Saints and miracles over the centuries

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?

This is a remarkable book, which is thankfully both wonderfully informative and wonderfully readable. Robert Bartlett, who teaches at St Andrew’s University, is a leading medieval historian. He will be familiar to many as the presenter of television documentaries on the period. His book is just the kind of great scholarly synthesis that was once the norm, but which may well become rarer than now in the future.

This is a long and very detailed book, but the patience of the reader in encompassing nearly 800 closely printed pages will be well rewarded.

It is divided into two parts. The first part (running to some 90 pages) provides a brisk account of the general development of the concept of sainthood and Christian devotion veneration of the saints (or rather Catholic devotion to the saints), from the age of the martyrs down to the Reformation. 

The next 600 pages are devoted to some eleven chapters exploring every aspect of the veneration of the saints, of relics, and of miracles, largely during the high middle ages. The author leaves no aspect of his subject uncovered, even the excesses and the denigrations of critics, reformers, and heretics.

There are many Irish echoes in these pages. Ireland, Bartlett points out very early on, played a significant role in the early development of the concept of sainthood. Some of the Irish saints were known all across Europe, especially St Columba and St Patrick (mysterious as his life was).

But more importantly, lives of St Brigid circulated widely. Though Bartlett emphasises that she was not (as so often said these days) a Celtic goddess Christianised, but a real saint to whom some of the attributes of the older figure were attached, especially the sacred fire at Kildare.

The Irish developed very early on a tradition of writing the lives of saints in the vernacular Gaelic rather than in clerical Latin.  One of those lives of an Irish saint was even plundered by an English scribe to provide a royal Irish ancestry for St Cuthbert.

Bartlett quotes the observation of a Norman cleric that there were no martyrs in early Christian Ireland. But neglects the reply of the Irish cleric that now the Normans had arrived that lack would soon be made up. But the great age of Irish martyrs in post reformation centuries is outside the scope of this book.

Monasticism in Ireland encouraged certain attitudes to sainthood. But this was not a universal one. Bartlett describes how originally Christian martyrs were honoured as saints with veneration. When after the time of Constantine Christianity became the state religion it took on some of the form of the old Roman cults, by way of temples, vestments, rites, and so on in order to provide that sense of continuity that was also to be seen in Kildare. Slowly over the century the idea of sainthood moved from martyrdom towards the life of developed holiness, then to that of distinction in learning or theology.

The answer to the question posed in the title is, of course, that it is not the saints themselves, let alone their relics, that work wonders, but the grace of God for which they and their relics are merely a channel.

Catholics always insisted that they did not, pace critics of various kinds, worship but venerated the saints. But at times  there were, and still are, excesses to be found, that often dismay one, such as the ruthless dismemberment in medieval  times of saintly remains for gruesome relics.

This is an immensely detailed work of wide-ranging scholarship. One might call it magisterial, though mercifully it is written with wonderfully accessible clarity and is free of any kind of jargon historical, social or theological.

While it might not be a book for every household, it is certainly a book for every serious library, and one from which prove endlessly fascinating for its information and insights, especially at a time when holiness is a virtue to be recultivated, especially as it finds expression in ordinary life. This is a special concern of the new Pope.

When one looks for martyrs these days they are sadly too easy to find. But we must also bear in mind that today a single mother rearing her family is also a martyr of a kind, an expression of devotion and holiness that often goes far beyond mere piety. Like prayer, holiness today comes in many unrecognised forms.