THE BOOK OF SAINTS.  A Comprehensive Biographical Dictionary.  8th Revised edition by Dom Basil WATKINS (840 pp – Bloomsbury T&T Clark). Pb ISBN 978-0-567-66456-3.  Reviewed by Dr. Karen Monique GREGG, University of Saint Francis,  Fort Wayne, IN  46808.


This 3-inch thick, 840 page, 8th Revised edition claims to be the only complete dictionary of all the saints, in any language. This dictionary includes: 1) saints formally canonized or beatified by the Roman Catholic Church up to 2015; 2) saints who have had their local veneration approved by the Church as a whole, also up to 2015; 3) saints listed in the Roman Martyrologies 1924; and 4) saints listed in the Roman Martyrologies 2004.  It does not include any of the saints who were deleted (for lack of legitimate historical evidence) from the Roman Martyrology overhaul of 2004. At the end of the book there is a handy glossary and an Appendix listing the National Martyrs. Therefore, to my knowledge, it is the most up-to-date and comprehensive go-to source for anyone interested in saints.

How does one write a book review for a dictionary?  Since all saints are entered in alphabetical order and a brief description of their biography and lifespan (if known) are provided, I decided to keep my method simple. I wrote down a personal list of saints of whom I wanted to know more about and then set upon discovering their entries in this giant paperback book. My list included:  1) Benedict of Nursia; 2) Agnes of Bohemia; 3) Clare of Assisi; 4) Francis of Assisi; 5) Anthony of Padua; 6) Mary of Oignies; 7) Bernard of Clairvaux; 8) Augustine of Hippo; 9) Collete Boilet; 10) Agnes of Assisi; and 11) St. Bavo (presented in no particular order other than how they occurred to me in my study of Francis and Clare of Assisi [Gregg forthcoming]).  Next, I set about the task of reviewing their entries. From this small sample I sought to discover the depth and breadth of the information provided for each saint. I share my findings and my sample below. 

I found that: 1) saints from the New Testament are scant in their descriptions because, as the author explains in the introduction, he assumes most people have access to a Bible; 2) entries include the religious affiliation and/or order of the saint, if known; 3) it is better to be precise about the saint you’d like to look up – there were 19 Benedicts, 11 Jeromes, 20 Augustines, and at least 65 Anthonys, etc… 4) looking up someone with a complicated name like St. Mary of Oignies is a little tricky, it took me a while to find her entry; 5) the saint’s celebration day is listed; 6) if the whereabouts are known, the place of the saint’s relics are listed; 7) the entries take a refreshingly critical stance pointing out where historic evidence is missing, thereby pointing out potentially dubious claims; 8) whenever possible the author shares the symbol for which the saint is best known; and finally 9) the depth and breadth of the entries varies a considerable amount (see below). 

As for the illustrations, although the they are few (only 27), and although they are in black and white, they depict some of the most important saints, including, St. Anthony, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, and Mother Teresa, to name just a few. 

Every Catholic university or university where religious studies are taught should have a copy of this comprehensive book in their library collection. But it is also a fun book, that once you get started looking up saints, you are pulled in to look up more and more saints. This means that anyone can sit down with this reference book and learn more about sainthood in the Catholic Church. Finally, I think it is important to share the author’s final and humble note in the Introduction:

This book is intended primarily to be a work of reference, which entails that a critical attitude is taken towards historical evidence (especially early legends).  This is an expression of conformity to the hagiographical norms expressed by the Second Vatican Council. No attack on anyone’s devotional attachments or practices is intended as a result.

