Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation

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From its earliest centuries, one of the most notable features of Christianity has been the veneration of the saints--the holy dead. This sweepingly ambitious history from one of the world's leading medieval historians tells the fascinating story of the cult of the saints from its origins in the second-century days of the Christian martyrs to the Protestant Reformation. Drawing on sources from around the Christian world, Robert Bartlett examines all of the most important aspects of the saints--including miracles, relics, pilgrimages, shrines, and the saints' role in the calendar, literature, and art.

As this engaging narrative shows, a wide variety of figures have been venerated as saints: men and women, kings and servant girls, legendary virgins and highly political bishops--and one dog. The book explores the central role played by the bodies and body parts of saints, and the special treatment these relics received: how they were treasured and enshrined, used in war and peace, and faked and traded. The shrines of the saints drew pilgrims, sometimes from hundreds of miles, and the book describes the routes, dangers, and rewards of pilgrimage, including the thousands of reported miracles. The book surveys the rich literature and images that proliferated around the saints, as well as the saints' impact on everyday life--from the naming of people and places to the shaping of the calendar. Finally, the book considers how the Christian cult of saints compares with apparently similar aspects of other religions.

At once deeply informative and entertaining, this is an unmatched account of an immensely important and intriguing part of the religious life of the past--as well as the present.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Winner of the 2013 PROSE Award in European and World History, Association of American Publishers

"[A]n 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."--Eamon Duffy, New York Review of Books

"Robert Bartlett's monumental study provides a comprehensive account of the development of the cult of the saints from the cult of martyrs (those who had died as witnesses for their faith during the Roman persecutions) and illustrates the centrality of saintly devotion in the lives and beliefs of Christians across Europe over the whole medieval period. . . . Bartlett has a gift for succinct summary, both of complex (and confusing) narratives and for explaining theological controversy; his obvious abilities as a teacher appear throughout and his book will manifestly appeal to students. . . . Robert Bartlett's achievement lies in his capacity to draw out the distinctive, and often amusing, attributes of different saints while showing how the cult of saints operated in medieval Europe."--Sarah Foot, Times Literary Supplement

"It is a treat . . . to see such erudition amassed this way; it is hard to imagine any aspect of the cult of the saints that Bartlett has left out in this extraordinarily comprehensive text. Yet there is enormous entertainment here as well. . . . [W]ho, and when and where--this enormous and humane reference work gives all that, along with stories that are appalling and ghoulish and mysterious and funny."--Rob Hardy, The (Columbus, OH) Dispatch

"[T]here is much to enjoy in the array of human behaviour, sacred and by our standards profane or just downright mad, chronicled in Bartlett's excellent study."--Diarmaid MacCulloch, Guardian

"[T]his magisterial work of scholarship."--Richard Holloway, Independent

"Devotion to the saints is manifestly still alive and well in the Catholic Church, and Bartlett's impressive compendium will serve to explain the cult's historical origins and evolution."--John Cornwell, Financial Times

"Rich in original research, full of illuminating case studies, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? is a major achievement from a distinguished medieval historian and a gold mine for those interested in religious history."--Helen Fulton, Times Higher Education

"Bartlett convincingly explains how the 12th-century papacy sought to control a potentially anarchic process by demanding strict examination of cases, of which only about half were successful. . . . With great thoroughness, Bartlett examines issues such as types of saint, relics, miracles, hagiography and doubt, more as an observer than as judge. . . . Some of Bartlett's most valuable insights relate to the diversity of ways in which saints were revered and what they reveal about visions of the social order."--Constant Mews, Sydney Morning Herald

"This is a remarkable book, which is thankfully both wonderfully informative and wonderfully readable. . . . His book is just the kind of great scholarly synthesis that was once the norm, but which may well become rarer than now in the future. This is a long and very detailed book, but the patience of the reader in encompassing nearly 800 closely printed pages will be well rewarded."--Peter Costello, Irish Catholic
"Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things is an excellent survey of the cult of the saints in the pre-modern period. The reader looking for explanations of the social and cultural functions of the holy dead could do far worse."--Frank McGough, Origins

"It is a treat to see such erudition amassed this way; it is hard to imagine any aspect of the cult of the saints that Bartlett has left out in this extraordinarily comprehensive text. . . . [W]ho, and when, and where--this enormous and humane reference work gives all that, along with stories that are appalling and ghoulish and mysterious and funny."--Rob Hardy, Skeptic

