Musée de l’Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune

Saint Michael weighing souls in Rogier van der Weyden’s Last Judgment, circa 1445–1450

In November 1231 Elizabeth of Thuringia, daughter of the king of Hungary and widow of Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, died in the city of Marburg, aged twenty-four. Married before she was fifteen, Elizabeth bore three children to Louis before his death while on crusade in 1227, when she was just twenty years old.

Even during her affectionate marriage her piety had been characterized by midnight prayer vigils, lavish works of charity, and acts of penance, of a scale and intensity unheard of in a high-status, sexually active wife and mother. She now took a vow of celibacy, adopted the coarse gray habit of the newly formed Franciscan Third Order, and placed herself under the spiritual direction of Conrad of Marburg, a sadistic former inquisitor, who separated her from her children, replaced her personal maids with brutal warders, and subjected her to a penitential regime that included severe beatings and public humiliations.

Elizabeth survived Conrad’s abuse for only four years. But the humility and charity of the smiling princess, who dressed like a pauper and personally ministered to the destitute and diseased in a hospital built with her own money, spectacularly embodied the ideals of her admirer Francis of Assisi. Her contemporaries took note. Within hours of her death her coffin was besieged by crowds of eager suppliants in search of healing or blessing. Pilgrims tore strips from her clothes, or cut the hair, nails, and even the nipples from her body as relics, and miracles began. A papal commission, ironically headed by her guide and tormentor Conrad, investigated Elizabeth’s miracles and virtues in 1232. Pope Gregory IX formally canonized her three years later.

Elizabeth’s radiant personality and the pathos of her short life make her one of the most endearing saints of the Middle Ages, while the course of her canonization highlights major shifts within the medieval cult of the saints. Her fame signaled the emergence of a new kind of female sanctity, active in the world rather than shut away in a cloister.

Her canonization by the pope was equally novel, because for almost a millennium any bishop might proclaim someone a saint, and this right had been claimed as an exclusive papal prerogative only since the early 1200s: there were no known papal canonizations at all before 993 AD. Once established, it was a monopoly that the medieval popes exercised very sparingly. The years between 1200 and 1250 witnessed an unprecedented blossoming of religious energy in Europe and the emergence of hugely successful new revival movements like the friars. Francis, the Poverello of Assisi, was merely the most famous of scores of notable Christian heroes and heroines. The century as a whole saw the local or popular veneration of more than five hundred such people as “saints.”

Yet between 1200 and 1500 only forty new saints in all achieved canonization. The quasi-inquisitorial legal process preceding canonization by the pope was rigorous, expensive, and increasingly long-drawn-out. By the late Middle Ages, a canonization process could take up to thirty years to reach a successful conclusion, and there was a very high failure rate. There were no fewer than six abortive attempts to secure the canonization of the English bishop Osmund of Salisbury between 1228 and 1452, before eventual success in 1457. The final campaign in the 1450s cost more than £700 sterling, the equivalent of the annual income of a baron. All this is in striking contrast to the prodigal record of the modern papacy, for in just twenty-seven years Pope John Paul II alone proclaimed no fewer than 482 new saints, more than all his predecessors put together.

Both the process of making saints, therefore, and the kinds of people who achieved sanctity were changing during the high Middle Ages. The veneration of saints in itself, however, was a phenomenon almost as old as Christianity. One of the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament is an eyewitness account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, the aged bishop of Smyrna said to have known Saint John the Evangelist, and who was burned in the arena for his Christian faith around 155 AD. Polycarp’s congregation later searched the pyre for his relics, “collecting the remains that are dearer to us than precious stones and finer than gold.” These they buried “in a fitting spot,” where they could gather annually to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom.

In this narrative, the core elements of the cult of the saints—shrine, relics, and annual feast day—are all already in evidence. Most of the earliest saints were martyrs like Polycarp, for their witness to Christ by the shedding of their blood made them powerful intercessors on behalf of weaker or more timid Christians. Those who had succumbed during persecution and offered sacrifice to the pagan gods flocked to the prisons to seek absolution and intercession from martyrs awaiting execution. The martyrs’ prayers were considered even more powerful after their death. With the easing of persecution, and the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, churches were built over the graves of the martyrs, and became magnets for pilgrims.


