The Saints: A Short History

by Simon Yarrow, OUP, £10.99

God makes saints, but human beings are charged with the daunting task of understanding them. We have not always acquitted ourselves with high honours. As Simon Yarrow explains, some rulers had an unfortunate habit of “bending saints’ cults to their political ambitions”. Assembling a dazzling collection of relics or claiming a saint’s special favour was often more about prestige and posturing than devotion. Charlemagne had his moments of genuine piety, but when he organised lists of official saints he had the machinations of his rivals in his sights: the goal was “to choke at birth local attempts to galvanise political will around new saints”.

Charlemagne also sought to define the category of the saintly, which was not, in itself, a bad idea, but the process has always been tricky. Pinning down saintly attributes or erecting the doctrinal architecture that supports our notions of saintliness are inherently audacious pursuits. Many theologians have worried that this “risked legislating for God’s actions, perhaps even ventriloquising his intentions”.

But try we must, and glories have sometimes ensued: artistic wonders abound and many Christian lives have been spiritually transformed by musing on the saints. Yarrow even has some appropriately kind words to say about the hagiographical tradition of the Middle Ages. Rather than dismissing it, in the singularly modern way, as a truth-dodging concoction, he approaches it on its own terms as “the greatest and most diverse literary legacy of the medieval period”.

And when it comes to the saints, a word like “diverse” is key. As Yarrow explains, neat and tidy typologies have always emerged – the ascetic saint, the martyr-saint, the virginal saint, and so forth – but it is hard to think of a more varied group of spiritual heroes. The social mix within the ranks of Christianity’s saints is surely rather impressive. Women, though, have usually been under-represented: according to Yarrow, just 10 per cent of 11th- and 12th-century new saints were female, rising to 25 per cent between the 13th and 15th centuries.

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