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Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity [Hardcover]

Peter Brown
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Mar 1981
Following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the cult of the saints was the dominant form of religion in Christian Europe. In this elegantly written work, Peter Brown explores the role of tombs, shrines, relics, and pilgrimages connected with the sacred bodies of the saints. He shows how men and women living in harsh and sometimes barbaric times relied upon the merciful intercession of the holy dead to obtain justice, forgiveness, and to find new ways to accept their fellows. Challenging the common treatment of the cult as an outbreak of superstition among the lower classes, Brown demonstrates how this form of religiousity engaged the finest minds of the Church and elicited from members of the educated upper classes some of their most splendid achievements in poetry, literature, and the patronage of the arts. Brown has an international reputation for his fine style, a style he here turns on to illuminate the cult of the saints. Christianity was born without such a cult; it took rise and that rise needs chronicling. Brown has a gift for the memorable phrase and sees what the passersby have often overlooked. An eye-opener on an important but neglected phase of Western development.--The Christian Century Brilliantly original and highly sophisticated . . . . [The Cult of the Saints] is based on great learning in several disciplines, and the story is told with an exceptional appreciation for the broad social context. Students of many aspects of medieval culture, especially popular religion, will want to consult this work.--Bennett D. Hill, Library Journal
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: SCM-Canterbury Press Ltd (2 Mar 1981)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0334002850
  • ISBN-13: 978-0334002857
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,185,576 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Peter Brown is professor of history at Princeton University and the author of "Augustine of Hippo" and "The Making of Late Antiquity." --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another winner for Peter Brown 13 Jan 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Peter Brown - a truly lovely man, gent., and Oxford scholar - has produced in this excellent short volume an intriguing argument for the reasons for the development of the rise of the cult of the saints. He attributes this more to the ambitions of the bishops than to spiritual needs of groping; and suggests that the sudden rise to wealth of the establishing church was an important factor. The churches suddenly had money, and nothing to spend it on - hence the rise in buildings. Do read this book - it is bautifully written and fascinating.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Garryn
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Peter Brown is one of the seminal thinkers about the world of Late Antiquity and this monograph perfectly illustrates the depth and clarity of his thinking, the range of his reading and his mastery of the evidence. Each chapter is full of insight into how the cult of the saints evolved and developed, how it was spread and how it became an integral part of the Christianity of the Late Roman Empire and of the societies which were its heirs. Although some knowledge of the period will help the reader, and you need to be willing to follow Brown's thought, this is not a purely specialist work.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Peter Brown's Cult of the Saints 22 May 2006
By reader
[The review below doesn't seem to be about this book at all (is it a mistake? Is it intended to be about a different book? e.g. Gregory / movie rights)]