These shrine churches outside the city walls posed a problem for bishops seeking to unite the local churches around their own authority. The burial sites where the martyr-saints were sought out as heavenly patrons or physicians threatened to become rival centers of religious power and influence. The great fourth-century biblical translator Saint Jerome wrote, “The city itself is moving; the people flood past the half-ruined temples and run to the tombs of the martyrs.” As Peter Brown has argued, the problem was defused by “translating” the relics of the saints into the city, and enshrining them under or near the bishop’s own altar, where they would underpin rather than threaten hierarchical authority.1

This “translation” of a saint’s bones from grave to altar would remain the act constituting canonization for almost a thousand years. And this public veneration of the saint’s dead body marks a momentous divergence from Roman paganism and from Christianity’s parent faith, Judaism, for both shunned the bodies of the dead as sources of pollution.

By contrast, as Robert Bartlett points out in his new book, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?, “of all religions, Christianity is the one most concerned with dead bodies.” Christians looked to the ultimate resurrection of the whole person, body as well as soul, after death, not to mere survival of the spirit. They saw in the bodies of the saints, sanctified in life by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a pledge of that future resurrection, and a source of power and blessing in this world. The saint was believed to be present in his relics, as Christ was present in the eucharist. To journey to a shrine, to touch the holy bones or the tomb in which they rested, to anoint withered limbs with oil from the lamps that burned before them, to drink water in which dust from the shrine had been dissolved—all this brought the devotee physically and concretely within the scope of the saint’s power and patronage. “Brandea,” pieces of cloth that had touched a saint’s bones, were believed to become heavier from the contact.

At first saints were venerated only at their place of burial, and for centuries the Roman Church viewed with horror the Eastern custom of dismembering the saints so as to multiply their relics. By the early Middle Ages, however, these scruples had disappeared, and fragments of bone, hair, teeth, or flesh, shrined in silver and gold, enamel and crystal, made the influence of the saints both visible and portable. The process could be gruesome. Head relics were considered especially powerful, and head reliquaries were particularly striking. Often such reliquaries took the form of realistic metal or wooden busts, which enclosed the relic completely. But Elizabeth of Thuringia’s head was separated from her body soon after her death, and displayed in a reliquary that exposed her skull to view. So that “the sight of it should not strike horror into the onlookers,” the custodians peeled away the decaying flesh, skin, and hair “with a little knife,” and the Emperor Frederick II himself donated a gold crown for the stripped and cleansed skull.

Not all relics were body parts: in early Christian Ireland the gospel book, bell, or staff of many saints mattered more than their bodily remains. But everywhere, the veneration of the saints in their relics helped integrate the newly converted nations into an older Christian world through a common devotional culture. Relics and relic fragments were distributed by monasteries, bishops, and popes as marks of favor or tokens of esteem, missionaries carried them with them into pagan territory to protect and overawe, soldiers bore them into battle as an army of heavenly auxiliaries. Churches, monasteries, and cities gained power, wealth, and prestige from the possession of notable relics, and fairs and markets to mark the saints’ feast days became crucial to the prosperity of whole regions. In the words of the Miracles of (St.) Thecla, God had “sown” the world with saints, as “ambassadors, intercessors, mediators, for nations, cities, races and peoples against plague, famine, war, drought, earthquake.” The saints of medieval Europe were both patrons and power brokers.

Patronage carried responsibility as well as rights. If the saints could command the veneration of their devotees, those devotees in turn could demand results. Saints who failed to deliver might have their images or reliquaries “humiliated” by being placed on the ground, or shrouded in sackcloth, or have access to their shrines blocked with nettles or thorns until prayer was answered.


