Saints and martyrs in late medieval religious culture

Authored by: Carl Watkins

The Medieval World

Print publication date:  February  2018
Online publication date:  February  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138848689
eBook ISBN: 9781315102511
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315102511-23

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Abstract

Why celebrate the saints? Why hold them in memory? Why mark their feasts? By the later Middle Ages, the Church had well-worked-out answers to such fundamental questions touching those figures – the ‘very special dead’ – who had been at the very heart of western Christianity since the age of conversions (Brown 1981). Jacobus de Voragine rehearsed the reasons in his thirteenth-century collection of hagiographical and martyrological readings, Legenda Aurea, when he explained the importance of the Feast of All Saints to his readers and auditors (Ryan 1993: II, 272–80). The reasons itemized in the Legenda were many, but at the heart of them were two that recurred in medieval rationalizations of why the saints mattered. First, the saints were of value because their holy lives offered holy patterns that might be emulated, encouraging those who heard about them to set little store by earthly things and set their sights on heaven instead. Then, second, because sin-stained human beings inevitably fell short and could not achieve salvation by their own devices, intercession of the saints helped them on the way to bliss. The saints were ‘friends, children and heirs’ of God who were well placed to plead for their fellow men, and they were ‘leaders and guides’ for those engaged in the struggles of life. Jacobus also drew attention to a further idea that had become an axiom: that what remained of holy men and women on earth was precious, for the bits and bones of the saints were not only a stimulus to memories of sanctified lives, they were also things of power in their own right, means by way of which help might be sought. Shining cadavers and wonder-working body fragments were ‘God’s repository, Christ’s temple, the alabaster vase of spiritual ointment, divine fountains, the organ of the holy spirit.’ In these passages Jacobus said nothing novel or startling – indeed, much of what he had to say was little more than a collage made up of extracts from venerable authorities. His work is a good place to start, then, precisely because of its conventionality. It distilled the essence of the Church’s normative position into a form designed for use by those engaged in the instruction of the faithful. Moreover, because Legenda Aurea became something of a ‘bestseller’, disseminated widely in Latin and vernacular versions in the fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, it stands not only as a summation of standard wisdom, but also as an important means by which knowledge about the saints was re-circulated and reinforced across clerical and lay communities. Jacobus, then, is the starting point. But what follows is an attempt to trace salient features in the social history of the saints, working out from the norms to the lived experience of ordinary believers: how, and how far, saints functioned as examples and as intercessors, and how the means of interaction with holy men and women were reshaped during the late medieval period in a context of larger cultural and economic change.

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