Robert BARTLETT. Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013. 787 pages. ISBN 978-0-691-15913-3. Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB.
It is hard to overemphasize the scholarship evident in this book. It provides a comprehensive account of what has been one of the most notable features of Christianity from its origins, namely, veneration of saints. One could associate a work such as this with a certain dryness of tone but this is not the case. The book is very engaging and at the same time quite modular, that is, allowing the readers to jump around to concentrate on their areas of special interest. Bartlett is one of the world’s leading medieval historians and he brings his expertise to bear on this very ambitious project. The scope of the book covers fifteen centuries. The culmination of the work takes the reader to the Reformation when veneration of saints became, in Western Europe, highly contentious. The author concludes his historical panorama, though, with an account of the Protestant martyrs.
The book covers all aspects of the veneration of saints from miracles, relics, pilgrimages and shrines. There are also some excellent chapters which look at the influence of saints on literature and the arts. Bartlett’s thesis is that an understanding of saints is indispensable to any student of Western culture. This is because saints are interwoven into the fabric of this culture from its genesis in the late Roman world. This can be seen in the earliest records of Christianity where the prominence given to the lives of the martyrs underline their pivotal role. This influence is not confined by social class. The peasant seeking intersession for a fruitful harvest, the nobility looking for good example and the ascetic seeking perfection are all invested in veneration of saints. Moreover, study of veneration of saints provides a departure point for a multitude of scholarly exegesis. From selection of personal names to the shaping of the calendar, the saints played a role that was thoroughly intertwined with the sacred and profane aspects of life. This seminal idea is well captured in the following quotation, "The Christian cult of the saints, as it emerged in the late Roman world and developed throughout the medieval centuries, was wide and deep. People of all social rank and levels of education were involved.” (p636).
I was particularly interested in the accounts of shrines and associated pilgrimages. This was a major, enduring social phenomenon in medieval Europe. The shrines of the saints drew hordes of pilgrims from vast distances and these journeys became a dominant cultural form. They were embedded in popular consciousness as well and the nascent literature of the period. In addition, they provided important commercial and financial opportunities for those who saw the potential in providing for a relentless stream of people eager for a liminal experience of the transcendent. Bartlett also provides an illuminating account of how the veneration of saints in the period under review compares to similar activities in other religions. For example, he notes that the cult of martyrs is established in Jewish and Muslim cultures. The Christian cult, however, is distinguishable by how martyrdom is linked to the concept of sainthood. For the medieval Christian martyrdom was an active action, one that inspired profound veneration with all its associated ritual and communal action.
This book is highly recommended.