuals (or at least the ones canonised from Urban VIII’s time onwards) possessed ‘heroic virtue’. It is also necessary to ask who saw them as virtuous. There are two places to look for the answer to this question: at the grass roots, where cults grew up, and at the centre, where they were made official.

At the grass roots, the predominance of candidates for sanctity who came from particular regions, most obviously Italy, may be explained by the fact that some societies are habituated (‘programmed’, as Delooz puts it) to perceive sanctity, while others are not. ‘Tuscan hill towns,’ Weinstein and Bell inform us, ‘tended to provide the setting for guilt-ridden conversions of adolescent girls, while Rhine-landers seem to have been inclined to venerate great bishops who had been pious and obedient boys.’ Individuals were perceived in terms of the local cultural stereotype. A key factor in the attribution of sanctity to a particular individual was the ‘fit’ between his or her career and a particular sacred role, such as the ascetic, the martyr, the pastor or the missionary. The process is, of course, circular. There are relatively few female saints (less than 15 per cent of saints living in the Middle Ages, according to a recent calculation) because the stereotypes are weighted in favour of males, but they are weighted in favour of males because there are relatively few female saints from whom to construct a stereotype. Individuals are matched with roles, and they are seen to resemble individuals who have already been recognised as holy. Contiguity is important as well as similarity (or, as the late Roman Jakobson would have put it, metonymy as well as metaphor). Weinstein and Bell speak of veneration ‘by association’. Felice of Cantalice and Camillo de Lelis were men of real merit, but they would probably have been the first to admit that they were among those who rose to sanctity by clinging to the coattails, or more exactly the robes, of Ignatius Loyola and Philip Neri.

So much for the growth of cults at the periphery. But there is also the problem of explaining how and why some of these cults were adopted by the centre and made official. The heroic virtue of the candidates had to satisfy the examiners. To understand what happened it is necessary to study the trials, and also to remember the power of pressure groups, notably the religious orders, such as the Jesuits, Dominicans and so on. Certain Popes took a particular interest in saint-making: Benedict XIII canonised eight saints in a single year. Papal interests, especially regional loyalties, also help to explain particular successes. Catherine of Siena was canonised by Pius II, another Sienese. The Florentine patrician Urban VIII canonised the Florentine patrician Andrea Corsini. The Venetian Alexander VIII canonised the Venetian Girolamo Miani. When the present Pope canonised a fellow Pole he was placing himself in a long tradition.

The rules for canonisation in the 17th century required all candidates except martyrs to exhibit not only heroic virtue and purity of doctrine but also the power to work miracles after their deaths. In the Middle Ages, as Sister Benedicta Ward reminds us in her new book, miracles were even more closely associated with sanctity. It was only gradually that the demand for virtue as a sign of sanctity developed, and at first it was the virtues which authenticated the miracles rather than the other way round. Sister Benedicta is concerned not only with the general theory of miracles in the 11th and 12th centuries but also with the discussion of miracles in ‘practical contexts’, such as shrines and canonisations. She emphasises the changing ‘demands’ of pilgrims and the function of miracles as ‘advertisements’ for shrines and saints. She also stresses the shift from acts of power, or even vengeance, on the part of saints who feel insulted by particular individuals, to acts of mercy, such as cures. Her study, which is mainly concerned with England, and such saints as Hugh of Lincoln, William of Norwich and Thomas of Canterbury, does not neglect the politics of canonisation, which has been the subject of several recent studies. Professor Gabrielle Spiegel, for example, has shown how the monks of St Denis and the kings of France collaborated to encourage the cult of St Denis, from which both sides had something to gain. Conversely, in the case of William Longbeard, who was executed for treason in 1196 and then honoured by some as a martyr, Sister Benedicta comments that ‘the opposition to Longbeard’s politics was too solid’ for him to become a saint. No one, however, could reasonably accuse her of reductionism. She argues that the concern with miracles shown by what she calls ‘the Medieval mind’ reflected ‘a more complex and subtle view of reality than we possess’. It is a pity that this idea is not developed further. It would have been good to learn more about the exact ways in which the Medieval view was more complex, and, indeed, whose view it was, for no distinction is made between learned and popular attitudes, the views of the clergy and those of the laity. All the same, Sister Benedicta’s account of miracles has many virtues. It is scholarly, perceptive, lucid, careful and unpretentious.

