Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.04.13 Peterson, Suspect Saints and Holy Heretics

The Medieval Review

21.04.13 Peterson, Suspect Saints and Holy Heretics

The analysis of medieval saints' cults continues to represent one of the richest research fields in medieval studies. That saints and the texts associated with them sit at the intersection of so many competing tensions (spirituality, lay culture, charity, power politics, resistance, communal identity, public and private spheres--the list could go on) is one reason why they offer such searching insight into medieval society, and why they so regularly draw the attention of the historian. The scholarship in this field is productive and expanding at a rapid rate. It is therefore all the more impressive that Janine Larmon Peterson's study, Suspect Saints and Holy Heretics, is able to make an important and fascinating contribution to our understanding of sanctity and the myriad influences, pressures, and perspectives which frame it.

By examining the case-studies of a series of individuals whose holiness was disputed in Late Medieval Italy, Peterson's book asks us to rethink how the spectrum of religiosity might be defined. At one end are found saints, at the other heretics. Peterson deftly demonstrates that the divide between the two can often be extremely narrow to the point of dissolving completely. One person's saint becomes another's heretic, and vice-versa. This is perfectly encapsulated in the four chapter headings for Part One of the book, which categorise the different ways holiness was contested: "Tolerated Saints" (cults which were never formally canonized by the papacy and/or which often generated some form of critique, but which were never formally suppressed either, and local devotion continued); "Suspect Saints" (public attempts were made to denounce them as heretics, and dissuade support, but usually insufficient evidence meant local devotion persisted); "Heretical Saints" (despite being condemned as heretics, usually posthumously and often as a result of the practices and beliefs of the saints' supporters, local devotion continued); "Holy Heretics" (condemned by an inquisition as a heretic, devotion usually developed subsequently from perceptions that the process of inquisition had been prejudiced and persecutory and this, combined with the individuals' behaviour during the course of condemnation, proved their holiness in the eyes of local communities).

As Peterson's study makes clear, the boundaries between these four "types" was porous and highly contingent, and could look very different depending on viewpoint and the types of sources available. The outcomes--the types into which an individual, the associated cult and followers fit--were often dependent on numerous factors: political patronage, factionalism, timing, papal priorities, and the determination of local communities and their ability to use the procedures associated with the system of canonization and inquisition to achieve their goals. Table 1 in the book (8-9) outlines the twenty-two disputed saints that underpin Peterson's study. These include the likes of Albert of Villa d'Ogna; Anthony Peregrinus; Armanno Pungilupo; Cecco of Ascoli; Dolcino of Novara; Gerard Segarelli; Guglielma of Milan; Meco del Sacco; and Peter Crisci.

Peterson also acknowledges that the approach taken in this study will not lead to a full picture of any one disputed saint or cult in any one chapter; instead, aspects from each case-study appear throughout the book in different places and contexts. While this can on the one hand leave a fragmented picture of the development of these disputed saints' cults, it does on the other hand allow Peterson to draw together a wide range of case-studies and present a real weight of comparative evidence. It appears to be the right decision, for without this approach, the nuances and textures of the disputes and their wider contexts would be obscured. Indeed, Part Two of the book supplies some of this extra context which fills out an understanding of the dynamics which shaped the disputes. Peterson considers the role of "Economics, Patronage and Politics" in Chapter 5, the shift from "Anti-Inquisitorialism to Antimendicantism" in Chapter 6, the backdrop of "Papal Politics and Communal Contestation" in Chapter 7, and "Methods of Contesting Authority" in Chapter 8. While the importance of many of these dynamics on sanctity have long been recognised and researched, Peterson's study situates disputed saints within them, and in doing so projects an extra layer of complication and negotiation onto the devotional landscape of central and northern Italy. We know that bishops, clerics, mendicants, monks, aristocrats, and laity of all ranks engaged in varying ways with traditional, established saints' cults, and that this generated in various ways prestige, wealth, influence, conflict and belonging; we know too that these cults functioned as markers of unity within urban communities and rivalry between different cities.

But here in this study we see bishops, clerics, mendicants, monks, aristocrats, and laity of all ranks treading similar paths with disputed saints, paths that consequently often threw up many more obstacles. It is this that allows Peterson to truly explore what is at the core of this study: who gets to decide sanctity and who were the defining agents in the process of identifying orthodoxy and heterodoxy? Popes? Inquisitors? Bishops? Local lay communities? Indeed, the determination of individuals and communities at a local level to retain the right to arbitrate on holiness in the face of external intervention--be that from popes, mendicants, and inquisitors (the latter two often synonymous)--is one of the clearest and most important conclusions reached by Peterson. One integral point of contestation over who should decide on holiness is explored in chapter 6: the rise of anti-inquisitorialism and its morphing into antimendicantism. This was the result of local complaints of misconduct in inquisition procedures--complaints that prosecution had turned to persecution--and the conviction that those who oversaw these inquisitions, often mendicants, were driven by greed, wrath and pride. The expansion of papal concepts of power, the drive to regulate and the bureaucratization that attended this, and the rifts caused by Guelph and Ghibelline factionalism explored in chapter 7, provided further arenas for dispute which shaped the outcomes of contested holy figures and their cults. All of this resulted in the fascinating responses explored by Peterson in chapter 8, "Methods of Contesting Authority." Here, local communities developed a set of strategies to support and validate their devotional practices connected to a disputed holy figure. One of the most effective means was to use the very same system which led to inquisition and prosecution. Communities showed understanding of what Peterson labels "inquisitorial culture": an awareness of the legal mechanisms involved in inquisition and the ability to mobilise wide community participation to achieve their goals. Appeals were initiated to revoke judgements and often focused on procedural irregularities, pre-emptive requests for canonization could delay inquisition and reframe it in favour of the local community, and the legitimacy of inquisitors and even popes could be questioned as grounds to halt the process of investigation.

Peterson treads carefully and with nuance around the varied methodological challenges that this sort of study raises. However, there are some decisions which Peterson might have explained and problematized even more fully. One would liked to have known more about the nomenclature applied to those who supported the disputed saints' cults. Varied terms are used here: sectarians (applied regularly, for example, in the context of some devotional practices surrounding Guglielma of Milan's cult), devotees, followers, orthodox citizens/members etc. This diversity points towards the fluid textures orbiting around these cults. But one wonders how an individual was identified as, say, a sectarian rather than a follower, what was the real difference between the two, and how did contemporaries make such a distinction (were certain Latin terms regularly applied?)--or are these categories framed by Peterson's own interpretation? Also, there was scope to explain in more depth how testimonies in inquisitions were mediated. Peterson is undoubtedly alive to these issues, but many of the testimonies (as the footnotes show) appear to have been provided second-hand, namely "individual x" recounts or perhaps summarizes the words of "individual y." Is this significant, and why is it happening in this way?

These are, however, only small asides. Peterson has produced a rigorous and thought-provoking study which allows us to see the rich textures and sophisticated debates underpinning medieval beliefs around sanctity and holiness. This study should be read alongside the many works which explore other models of sanctity that were far less contested, to remind us of the complexities and contingencies at play in this field. This study, though, tells us much more besides, for it adds to our understanding of the papacy, inquisition, the mendicants, heresy, and communal/local identities. It places into sharp relief the tensions and interactions between the macro and micro, and between the local/internal and the distant/external.