The saints honoured by the Christian faithful during the medieval centuries were a specific group within the wider category of souls who had been admitted to heaven. When alive, the venerated saints had demonstrated exceptional holiness, and miraculous events that had occurred before and after their deaths were attributed to them.
These interventions in the physical world took many forms: curing the sick and healing the lame as well as performing actions calculated to defeat their petitioners’ enemies. Above all, the saints could help to undo some of the consequences of sin – that fallen state which was, according to the Church, the universal human condition. It was their possession of virtus or power – a force bestowed on them by God – that enabled these saints to act in support of individuals who had asked them to intercede with the Creator.
The saints were souls who existed in the Almighty’s presence, and they were therefore well placed to help an anxious humanity. This they achieved not just through miracles but also by advocating before God the cause of prayerful penitents who speculated anxiously about their chances of gaining admittance to the courtly societies of the world’s palaces, since here, too, there were powerful intermediaries in the form of courtiers who might be induced to represent outsiders who lacked influence.
Saints were carefully categorized. Martyrs such as the apostle Paul had deliberately chosen to suffer and die for the faith. Saints who died of natural causes included ‘confessors’ who had lived exemplary lives. These included the 4th century soldier Martin of Tours (316 – 97), who was especially venerated by successive French kings. ‘Doctors of the Church’ such as the Dominician Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 74) merited canonization as saints because of their lucid exposition of catholic orthodoxy. the practice of honouring such exceptional people was an ancient one, and the commemoration of the early martyrs had helped to maintain Christian solidarity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when the faith was often proscribed. Celebratory meals were held at martyrs’ tombs such as the ones on the outskirts of Rome, and small shrines were sometimes built over them, as happened at Peter’s tomb on the Vatican Hill.
The emperor Constantine’s mother Helena was credited with having discovered the remains of the True Cross in Jerusalem during the mid-320s, and the role of women in looking after relics and establishing shrines remained important throughout the Middle Ages. large numbers of women attended the ceremonies held at the shrines and the church services commemorating saints’ lives.
Official recognition of some kind was always needed before a saint’s cult could be established, but decision about who should be venerated showed a degree of local initiative which clerical hierarchies often struggled to control. Establishing a relationship with certain chosen saints was one of the few ways in which the illiterate and the marginalized could exercise their freedom and assert their solidarity, and a saint’s body of supporters was often described as his or her ‘family’. For example, in the case of a saint who was the patron of a monastic community, that family would include not just the monks and the nobles who had endowed the foundation but also the serfs who worked the community’s lands and the pilgrims who came to seek the saint’s help. During the early medieval centuries bishops sought to establish a measure of control over who could be a saint within their dioceses. By the 12th century the papacy was exerting its own centralized authority by asserting a unique prerogative to issue the special bulls which canonized saints. This was also the time when the institution was preoccupied with a tight definition of orthodoxy of its polar opposite – heresy.
Among the relics or reliquiae (‘the remains’) left behind by the saints, it was the bones that attracted most attention. The church taught that on Christ’s return to the Earth on the day of the Last Judgement the body of every human being would be reassembled from the pieces that had once constituted it. This was the bodily resurrection, and it applied to the venerated saints no less than to the rest of the dead. A tomb or a reliquary casket did not just contain inert bones, therefore. these objects continued to be part of the saint’s identities and would be assembled to form their glorified bodies after the last Judgement. To pray before the relics was to be in the physical presence of the saint – a real and identifiable personality offering a direct link with God who was the unique source of all power. Relics could also include physical objects used by the saints, such as items of clothing and books. Items brought into contact with relics – for example, pieces of cloth pressed onto a shrine or vials containing water used to wash a saint’s body – could themselves become relics, albeit of a minor kind.
Relics were sometimes mere fragments of bones, and these could be placed inside altars or within reliquaries (a container for relics). relics were also bought by the rich who used them in private devotion. The major shrines of the Middle Ages were more likely to contain a whole body or at least a significant collection of a relevant body parts. These frequently ornate structures were raised either over the original tombs or in places to which the bodies had been moved – as happened with James’s shrine in Compostela and Thomas Becket’s at Canterbury. The remains of Faith, a young girl tortured to death in c. 300 by the Roman authorities, were originally to be found in her home town of Agen in Aquitaine. Faith’s refusal to make pagan sacrifices, along with her spectacular torture on a red-hot brazier, made her a celebrity saint, and her bones were stolen in the 9th century by a monk from the Benedictine foundation at nearby Conques. It was here, on the pilgrimage route to Compostela, that Faith’s relics became an object of mass devotion in the great 11th century Romanesque abbey of Sainte Foy.