This account of the rise, in the 12th century, of a precise and specialised concept of the miraculous, is complemented by R.M. Burns’s study of the debate over miracles in 17th and 18th-century Britain. Burns mounts a vigorous attack on what might be called rationalist orthodoxy. He begins by nailing up three theses. The first is that ‘the sceptics had a theological axe to grind and cannot be regarded simply as advanced critical thinkers.’ The second is that it was the believers who began the debate, ‘by stressing the importance of miracles to a greater degree than ever before in the history of Christianity’. The third asserts that the believers were the ones who were ‘the advanced thinkers of their age, most in touch with the scientific spirit’.

This pugnacious essay is unsatisfactory in a number of respects. Based on a thesis submitted in 1971 and not sufficiently revised since, it fails to mention, let alone make use of, important books on closely related subjects: the work of Michael Hunter, for example, or that of Margaret Jacob. Some of the author’s concepts could have been defined with more rigour. Although he is aware of the problems involved in using the term ‘puritan’, this awareness is not extended to ‘latitudinarian’ – or to ‘critical’, ‘scientific’ or ‘advanced’. His own views are as simplistic as those he attacks. That Burns has his own axe to grind is apparent from his moralising comments about the ‘morbid pessimism’ and the ‘languid defeatism’ of the sceptics. The best one can say of his book is that anyone who seriously holds the views pilloried in it will receive a salutary shock.

Miracles and canonisation procedures are among the many subjects discussed in Stephen Wilson’s extremely useful anthology of articles on the saints and their cults. The ten essays reprinted in this volume include the classic study of St Besse by Robert Hertz and the no less important reflections on ‘the sociological study of canonised sainthood’ by Pierre Delooz, both translated into English for the first time. There are four essays on Medieval saints (including Spiegel on St Denis, discussed above); two studies of contemporary Catholic cults; one of saints in Islam; and one of secular saints, the well-known piece by Albert Soboul on martyrs for liberty during the French Revolution. There is a bibliography of more than thirteen hundred items and a general introduction by the editor. This gives a brief history of the cult of saints and a description of its main structural features which is lucid and balanced but rather bland. It does not engage with the problem of conflicting approaches to the subject on the part of Marxists, Durkheimians and Levi-Straussian structuralists, all of whom are represented in the volume.

There is plenty of scope for controversy over the meaning and function (or, better, meanings and uses) of the cults of the saints. Do these collective representations reflect the structure of society or do they invert it or compensate for it? Are they essentially a phenomenon of official culture, a device for ‘social control’, or a spontaneous, popular, grassroots phenomenon? Or are they better approached as examples of interpenetration, or, as some call it nowadays, ‘negotiation’, between the centre and the periphery, the official and the popular?

Another controversial question is that of change over time. Has the cult of the saints declined in the modern ‘disenchanted’ world? This was the view of John Mecklin in The Passing of the Saint, a study published in 1941. It is also the view of Weinstein and Bell, who argue that ‘appeals for saintly intercession declined as a form of popular piety’ from about 1700 onwards. This is challenged by Stephen Wilson, on the basis of his urban ‘fieldwork’ in the churches of central Paris in 1978, where he noted the continuing importance of ex-votos. For an even more striking example of this persistence one might mention Padua, where the cult of St Anthony enjoyed a boom in the 1970s, not so much in his traditional role of finder of lost objects as in his new one of protector against traffic accidents, a role which naturally increased in importance when his main competitor, St Christopher, was removed from the calendar. All the same, as Wilson admits, the public cult of saints does seem to be going into decline, even in the Mediterranean world. An interesting example is rural Malta, home till recently of lively festivals organised by competing confraternities and studied by the social anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain in his book Saints and Fireworks (1965). On returning to the region a few years later, he discovered that these festivals had gone into decline, and in an article entitled ‘When the saints go marching out’, he analysed the reasons. His main point was that the next world has traditionally been viewed as a patronage system on the model of the world below. ‘You can’t get to heaven without saints,’ as the Maltese proverb puts it. However, in the last few years in Malta, specialists like MPs and shop stewards have taken over from the traditional all-purpose local patron. As the local patron has lost importance, so has his supernatural equivalent. Yet even the decline of the cult of the saints is a confirmation of the relationship between these heroes of virtue and the societies which have seen them as heroic. To understand an alien or half-alien culture, the study of that culture’s heroes may be the least unreliable path, in spite – or because – of its twists and turns.