When Medicine Failed

Barbara Newman

  • 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, ISBN 978 0 691 15913 3

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.

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