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  • Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation by Robert Bartlett
  • Anne E. Lester
Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation. By Robert Bartlett. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2013. Pp. xviii, 787. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-691-15913-3.)

With this book Robert Bartlett serves up a wondrous synthesis: awesome in its breadth, saturating in its detail, and delightful in its humanity. The question [End Page 905] posed on the spine, “Why can the dead to such great things?”, is a riddle for how medieval people constructed their world. The dead do good things because people ascribed such things to them. Interactions with the special dead were based on the need to set up communal exemplars, to articulate social norms, to inscribe hierarchies and rituals, and to remember ideas and people, among other things. Bartlett offers here a social history of the long Middle Ages through the lens of the history of saints. Indeed, the book does not grapple with theological, philosophical, or phenomenological aspects of religion; rather, Bartlett offers a sociological and anthropological history of the relationship between people and the holy dead in Western Europe between c. 300 and 1500 (with occasional eastward glances during the late-antique and Byzantine periods). Bartlett is not interested in what makes someone a saint, or in saintly qualities or behavior. As he states, “A saint was not a person of a particular type, but a person who was treated in a particular way” (p. 95). The venerations, propitiations, and conversations men and women had with the very special dead, and the ways such interactions changed during the course of the Middle Ages, are what captivate Bartlett and guide his story.

The book is divided into two sections. Part I: “Developments” (chapters 1–4) moves chronologically from an overview of the origins of the cult of saints to the Protestant Reformation. Part II: “Dynamics” (chapters 5–14) takes up the rhythms of the cult, addressing days of veneration; the names of saints; and the role of relics, shrines, miracles, pilgrimage, images, literature, doubt, and dissent. In chapter 15 he concludes with a set of reflections that places the medieval cult of saints in relation other religious practices outside the medieval period. The wealth of knowledge here is encyclopedic; as a consequence, the book is perhaps most accessible with particular questions in mind. Its parts are near-perfect synthetic essays about the development of the cult of saints (in the first ninety pages), the growth of liturgical observances and rituals in the West (chapters 6–7), or the textual sources related to saints’ cults (chapter 13). These pieces are ideal for upper-level undergraduates or graduate students, or for those wanting an overview of certain aspects of the practice of cult of saints.

Once inside the text, we are treated to characteristic Bartlett writing: captivating staccato observations peppered with reveling, humane, and occasionally very funny anecdotes that brings medieval devotion to life. The saints—the dead—and their devotees were deeply human figures. Cults were carefully constructed, embellished, and then dismantled and thus offer insight into the needs, worries, joys, fears, and material and imaginative constructions of individuals and social groups in the medieval West. Although there is a great deal of new primary evidence exposed afresh, which is a delight to read, because of the sweep of the text much is also synthetic, and some old conclusions are reiterated when it would have been nice to see the author present a fresh take on some well-worn topics, especially after all that he has read to create this book. The arguments that do appear are broad. One learns that the dead could and did do good things because such things often reflected and reinforced power structures and systems of belief and order. One of the central tensions animating the book is the push and pull of [End Page 906] a dyad with which Bartlett has long been concerned: the natural and the supernatural. Because reading the book in full presents a challenge, one does wish that Bartlett would also produce...


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