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The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, Enlarged Edition

The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, Enlarged Edition

by Peter Robert Brown


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In this groundbreaking work, Peter Brown explores how the worship of saints and their corporeal remains became central to religious life in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. During this period, earthly remnants served as a heavenly connection, and their veneration is a fascinating window into the cultural mood of a region in transition.

Brown challenges the long-held “two-tier” idea of religion that separated the religious practices of the sophisticated elites from those of the superstitious masses, instead arguing that the cult of the saints crossed boundaries and played a dynamic part in both the Christian faith and the larger world of late antiquity. He shows how men and women living in harsh and sometimes barbaric times relied upon the holy dead to obtain justice, forgiveness, and power, and how a single sainted hair could inspire great thinkers and great artists.

An essential text by one of the foremost scholars of European history, this expanded edition includes a new preface from Brown, which presents new ideas based on subsequent scholarship.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226175263
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/12/2014
Edition description: Enlarged
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 252,160
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Peter Brown is Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History emeritus at Princeton University. He is credited with having created the field of study known as late antiquity.

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The Cult of the Saínts

Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, Enlarged Edition

By Peter Brown

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17543-0


The Holy and the Grave

This book is about the joining of Heaven and Earth, and the role, in this joining, of dead human beings. It will deal with the emergence, orchestration, and function in late antiquity of what is generally known as the Christian "cult of saints." This involves considering the role in the religious life and organization of the Christian church in the western Mediterranean, between the third and sixth centuries A.D., of whole tombs, of relic fragments and of objects closely connected with the dead bodies of holy men and women, confessors and martyrs.

The cult of saints, as it emerged in late antiquity, became part and parcel of the succeeding millennium of Christian history to such an extent that we tend to take its elaboration for granted. Its origin has received a certain amount of attention and, given the tantalizing state of the evidence, both literary and archaeological, it is likely to continue to do so. But the full implications of what it meant to contemporaries to join Heaven and Earth at the grave of a dead human being has not been explored as fully as it deserves. For to do that was to break barriers that had existed in the back of the minds of Mediterranean men for a thousand years, and to join categories and places that had been usually meticulously contrasted.

One thing can be said with certainty about the religion of the late-antique Mediterranean: while it may not have become markedly more "otherworldly," it was most emphatically "upperworldly." Its starting point was belief in a fault that ran across the face of the universe. Above the moon, the divine quality of the universe was shown in the untarnished stability of the stars. The earth lay beneath the moon, in sentina mundi—so many dregs at the bottom of a clear glass. Death could mean the crossing of that fault. At death, the soul would separate from a body compounded of earthly dregs, and would gain, or regain, a place intimately congruent with its true nature in the palpable, clear light that hung so tantalizingly close above the earth in the heavy clusters of the Milky Way. Whether this was forever, or, as Jews and Christians hoped, only for the long hiatus before the resurrection of the dead, the dead body joined in the instability and opacity of the world beneath the moon, while the soul enjoyed the unmovable clarity of the remainder of the universe.

Writing in the second century A.D., Plutarch had made the matter plain. Popular belief in the bodily apotheosis of Romulus—the disappearance of his corpse into Heaven—struck him as a sad example of the workings of the "primitive mind." For the known structure of the universe was against it. The virtuous soul could have its share in the divinity of the stars; but this could happen only after the body had been discarded, and the soul had regained its rightful place, passing to the sky, as quick and dry as a lightning flash leaving the lowering, damp cloud of the flesh. In believing in the resurrection of the dead, Jews and Christians could envisage that one day the barriers of the universe would be broken: both Elijah and Christ had already done what Plutarch said Romulus could not have done. But, for the time being, the barrier between earth and the stars remained as firmly established for the average Christian as for any other late-antique men. Thus, when he came to write on the subject of the resurrection, Prudentius, a Christian of the late fourth century, could express his belief only in language which is so faithful a reversal of the traditional world view as to amount to a tacit recognition of its resilience:

But should the fiery essence of the soul think on its high origin, and cast aside the numbing stain of life: then will it carry with it, too, the flesh in which it lodged and bear it also back among the stars.

But the resurrection was unimaginably distant, and Prudentius was a singularly enterprising poet. The average Christian monumental mason, and his patrons, continued through the fifth and sixth centuries to cover tombs with verse that took the old world view for granted. An early-sixth-century bishop of Lyons, for instance, was quite content not to linger among dizzying paradoxes: the immemorial antithesis was enough for him—Astra fovent animam corpus natura recepit.

Yet a near-contemporary of the emperor Julian the Apostate, the rabbi Pinhas ben Hama, could point to a paradox involved in the graves of saints. He used to say:

If the fathers of the world (the patriarchs) had wished that their resting place should be in the Above, they would have been able to have it there: but it is when they died and the rock closed on their tombs here below that they deserved to be called "saints."