Readers are welcome to draw attention to any mistakes or omissions. (xi)

Dom Basil Watkins, OSB

Sample Reviewed

1) Benedict of Nursia (St) {2} 11 July
d. 550.  He is primarily celebrated as the compiler of the monastic rule named after him, in itself anonymous and based on an earlier document called the Rule of the Master (possibly also him).  An ancient tradition equates him with the hero of the second ‘Dialogue’ attributed to St Gregory the Great, which is the only biographical source and which is now regarded as dubious authenticity. The rule and dialogue lack cross references. According to the later he was a young man from Nursia (now Norcia in Umbria, Italy) who went to study at Rome but fled in disgust and became a hermit near the ruins of Nero’s villa at Subiaco. There he established a monastic colony before moving to Montecassino in about 530 and founding the abbey there, where he died.  There are competing claims for his relics at Montecassino and Fleury (France), but both involve a loss of continuity and veneration. His rule gradually took precedence in the monasteries of Merovingian France and apparently became familiar in Saxon English monasticism through the agency of SS Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop.  It was prescribed for the Carolingian empire from 817 and was absolutely dominant in Western monasticism for over two hundred years after, at a time when monasteries were the centres of the surviving civilization. For this reason St Benedict was declared patron saint of Europe in 1964.  There is no evidence for his cultus at Rome before the C10th. 

2) Agnes of Bohemia (St) {2} 2 March
1200-82.  Born at Prague (Czech Republic), she was the daughter of the king of Bohemia and was educated by the Cistercian nuns of Trzebnica (Poland).  She refused to marry and, entered a Poor Clare convent at Prague which was staffed by five nuns sent by St Clare from Assisi.  She remained there for the rest of her life, forty-six years, and was canonized in 1989.

3) Clare of Assisi 11 August
?1194-1253.  A beautiful young noblewoman from Assisi (Italy), she ran away from home to join St Francis and to follow his ideals.  He heard her vows as a nun in 1212, found a refuge for her at the Benedictine nunnery of St Paul’s in Assisi and then obtained a house by the church of St Damian for her and her sister St Agnes in 1215.  She governed this first nunnery of the Poor Clares in absolute poverty for forty years, and was as much instrumental in spreading the Franciscan ideal as St Francis herself.  She is often represented holding a monstrance, in reference to a story that she saved the nunnery from a raid by mercenary soldiers by exposing the Blessed Sacrament to them.

4) Francis of Assisi (St) {1, 3} 4 October
1181-1226. The son of a rich merchant of Assisi in Umbria (Italy), he was baptized as John but was nicknamed ‘Frenchy’, possibly because he could speak French.  He joined his father’s business and lived a carefree life until a spiritual conversion led him to a life of prayer and penance.  His father disinherited him and he professed a state of absolute poverty for two years, restoring the chapels of St Damian and the ‘Portiuncula’ in his home town, before founding the Friars Minor in 1209.  These were characterized by spiritual joy and complete poverty, individual and collective.  He gathered five thousand disciples in ten years but the institutionalization of such charism proved very difficult, and these difficulties persisted long after his death.  His rule received papal approval in 1215, however, and his friars established themselves throughout Western Europe, especially in university towns. They were ideally suited to the new urban environment.  In 1219, after the first solemn chapter of his order at Assisi, he went to Egypt to try and convert the Muslims but was rebuffed with courtesy.  He received the stigmata on Mount Alvernia (the first recorded case) in 1224, and died as a deacon.  ‘Il Povarello’ (the ‘Poor Little Man’) is the most popular saint of the second Christian millennium, although sentiment has rather obscured the starker aspects of his prophetic and apocalyptic witness.

5) Anthony of Padua (St) {1, 3} 13 June
1195-1231. From Lisbon (Portugal), when young he joined the Canons Regular but transferred to the Franciscans at Coimbra in 1212.  He set off for the Maghreg in order to preach to Muslims but illness and stormy weather brought him to Italy instead.  He met St Francis, who helped him establish himself as a preacher against heresy and as a thaumaturge.  He died at Padua and was canonized the following year, being especially popular in intercession as a finder of lost objects.  In 1946 he was declared a doctor of the Church, being responsible for introducing Augustinian theology to the nascent Franciscans.  He is represented with the Christ-Child and a lily.

