A Feature Review of
A Short History
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2016
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Reviewed by Nick Jordan
Simon Yarrow is a historian of medieval religion at the University of Birmingham. His first book, Saints and Their Communities: Miracle Stories in Twelfth-century England, was a reworking of his Oxford dissertation, and he continues to focus on related research areas. The Saints: A Short History is exactly what its title says it is, no dumbed-down version of the larger book, but a well-written and concise survey of the meaning of sainthood in Christian history.
Yarrow’s undertaking is massive: 2,000 years of Christian saints in 150 pages. The author says as much in the first sentence of his Acknowledgements: “Writing a book about saints, especially a brief one, can be an intimidating experience.” This is not a dictionary of saints and their lives and miracle stories. Although it includes close theological readings of the writings and practices of the saints, this is not a theology of sainthood. Rather, it is a religious history with an inter-disciplinary approach, drawing on sociology, cultural anthropology, and political analysis.
The book’s first chapter explores the role of saints in contemporary society, the ways that humans still hero-worship even in an age when most of us rarely talk about saints per se. (Example A: Twenty-three films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been released or will be released from May 2008 to July 2019.) By the end of this first chapter, Yarrow has both explained a basic outline of the history of how saints have been made and recognized in Western Christianity, and he has provided his approach for the rest of the book: “canonization has often been just as much a political, sociological and diplomatic matter as a religious concern. Wherever we encounter saints, we shall need to ask by means of whom or what is veneration directed toward the saint?” (6-7).
The next three chapters provide a survey of large time periods: “Inventing the Saints” (from the death of Jesus to the Council of Chalcedon in 451); “Saints in the Middle Ages” (500-1000); and “Early Modern Sainthood” (the Reformation through the 17th century). It’s a fascinating, whirlwind survey.
“Inventing the Saints” lifts up the New Testament origins of saints, enters the early post-Biblical period of the Apostolic Fathers, continues into the post-Constantine church, as well as early divisions (the Donatists), widely imitated and admired saints (Antony, especially as depicted by Athanasius), and those greatly admired but far less imitated (stylites on their pillars, fools in their oddity, hermits in their caves). “Saints in the Middle Ages” explores the diversity of various cults of local saints as the church expanded in mission and in empire.
“Early Modern Sainthood” may be the most interesting chapter in the entire book, as it describes how much theologies of sainthood were in contention during the Reformation period, and how much today’s Roman Catholic understanding of sainthood was solidified in response to Protestant claims about the saints. As early as Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine writes of Ambrose’s and his own attempts to put a stop to syncretic practices of the church in honoring the dead, Western Christians had recognized that along with missionary endeavors came new theological challenges, perhaps especially in relating to local recognition of holy people.
The Reformers were quick to point out what they considered idolatry within the churches, labeling various local practices of the veneration of saints as evidence of spiritual corruption within Roman Catholicism. The Council of Trent (1545-1563), as Rome’s major institutional response to the Protestant Reformation, clarified the meaning of sainthood and put in place most of the current criteria for sainthood within Catholicism, including the process of gathering evidence at the local level, and various levels of inquiry into the evidence over a period of time. The parallels between this process, the growth of science, and the use of objective forensic evidence in law are striking, with the church simultaneously modernizing itself and participating in the invention of modernity in this era.
Chapters Five (“Gendering the Saints”) and Six (“The Blessed Virgin Mary”) are concerned with offering a corrective revision to the history of saints, beginning with the evidence that sainthood has been a largely male designation for largely social (i.e., patriarchal) reasons. Yarrow describes a church constantly trying to have it both ways, lifting up the sanctity of women, while denying them authority. Clare of Assisi is depicted by her own hagiographers as imitating Francis rather than Christ. John of the Cross was discipled by Teresa of Avila, but he often received (and for many, continues to receive) greater acclaim than she. And towering above all other saints in this church with its all-male clergy is Mary, continual symbol and force for joining her Son in the pulling down the powerful and lifting up the lowly, including appearances to poor village children and adults in France, Germany, Portugal, Cairo, Wisconsin, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Iraq, doing Christ’s work of the upending of unjust structures not only in the world but in the church as well.
The remaining chapters fill out the picture of the meaning of sainthood both throughout the history of the church (“Writing the Saints,” on the practice and qualities of hagiography) and up to the present (“Globalizing Sanctity” and “Saints in the Modern World”).
As a whole, this book is exactly what it sets out to be: “A Short History.” It has both plenty of its own content, and it offers easy access–through the text itself and through its Further Reading section–to continue exploring the topic of the saints and their meaning in the practice of Christianity. It is scholarly but not obscurely written. Best of all, it raises further curiosity.
For this Protestant reader (United Methodist clergy), I am left desiring deeper reflection on what we Protestants have lost in losing our sense of the saints. I am left asking if some understanding of the saints as our models, our companions, and our intercessors was something precious lost in the Reformation, and if that something might somehow regained.