Ecclesiastical authorities protested against such superstition, and the second Council of Lyon banned all such practices in 1274, but in vain. A saint might even be punished because he was working too many miracles. When the holy monk Stephen of Thiers died in 1124 in the isolated monastery of Grandmont in the Auvergne, the flood of pilgrims to his tomb disturbed the devotions of the monks. Miracles multiplied, as did the crowds, till at last the abbot berated Stephen at the tomb:

We believe you are a saint without their proof Please stop…. If you don’t, I’m warning you, we’ll take your bones out of this place and throw them in the river.2

That emphasis on the miraculous, welcome or unwelcome, is fundamental to understanding the veneration of the saints. Since the sixteenth century, and partly in reaction to Protestant criticism, the Catholic Church has tended to locate the significance of the saints in their value as exemplars. Evidence of “heroic virtue,” rather than the power to heal or help, is the dominant consideration in modern canonizations. But for most of Christian history, the emphasis has lain the other way. As Robert Bartlett observes, “intercession is at the heart of the Christian conception of sainthood.” Three quarters of the witnesses in canonization processes in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were there to give evidence about the miracles wrought by the saint rather than the holiness of their lives, and that proportion climbed to 90 percent by the end of the fifteenth century.


San Silvestro, Venice/Bridgeman Art Library

Saint Thomas Becket enthroned with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Francis; painting by Girolamo Santacroce, 1520

This was no new development. The classic early saints’ lives, such as Athanasius’s life of Saint Anthony, Sulpicius Severus’s life of Saint Martin of Tours, or Gregory the Great’s life of Saint Benedict, are catalogs of wonders to which no ordinary Christian could ever aspire—visions, prophecies, healings, the exorcism of demons, the raising of the dead. These early lives do indeed celebrate the saints’ virtues, but in the form of monastic asceticism, spectacular fasting, and the renunciation of marriage and family—a call to heroism, not a pattern of living for average Christian men and women.

In a similar way, the “Acts” of the early Christian martyrs were chronicles of heroic endurance in the face of horrifying sufferings. What mattered about the saints was not their ordinariness, but the transcendent spiritual prowess that was the source of their ability to protect and heal. Princes, townsfolk, even Arab nomads flocked for healing, advice, and the resolution of disputes to the fifteen-meter-high column on which the fifth-century Syrian ascetic Simeon the Stylite chose to live, half-starved, sleep-deprived, and exposed to freezing wind and scorching sun. Renunciation on this scale, it was believed, must make anyone capable of it a source of wisdom and blessing.

New types of saint would overtake the old—Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, latecomers to Christianity, contributed a distinctive kind of sanctity, that of the ruler who suffered a violent death, like good King Wenceslas. Saints from the Italian city-states dominated late medieval canonizations, many of them from the new mendicant orders. But the impress of the earliest written lives marked the literature of sanctity throughout the Middle Ages. Hagiography was a highly formulaic activity, and the life of a new saint might even be composed simply by changing the names in an older narrative.

The most successful book of the Middle Ages was the collection of saints’ lives compiled by a Dominican friar based in Lombardy, Jacobus de Voragine, in the 1260s. It took the form of a “Legendary,” a word derived from the Latin verb legere, to read, which carried no overtones of fiction or the far-fetched. A legenda was simply a book to be read aloud each day. Jacobus’s book, intended to provide clergy with material for sermons, was structured around the Christian calendar, arranging the saints’ lives in the order of their feasts throughout the year, interspersed with instructions on the major liturgical seasons of Advent, Lent, or Easter.