6) Mary of Oignies (B1) {2} 23 June
d. 1213.  From Nivelles (Belgium), she married when young but persuaded her husband not to consummate the marriage.  They turned their house into a leper hospital where they nursed, and when she was widowed she became a hermit attached to the church at Oignies.

7) Bernard of Clairvaux (St) (1, 3) 20 August
1090-1153. A nobleman born near Dijon (France), in 1112 he joined the new abbey of Citeaux with (it is asserted) thirty friends and relatives whom he had persuaded to enter.  He was sent to be first abbot of the new foundation at Clairvaux in 1115 and transformed the struggling Cistercian congregation into a spectacular success, founding sixty-eight abbeys.  He became one of the most famous and influential men in Western Europe and was popular as an advisor of those in power, secular as well as ecclesiastical.  His theological writings, of which the most famous are the ‘Treatise on the Love of God’ and the ‘Commentary on the Song of Songs’, were highly influential and led him to be declared a doctor of the Church in 1830.  He proclaimed the second Crusade at Vezelay in 1146 and the disaster that this proved to be cast a shadow over his later life and vitiated his political judgment.  He died at Clairvaux and was canonized in 1174.  His attribute is a white dog.

8) Augustine of Hippo (St) {1, 3} 28 August
354-430. He was born in Tagaste in Roman Africa, his mother (St Monica) was a fervent Christian, but his father was a pagan.  He trained as a rhetorician and practiced that profession at Tagasate, Carthage, Rome, and Milan.  As a young man he was attracted to Manichaeism and fathered a child (St Adeodatus) out of wedlock. He was converted by the influence of St Ambrose of Milan and his mother’s prayers, helped by St Paul’s theology and the use of neoplatonic philosophy. Being baptized in Milan by St. Ambrose in 387, he went back to Africa and lived in quasi-monastic seclusion with a few friends for three years until his ordination for the city of Hippo as priest and then as bishop.  As a pastor his literary output was enormous (especially famous are his ‘Confessions’, ‘The City of God’, and ‘The Trinity’), and his influence on Latin patristic and early medieval theology was absolute. His need to combat especially the heresies concerning grace of Donatism and Pelagianism led him to develop the doctrine of grace and free will in an authoritative manner. Two letters of his advising religious communities were much later incorporated into a formal rule bearing his name, which became very popular in the Middle Ages.  He is a doctor of the Church.  His alleged relics are at Pavia (Italy). 

9) Collette Boilet (St) {2} 6 March
1381-1447. From Corbie in Picardy (France) she was a carpeter’s daughter who tried her vocation as a Benedictine and then as a Beguine before becoming a hermit at Corbie.  Finally, she recognized her true vocation as that of being restoring the Poor Clares to their original charism, especially as regards to absolute poverty. She was made their superior by the anti-pope at Avignon in 1406 and established her Colettine reform in France, Germany and the Low Countries, founding seventeen new convents.  She also helped St Vincent Ferrer in his work against the Great Schism.  She died at Ghent and was canonized in 1807.  Her attribute is a lamb, and she is depicted as a Poor Clare with bare feet (one of the disturbing features of her reform).

10) Agnes of Assisi (St) {2} 16 November
1197-1253. She was the younger sister of St Clare, whom she followed to the Benedictine convent of Panso near Assisi (Italy) when aged sixteen and thence to San Damiano.  She was the first Poor Clare abbess of Monticelli at Florence, opened convents in Padua, Venice and Mantua and died at San Damiano three months after St Clare.

11) Bavo (St) {2} 1 October
d. a.659.  From Hesbaye near Liege (Belgium), he led an immoral life when young but was widowed and then converted to a life of penance by a sermon by St Amandus of Elnone.  He founded an abbey (later named after him) on his property at Ghent and ended up as a hermit in a cell nearby.  He is patron of the city.