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691159133
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 11/10/2013
  • Pages: 816
  • Sales rank: 409,174
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 2.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Bartlett is the Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Mediaeval History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a fellow of the British Academy. His books include "The Making of Europe", joint winner of the Wolfson History Prize, and "The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages" (Princeton). He has also written and presented documentaries on the Middle Ages for BBC television.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xv
Preface xvii
Part I Developments 1
Chapter 1 Origins (100-500) 3
The Martyrs 3
The Religious Revolution of the Fourth Century 7
Translations 10
Rituals of Commemoration and Invocation 13
Confessor Saints 16
The Birth of Hagiography 19
The First Miracle Books 22
Chapter 2 The Early Middle Ages (500-1000) 27
The View from the 590s 29
Gregory the Great 43
The Benedictine Centuries 47
New Christendoms: Eastern and Northern Europe 52
Chapter 3 The High and Later Middle Ages (1000-1500) 57
Papal Canonization 57
Mendicant Saints 65
Lay Female Saints 71
New Devotions 77
Chapter 4 The Protestant Reformation 85
Part II Dynamics 93
Chapter 5 The Nature of Cult 95
Name, Body, Text 95
Patronage and Invocation: The Mutual Relationship 103
Chapter 6 Saints' Days 113
Liturgy 113
The Hierarchy of Feast-days 120
Saints' Days and Local Identity 129
Holy Days and Holidays 133
Chapter 7 Types of Saint 137
Counting Saints 137
Categorizing Saints 150
Saints as Patrons 221
Chapter 8 Relics and Shrines 239
Body Parts 239
Contact Relics 244
The Shrine in the Church 250
Running a Shrine 259
Reliquaries 263
Relic Collections 276
Relics in Movement 282
Relics in Law and War 311
Relics in Dispute 324
Chapter 9 Miracles 333
The Meaning of Miracle 333
Patterns of Miracles 342
Healing Miracles 349
Miracles of Provision 365
Visions, Prophecy, and Rapture 368
Saints in War 378
Saints and Demons 383
Saints and Animals 390
Liberation 398
Punitive Miracles 401
Chapter 10 Pilgrimage 410
Origins and Definitions 410
Pilgrim Garb and Status 417
Motives 421
The Shrines of Medieval Christendom 425
Logistics 433
Pilgrim Guides and Pilgrim Badges 439
Chapter 11 Dedications and Naming 444
Dedication of Churches and Altars 444
Place Names 454
Personal Names 459
Chapter 12 Images of the Saints 471
The Image in Early Christianity 471
Byzantine Iconoclasm 475
Images in the Medieval West 480
Chapter 13 The Literature of Sanctity 504
Types of Hagiography 504
Reasons for Writing 510
The Hagiographers 513
The Life 518
Legendaries 546
Miracle Books 558
Sermons 570
The Literature of Canonization Proceedings 576
Vernacular Hagiography 578
Chapter 14 Doubt and Dissent 587
Early Polemics 587
Western Heretics 591
Sceptics and Scoffers 596
Policing the Saints 602
Chapter 15 Reflections 609
Saints and Gods 609
Saints and Nature 618
Saints and the Dead 621
Tomb-shrines in Judaism and Islam 626
Saints and Ancestors 630
Comparisons and Conclusions 633
Glossary 639
Bibliography of Works Cited 641
Index 735
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 14, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Robert Bartlett Explores the Power of the Saints The emphasis o

    Robert Bartlett Explores the Power of the Saints

    The emphasis of death and the afterlife in Christianity is a major component of the religion's history. Robert Bartlett explores the Christian saints, known as the holy dead in this great book. He discusses a variety of saints and their alleged miracles, pilgrimages, and works.

    One of the strongest points of this book is that it covers a large group of saints - even a dog! It encompasses a group of women, political bishops, and the trade of relics. Bartlett's strength as an author comes from his experiences as a professor of medieval history in Scotland. His previous books include Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal and The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350, both of which cover different subsets of the middle ages.

    Another of Bartlett's strong points is that it explores a human aspect of the saints. His best point is that "the cult of the saints met need" and provided a positive outlook for the "sick and suffering world." Adding personality to the tet makes it an engaging and thought-provoking read.

    The main criticism readers might have of this book is that it does not necessarily set out to answer the question it poses in the title. Still, readers will appreciate this book as a demonstration of the prominence of religion in Christian Europe. Bartlett's story is one of passion and a search for happiness.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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