Contested Canonizations: The Last Medieval Saints, 1482-1523

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813218755
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2011
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ronald Finucane died at the height of his critical powers in 2009, shortly after he submitted this work for publication. Distinguished professor of history at Oakland University, he was the author of four books including Miracles and Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in Medieval England and Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Moslems at War, both History Book Club selections. This book was brought to publication by Simon Ditchfield, reader in history at the University of York.

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The Last Medieval Saints, 1482–1523

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2011 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1875-5

Chapter One

Saint-Making at the End of the Middle Ages

* * *

For most of the medieval period, particular individuals were honorably buried by local authority—abbot, bishop, lord, or commune for instance—because of their nobility, charity, exemplary piety, or healing powers. They might subsequently become the center of a local cult. Eventually they might be reinterred in a more honorable location (the process known as "translation"). Their devotees communicated with them through prayers that could result in miracles performed by God through their intercession. By the end of the twelfth century, however, the papacy began to take control of this process, removing recognition of individuals as saints from the periphery to the center. From that point forward, saint-making became a long, arduous business involving repeated supplications to the pope, local hearings into a candidate's life and miracles, examination of these at the curia, and further commissions of inquiry. The next phase brought curial advocates, judges of the Rota, and others into the process, with the appointment of a team of cardinals to oversee the affair. After several discussions in consistories, successful applicants were honored in a ceremony of canonization. The routine has been described by many scholars, with plenty of primary and secondary references. Although this lessens the temptation to reinvent the wheel, an overview of the procedures that gave us the last medieval saints will set the scene. During the thirteenth century, as more aggressive popes built up their bureaucracy and enhanced their role as the focus of authority, canon lawyers found themselves with plenty of opportunities to exercise their craft, producing commentaries on collections of decrees and on other commentaries. The Church adapted Roman (civil) legal processes—ius commune—such as inquisitorial procedures to a variety of situations, including canonizations. By c. 1300, saint-making was a well-articulated process, as was the analysis of associated miracles, which continued to be almost daily occurrences: about 1400 some English nuns, preparing for the inevitable, established a litany to chant "whenever a miracle" might occur in their midst. Just before 1500 a canonist was wondering whether a person raised from the dead was "the same" person, whether a will he'd made should be revoked, and whether he could take a different wife.

Although Innocent III summed up the official approach in declaring that both a holy life and miracles were needed, and this remained the standard line, determinations about miracles seem to have taken up more time and cerebral energy at the curia than the investigation and discussion of a candidate's life. By the thirteenth century the possibility was generally accepted that an apparently saintly person might secretly be engaged in sinful behavior or harbor evil, heretical thoughts; by their nature, such ugly tendencies weren't immediately obvious. Miracles, however, those attributed to the candidate when alive and, especially, after death, were events open to investigation. Because of this, miracles (or their lack) were essential elements in managing the process. Popes and cardinals could more easily manipulate their acceptance or rejection, and thus a candidate's canonization prospects. A Salisbury proctor at Rome complained in 1453 that "nearly thirty years ago" Osmund's case was "examined in the curia and set aside" because of purported failure to show continuous miracles. A new commission was in the offing to reevaluate the matter, but "in my opinion" this was done only "to prolong the case." Vauchez's opinion seems to be that even by the end of the thirteenth century—as mentioned in our introduction—popes were trying to discourage mounting numbers of canonization requests, thus avoiding decisions they "did not want to have to take." For Vauchez the process could be employed as a "blocking mechanism," a barrier against an inundation of supplications to the curia, a way "to slow things down and protect the pope from having to make a decision." He doesn't follow up these interesting suggestions, but they would seem to demand further exploration. In any case, there's no doubt that during the thirteenth century many processes were sent back to be redone, sometimes repeatedly, almost always because of alleged procedural defects in testimony about miracles. For some reason or other, the curialists, having examined the reported wonders, might claim that they were not satisfied with what they'd found. But what had they found? Some of our five saints' causes nearly failed because of doubts about miracles—raised pro forma or for real.


