HOW does one become a saint? We are all called to be one, but to get the precious letters “St” before your name, it is not enough to be saintly. Gender and status matter, the part of the world where you live, and the fervour of disciples to start your cult. Then, in the (Roman) Catholic Church since 1215, you must be approved for canonisation, which is not immune to influence and fashion.
Dr Yarrow’s “short introduction” starts with the post-resurrection Church, which rather overlooks the context in which ideas of sanctity developed. There was the earlier growth of belief in eternal life (one can hardly have saints without it), the spiritual power of places such as the tomb of Elisha, and the concept of martyrs in 2 Maccabees. The first three chapters of the book are cast as a history. The author explains how cults of saints arose from the apostles, the Roman martyrs, bishop confessors such as Augustine, and eventually kings, queens, and abbesses.
At first, saints were produced by popular acclaim, but in the 12th century the popes began to insist on approving the matter. Sanctification became a legal process and was sparingly granted at first: there were a mere 78 canonisations between 993 and 1500, and hardly any in the 16th century. Only in the modern Church have the numbers grown substantially.
The next four chapters of the book cover topics: women saints, the Virgin Mary, the writing of saints’ lives, and the spreading of sainthood to the Americas and Africa. A final section considers the modern world. The modest compass of the publishers’ series, 150 pages, requires the author to summarise and exclude a great deal. This leads to some omissions, which restrict the scope of the study.
Not much is said about the Eastern Churches — the coverage of Russia is particularly limited — or about Asia. Another dimension largely missing is that of local history. It would have been good to include a page or two about the tiny cults that one finds in the Celtic world, for example, and about how even a universal saint such as Mary became localised as Our Lady of Walsingham or Our Lady of Willesden.
On the credit side, the author manages to cover a good deal of ground: explaining who gained recognition as saints, why they did, and how they reflect the beliefs and conditions of their times. There is a miniature church history here, running from apostolic times through Roman persecutions, the development of dioceses, the growth of the papacy, the Reformation, foreign missions, and modern causes. If the book can inspire its readers to explore this history more widely, it will have doubled in its usefulness.
Dr Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University. His latest book, Medieval Pilgrimage, is a study of saint cults in medieval England.
Saints: A very short introduction
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