Jacobus’s Legenda became the most widely read book of the Middle Ages. By the end of the thirteenth century, hagiographers all over Europe were lifting material wholesale from it, earning it the nickname the Golden Legend, a Legendary worth its weight in gold. It was translated into most of the languages of Western Europe, with seven medieval versions in French alone. In all, it survives in more than a thousand manuscripts, far eclipsing every other book from the Middle Ages. And with the advent of printing, Jacobus’s text proved even more popular in the new medium. Between 1470 and 1500 an astonishing eighty-seven Latin editions of the Legenda were printed, as well as sixty-nine in various vernaculars, including four editions in English, considerably more than all the known printings of any book, even the Bible, during the same period.3

So it is all the more striking that Jacobus’s book should have been deeply conservative, containing almost no saints of his own or recent times. The canonizations by successive popes in the sixty or seventy years before Jacobus wrote publicized a wide spectrum of holiness and states of life, much of it new—from Homobonus of Cremona, a married layman revered for his goodness to the poor, to holy queens and empresses like Margaret of Scotland, Cunegund of Bamberg, and of course Elizabeth of Thuringia. There had been saintly bishops like Hugh of Lincoln, Richard of Chichester, and the Irishman Laurence O’Toole, clerical martyrs like Stanislaus of Cracow, and the founders and early heroes and heroines of the mendicant orders, Francis and Clare of Assisi and, among Voragine’s fellow Dominicans, Saint Dominic and Saint Peter Martyr.

Jacobus did include lengthy accounts of Francis and Dominic, as well as a similarly extended treatment of the Dominican order’s proto-martyr, Peter of Verona, murdered by heretics in Voragine’s native Lombardy in 1252. He also included a life of the English martyr-archbishop Thomas Becket, representative symbol of the medieval church’s authority and freedom from secular interference, whose shrine at Canterbury was one of the great pilgrimage sites of Europe.

But there Jacobus’s interest in modern sanctity appears to have ended. He ignored not only all the other papal canonizations of the preceding hundred years, but all other saints of whatever kind from the preceding five centuries. The Legenda does include a long account of the life of Elizabeth of Thuringia, but it is so different in tone and style from virtually every other life in the Legenda, dwelling on Elizabeth’s life and virtues rather than her miracles, that it may well be an interpolation by another hand.

Jacobus drew the overwhelming majority of his saints, therefore, from those who had been venerated for centuries. Above all, he focused on the martyr saints of the first four Christian centuries, and his accounts of them are marked, as the earliest saints’ lives had been, by fearsome suffering, rejection of the world, and spectacular miracles. Writing hagiography for an age of warmly human and approachable saints like Francis of Assisi and Elizabeth of Thuringia, he turned to starker and more spectacular patterns of holiness, first portrayed in the earliest saints’ lives centuries earlier.

The resulting narratives are vivid and racy, but two-dimensional, devoid of personality or depth. Yet they were well calculated to appeal to medieval taste for wonder and romance, excitement and pious entertainment. Their breathless pace and spectacular incident no doubt help to account for the Golden Legend’s popularity far beyond its original clerical target audience. And they make clear to a modern reader how very recent is the notion of the saint, and the saint’s life, as a pattern for ordinary living.

In the sixteenth century, both Catholic and Protestant reformers would repudiate Jacobus’s Legendary, as a farrago of superstitious fictions. It was rehabilitated in the nineteenth century by Romantic nostalgia for an idealized Christian Middle Ages, and as a reference book for literary and art historians seeking to understand medieval culture. In more recent times it has become a point of reference for social anthropologists and historians of medieval religion and mentalité.

It is in that spirit that the celebrated French medievalist Jacques Le Goff, who died on April 1, offers his new study of Voragine’s book, In Search of Sacred Time. Le Goff is an exponent of the ideals and methods of the French Annales school, an approach to the past, pioneered by Ferdinand Braudel, that did great service to history by rejecting narrow periodization in favor of the study of the “longue durée” and the deep structural factors underlying historical change. The vice of the school was a tendency toward vacuous generalization and windy theorizing.

Sadly, Le Goff’s new book embodies those characteristic vices, while displaying few compensating virtues. He writes to demonstrate a thesis. Jacobus, Le Goff insists, intended his book neither as a Legendary in the conventional sense, nor as a mere compilation of saints’ lives. Rather it is “a summa on time,” whose “real subject” is not in fact the saints, but the “sacralizing and enchanting” of time itself. Jacobus merely made “pious use” of the saints as a means “to sacralize or sanctify times and places.”

