Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 3, 1999
André Vauchez Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 645 pp.; 43 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (0521445590)

Sainthood in the Middle Ages first appeared in 1981. It is a measure of the impact and continuing value of his study to historians of late medieval Europe that André Vauchez’s book has been translated into English some sixteen years later. Vauchez has provided a highly differentiated account of changing perceptions of sainthood between 1185 and 1431, in which he distinguishes those who initiated, witnessed, and managed the processes by which public cults were authorized for a tiny number of recent saints. He unfolds the shifting success and failure of a variety of ecclesiastical and social groups to generate prestige from the papal recognition of their own members, among whom the mendicants competed with the greatest success overall. The more hierarchical societies of northern and eastern Europe are distinguished from the Italian communes prior to their loss of power after 1270, by the categories of saints supported in each region: by secular or ecclesiastical rank, social class, and gender. Episcopal saints were sponsored in large numbers by English rulers and prelates; royal saints by Capetians, mendicants, and their Avignon allies; a large number of saintly men and women from the popolo by Italian communes rather than the bishops at whose expense they had acquired their autonomy. (p. 189) After 1270, saints from the mendicant orders, who had “waged war on popular religious movements” (p. 206) and their saints in a self interested, competitive pursuit of power, outnumbered every other category.

In Part II of his book, Vauchez provides quantitative tables that distinguish the men and women for whom papal recognition was sought from those whose veneration remained local. A brief sociological survey reveals the huge disparity between men (80%) and women among religious who reached either the stage of enquiry or canonization, in sharp contrast to the considerable gains among lay women who were linked to mendicants. In either case, social origins were overwhelmingly aristocratic, while the majority of saints whose cults were not authorized by Rome but by episcopal translation, a practice never fully substituted by restrictive papal processes, were popular and local. Typological, sociological, and statistical overviews are balanced by frequent references to well-documented canonizations, foremost among them Thomas Cantilupe for whom supporting documents are printed in two appendices, Louis of Anjou, Clare of Montefalco, Margaret and Elizabeth of Hungary, Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, and Dominic.

In these processes, popes soon assumed an active role, shaping the nature and length of enquiries, promoting, rejecting, or simply disregarding requests in an effort to calibrate, in their own interests, the varieties of candidates for sainthood offered by a broad range of competing parties. In general, popular and local saints whose fame had not carried well beyond their towns and villages fared poorly in a strategy designed to preempt extra institutional cults. Vauchez is less differentiated when it comes to the faithful, who are repeatedly represented in the singular as “the popular mind,” a phrase that assumes for the laity a consensus that might best be understood as the aim rather than the premise for the political and spiritual endeavors he discusses.

In the top down structure narrated by Vauchez, public cults were authorized for only a tiny number of saints whose sponsors withstood the developing juridical processes leading to canonization. No more than thirty-three canonizations were completed over 250 years in which the papacy progressed from ratifying requests to actively seeking control over the “anarchic proliferation” of declared saints. Ultimately, requests for cults were immobilized in an increasingly lengthy and costly judicial scrutiny that extended to years and even decades a process that previously had taken a few days. Notorious exceptions were prompted by papal politics and the pursuit of edifying models, for whom Innocent III, for example, “controlled the procedure from start to finish” (p. 57).

Ideal models of sainthood are derived by Vauchez from the content of papal inquiries and from the statistical range of saints subjected to either partial (seventy-three) or full canonization processes. Emphases shifted over time from austerity and mortification to poverty, charity, and pastoral zeal, to piety, obedience, and a defense of doctrine and orthodoxy after 1300. Toward end of the century mystics joined the ranks. Accordingly, new criteria for sainthood emerged. Miracles aligned with Biblical precedents and suitable for edifying the faithful were recognized, and although credited by their supporters with “an uninterrupted succession of prodigies,” the merits of the lives led by candidates for sainthood were given precedence by Rome. Under suspicious scrutiny, even healings declined in favor of exceptional virtues as a measure of sainthood, a move that suggests how profoundly out of touch elite ecclesiastical circles were with popular expectations. In Vauchez’s words, Rome ended the Middle Ages with a chasm (in northern Europe) between its own and local models for sainthood, which “lasted until the Reformation resolved the problem in radical fashion by abolishing the cult of saints” (pp. 421–2) altogether. In this discussion, there is no mention of the deadly, punitive miracles abundantly documented in earlier vitae and miracula, by which living and dead saints struck down the enemies of their communities. If such punishments diminished, disappeared, or were omitted from papal texts after 1200, we are not informed.

As the character of sainthood changed, so did the visible signs, perhaps less so than Vauchez suggests. As in earlier centuries, fragrant and incorrupt bodies radiated celestial light and saints refused to be moved from their designated tomb sites, where they performed miracles under the protection of armed guards. Less familiar, but not unprecedented, are the macabre dismemberments that served to produce and circulate new cults. Among the substantial changes, an increasing proportion of posthumous miracles were not performed at the tombs or shrines guarded so jealously in earlier centuries, but at distant sites where the proliferation of hagiographical narratives and portraits provided a new, public access to saints, especially after 1300. Such a dramatic change must have affected pilgrimage, although Vauchez writes little about the material dimensions of this history.

Whether Rome ever “adapted to the conditions of life and aspirations of Christian people” is implicitly answered in the negative. In recognizing and circulating models of “unimpeachable orthodoxy,” Innocent III and Gregory IX were far more interested in protecting the church from the dissidents it branded heretics. In a study that mutes the systemic tensions in medieval societies, heresy is repeatedly invoked without accounting for the attraction, strength and duration of dissident movements. For Vauchez, the chief crises of late medieval societies seem to be institutional not social. Hence, the popular religious movements the church sought to contain, the heresies it sought to destroy, and the broad rebellions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that charted one passage toward the permanent rupture of Catholic hegemony in sixteenth-century Europe are silent. Transformations at the institutional level are isolated from the uneasy ranks below, whom the church sought to edify, to incorporate, and to regulate, however ineffectively. Its tools were not restricted to canonizing the defenders of doctrine and orthodoxy, but included as well its spiritual arsenal and its deadly inquisitional processes that, like canonization, were elaborated juridically in the very same years.

It is disconcerting in such a rich and lengthy text that historical contexts are sometimes left implicit, perhaps because they seem obvious. The sharp rise in canonizations in sixteenth century, one response to the Reformation, is linked neither to the mandates of the Council of Trent nor to papal efforts to represent Rome as uncontested heir to Peter and Constantine. Their centerpiece was St. Peter’s crossing, newly built and furnished by Bernini with abundant, legitimizing references to the fist bishop of Rome and to the first “Christian” emperor, where a steady sequence of canonizations for preeminent Counter Reformation saints was staged in the early seventeenth century. Occasionally, Vauchez seems to extol historical figures who are his subject. “No-one deserved the title ‘Most Christian King’ more [than Saint Louis], both for his sense of justice and his constant concern not to do wrong to anyone in performing his duties as head of state” (p. 359). What, then, made Louis IX such a potent model for the persecutions of Huguenots and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by his equally pious and ruthless namesake, Louis XIV?

These observations should not detract unduly from Vauchez’s book. He provides the first comprehensive analysis of the texts that recorded the processes by which candidates for sainthood were admitted or rejected by the papacy and its curia, and thereby enriches our understanding of how and towards what end distinct models for sainthood were produced and circulated in the final centuries of the Middle Ages.

Barbara Abou-el-Haj
State University of New York at Binghamton