Anyway, this is an excellent, ground-breaking, and classic study of the idea of sanctity in early Christianity, which provides an accessible and interesting introduction to the development of the cult of the saints, that is, the veneration of martyrs and holy men and women. This book would be of extreme value to students of theology / ancient history, and would also be an intriguing introduction for those who are interested in learning a little more about the development of early Christianity and the origins of the cult of the saints.
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2 of 44 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The book all history students love to hate 31 Jan 2001
This book is very deceptive. It looks brief, concise and comprehensible. However, it is a wolf in sheep's clothing! Gregory writes in his own uniquely convoluted style and waffles like a champion. However, the content was exactly the stuff i needed for my degree programme so no complaints there. My issue is with the author who has long since passed, and I'm not about to start bashing the dead. Therefore, I have awarded three stars purely for the books use as an historical, documentary source. The movie rights are still going for this beauty of a thriller!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Authoritative Text 4 Nov 2002
By Caesar - Published on
Peter Brown has given us a wonderful history of a fascinating period in early Christianity, a time when believers could communicate with Christ through the preserved relics of saints. One cannot fully understand the spread of Christian ideals and traditions into the late Roman Empire without first consulting this book. Those unfamiliar with the cult of the saints will be surprised at the seeming preoccupation with death associated with early Christian traditions--in addition to preserving and displaying bones of deceased bishops (which supposedly held the power to heal and cure), ceremonies and festivals were often held at tombs and burial sites.
This book is not for the casual reader whose approaches ancient history as a hobby (I fall into that catagory). It isn't a consistantly linear text, and Brown often uses Latin terminology that is left undefined, and even uses direct quotes from Latin sources without translating them. While historians and scholars will probably have no problems (I assume they are used to this approach), an average history buff like me will have to consult a buddy who's fluent in Latin.
Nonetheless, Peter Brown is thorough and precise in his study on the workings of the early church. He shows us not only how saints to the masses, but how an individual believer could form a relationship with the dead saint, thus connecting himself to the divine. Although I had difficulty reading it for recreation, I know it will be a valuable reference text for future projects.
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brown versus modern scholarship 12 Mar 2006
By D. P. Neely - Published on
Peter Brown investigates the rise and function of the Christian "cult of saints" in late antiquity between the third and sixth centuries A.D. (1). In each chapter, he demonstrates a comprehensive framework of explaining how the cult of saints became prominent. He offers an original and alternative perspective that counters modern scholarship. He focuses on cemeteries, shrines, and relics, which embody the cult of the saints. He provides comprehensive explanations for the function of these powerful elements, which had a profound effect on the spread and growth of Christianity in the late Roman world. Chapter 1 is essentially a diatribe towards modern scholarship and the "armchair anthropology" that helped shape Enlightenment thought (13). He argues that modern scholars have inherited traditional attitudes that lack the sensitivity to understand the cultural contexts, which led to the cult of the saints' rise and expansion. He takes particular issue with the categories "true religion" and the "vulgar" which David Hume is famous for initiating (16). In addition, Brown offers an alternative to the "two-tiered" model offered by modern scholarship (17). The two-tiered model assumes that historically, changes arising in late antiquity were a grass-roots phenomenon. In this sense, the cult of the saints lies in the category of "popular religion" or vulgar religion, and that its rise is due to the capitulation of the enlightened Christian elites (18). Brown vehemently disagrees, arguing in the following chapters, that it is the exact opposite, which occurs during this time-period.

In chapter 2, Brown argues that originally the tension over saint worship became a debate over the "privatization of the holy" arising not between the masses and the elite, rather the elites and the clergy (34). Early church leaders Augustine and Vigilantus worried that "loyalties to the holy dead" disrupted the ideal community and could cause a "neglect of the local church" (32). Bishops, like Ambrose of Milan, began playing the part and seizing more power during this conflict. Burial practices, shrines, and the remains of the saints became tools compiled by the elites and ecclesiastics. The rise of the cult of saints was purposeful and deliberate. In other words, the saints and the procedures involved with saint reverence would provide identification for the Christian community. The clergy used the graves of the martyrs to "buy off envy" assuaging the gap between the masses and the elites. Shrines and cemeteries also provided a new definition and strengthening of the urban Christian community by including women and the poor. They offered a sort of escape for the marginalized. This would further support Brown's claim that the cult's rise is an elitist construction appeasing the masses. The "democratization of culture" in late antiquity is democratization from the top (48).

In chapter 3, Brown posits that Augustine used the cult of martyrs to invert the traditional hierarchy of the universe. They could bind fellow men closer to God because martyrs were more authentic than angels were. The need for patronage also offered a "perpetual hope of amnesty" in regards to sin and the last judgment (65). In chapter 4, the "relic" became a new therapeutic tool helping in the inevitable negotiation with death (78). The relic's removal from the cluttered grave and direct association with physical death heightened the "imaginative dialectic" which was the notion that the saints were still alive in Heaven and on Earth (79). This helped perpetuate the immortality motif essential for Christianity's growth. In chapter 5, Brown notes that originally, the holy was available in one place. If one lived outside the proximity of a shrine, a pilgrimage was the only means to experience the holy. Church leaders were innovative when enacting the notion that if relics could travel then those believers that were not in the proximity of shrines or cemeteries could experience "praesentia" or the physical presence of the holy (88). Another function the cult of saints provided was "concord and the unsullied exercise of power" (93). The saint's praesentia offered protection and prestige for the individual and power over evil. In chapter 6, Brown notes that the late-antique shrine was also a place for an exorcism, demonstrating the "potentia" or ideal power of the saint through God (107). The saint's power shows the ability to change the "social status" of the healed recipient (113). The healed could either keep their status or become property of the "invisible lord" or saint from whose shrine they were healed (113).

