The Medieval Review 12.03.10

Sarris, Peter, Matthew Dal Santo, and Phil Booth. An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity. Brill's Series on the Early Middle Ages. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2011. Pp. xv, 223. $135. ISBN 978-90-04-20660-1. . .

Reviewed by:

Jamie Kreiner
Stanford University

An Age of Saints? is a cohesive collection of articles dedicated to the strenuous and noisy competitions that late antique and early medieval societies waged over the place of the dead among the living. But even to say that these debates centered on saints and shrines is to undermine one of the central functions of the volume, which is to bring the late- and post-Roman period in all its variety and uncertainty to bear on a subject that is too easily compartmentalized as "religious history" and as a result, too often told as a narrative of ecclesiastical victory.

The editors invoke the foundational historians of late antique Christianity--Marrou, Brown, Cameron, Markus--as representatives of the views they seek to unsettle. These scholars do have their differences: whereas Marrou and Brown took hagiography as more or less indicative of actual social practice to conclude that the period was "an age of saints" (Marrou, quoted 205) and that the holy man functioned as a welcome and effective arbiter for the community (Brown), Cameron and Markus more skeptically suggested that hagiography was a "totalising discourse" (Cameron, quoted 206) that formed part of Christian leaders' effort to infuse every aspect of the world with religious meaning (Markus). What both perspectives share, however, is a view of change as proceeding unidirectionally with more or less consistent velocity. But this seems not to have been the case. As the contributors to the volume argue, no matter where one looks around the Mediterranean, Christian elites were themselves divided on matters of doctrine and practice, not to mention in competition over status and influence more generally; and the propositions and claims these elites made were met with additional challenges from the public beneath them.

These social tensions and fissures extended to the realm of Christian sanctuaries and ritual, for to celebrate a saint was to place oneself optimistically on the side of divine endorsement. But as this collection suggests, what constituted a proper ritual, and what values that worship actually instantiated, were questions with indeterminate answers. Every celebration was a vulnerable proposition. Ambrose knew this: as Peter Kritzinger argues, the bishop of Milan modeled the translation of Gervasius and Protasius on the imperial adventus because the prestige of his church depended upon public approval, which might be won by reference to a shared performative vocabulary. Ritual borrowings were not always so conspicuous, however, and Ralph Lee's consideration of sixth-century Ethiopia suggests that the personality of a religion can be formed in the course of steady diplomacy and exchange--in Ethiopia's case, with the court of Justinian and the Jewish and Miaphysite traders of southern Arabia. Even in the age of Louis the Pious, debates about cultic practice continued, and Gerda Heydemann uses three efficient case studies to show how Carolingian writers called the very status and utility of relics into question. Summoning the saints' bodies in support of a cause, although potentially profitable, required the additional burden of justifying the use of such a resource in the first place.

The meaning of devotional practice, furthermore, was as debatable as the rituals themselves, and Richard Payne and Phil Booth offer two memorable cases of the intense degree to which competition converged at single sites to lay claim to their significance. For the late antique aristocracy of Iran (as Payne shows), local elites vied to be recognized for the discovery and preservation of saints' bodies, even once they had moved to ecclesiastical hands: to do so was share in the credit, on behalf of one's lineage, for the integrity of that community that cohered around a relic. Paradoxically, Payne observes, although Christian elites looked to saints to authenticate their nobility, they did so in order to participate in a government that increasingly valued religious neutrality in the task of managing a diverse population of both Christians and Zoroastrians. In Booth's piece, the Constantinopolitan shrines of Cosmas and Damian also brimmed with disagreement. The confessional allegiances of these sanctuaries and their caretakers did not necessarily correspond to that of their visitors. A Chalcedonian could be cured at a monophysite shrine (or vice versa, in Booth's wonderful example of Deubner's Miracles, 17), a pagan could attribute his cure to the ultimate intervention of his own gods, and hagiographers of different creeds wrote accounts devoted to the same two saints. Booth points out that Christian authorities tolerated this very plural population in response to imperial initiative: Justinian and Justin II--who, not coincidentally, were also responsible for reviving the cult of Cosmas and Damian--had subordinated questions of religious difference to the pressing concern of security both within the empire and at its borders.

