The Intense Afterlife of the Saints

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…

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