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  • Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation by Robert Bartlett
Robert Bartlett. Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. Pp. xviii, 637. $39.95.

Robert Bartlett’s compendious account of saint worship from the martyrs to the Reformation explores the connection between the spread of western Christianity and the phenomenal development of a huge pantheon of Christian saints. Saints were a ubiquitous presence in medieval life, celebrated at shrines and churches; in processions and festivals; and in an “opulent visual culture” (490) that included wall and panel paintings, statues, stained-glass windows, vestments, reliquaries, textiles, and—for the well-to-do—illuminations. There was a steady growth of literary narratives devoted to the lives of saints as well, from third-century accounts of Roman persecutions; to martyrologies, Miracle Books, and sermons in both Latin and European vernaculars from the [End Page 283] third through the fifteenth centuries; to the long-lived Legenda aurea, first compiled in the 1260s and replicated often thereafter in both manuscript and print editions. Indeed, Bartlett makes a persuasive case that the size and duration of the cult of the saints helped instigate a common Christian culture in Europe.

At the outset, Bartlett claims that “of all religions, Christianity is the one most concerned with dead bodies” (1). Unlike the antecedent gods of paganism, he argues, Christian saints were mortal and subject to bodily vicissitudes, including death. The challenge of Christian holiness was to detoxify mortality by repudiating bodily pleasure, thereby denying the body’s material dominance over the spirit. Accordingly, the lives of the saints inverted ordinary social values by hypostasizing virginity over marriage; by promoting “radical asceticism” (634); and by offering a torturous, bloody template for martyrdom. Pagans (and later Reformers) were repelled by what they saw in saints’ stories as an obsession with the mechanics of pain and with the unsavory afterlife of the body. Bartlett acknowledges this morbidity but seeks to situate it more broadly within what he calls the “breathtaking physicality” (250) of early Christian belief.

Certainly, as its critics charged, the cult of the saints seemed to revel in bodily mutilations and punishments. The litany of horrors associated with virgin martyrs is a case in point:

Juliana is stretched on a wheel until her bones break and the marrow comes out, then plunged into hot lead. Margaret is strung up and beaten, first with rods and then with instruments with iron teeth, until her bones are laid bare. Later she is burned with flaming torches, “as far as her inmost parts” … Euphemia is placed on a fiery wheel, hung by the hair, crushed between stones, thrown to the beasts. Cecilia is placed in boiling water.


Medieval Christians viewed such ready submission to unthinkable pain (common to male as well as to female martyrs) as well beyond ordinary human capabilities—as, for that matter, was a life of sexual denial and penitential practices. In their unsullied purity and resolute fearlessness, martyrs were emphatically larger than life.

At the same time, however, as Bartlett points out, martyrs and other saints were woven into the fabric of everyday life as friends and as intercessors with Christ. In these avatars, saints were accessible, their bodies humanized through the detailing of familiar body experiences—Saint [End Page 284] Catherine of Siena agreeing “to wash her face more often and fix her hair” (522) in deference to the wishes of a reproachful sister; the Forty Martyrs of Sabaste, stranded on a frozen lake, hugging their naked bodies against the cold and gazing longingly at a distant fire. Such attention to mundane concerns did not, however, diminish the superhuman status of the saints or soften the contours of their violent martyrdoms. On the contrary, as Bartlett seeks to demonstrate, the macabre, the mundane, and the resplendent were all aspects of a single—and singular—physicality.

The splendid juxtaposition of the macabre and the resplendent is readily apparent in the medieval showcasing of body relics. As Bartlett explains it, body relics were produced by cutting away “detachable and movable body parts” (102), including blood, and by salvaging objects that had been in contact with the saint’s corpse, such as pieces of clothing and splinters from deathbeds. However repellent (and unavoidable) the sight and smell of an ordinary corpse might have been to medieval Christians, the detritus of saints’ bodies was imaginatively transmuted and revered. Thus, remnants of bone and blood, supposedly invested with supernatural power to cure the sick and to exorcize demons, were often housed in splendid reliquaries, some containing whole arms or heads, others in the shape of tombs—“gruesomeness enshrined in gold” as Bartlett aptly puts it. Exhibited triumphantly in saints’ day processions, reliquaries in effect transported the corpse to the center of celebratory ritual.

A similar dynamic governed popular worship at tomb-shrines—commonly erected over the crypts of saints. On one hand, “crowds came from far and wide” (261), a desperate procession of the blind, deaf, paralyzed, and diseased to plead with the saints for miraculous interventions. But the shrine itself, notwithstanding its function as a tomb, was “a numinous and extraordinary site” (253), decorated with rich fabrics and precious jewels, lighted with a profusion of candles, and strewn with fragrant herbs. In contrast to the file of suffering petitioners, shrines were cynosures, emanating “a glittering glory that shone out into a world unaccustomed to such brilliance” (276), much like the radiance of reliquaries transfiguring the body parts within.

Perhaps the most compelling instance of the medieval glorification of the macabre was located in the mass, where the reenactment of Christ’s Crucifixion culminated in the Eucharistic feast, that is, the consumption by the faithful of Christ’s transubstantiated body and blood. As Bartlett [End Page 285] points out, the Eucharist came to dominate Christian devotion after the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi in 1264, which brought in its wake a new Christocentric imagery of bleeding hosts and bloody sacrifice—motifs absorbed, in turn, by the cult of the saints. When considered from this perspective, the spectacular violence of the later saints’ lives was a mode of acknowledging the agony at the heart of the mass and the sanctity of sacrifice in Christian belief. Thus it follows, Bartlett claims, that critics, early and late, of medieval devotional excesses fail to comprehend the faithful’s wholehearted embrace of Christianity’s “breathtaking physicality.” Indeed, this principle is the crux of Bartlett’s argument, that is, that the cult of the saints—a “vast and swelling tidal wave of devotion” (162) that “suffused the imagination of worshippers” (637)—bore witness to the honesty and amplitude of medieval belief.

The only criticism that I would make of Bartlett’s study is that his theoretical perspectives are frequently occluded by the wealth of descriptive detail. For example, I would have found it helpful if Bartlett had amplified the summarizing commentaries at the end of each topical section, and integrated these more fully into his concluding “Reflections.” But this is a minor caveat. As both reference work (there is an impressive listing of primary and secondary sources) and critical commentary, Bartlett’s study ranks as a magisterial response to the provocative query of his title.

Susan Zimmerman
Professor Emerita, Queens College, CUNY

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