The Cult of the Saints does not read like modern scholarship, and I believe this is Brown's intention. There is no introduction or conclusion, Brown just begins pouring information out from the beginning to the end. This gives the book a rather authentic appeal insinuating that Brown has no agenda other than deriding the analytical methods of modern scholarship. Brown, however, is guilty of doing this himself in some cases. He uses terms like "therapy of distance" when discussing pilgrimages in chapter five (87). In addition, he refers to exorcism as a "psychodrama" and posits that exorcisms were alternatives to the traditional penal system aiming for the reintegration of individuals back into the community (111). This, however, in no way takes away from the scope of Brown original arguments presented in this erudite work.

Damon Neely
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant monograph 17 Oct 2003
By Michael Taylor - Published on
This monograph has become the classic work on the cult of the saints, and is part of Peter Brown's monumental contribution to the study of early Christianity.
Brown takes on the complex phenomenon of the cult of the saints, countering the prevalent view, expoused by no less a thinker than David Hume, that the cult of the saints was merely a folk continuation of a pagan world view.
Indeed, just the opposite was true. The cult of the saints dramatically reversed the pagan view of the universe. In pagan thought, heaven and earth were distinctly separate, but now through the cult heaven and earth were linked by the physical presence of saints and their relics on earth. Rather than being a supersition of commoners, the cult was developed and perpetuated by the most educated and cultured elites of the church.
Brown shows that the cult was not "medieval." Indeed it developed from the classical values that permeated the late antique world. Saints become "spiritual friends," reflecting the warm sense amicitia that was so cherished Roman elites, and saints were said to be "patrons," who could intermediate before God in the same fashion that a patron would mediate for a client before a Roman official.
Brown paints a vivid picture of early Christian piety, a world filled with genuine emotion and profound spirituality.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Anthropological rather than theological sources 17 Mar 2009
By Stratiotes Doxha Theon - Published on
Dr. Brown's classic lectures on the source of the cult of the saints is an anthropological more than theological study of those sources. In the first lecture Dr. Brown demolishes the 'two-tiered' popular historical model that assumes a vast difference between the educated Christian elite and less educated members of the faith. He finds that the cult of the saints did not arise from the undereducated and superstitious as has been theorized by modern post-enlightenment biased historians. Indeed, there is evidence that the cult arose from the very elite with which the modern historian so quickly identifies. In this, Dr. Brown has done a great service to identify our tendency to project our modern bias in historical thought.

But, while Dr. Brown identifies modern bias he may hold some of his own. He consistently refers to the rise of the cult in the 4th century as so many have asserted in the past. But such an assertion ignores how fully developed the cult had already become from such early 2nd century writings as the martyrdom of Polycarp or the martyrdom of Perpetua. Dr. Brown talks little about the early development of the cult focused on martyrs of the early centuries. And, he makes no mention of some of the roots in Jewish traditions. Assuming a 4th century explosion of the cult on Christendom loses much of the continuity of earlier centuries and leaves us grasping for the theological mindset that could apparently create the cult as a theological reality from nothing. By focusing so much on the anthropological roots, Dr. Brown loses the continuity of the theological roots. His myopic approach to history results in many of the same historical biases he rightly decries. Because of this one-sided approach, his anthropological arguments are very interesting but not as enlightening as they might have been.

There are two other works that are a bit more rounded with the theological continuity that balances Dr. Brown's work. The reader would do well to pick up a copy of 'Let us die that we may live': Greek homilies on Christian Martyrs from Asia Minor, Palestine and Syria c.350-c.450 AD or The Cult of the Saints (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press Popular Patristics) for homilies through the 4th century that provide inside evidence of the cult of the saints. In these works we find the early development of the cult and the continuity of its theological roots.

Dr. Brown gives us some interesting insight into the anthropological roots of the cult of the saints. But, in the end, the reader will want to round their understanding more with other works to truly understand the phenomena. Still, a worth-while work with some interesting insight that counters much of the popular historical bias.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The sainted and how they got that way 9 Oct 2008
By Linda Pagliuco - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The Cult of the Saints is a scholarly look into how the saints, who were after all only human, came to occupy such exalted places in the minds of Catholics. The entire Christian world, it must be remembered, was nothing but Catholic for centuries. Peter Browns series of essays shows how, far from being a pagan holdover, the use of saints as mediators between earth and heaven became so popular and so accepted.

This is not a book to breeze through; rather, it requires careful, line by line reading. Recommended for readers who have the patience necessary to glean understanding from this scholarly material.
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