It would of course be impossible to write a book based around the liturgical calendar, as Jacobus’s is, without having something to say about times and seasons. Jacobus does indeed reflect often on the significance of particular saints’ days and liturgical anniversaries. But Le Goff’s insistence that preoccupation with time is Voragine’s one “real” concern has to be bolstered by strained or implausible interpretations of passages manifestly concerned with other issues.

Jacobus’s treatment of the feast of All Saints (November) is a case in point. Jacobus uses All Saints as an opportunity to explain why saints should be venerated at all, and then to discuss different categories of sanctity. The chapter plays characteristically with numbers—four types of saint match the four corners of the world—but there is no particular emphasis in it on the significance of time. For Le Goff, however, Jacobus’s treatment of All Saints

represents the concentration in one day of what divine time can bring humanity that is most sacralizing. It is a day of excellence in which all of the perspectives for salvation that time offers humanity are found united in precisely those beings whom God has chosen to be models for human time.

This relentlessly monofocal special pleading for the concept of divine time leads Le Goff to other demonstrable misreadings of Jacobus’s text. In discussing his treatment of Advent—the celebration of the First and Second Coming of Christ—for example, Le Goff insists that Jacobus plays down “eschatological time,” and even “shies away from the inevitable evocation of the Last Days with its woes and terrors, including the arrival of the Antichrist.” But this is simply untrue—Jacobus provides what is by his standards a lengthy discussion of Christ’s Second Coming (a major theme of the Advent liturgy), in the course of which he sets out in detail the conventional medieval “fifteen signs of the end of the world,” as well as the “four means of deception” that it was believed would attend the advent of the Antichrist. The best single structural analysis of the Golden Legend is by Le Goff’s pupil and friend Alain Boureau,4 to whom Le Goff acknowledges his indebtedness. Sadly, In Search of Sacred Time adds nothing of value to Boureau’s work, and it will add little to Le Goff’s reputation either.

By contrast, Robert Bartlett’s awkwardly named Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? (a quotation from Saint Augustine) takes its place at once as an indispensible point of departure for anyone interested in the cult of the saints in the Middle Ages. The book is based on an awe-inspiring familiarity with the hagiographical sources of both Eastern and Western churches, and is packed with intelligent, measured, and well-informed discussions of everything from the hierarchy of precedence of feasts in the old Roman calendar to the managerial problems of running a shrine. Students, scholars, and the general reader will all find it invaluable.

The book is not without its faults. Theology is not Bartlett’s strongest point, and insofar as his theological perspective can be discerned, it seems a robustly dismissive liberal Protestantism. In its origins, he thinks, Christianity “was a radical revivalist cult” that rejected temple, cult, priesthood, sacrifice, and other attributes of organized religions. The acceptance of all of these into third- and fourth-century Christianity represented the loss of its radical distinctiveness from other religions—“A priest of Baal or of Isis or of Yahweh would certainly have recognized what kind of thing the Christianity of the late fourth century was.” Bartlett includes among these alien elements even the notion of a holy place, the root of pilgrimage, which was later absorbed by Christianity as it became established.

But these are highly contestable claims. It is, for example, hard to see how a religious movement so deeply indebted to the Psalms for its prayers and liturgies could be intrinsically hostile to the notion of the holiness of Jerusalem, and hence of sacred places more generally. At the same time, the central Christian doctrine of Incarnation might be argued to entail of necessity the celebration of the material and not just the spiritual world, including the bodies of the saints.

Any book that attempts to cover every aspect of the cult of the saints will be vulnerable to charges of omission—Bartlett quotes but nowhere discusses, for example, either the most important medieval treatise on relics, by Thiofrid of Echternach, or the most powerful attack on relics by a medieval Catholic, Guibert of Nogent. And it seems a regrettable and misleading decision to end the story with the Reformation, since the cult of the saints continued to flourish and evolve in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity down to the present. But this is to berate the sun for its spots. Bartlett has given us a marvelously abundant and useful book, which will surely remain the standard work for the foreseeable future.