Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?, by Robert Bartlett

A thread of celebrity weaves through a masterful study of cults of Christian icons, Helen Fulton finds

December 19, 2013

The extraordinary discovery in August 2012 of the bones of Richard III, king of England from 1483 until his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, is a timely reminder that the cult of relics lives on. Richard’s bones are viewed as the mute witnesses of his physical presence, his personality and appearance, and the manner of his death, all refracted through a celebrity culture that is older than we might think.

The story of Richard’s bones confirms a number of the themes set out in Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?, Robert Bartlett’s encyclopedic survey of the Christian cult of saints from antiquity to the Reformation. Bartlett’s achievements as a medieval historian are already substantial: the author of a number of significant studies of medieval miracles and the supernatural, he specialises in the forensic examination of primary sources and the facts they reveal, organised into a compelling narrative. While this book lacks some of the page-turning plot of his 2004 book The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages, it offers a far greater breadth of detail that, like the cult of the empty tomb, leaves no stone unturned.

Aemilianus, a 6th-century bishop, possessed ‘a piece of the head, one finger of the hand, one of the teeth, and another piece’ of St George

The book is organised into two parts, the first a brief diachronic history of sanctity up until the Reformation and the second a lengthy synchronic discussion of the “dynamics” of sainthood and its various manifestations through feast days, miracles, relics, shrines, forms of worship, imagery and literature. The earliest focus of the cult of saints was the martyr’s tomb, where annual rites honoured those persecuted for their beliefs. From the mid 4th century AD, after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the relics and remains of martyrs were moved or “translated” into urban churches, thus breaking a taboo of separation between the living and the dead that sharply differentiated Christian practice from that of the Jewish and Islamic faiths.

Common to both sections of the book is a firm taxonomy of types of saints, including angels, apostles, martyrs, confessors, lay saints, virgins and local saints. A further category of royal saints, including England’s Edward the Confessor, prompts Bartlett’s comment that the “top levels of society were disproportionately represented” among the saints, echoing our continuing fascination with the celebrity of royalty. The good burghers of Leicester might be interested to know that Richard III himself celebrated the feast days of 43 saints, not counting the Virgin Mary, and stipulated that “an anthem of St Ninian” be sung each year on the anniversary of his death.

Richard III’s bones are also emblematic of the close correlation between sanctity and death. What is worshipped is not a living person but their dead remains in the form of relics and associated rituals that may or may not involve clothing, hair and assorted body parts. As well as whole-body shrines of the kind now planned for Richard III, thousands of bodily fragments of dead saints were collected into churches or carried in portable reliquaries. Around the year 300, Lady Lucilla of Carthage was in the habit of kissing a martyr’s bone before taking Communion, while Aemilianus, 6th-century bishop of Germia in Asia Minor, possessed “a piece of the head, one finger of the hand, one of the teeth, and another piece” of St George. The head of St John the Baptist surfaced at regular intervals in different places, and bits of St Nicholas moved around from church to shrine across Europe. Larger churches kept ghoulish inventories of the relics they possessed: York Minster, in a list dated to c.1200, mentioned “a finger of St Pancras, a rib of St Cassian, and a jawbone of St Susanna”, among many other items.

Our desire, or perhaps the media’s desire, to know more about what Richard III looked like and what kind of person he was has a precedent in the medieval plethora of full-colour images and sensationalised life stories of the saints. Bartlett’s chapter on images takes us on an art-history tour of Byzantine iconoclasm and Western portraits of single or multiple saints in narrative formations, supported by numerous examples and some fine photographic reproductions of icons, reliquaries and altarpieces. Like worried parents patrolling the internet, the Western Church had an ambivalent attitude to figurative or pictorial images of saints, oscillating between fear of idolatry and an acknowledgement that, as William of Tyre said in the 12th century, “images of the saints…arouse the less educated to devotion”. In the later Middle Ages, patrons inserted themselves into religious scenes to claim a vicarious sanctity. A triptych by Hans Memling from the late 1460s depicts Jan Crabbe, the Cistercian abbot who commissioned the work, apparently attending the Crucifixion alongside Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist.

A substantial chapter on hagiography discusses not only the various genres of saints’ lives but also the people who wrote them and the kinds of anthologies and associated literature, such as legendaries and sermons, that drew extensively on hagiography. Bartlett points to a widespread generic distinction between the “passions” of martyrs, recounting their sufferings, and the “lives” of confessors, those saints such as bishops and abbots who were sanctified for their learning and good deeds on earth.

This weighty tome is, above all, a book of evidence – evidence about who the saints were, how they were worshipped, the nature of pilgrimage, examples of miracles and their reception, the influence of saints on personal and place names, and the operations of heresy and authority in “policing the saints”. The methodology is empirical and statistical, with frequent pauses for tables and percentages, such as the numbers of saints per period and by geographical area, percentages of female saints, and the average dimensions of hagiographical books.

