Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, by Robert Bartlett, Princeton, RRP£27.95/$39.95, 816 pages

Transferring the Shrine of St Perpetua to the Church of Bouvignes after the Siege of Dinant in 1466, Flemish School
Transferring the Shrine of St Perpetua to the Church of Bouvignes after the Siege of Dinant in 1466, Flemish School © Bridgeman

Catholics, still largely named after Christian saints, grow up in the knowledge that these dead holy people can do “great things” for us here below. Even many non-Catholics are acquainted with the potential benefits of invoking St Jude for hopeless cases, St Anthony for lost items and St Christopher for a safe journey.

Among the many saints competing for my Catholic boyhood devotion was St Joseph of Cupertino, a 17th-century Italian friar, famous for his ability to fly. He qualified to become a priest because he managed, miraculously of course, to swot up precisely those answers to the questions he was eventually asked in his finals. He is the patron saint of aviators and students facing big exams.

Joseph was also a maker of “black bread” – baked from adulterated substances, including hallucinogenic mushrooms. Here, perhaps, lay the key to his levitations. After sampling his own loaves he evidently believed he was taking off – as did those who partook of his high-octane bake-offs. His feast day is on September 18 and his skeleton is preserved at Osimo, near Ancona in Italy.

The story of Christian saints is inextricably bound up with their relics. A medieval tradition linked the incorruptibility of a holy person’s body with proof of purity of life; there are some leathery, off-colour examples under the altars of Catholic churches around Europe, lying in state for all eternity, bejewelled and swathed in silk. Yet devotees invariably ignored the incorruptibility test and even welcomed the speedy putrefaction of their saint as providential, since decay meant easier access to the skeleton. Bones, hair, fingernails and teeth would be broken up in the interests of distributing the remains far and wide. There was always the problem, however, of dodgy relics. For example, there are multiple rival heads of St John the Baptist in different parts of Europe and the Middle East.

Robert Bartlett is one of the most distinguished medievalist scholars in our day, author of The Making of Europe (1993) and an occasional telly don. He begins his prodigious history of Christian sainthood Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? with the fate of two third-century Carthaginian martyrs. Perpetua and her pregnant slave-girl Felicity were thrown to wild beasts for their refusal to participate in pagan rites. Perpetua, who kept a diary during her prior imprisonment, records a dream in which she is brought to the amphitheatre to do combat with an Egyptian gladiator. She kills the Egyptian and leaves the arena through “The Gate of Life”, reserved for combatants that are spared. On awaking she interprets the dream as a Heaven-sent message. She is not to fight with earthly animals but with Satan, whom she will defeat to reap her eternal reward. In the event, both women go exultantly to their deaths.

Bartlett next unfolds the story of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, martyred 50 years after Perpetua’s death. In a series of letters, Cyprian set out many of the principles that would underpin the theology of sainthood for future centuries. The word martyr, meaning “witness”, indicates a link between willing self-sacrifice and promotion of faith. Not all saints are martyrs, of course, but it is required that all non-martyr saints, who are the majority, should at least exhibit “heroic sanctity”. It was recognised that martyrs went straight to Heaven, where they would be capable of interceding with God for the living – the tireless activity of saints in their afterlife. Their bodily remains, and items that have come into contact with them, create the material conditions for shrines and pilgrimage. Names, special patronage, and the telling of their lives, are crucial. But their fundamental purpose is to help the living by performing miracles for our benefit – spiritual and physical.

Bartlett divides his study in two. The first part is a narrative sketch that traces the sainthood cult from the early Church to the Reformation. It is a tale of expanding bureaucracy in an attempt to bring order to the proliferating hagiographies, reliquaries and claimed miracles. From around 1200 we see the papacy assuming the role of supreme judge in such matters. At the same time, the communion of saints became an important dimension of ecclesiastical economy. There was money to be made.

A crucial catalyst for the Protestant indignation was the commercialisation of relics and shrines – not least the shrine of St Peter in Rome. There was something inevitable about the corruption that set in during the High and Later Middle Ages, impelled by an unholy inflation bubble. “Indulgences” – remission of time spent in Purgatory – could be granted, at a price, on contact with relics (many bogus) as well as the completion of pilgrimages. Bartlett confirms the widespread racketeering exemplified by Chaucer’s infamous Pardoner, who passed off pigs’ bones as authentic saintly remnants. The Protestants banned indulgences along with images of saints and their relics. The Catholic Church, in the final session of the 16th-century counter-reforming Council of Trent, voluntarily curbed many former excesses while encouraging more modest and regulated devotional practices in the faithful’s recourse to saintly intercessions. Indulgences would persist; but no money would change hands.

Apart from a brief reference to cults of the holy dead in Judaism and Islam, Bartlett restricts his survey to Latin Christendom, ending in the 16th century. Therefore, there is no bridge to aid, for example, our understanding of the prodigious saint-making that would occur under Pope John Paul II. Between 1198 and 1500, there were 40 canonisations in total. John Paul (1978-2005) canonised 482 saints in 51 ceremonies. Nor does Bartlett offer connections between the medieval period and the recent phenomenon of popes beatifying and canonising each other, creating a veritable holy dead popes society. April 2014 will see Pope Francis canonising two of his predecessors – John XXIII and John Paul II.

Devotion to the saints is manifestly still alive and well in the Catholic Church, and Bartlett’s impressive compendium will serve to explain the cult’s historical origins and evolution. One hopes that historians of the early and late modern periods will now be encouraged to complete the rich tapestry to the present day.

John Cornwell’s next book, ‘The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession’, is published in February by Profile

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