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The Cult of the Saints Explained (Partially)

 

 

Rob Hardy

 

St. Augustine pondered the miracles the saints could do (this was before he became a saint and presumably dabbled in miracles himself) and asked a question that the medievalist scholar Robert Bartlett has taken for the title of his new book. Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton University Press) is an academic doorstopper, over 600 pages of small-print text, not to mention notes and a voluminous bibliography. It is a treat, though, to see such erudition amassed this way; it is hard to imagine any aspect of the cult of the saints that Bartlett has left out in this extraordinarily comprehensive text. Yet there is enormous entertainment here as well. The times were far different from our own, and if miracles are happening now, they are not the same sorts of miracles that so astonished and inspired the men and woman described in these pages. We do not have dead now doing such great things, for instance, as did St. Edmund of East Anglia, who even though dead got so angry with King Sweyn Forkbeard for pillaging his abbey that he ran him through with a spear. Bartlett does such a splendid job of sympathetic understanding and neutrality, it is hard to figure out his own views of such miracles. Those of us who take a skeptical view of the supernatural will find much to condemn here, but readers among the millions who believe in saintly miracles will find no reason to leave off believing.  

 

 

 

Holy men and women doing wondrous things are part of many religious traditions. The early Christian church took this a few steps further. Not only was death no barrier for saints who wanted to continue working miracles, but their corpses, or bits and pieces of them, possessed wonder-working capacities. Bartlett devotes many pages to the ways that people tried to understand this. Even in such superstitious times, there must have been some intellectual discomfort over accepting these miracles. Could it be, the thinkers at the time wondered, that people who went to a particular saint's shrine, in which the body or bits thereof were preserved, were more likely to get positive results from their supplications at the site itself? If this were indeed the case, would it thus mean that the remains were more powerful than the ubiquitous ethereal presence of the saint incorporeal? Paradoxically, some said that the miracles worked by saints at a distance from the remains were actually greater, in order to impress weak minds, who, according to Pope Gregory I, "may doubt whether [the saints] are present to hear them in places where they do not lie in their bodies." People also tried to figure out why prayers were not answered. One abbot was supervising transport of timber by sea, and expected St. Columba to help, but was thwarted by a contrary wind. "We complained about how unwelcome it was that the wind was against us in this way, and we began to make a kind of accusation against our Columba, saying, 'Does this set-back that we are suffering please you, O saint?" This sort of complaint against saints who were dozing or not fulfilling their duties was common. Bartlett writes, "It was unquestionably the worshipper's right to reproach saints who failed to help." This particular reproach to Columba implied that she was not in high honor with God. It worked, and the winds turned favorable. If relics of a saint were not producing the requested results, they could be placed into the ritual called "humiliation of the relics," in which they were literally humiliated (placed on the ground) or surrounded with thorns in hope that the embarrassed saint would wake up and get to work. 

 

 

 

The church had to make rules about who could become a saint and who could not (although this did not keep people from worshipping saintly locals who had died but were not officially recognized). Originally, martyrs were the saints whose relics were venerated and whose shrines were visited. Bartlett writes of the problem this caused: "The end of persecution in the early fourth century meant that new martyrs were no longer being created on a regular basis within the Roman Empire." Certainly the church could have sealed the numbers of approved saints to those historic martyrs and taken in no more, but this did not happen. Martyrs might still be dropping now and then, but the church decided to accept as saints "confessors" who did not die for the faith but had lived for it in a saintly or heroic way. The adoption of confessors coincided with the movement of asceticism, and plenty of the new saints came from the monks and hermits. Not all. Extraordinary was St. Michael, who was neither martyr nor confessor nor even human; he was not a dead man who went to heaven, but he had been there all along, an angel created before people were created. Not only this, but he was a warrior who had been in battle within Heaven (according to Revelation), and saintly or not, he was often depicted with arms and armor emphasizing his military role. There was another extraordinary saint, a martyr who was neither human nor angel, but a dog. Now, the church did not accept this greyhound as Saint Guinefort, but the locals near Lyons did, and the dog's burial place became a shrine, with pilgrims coming to seek the canine saint's help. One presumes that those entreaties were as successful as those to other saints, but a Dominican with no sense of humor dug up the dog's bones and had them burned. The church worked hard to suppress this saint's cult from the thirteenth century, and succeeded, although the cult was still in existence in the twentieth century. 