Medieval collections of sworn depositions about miracles attributed to would-be saints exist in abundance. These (originally local) miraculous cults were spread right across Europe. Thousands of folios of testimony have been used by modern historians interested in what peasants, townsfolk, and the more privileged among clergy and laity can tell us about contemporary society, culture, and especially belief in the miraculous. Reading these collections against (and with) the grain has proven to be rewarding, especially now that we appreciate their multivalence: though examiners scripted their questions in Latin beforehand, witnesses responded usually in the vernacular to what they believed was pertinent, sometimes creating messy disjunctions between questions and answers. Paradoxically, it's even more difficult to get into the minds of the upper echelons—the lawyers, medical doctors, judges, cardinals, and other curialists at Rome. There are plenty of clues about attitudes toward miracles at the grassroots, out on the peripheries (as viewed from Rome): miraculously touched folk were called before local inquisitorial committees and if "cured" of paralysis made to walk about (sometimes crashing into obstacles), or if of blindness to name colors, or to speak if dumb or even tongueless prior to their saintly encounters, or to show the examiners their life-threatening scars or deformities (in one case a pointed head over which a cartwheel had trundled) or facial discoloration (green) after lying about dead in a pond. But few indications of subsequent, upper-level analysis at Rome have survived (apart from theological tracts) before the late medieval and early modern periods. Ideally, we'd like to listen in on the discussions of the clerical intellectuals surrounding the pope who received and analyzed these lists of miracles that had been gathered, perhaps hundreds of miles away; to learn how the reported wonders fit in—or not—with their preconceptions and how they made their decisions about whether or not specific miracles were acceptable as proven. Unfortunately, our cases provide only glimpses of this process, which begins opening up in the seventeenth century, when extensive arguments pro and con about particular cures are reported.

There was no dearth of theoretical treatments. In his Summa of the 1240s Geoffrey of Trani claimed that miracles had to fulfill four conditions: they had to (1) be performed by God; (2) be contra naturam; (3) be accomplished through a person's merit, not the power of words alone; (4) and corroborate the faith. These four defining points came to be repeated by later commentators including, for example, Hostiensis. Also during the thirteenth century, Aquinas noted that a miracle must have a manifest effect, evoke wonder in the observer, and occur by occult means but ultimately through God, who might, however, allow sinners or demons to perform pseudomiracles. Some miracles were greater than others, and they could be ranked in three grades depending upon how far they exceeded nature's powers: miracles of the highest rank surpassed nature substantially, as when two bodies occupied the same space, or the sun went backward; second-tier miracles involved supernatural events, for example, changing a corpse to a living being; while the lowest of the three were miracles that went beyond nature in the order or rate of action, as in sudden cures. As for the vita and lists of purported miracles sent to the curia on a would-be saint's behalf, preliminary procedures entailed reading, analyzing, and rubricating the reports, then sending them on to auditors or cardinals and consistories (discussed below). However, before the sixteenth century we have very little documentation indicating what was thought about the miracles as they shuttled through these high-level committees, how they actually were analyzed and discussed. In fact, according to Kleinberg, there are only two significant medieval examples, "probably the most important documents among the few surviving critiques of miracles (in the context of canonization) from the Middle Ages." These involved the miracles of France's Louis IX (d. 1270, cd. 1297) and an English bishop of Hereford, Thomas Cantilupe (d. 1282, cd. 1320). Vauchez found the Cantilupe document so important that he transcribed in Sainthood in the Middle Ages, Peter of Morrone, Pope Celestine V, was a third interesting case. He died in 1296 and was canonized in 1313. Miracles attributed to these three were examined by curialists between about 1280 and about 1320, giving us interesting perspectives on how intellectuals dealt with supernatural wonders in the decades around 1300. It should be borne in mind that documents for these three reflect different phases (i.e., are different types of document) in canonization investigations. They will be taken up chronologically.

