Saints, alive and dead, played a central role in medieval society. This course examines the emergence of the cult of the saint in late Antiquity, and its remarkable spread over subsequent centuries. Live saints reinforced the Christian message and helped the faithful with the travails of daily life, but also represented a challenge to the authority of the established Church. Dead, their cults and their relics spread through the Christian world, encouraging, in a few notable cases, a steady stream of visitors to their graves.
This course is centred around the rich, diverse, and often beautifully written hagiography of the fourth to ninth centuries, both from the Mediterranean region and from northern Europe. It offers an opportunity to examine, across several centuries, a wide range of themes: the fascination with martyrdom; different types of sanctity (such as those available only to bishops, or to women); the role of the saint within society and within the Church; the emergence of different styles of asceticism and spirituality, from Byzantium to Ireland; how a saint was acclaimed and accepted in a period without formal processes of canonization; the extraordinary power of relics, and the attraction of pilgrimage; the often underhand ‘translation’ of holy bodies; and, finally, even the existence of doubters.