 

 

 

It is fun to read the words of contemporaries who thought there might be something wrong in worshipping dead people rather than the supreme being they followed. The canon Henry Knighton wrote in the fourteenth century about those who believed "... that the feasts of the saints, such as Stephen, Lawrence, Margaret, Catherine and the other saints, should not be observed or celebrated, because no one knows whether they are damned or not, nor should any belief be placed in the canonization and approval of the saints by the Roman curia." The theologian John Wycliffe, who would be posthumously declared a heretic, also thought that papal canonization was liable to error, and that those who pray should do so directly to Jesus and not to the "multiplicity of saints." Wycliffe's followers, the Lollards, "were not all theologians, and their views about religious practices could be expressed in an earthier way than was possible in Wycliffe's Oxford Latin." A hostile chronicler reported at the time that a couple of Lollards chopped up a wooden statue of St. Catherine to use as firewood to cook their dinner, exclaiming, "This holy image will certainly be holy firewood for us." In the twelfth century, a critic confronted the problem that there were competing revered heads of John the Baptist, one in Constantinople and one in Saint-Jean-d'Angelyin France: "There were not two John the Baptists, nor one with two heads!" (Perhaps some celestial someone had thought of the solution applied to the Welsh saint Teilo, who died around 560. He had been associated with three churches, each of which claimed the body to be its particular relic. It was decided to leave the question overnight to Jesus Christ to give a sign as to which church would get the body, and the next morning, there were three identical bodies of St. Teilo, and everyone went back home happy.) Of course, come the reformation, there was plenty to say against the saintly cults. Luther wrote, "... they have no Scriptural argument that one should invoke saints and have them as mediators, but Scripture makes Christ alone mediator and intercessor." Calvin mocked the slipper of St. Peter which was preserved at Poitiers, a slipper of satin and gold: "See how they make him stylish after his death as a compensation for the poverty which he had during his lifetime."  

 

 

 

These saints violated physical laws by such things as levitation, and some turned water into wine as Jesus had done, though Bartlett explains that "in the cooler northern and western parts of Europe, other beverages might be more suitable." He gives as an example St. Arnulf of Metz, who miraculously provided beer for all the entourage carrying his body to burial. The chief miracles worked by saints, however, were cures attested by many grateful petitioners. It is a surprise, then, to read that saints were not always healing in their saintly way. Sometimes they caused rather than cured illness. A woman who swore a false oath to St. Bertrand that she was innocent of adultery "saw her hand wither and dry up." A man who falsely swore to St. Cuthbert immediately went blind. Around 840, men claiming to be monks brought some bones to Lyons, saying they had forgotten which saint they belonged to; perhaps objecting to this neglect, the relics "did not heal, but knocked women about the church, striking them to the ground." St. Etheldreda took her staff and stabbed a man in the heart with it for oppressing her believers; he lived long enough only to tell what she had done to him. Simon de Montfort, who died in battle in 1265, was regarded as a saint, but when some skeptic derided him, the skeptic "lost the power of speech and was unable to move a hand or foot but sat like a dead person." 

 

 

 

This huge mass of scholarship never gets around to answering the question of its title; believers only, it seems, can understand why the dead can do such great things (and maybe how, as well). Perhaps this is as it should be; Bartlett summarizes that "the cult of the saints met needs, in particular the need for the hope of a cure in a sick and suffering world without effective medicine, but it also suffused the imagination of worshippers." That may have to do for a "why." But who, and when, and where - this enormous and humane reference work gives all that, along with with stories that are appalling and ghoulish and mysterious and funny.

 

 

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