Even the definition of "saint" was a point of contention, since this too had consequences for the social order. This is Collin Garbarino's point about Augustine, who argued that martyrdom was an act of witnessing rather than sacrifice: the bishop's goal was not just to keep the option of ("hidden") martyrdom open to his congregation but also to undermine Donatist claims to their own martyrs. Two centuries later, even more seemed to be at stake. In Matthew Dal Santo's survey, the questions were enormous: did miracles actually happen at all? Did a saint share responsibility with God for miracles when they did happen? That question hinged on an even larger one: could the soul do things after the body died, or did it need to wait until rejoining its body at the Last Judgement? And consequently, were the Christian sacraments offered for the dead of any value? It is not surprising that hagiographers answered in the affirmative on all these points. Dal Santo's insight is to read these sources not as a sign of consensus but as responses to what were very vocal criticisms against the notion of a "God-guarded" empire and the imperial-ritual complex that this notion had once sustained.

This view of hagiography as an argument, rather than a document of uncontested opinion, represents a subtle but forceful modification of the view that vitae and miracle stories are indicative of some homogeneous mentalité. Dal Santo is not alone here. Philip Wood's study of Athanasius of Alexandria and John of Ephesus posits hagiography as act of differentiation: Athanasius and John advocated their subjects' behavior in order to distinguish them, sometimes superficially and sometimes not, from what others practiced, and in doing so enhanced their own positions, which were far from secure. In the case of northern Italy, as Giorgia Vocino argues, local elites seized upon hagiography as an opportunity to assert their continued vitality and relevance in a newly Carolingian political sphere: the quiet omission of any reference to royal endorsement of relic translations (a part of Carolingian policy since 813), and in one case an account of a botched attempt by king and bishop to translate a saint's body, allowed local authorities to retain at least partial control of their cities. And the profoundly argumentative nature of hagiography lies at the heart of Peter Turner's incisive essay, which illustrates the degree to which hagiographers worked to prove that their claims were true. Christian and pagan authors alike defended their accounts' veracity on the grounds of responsible research and reporting, they reinforced the correctness of the values they contained by claiming consonance with established authorities, and they frequently represented their subjects as acting without deliberate intentions of their own, so that the miraculous result is as much a surprise to the saint as to anyone else. This "principle of spontaneity," Turner points out, had the added effect of casting the world in spiritual terms: it posited occurrences that seem insignificant as highly significant, and it encouraged readers to do the same, thereby imbuing all of life's apparent coincidences with spiritual meaning.

As this volume makes clear, saints, shrines, and hagiography could bear the weight of many interests and claims simultaneously (and in some cases, as with Sasanian Iran and sixth-century Constantinople, the lack of a dominant discourse could even be a significant political asset). Mike Humphreys' essay on the early phases of iconoclasm offers a telling parallel to the essays more strictly devoted to saints' cults: what began as a reconsideration of the use of icons in imperial defense became a more heated critique that gradually came to absorb a nested set of concerns about religious and political authority. The implications of this cumulative point strikes a serious blow to the assumption that hagiography functioned as propaganda, for in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages at least, there were too many variables and too many voices to issue pronouncements of that kind.

For this reason, Peter Sarris' introductory article sits somewhat apart from the rest of the collection. He, like his co-contributors, argues that the early medieval masses were not passive recipients of religious instruction, and he makes the sharp suggestion that once the church became a major landholder, tenants' resentment would have shifted from private to ecclesiastical targets, and this economic relationship would likely have strained spiritual ones. This is an excellent question for future research to follow, especially for its potential to set early medieval power relations (which this collection views dialectically) in the context of deeper structures that were less negotiable. But Sarris also notes that the owner-peasant relationship was in turn exacerbated by religious differences, and he roots this argument in a concept of Christianity in which religious change was "for the most part, imposed from above" (8). Such an observation seems at odds with the insights of this collection. When Bede explains that a crowd of people made no effort to help a group of monks in danger because the monks had tried to impose new religious rules upon them, one wonders whether to believe him, as Sarris does, or to entertain the possibility that Bede's terms of religious commitment were his alone, and that the crowd had its own reasons for leaving the monks to their fate. This is only to suggest, as this book does, that this was not a period when Christian practice was easily implemented or even easily defined, which is precisely why authors sought to present it otherwise.

So was it an age of saints after all? As all the contributions imply, but as Turner, Dal Santo, and Heydemann address directly, no aspect of saints and their cults was taken for granted. The volume's answer to its title, therefore, is that the question itself is what matters: late antique and early medieval societies were not invariably and inevitably captivated by Christian intercessors. But by the end of the book, one is also left with the impression that the slow crystallization of these debates, practices, and even criticisms around the cult of the saints meant that whatever the specific terms of disagreement (who got to be a saint, what a miracle was, what praxis or city or family or value a saint supported), the category of the saint was increasingly likely to stick around. It is to this collection's credit that we see this not as the product of uniform institutional imposition, but rather as a sign that the idea of the saint was able to accommodate a huge swathe of interests and inspiration, at a time when Christianity was an enterprise borne out across many fields of competition.