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  • Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation by Robert Bartlett
  • Rachel Koopmans (bio)
Robert Bartlett. Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013. 737pp. ISBN 978-0691159133, $39.95.

Robert Bartlett has provided readers interested in hagiography and the medieval cult of the saints with a magisterial and wholly engrossing book. If you have not read any book on hagiography, this is, without doubt, the one to get. If you have read many books on hagiography, this book is equally essential. It provides an unparalleled survey, analysis, and summary of the first fifteen centuries of the Christian cult of saints, and it will be one of the books on your shelf that becomes scuffed and dog-eared with use.

Bartlett’s book is divided into two sections. In the first, termed “Developments,” he provides a rapid but trenchant chronological survey of saints and their cults from the time of the early Christian martyrs through the late medieval period, with a brief closing chapter concerning the destruction of the cult of the saints in Protestant Europe. In the second part of the book, “Dynamics,” Bartlett devotes chapters to major themes and subjects in the cult of the saints: “Relics and Shrines,” “Miracles,” “Doubt and Dissent,” and so on. These thematic chapters are meant to be comprehensive geographically and chronologically. Bartlett draws his examples from the entire expanse of western Christendom, and occasionally the Greek and Syrian churches as well. To take one minor but typical example of the range of this text, Bartlett discusses Liebert of Cambrai, Francis of Assisi, Cunigunda of Cracow, Anno of Cologne, and John of Gorze in a page and a half devoted to the importance of deathbed scenes in saints’ lives (see 530–31). Each chapter of the book can be profitably read as a stand-alone essay, but there is remarkably little overlap in this enormous compendium. One of the book’s achievements is to convey the magnitude of the cultural influence of the cult of the saints and its tremendously varied landscape. A reader who works through the entire text will find it time well spent.

The thematic chapters are quite uneven in size but consistent in quality and clarity of organization. They generally begin with an explanation of key terms (pelegrinus for pilgrim, for example) and a discussion of general ideas and practices. Here, Bartlett often includes enlightening discussions about persistent tensions, such as miracles being seen as both good signs and bad signs, pilgrimage being both praised and criticized, images of the saints being both revered and smashed, and so on. The chapters are then carefully subdivided into topics, and the subdivisions are on occasion subdivided as well. Readers of this journal will be particularly interested in the chapters on “Types of Saints,” which addresses numbers and categories of saints, and “The Literature of Sanctity,” which has a lengthy section on saints’ lives. One of the great benefits of the thematic chapters is Bartlett’s ability to show continuities of [End Page 833] practice that are hidden in more tightly focused studies on a single region or period. Bartlett demonstrates, for example, that “measuring to the saint” was a widespread and common practice (see 356–59). One should not assume, though, that this is a book that only surveys or skims. When the sources are especially rich or there is a particularly good scholarly study on a particular issue, Bartlett takes the opportunity to delve more deeply, often including a map or a chart that helps orient the reader to the material. Some examples of this are Bartlett’s discussions of the extraordinary relic list of Geoffrey de Courlon (278–81), the story of St Remaculus’s relics and the dining room table (318–21), the inquisitor Bernard Gui’s sense of “major” and lesser pilgrimage sites (426ff), the burning of the Beguins at Lunel (606–608), and many others.

I found the chapter on “Dedications and Naming” particularly interesting. The dedication of churches to saints and the naming of landscapes and people after saints is so...


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