Witnesses described Louis IX's miracles during a hearing in 1282–83 at Saint Denis. The record was sent to the curia, where the wonders were organized and analyzed. Sometime between 1285 and 1287, the results of the analysis were presented in consistory before Honorius IV. Delaborde edited a "memorandum" read on that occasion, concerning just one of the curative miracles. The testimony of several witnesses was compared. Evidently the only discrepancies noted in the memo had to do with timing: the alleged day and hour of the cure. Apparently the "miraculous" core of the cure itself was not at issue. Between 1295 and 1297 on Boniface VIII's orders, Cardinal Pietro Colonna prepared a consilium on another of Louis's wonders—not the same one analyzed in the 1280s, as Delaborde wrongly believed. Again, the report seems to concentrate on reconciling or explaining witnesses' discrepant statements about what might seem (to us) to be "secondary" issues. Colonna set out his report in scholastic fashion, raising then responding to various objections. He claims that even though witnesses may disagree as to details, if they agree as to substance their statements can be accepted, as in the following example. A paralyzed woman was said to have been miraculously cured. There were contradictions among witnesses about how her paralysis was verified: some said by using a pin, others hot water, or fire. Colonna responded that each witness proved the debility, though in a different fashion, as in paying tithes: some pay in wheat, some beans, others barley. Yet tithe is paid; and whether a criminal is sentenced to be decapitated or hanged, this affirms the judge's capital jurisdiction regardless of mode of execution. Aquinas, among others, had dealt with this issue, stating that if witnesses disagreed in certain principal circumstances relating to the substance of the fact, for example, in time, place, or persons, their evidence was of no weight. However, disagreement as to circumstances not touching the substance of the fact, for example, whether the skies were clear or cloudy, or a house painted or not, "does not weaken the evidence." Having bolstered his responses with more than forty citations from canon and civil law—but only one biblical reference—Colonna concluded that the case at hand seemed proven, after which he appealed to the pope for a definitive ruling. Yet, to our way of thinking, perhaps, the central issue—was this a "real" miracle—seems to have been ignored.

Our second example, Celestine V, was canonized on May 5, 1313. The same Cardinal Pietro Colonna involved in Louis IX's case also played a role here, as did his uncle Giacomo Colonna. Accounts of Celestine's miracles were examined at the curia. In one case, a witness didn't seem to prove a miracle because he hadn't been present at the cure, didn't specify whether the cure was instantaneous, or might have been effected with medication, and was too vague when commenting on Celestine's fama, Besides that, the notaries seem to have fallen down on the job, for they didn't set out the testimony of the next witness per extensum, but merely noted that it was the same as that of the previous witness. In another case—Philippa, unable to walk until touched with a relic of Morrone—the statements of several witnesses were compared. One deposed that Philippa had applied the relic to herself, another, that a follower of Morrone had done this; a witness who stated that Philippa couldn't move from one place to another was contradicted by someone who claimed that she could, by scuttling along on her posterior; and a witness failed to say how long she'd been crippled and how long after her cure she was seen to walk. Once again, concentration seems to be placed on the circumstances of the miracle rather than its substance. But this was bound to be the case, given contemporary understanding about the human body, and because, as canonists and theologians recognized, theoretically one couldn't actually testify about miracles per se, since by definition they were supernatural, that is, beyond humanly observable nature; testimony was not about a miracle but about "that from which it could be shown to be a miracle." Proof of both Louis IX's and Celestine V's miracles was, and could only be, circumstantial. In the dead pope's case, however, we find an additional, mundane factor at work at the final stages, when cardinals had to vote on a short list of miracles that seemed "true." Between December 1312 and May 1313 at a secret consistory in Avignon, twelve of Celestine's miracles were considered. Here we glimpse the inner tensions among the cardinals as they sat before the pope ostensibly discussing miracles, while actually wrangling over their personal, familial, and political animosities; such clashes—often quite unedifying—occurred in many consistories, just as they enlivened conclaves. In this case, the lines were pretty clearly drawn, between the anti-Boniface VIII, pro-Celestine faction on the one hand, and on the other, those trying to protect Boniface's memory by resisting Celestine's canonization. Boniface had deprived both the Colonnas of their cardinalates in May 1297. They were reinstated by Clement V in 1305. Celestine's cause began soon afterward, pushed by Philip IV of France. In the 1312–13 consistory, then, as Clement V looked on, the Colonna cardinals and their allies consistently voted in support of Celestine's miracles, while the other faction voted just as adamantly against them. Pietro Colonna made his position clear at the start: in the five prefatory questions put to each of the cardinals, when Pietro was asked whether Morrone's holy life had been proven, he replied "yes," and added that Clement could have canonized him a year earlier. When the other Colonna was asked whether witnesses had proven Morrone's life to have been holy, he replied that since he was convinced of his holiness, he wasn't going to weary himself by reading the depositions. Asked the same general questions, other cardinals, particularly Francesco and Giacomo Caetano (Boniface VIII was a Caetano) naturally disagreed with the Colonnas. This was made clear when it came time to vote on the twelve miracles, one by one. The Caetanos voted that most were not proven: of their twenty-three votes (one was not recorded), a "no" was registered sixteen times, with six "doubtfuls" and a single "yes." The two Colonnas, on the other hand, only once voted "no."