For the rabbi was speaking of the tombs of the patriarchs in the Holy Land. Their occupants were "holy" because they made available to the faithful around their tombs on earth a measure of the power and mercy in which they might have taken their rest in the Above. The graves of the saints—whether these were the solemn rock tombs of the Jewish patriarchs in the Holy Land or, in Christian circles, tombs, fragments of bodies or, even, physical objects that had made contact with these bodies—were privileged places, where the contrasted poles of Heaven and Earth met. Late-antique Christian piety, as we shall see through these chapters, concentrated obsessively on the strange flash that could occur when the two hitherto distinct categories joined in the back of men's minds.

By the end of the sixth century, the graves of the saints, which lay in the cemetery areas outside the walls of most of the cities of the former Western Empire, had become centers of the ecclesiastical life of their region. This was because the saint in Heaven was believed to be "present" at his tomb on earth. The soul of Saint Martin, for instance, might go "marching on"; but his body, at Tours, was very definitely not expected to "lie a-mouldering in the grave." The local Jewish doctor might have his doubts: "Martin will do you no good, whom the earth now rests, turning him to earth.... A dead man can give no healing to the living." They are not doubts shared by the inscription on the tomb:

Hic conditus est sanctae memoriae Martinus episcopus Cuius anima in manu Dei est, sed hic totus est Praesens manifestus omni gratia virtutum.

[Here lies Martin the bishop, of holy memory, whose soul is in the hand of God; but he is fully here, present and made plain in miracles of every kind.]

The joining of Heaven and Earth was made plain even by the manner in which contemporaries designed and described the shrines of the saints. Filled with great candelabra, their dense clusters of light mirrored in shimmering mosaic and caught in the gilded roof, late Roman memoriae brought the still light of the Milky Way to within a few feet of the grave.

To a Mediterranean man of traditional background, much of this would have been peripheral, and some of it, downright disgusting. As Artemidorus of Daldis wrote in the second century A.D., to dream that you are a tanner is a bad dream, "for the tanner handles dead bodies and lives outside the city." The rise of the Christian cult of saints took place in the great cemeteries that lay outside the cities of the Roman world: and, as for the handling of dead bodies, the Christian cult of saints rapidly came to involve the digging up, the moving, the dismemberment—quite apart from much avid touching and kissing—of the bones of the dead, and, frequently, the placing of these in areas from which the dead had once been excluded. An element of paradox always surrounded the Christian breaching of the established map of the universe. But the impact of the cult of saints on the topography of the Roman city was unambiguous: it gave greater prominence to areas that had been treated as antithetical to the public life of the living city; by the end of the period, the immemorial boundary between the city of the living and the dead came to be breached by the entry of relics and their housing within the walls of many late-antique towns, and the clustering of ordinary graves around them. Even when confined to their proper place, the areas of the dead, normative public worship and the tombs of the dead were made to coincide in a manner and with a frequency for which the pagan and Jewish imagination had made little provision.

The breaking down and the occasional inversion of ancient barriers implied in the late-antique cult of saints seems to mark the end of a way of seeing the relation between the human dead and the universe, and, as an immediate consequence, a shifting of the barriers by which Mediterranean men had sought to circumscribe the role of the dead, and especially of those dead to whom one had to strong links of kinship or place. Pagan parallels and antecedents can only take us so far in understanding the Christian cult of saints, very largely because the pagan found himself in a world where his familiar map of the relations between the human and the divine, the dead and the living, had been subtly redrawn.

Let us take one well-known example: the relation between the ancient cult of the heroes and the Christian cult of the martyrs. To idealize the dead seemed natural enough to men in Hellenistic and Roman times. Even to offer some form of worship to the deceased, whether as a family or as part of a public cult in the case of exceptional dead persons, such as heroes or emperors, was common, if kept within strictly defined limits. Thus, the practice of "heroization," especially of private cult offered by the family to the deceased as a "hero" in a specially constructed grave house, has been invoked to explain some of the architectural and artistic problems of the early Christian memoria. But after that, even the analogy of the cult of the hero breaks down. For the position of the hero had been delimited by a very ancient map of the boundaries between those beings who had been touched by the taint of human death and those who had not: the forms of cult for heroes and for the immortal gods tended to be kept apart. Above all, what appears to be almost totally absent from pagan belief about the role of the heroes is the insistence of all Christian writers that the martyrs, precisely because they had died as human beings, enjoyed close intimacy with God. Their intimacy with God was the sine qua non of their ability to intercede for and, so, to protect their fellow mortals. The martyr was the "friend of God." He was an intercessor in a way which the hero could never have been.

Thus, in Christian belief, the grave, the memory of the dead, and the religious ceremonial that might surround this memory were placed within a totally different structure of relations between God, the dead, and the living. To explain the Christian cult of the martyrs as a continuation of the pagan cult of heroes helps as little as to reconstruct the form and function of a late-antique Christian basilica from the few columns and capitals taken from classical buildings that are occasionally incorporated in its arcades.

