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

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation by Robert Bartlett. Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2013. 808 pp. $39.95 US (cloth), $24.95 US (paper).

The intellectual world of Robert Bartlett is dominated by a preoccupation with lines of demarcation. He has made a career of exploring the points where communities and individuals collide, jostle, and slip past one another. He is perhaps best known for his work on the relationship between the Anglo-Normans and the Celtic peoples in the period between circa 1066 and 1300. His biography of Gerald of Wales, for example, dissects the hybrid culture of Britain in the twelfth century. Similarly, his England under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225 situates Britain within its broader cross-Channel, European (and cosmological) context.

In his most recent work, Bartlett tackles a question first posed by St. Augustine of Hippo: Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? In it, Bartlett continues to explore points of correspondence, but shifts the terrain entirely to the cosmic level, to the place where the antipodal worlds of the living and the dead regard one another across the chasm of death. He wants to know why a certain class of superlative--but dead--human beings, the saints, so thoroughly dominated the devotional culture of Medieval Europe. Bartlett has written on the saints before, but here he addresses medieval hagiography in a far more systematic manner. In answering the book's titular question, this capacious study (almost 800 pages) divides the response into two parts. The first, "Developments," is chronologically arranged, while the second. "Dynamics," is thematic, exploring in each of its chapters a distinct element of the cult, including relics, miracles, dedications, and so on. With its meticulous research, exhaustive bibliography, and attractive presentation (including maps, figures, tables, glossary, and ten gorgeous colour plates), this ambitious and expansive survey will no doubt become a critical introduction for both scholars and enthusiasts.

Part one, divided into four chapters, traces the cult from its origins in Christianity's earliest encounters with the Roman state to the Protestant Reformation. While Bartlett occasionally casts his gaze eastward toward Byzantium, his focus is primarily on Western Europe. At little more than ninety pages, part one covers an immense amount of terrain. Bartlett admits his pace is "brisk," but states that he merely intends to offer "signposts in [a] vast landscape." Nevertheless, he adroitly rehearses the familiar (and not so familiar) contours of medieval sanctity. In chapter one he locates the origins of the cult in the sufferings of the martyrs, looks at the shift from the martyr-saint to the confessor-saint, explores the origins of hagiography as a literary genre, and identifies "revolutionary" changes to the cult in the fourth century. In subsequent chapters, Bartlett is similarly comprehensive, tracing, among other things, the conceptual elaboration of the saint as Christianity moved beyond its classical cradle, the institutionalization of holiness under papal auspices in the Gregorian era, the development of mendicant sanctity, and the political uses of the cult. The final chapter of part one explores the ideological collision between the cult of the saints and the architects of the Reformation.

At more than 500 pages, part two offers a substantial analysis of the salient characteristics of medieval sanctity. Its eleven chapters can be loosely divided into four thematically related sections. Between chapters five and seven ("The Nature of Cult," "Saints' Days," and "Types of Saints"), Bartlett approaches a taxonomy of medieval sanctity. He delineates the structural, temporal, and functional characteristics of medieval cultus and shows how medieval people (and indeed, modern scholars) have erected an informal, but widely understood saintly "hierarchy." This is a critical group of essays as much of the discussion in later chapters emanates from the proposition articulated in chapter five that "saints are people who are treated as saints." Chapters eight to eleven ("Relics and Shrines," "Miracles," "Pilgrimage") contextualize devotional encounters with the holy dead. The section is largely spatial, centring on questions associated with the proximity and ownership of sacred objects and spaces, controlling access to the holy, the "radiation" of sanctity, and spheres of saintly influence. Though this is well-trodden turf, Bartlett uses it smartly to introduce the next two sections. Indeed, between chapters eleven and thirteen ("Dedications and Naming," "Images of the Saints," "The Literature of Sanctity"), Bartlett focuses on representations of holiness, that is, how artists, authors, and draftsmen attempted to articulate and concretize the ineffable. The chapter on the centrality of hagiography to the medieval worldview is pivotal: Bartlett explains why a genre that is all too often dismissed as the most credulous literary product of a credulous age merits the serious scholarly engagement it has received in recent decades. Finally, chapters fourteen and fifteen ("Doubt and Dissent" and "Reflections") lead the reader out of the study. They both confront the cult; however they do so in different ways. Chapter fourteen discusses how some contemporary observers challenged the efficacy of saintly intercession--on both orthodox or heterodox grounds--while chapter fifteen, a kind of envoy, addresses the distinctiveness of the cult, particularly in relation to other faith traditions.

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? is a magnificent, occasionally frustrating book. It is a masterpiece of synopsis and synthesis in which Bartlett integrates the familiar with the recondite, including, for example, the famous story of St. Francis of Assisi alongside a discussion of the comparatively obscure ritual known as the "humiliation of relics." It is a compelling account of the values and ideals of a world that is itself alternately tangible and remote. Still, there are a few omissions. The contributions of the Cluniacs and Cistercians might have been given greater prominence. Their refinements to the ideal of monastic sanctity (and the latter group's obedience to the Blessed Virgin and patronage of female lay saints) are touched on, but not explicitly discussed. The decision to conclude the study at the first generation of Protestant Reform is also understandable: the early sixteenth century is widely seen as a watershed in the European religious settlement. However, the Catholic response to calls for reform arguably had a greater role in shaping attitudes toward the cult of the saints than the Lutheran revolt itself. Indeed, our understanding of Catholic sanctity is filtered as much through a Tridentine lens as a Protestant one. It was, moreover, the Catholic Reformation that produced the Bollandists, the Jesuit group charged with the Herculean task of gathering and assembling the scattered literary remains of medieval sanctity and deploying them in their most recognizable form, the Acta Sanctorum. Recognizing the early sixteenth-century terminus of the study, the names of Heribert Rosweyde, Jean Bolland, Godfrey Henschen--and later, Hippolyte Delehaye--are still rather thinly distributed throughout the text. Perhaps, a more focused historiographical discussion--one that explicitly delineates the historical filters through which the modern age gazes at medieval sanctity--would have contributed to what is already a monument of erudition.

These quibbles are, of course, minor. With Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Bartlett has written an important book of peerless scholarship, one that will serve as a leaven for current and future students of the medieval church.


David Winter, Brandon University
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Author:Winter, David
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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