The third example, taken from Thomas Cantilupe's canonization, removes us from the consistorial hothouse of personal animosities. Testimony on Cantilupe's life and miracles was gathered in England during 1307 and sent to Avignon. Some time between 1318 and 1320, a document analyzing some of his miracles appeared. In an Oxford manuscript it runs to eleven folios. The version transcribed by Vauchez from a less-legible French manuscript takes up fifteen printed pages. This important, anonymous document was also discussed by Daly and Kleinberg. Each of these three scholars has attributed it to a different author: (Vauchez) high-ranking curialist, perhaps a cardinal; (Daly) junior curial cleric; and (Kleinberg) theologian (a status that could also apply to either of the two preceding figures). The two dozen or so miracles include one about a child, Roger, who fell from a bridge into a ditch at night, was found "dead" in the morning, though without any evident serious injuries. He was soon resuscitated through prayers to Cantilupe. The writer raises two issues. First, why was Roger's body, falling from a height onto stony ground, not seriously mangled? In the margin is the word Dubio, A few lines down appears Solutio, which refers to the (Aristotelian) explanation: as Roger's body was very light, he hit the ground with little force. Moreover, the disposition of his limbs suggested that he had flailed about while falling, probably moving himself out of a vertical line of descent. It has been shown "from experience," the writer notes, that falling objects deviating from the vertical will land less forcefully. A second dubium follows: If he was apparently uninjured, what had killed him? Was he actually dead? The solutio emphasizes that death had occurred, since the signs of death (coldness, rigidity, absence of breath, etc.) were present. It is suggested that he may have died from internal injuries, or the movement of the air while falling, or the shock of fear. In sum, the child had truly died, and through Cantilupe's intercession, been revived. The circumstances are very carefully analyzed, their physical attributes established (including such things as the composition of the dirt underneath under the body and the precise location of bruises on his limbs and face), as context for the subsequent miracle of revival. Following a line taken by many canonists, the writer observes that disagreement among witnesses didn't vitiate a miracle "as to the substance of the thing that happened." As in the Colonna analysis of Saint Louis's miracle, in the Exeter manuscript contraries are established and then resolved, with authorities cited along the way. But that's the extent of the similarity: the Colonna report deals mainly with discrepancies in testimony, but the Cantilupe writer is interested in the physical setting. This led Kleinberg to suggest that Roger's case represents "one of the first signs of the influence of scientific thought on the process of canonization. The Colonna legalistic analysis, on the other hand, does not exhibit such interests. Kleinberg may be right, but until other documents come to light, the fourteenth-century Cantilupe report is unique, which is precisely why Vauchez printed it in extenso, With no other similar, subsequent analyses surviving from the medieval period, there's no way to test Kleinberg's claim. What we may actually be witnessing with the Cantilupe writer is a concentration on points of fact (which would thus appear to be a "scientific approach") rather than aspects of canon law surrounding the miraculous, somewhat analogously to the distinction between medieval advocates' interest in theoretical fine points on the one hand, and proctors' more practical analyses of events on the other, or modern jurists' divorcing matters of fact from matters of law. In any case it is not until the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that detailed reports (relationes) have survived from auditors of the Rota and others that go into similar analyses of miracles. Sixtus V's institution of the Congregation of Rites in 1588 (when canonizations resumed) increased the chances for documentary survival. By the end of the century, we're more fully informed about miracle investigations at the top, as in the case of Raymund of Penafort (d. 1275, cd. 1601).


Excerpted from CONTESTED CANONIZATIONS by RONALD C. FINUCANE Copyright © 2011 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 Saint-Making at the End of the Middle Ages....................13
2 The Embattled Friar: Bonaventure (c. 1220–74, cd. 1482)....................33
3 The Good Duke: Leopold of Austria (c. 1073–1136, cd. 1485)....................71
4 The Hermit-Ambassador: Francis of Paola (c. 1416–1507, cd. 1519)....................117
5 The Reforming Friar-Archbishop: Antoninus of Florence (1389–1459, cd. 1523)....................167
6 Luther's Devil-God: Benno of Meissen (c. 1040–1106, cd. 1523)....................207
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