Indeed, Christian late antiquity could well be presented as a reversal of the Hippolytus of Euripides. The hard-bitten message of that play had been that the boundaries between gods and humans should remain firm. Whatever intimacy Hippolytus may have enjoyed with the goddess Artemis, when he was alive, the touch of death opened a chasm between Artemis, the immortal, and Hippolytus, the dying human being. She could no longer look at him:


[It is not right for me to look upon the dead, And stain my eyesight with the mists of dying men.]

We need only compare this with the verse of the Psalms that is frequently applied by Latin writers to the role of the martyrs, "Oculi Domini super iustos, et aures eius ad preces eorum" (33:16) to measure the distance between the two worlds.

Nothing could be more misleading than to assume that, by the middle of the fourth century, some insensible tide of religious sentiment had washed away the barriers by which Mediterranean pagans had sought for so long to mark off the human dead from the living. Far from it: on this point, the rise of Christianity in the pagan world was met by deep religious anger. We can chart the rise to prominence of the Christian church most faithfully by listening to pagan reactions to the cult of martyrs. For the progress of this cult spelled out for the pagans a slow and horrid crumbling of ancient barriers which presaged the final spreading again over the earth of that "darkness spoken of in the old myths" in which all ancient landmarks would be blotted out. In attacking the cult of saints, Julian the Apostate mentions the cult as a novelty for which there was no warrant in the gospels; but the full weight of his religious abhorrence comes to bear on the relation between the living and the corpses of the dead that was implied in the Christian practice: "You keep adding many corpses newly dead to the corpse of long ago. You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres." He turned against the cult practiced at the tombs of the saints all the repugnance expressed by the Old Testament prophets for those who haunted tombs and burial caves for sinister purposes of sorcery and divination. As an emperor, Julian could give voice to his own profound distaste by reiterating the traditional Roman legislation that kept the dead in their proper place. How could men tolerate such things as Christian processions with relics?

... The carrying of the corpses of the dead through a great assembly of people, in the midst of dense crowds, staining the eyesight of all with ill-omened sights of the dead. What day so touched with death could be lucky? How, after being present at such ceremonies, could anyone approach the gods and their temples?

In an account of the end of paganism in Egypt, by Eunapius of Sardis, we catch the full charnel horror of the rise of Christianity:

For they collected the bones and skulls of criminals who had been put to death for numerous crimes ... made them out to be gods, and thought that they became better by defiling themselves at their graves. "Martyrs" the dead men were called, and ministers of a sort, and ambassadors with the gods to carry men's prayers.

In the course of the late fourth and fifth centuries, the growth of the cult of martyrs caused a visible shift in the balance of importance accorded to the areas of the living and the areas of the dead in most late-antique towns. Great architecture mushroomed in the cemeteries. To take only one example: at the beginning of the fifth century, the north African city of Tebessa came to be flanked by an enormous pilgrimage site, built in the cemetery area, presumably around the grave of Saint Crispina. The shrine was in the full-blooded, public style associated with the Theodosian renaissance. Its pilgrim's way, 150 meters long, passed under great triumphal arches and along arcaded courtyards, echoing, among the tombs outside Tebessa, the porticoes and streets of a classical city. In the same years Paulinus of Nola could congratulate himself on having built around the grave of Saint Felix, in a peripheral cemetery area still called Cimitile, "the cemetery," a complex so impressive that the traveler might take it for another town.

Indeed, when it came to shifting the balance between places and non-places in the ancient man's map of civilization, Christianity had a genius for impinging with gusto on the late-Roman landscape. In the course of the fourth century, the growth of monasticism had revealed how wholeheartedly Christians wished to patronize communities which had opted pointedly for the antithesis of settled urban life. In the proud words of Athanasius, writing of Saint Anthony and his monks, the monks had "founded a city in the desert," that is, in a place where no city should be. In the late fourth and fifth centuries, the Christian bishops brought the shift in the balance between the town and the non-town out of the desert and right up to the walls of the city: they now founded cities in the cemetery.

What is even more remarkable is the outcome of this shift. The bishops of western Europe came to orchestrate the cult of the saints in such a way as to base their power within the old Roman cities on these new "towns outside the town." The bishop's residence and his main basilica still lay within the city walls. Yet it was through a studiously articulated relationship with great shrines that lay at some distance from the city—Saint Peter's, on the Vatican Hill outside Rome, Saint Martin's, a little beyond the walls of Tours—that the bishops of the former cities of the Roman Empire rose to prominence in early medieval Europe.


Excerpted from The Cult of the Saínts by Peter Brown. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Preface to the 2014 Edition

Preface to the Original Edition

1          The Holy and the Grave

2          “A Fine and Private Place”

3          The Invisible Companion

4          The Very Special Dead

5          Praesentia

6          Potentia



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