Eastern Christians had pioneered the veneration of relics, as evidence by the scale of their devotions at the relic-rich holy places of Christendom in Syria and Palestine. The leadership of the Latin Church in Western Europe was often sceptical about the practice until at least the 7th century, and bishops tried to limit and control its migration of Eastern Christians whose arrival in Western Europe – along with their relic collections – gave a new boost to the cult of relic veneration. Successive waves of popular devotion forced the clerical hierarchies to revise their views.
From the 11th century onwards development of feudal practices and of the institution of lordship, which included the exchange of gifts, paralleled another upswing in the popularity of both saints and relics. Vassals who placed themselves under the protection of a local lord by offering him their service could be seen as secular counterparts to the pious, who might seek to gain the protection of saintly souls by bringing gifts to the shrines. Many churches and monasteries had to be rebuilt and extended because of the saint’s popularity during the high Middle Ages. From c. 1050 onwards the monks at the Benedictine abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy began to claim possession of Mary Magdalene’s relics. later, the European relic market was flooded following the discovery in 1155 of a mass grave in Cologne alleged to contain the bones of Ursula and her equally legendary 11,000 co-martyrs. New trading contacts with the Middle East made as a result of the crusades, as well as the crusader’s sacking and looting of Constantinople in 1204, swelled the number of imported relics. Sainte-Chapelle in Paris was built in the 1240s by Louis IX (1214 – 70) specifically to house the remains of saints.
Daring to be different
Heretics held views that contradicted the Church’s orthodoxy. Although the cathars were the most notorious examples there were many other sects who were treated with equal intolerance. The followers of Peter Valdez or Waldo (c. 1140 – 1218) in southern France and north Italy started as mainstream Christians who were especially attracted by New Testament injuctions to shun riches and to preach the gospel to the poor. Their zeal in doing so attracted the hostility of Church leaders who thought that preaching was a job for priests rather than for lay enthusiasts.
It was their persistence as lay preachers, rather than any doctrinal reasons, that led to the Waldensians’ initial condemnation as heretics by the Church in 1184. Having been given the label, they then started to embrace a whole set of genuinely heretical beliefs. By the early 13th century the Waldensians constituted a separate ecclesiastical structure that rejected both the idea of a priesthood and the notion of sacraments. Waldensians, rather like the Cathars, despised the official Church’s association with riches and hierarchical power, and the sect stressed that spiritual insight and an ability to communicate with God was a result of individual merit rather than a reflection of the sacraments’ efficacy.
Direct access to the Bible translated into vernacular languages was central to the Waldensians’ appeal. The same is also true of the Lollards who followed John Wycliff in late 14th century England and of the Hussites who followed their example in Bohemia a generation later. In all these cases it was the fear of being rejected by an individual conscience informed by its own interpretation of the New testament that led the Church to anathematize the dissenters as heretics.
Although Francis of Assisi embraced a ministry that preached the corrupting effects of riches, he and his immediate followers in the Order of Friars Minor (‘the Franciscans’) were impeccably orthodox in terms of Church doctrine. But when the official Franciscans changed their Order’s rules after the death of the founder so that it might own material goods, an alternative grouping called the ‘Spiritual Franciscans’ emerged. These dissidents stated that all Franciscans should adhere to the founder’s poverty and mendicancy. Their advocacy of the view that Christ and his disciples had owned nothing, was denounced as heretical by Pope John XXII in 1322. Most of the ‘Spiritual Franciscans’ eventually submitted but the Fraticelli, a disparate mass of splinter groups, continued to preach apostolic poverty in 14th-century Italy. Their denunciations of the established ecclesiastical order showed how the people rejected as ‘heretics’ by popes, bishops and councils of the Church could nonetheless display an enduring spiritual vitality.