What the book does not do is answer its title’s question, originally posed by St Augustine. The evidence-based methodology constructs a tenor of strict objectivity deliberately stripped of analysis or interpretation; as a result, we are told the who, what, when and where, but virtually nothing about the why of saints and the powers claimed for them. For example, there are few references to the commerce of sanctity, the profit motive that lay behind the trade in relics that Geoffrey Chaucer satirised so brilliantly in The Canterbury Tales. One possible answer to the question of why the dead can do such great things is that a gullible populace, encouraged by a multinational enterprise, is led to believe that they can.

Nevertheless, this is a massive work of scholarship based on a dazzling array of primary sources, mainly in Latin, and is worth buying for the bibliography alone. The division of the material into bite-sized chunks, clearly labelled, is an enormous help in navigating around the book and allows us to enjoy it in manageable portions. Altogether, this is a one-stop shop for anyone who needs to know anything about the medieval cult of the saints.

Rich in original research, full of illuminating case studies, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? is a major achievement from a distinguished medieval historian and a gold mine for those interested in religious history. Although Richard III was far from being a saint in any sense of the word, a reading of Bartlett’s book confirms that we are effectively treating him as one, commerce and all.

The author

Robert Bartlett, who is Wardlaw professor of mediaeval history at the University of St Andrews, grew up “in South London in a secure and happy family, living in a house with an aunt, uncle and cousin as well as my parents, my brother and me (not to mention pets). This probably contributed to making me gregarious and solitary.

“I now live in St Andrews with my wife, Nora, who is a writer and a lecturer in English, our aged but doughty dog Dutch and, occasionally, returnik children.” Were he given the chance to decamp for distant shores, he says, “my parallel life would be lived in Manhattan”.

Of his childhood, Bartlett says: “I cannot remember a time before being an enquirer and reader. Neither of my parents had any education beyond the age of 14, but both encouraged me and were proud of me when I went on to university. My father was an intelligent and well-read man, and while my mother had no intellectual interests in the usual sense, she had plenty of imagination, humour and social ability, as well as providing unlimited warmth and affection. Both were formative.

“I was lucky enough to receive a very good education at Battersea Grammar School in the 1960s. My best subjects were English and history and I had to choose which of them to study at university. If I had gone to a Scottish university, I would of course have been able to do both.”

Instead he read history at the University of Cambridge and then undertook doctoral study at the University of Oxford. Asked if he has a favourite, he replies: “Cambridge and Oxford are equally peculiar. I had excellent teachers at both. Nowadays, when I need to visit a major research library, I go to Cambridge because the books in the vast and labyrinthine University Library there are on open stacks, where you can wander, set up camp and disappear for the day, apart from trips to the admirable tea room.”

When not thus occupied, Bartlett is “inured to being beaten once a week at squash”. He has reconciled himself to the situation, he says, “by the thought that it is good for the cardiovascular system”. He also rode for 15 years, and found that the equestrian experience improved his understanding of medieval history.

Asked if he takes a view on which of the United Kingdom’s countries has the best patron saint, Bartlett observes: “Well, David is (strangely) the only one who is native of the country whose patron he is. Patrick, uniquely, can be known through his own, completely fascinating, writings. And George has a dragon. But I live in St Andrews, so my choice is clear.”

Although he shares a first name with three St Roberts – Molesme, Newminster and Bellarmine – he will not be drawn on a favourite. Moreover, he adds, he doesn’t really have any favourite saints at all, “despite studying and writing about them. But I was brought up to regard Robert the Bruce as a role model, when he was encouraged by the example of a tenacious spider to ‘try, try and try again’.”

Bartlett’s experience as a television presenter includes hosting documentary series and appearing on programmes such as Time Team. “I love the people I work with in television, enjoy the challenge of learning my lines and appreciate seeing all the places; I sometimes struggle with a scripting process over which I do not have total control. I remember filming at sunset in the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, and in the vast and magnificent Hagia Sophia in Istanbul when the only people there were our small team from the BBC and a cat.” In contrast, he adds, “The officious officials in Westminster Hall and the drunks in Canterbury High Street did not make filming pleasant at those locations.”

Asked if there is a secret to being engaging and clear for a general TV audience while reassuring academic peers that you have not abandoned scholarly gravitas for frivolous celebrity, Bartlett says simply: “No. I just go for frivolous celebrity.”

Karen Shook

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation

By Robert Bartlett
Princeton University Press, 816pp, £.95
ISBN 9780691159133 and 9781400848782 (e-book)
Published 11 December 2013

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