Monday, December 22, 2014

Next to Read: Robert Barlett's History of Saints

One of my birthday presents is Robert Bartlett's Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? from Princeton University Press:

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.

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, andThe 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.

Bartlett takes his title from St. Augustine's The City of God. Looks fascinating. Here's the first chapter.


  1. Thanks for the post, and blog in general! Do you know of any resource which identifies the saints from the book cover art? It's from a triptych if memory serves. I can only pick out a few on the whole thing, but surely Bl. Fra Angelico and names in mind for all of them?

    1. Here's a link to the painting at the National Gallery in London:
      I don't see any identification of the Dominican beati there, however.