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Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation [Hardcover]

Robert Bartlett
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 Dec 2013

From its earliest centuries, one of the most notable features of Christianity has been the veneration of the saints--the holy dead. This sweepingly ambitious history from one of the world's leading medieval historians tells the fascinating story of the cult of the saints from its origins in the second-century days of the Christian martyrs to the Protestant Reformation. Drawing on sources from around the Christian world, Robert Bartlett examines all of the most important aspects of the saints--including miracles, relics, pilgrimages, shrines, and the saints' role in the calendar, literature, and art.

As this engaging narrative shows, a wide variety of figures have been venerated as saints: men and women, kings and servant girls, legendary virgins and highly political bishops--and one dog. The book explores the central role played by the bodies and body parts of saints, and the special treatment these relics received: how they were treasured and enshrined, used in war and peace, and faked and traded. The shrines of the saints drew pilgrims, sometimes from hundreds of miles, and the book describes the routes, dangers, and rewards of pilgrimage, including the thousands of reported miracles. The book surveys the rich literature and images that proliferated around the saints, as well as the saints' impact on everyday life--from the naming of people and places to the shaping of the calendar. Finally, the book considers how the Christian cult of saints compares with apparently similar aspects of other religions.

At once deeply informative and entertaining, this is an unmatched account of an immensely important and intriguing part of the religious life of the past--as well as the present.


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 808 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (3 Dec 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691159130
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691159133
  • Product Dimensions: 16.4 x 4.9 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 195,259 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

Winner of the 2013 PROSE Award in European and World History, Association of American Publishers

"[A]n indispensible point of departure for anyone interested in the cult of the saints in the Middle Ages. The book is based on an awe-inspiring familiarity with the hagiographical sources of both Eastern and Western churches, and is packed with intelligent, measured, and well-informed discussions of everything from the hierarchy of precedence of feasts in the old Roman calendar to the managerial problems of running a shrine. Students, scholars, and the general reader will all find it invaluable."--Eamon Duffy, New York Review of Books

"Robert Bartlett's monumental study provides a comprehensive account of the development of the cult of the saints from the cult of martyrs (those who had died as witnesses for their faith during the Roman persecutions) and illustrates the centrality of saintly devotion in the lives and beliefs of Christians across Europe over the whole medieval period. . . . Bartlett has a gift for succinct summary, both of complex (and confusing) narratives and for explaining theological controversy; his obvious abilities as a teacher appear throughout and his book will manifestly appeal to students. . . . Robert Bartlett's achievement lies in his capacity to draw out the distinctive, and often amusing, attributes of different saints while showing how the cult of saints operated in medieval Europe."--Sarah Foot, Times Literary Supplement

"It is a treat . . . to see such erudition amassed this way; it is hard to imagine any aspect of the cult of the saints that Bartlett has left out in this extraordinarily comprehensive text. Yet there is enormous entertainment here as well. . . . [W]ho, and when and where--this enormous and humane reference work gives all that, along with stories that are appalling and ghoulish and mysterious and funny."--Rob Hardy, The (Columbus, OH) Dispatch

"[T]here is much to enjoy in the array of human behaviour, sacred and by our standards profane or just downright mad, chronicled in Bartlett's excellent study."--Diarmaid MacCulloch, Guardian

"[T]his magisterial work of scholarship."--Richard Holloway, Independent

"Devotion to the saints is manifestly still alive and well in the Catholic Church, and Bartlett's impressive compendium will serve to explain the cult's historical origins and evolution."--John Cornwell, Financial Times

"Rich in original research, full of illuminating case studies, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? is a major achievement from a distinguished medieval historian and a gold mine for those interested in religious history."--Helen Fulton, Times Higher Education

"Bartlett convincingly explains how the 12th-century papacy sought to control a potentially anarchic process by demanding strict examination of cases, of which only about half were successful. . . . With great thoroughness, Bartlett examines issues such as types of saint, relics, miracles, hagiography and doubt, more as an observer than as judge. . . . Some of Bartlett's most valuable insights relate to the diversity of ways in which saints were revered and what they reveal about visions of the social order."--Constant Mews, Sydney Morning Herald

"This is a remarkable book, which is thankfully both wonderfully informative and wonderfully readable. . . . His book is just the kind of great scholarly synthesis that was once the norm, but which may well become rarer than now in the future. This is a long and very detailed book, but the patience of the reader in encompassing nearly 800 closely printed pages will be well rewarded."--Peter Costello, Irish Catholic

"Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things is an excellent survey of the cult of the saints in the pre-modern period. The reader looking for explanations of the social and cultural functions of the holy dead could do far worse."--Frank McGough, Origins

"It is a treat to see such erudition amassed this way; it is hard to imagine any aspect of the cult of the saints that Bartlett has left out in this extraordinarily comprehensive text. . . . [W]ho, and when, and where--this enormous and humane reference work gives all that, along with stories that are appalling and ghoulish and mysterious and funny."--Rob Hardy, Skeptic

"It is hard to overemphasize the scholarship evident in this book. . . . One could associate a work such as this with a certain dryness of tone but this is not the case. The book is very engaging and at the same time quite modular, that is, allowing the readers to jump around to concentrate on their areas of special interest. Bartlett is one of the world's leading medieval historians and he brings his expertise to bear on this very ambitious project."--Richard Rymarz, Catholic Books Review

"[M]agisterial. . . . [A] fascinating and illuminating read. . . . Bartlett's book will also be welcome to those who have experienced something of the power of the cult of the saints in their own time and place. . . . [H]is style balances rigor and a near-encyclopedic breadth with accessibility and humor. . . . Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? will remain a classic study of the saints, their cults and their faithful for a long time. . . . Robert Bartlett's masterpiece."--Holly J. Grieco, America

"Bartlett's work is astonishingly comprehensive, and the balance he strikes between narration and analysis is admirable."--David J Collins, Theological Studies

From the Inside Flap

"The whole of medieval life is contained in Robert Bartlett's history of the cult of saints. Wisely combining a chronological account and thematic explorations, Bartlett surveys the whole of Europe and its vastly diverse people. This is a remarkable feat that takes the medieval passion for saints and their relics not as a given, but as an intellectual challenge. Bartlett shows that as Christian Europe lost the ancient gods of nature it gained a landscape marked by those great things that only very special dead people could do."--Miri Rubin, Queen Mary University of London

"This massive and encyclopedic survey is a remarkable guide to the complexities of medieval sanctity. It is so hard for modern readers to understand the role of medieval saints from within; this book makes it possible."--Chris Wickham, University of Oxford

"This is a great book, a bold work by an outstanding scholar and writer. Tackling the vast subject of medieval sainthood, Robert Bartlett has managed to produce a distinctly original account that is also an enjoyable and entertaining read, seasoned with humor. Bartlett has a keen eye for significant, and often paradoxical, quotations, situations, and personalities. I know of no other book that has attempted to grasp the entire subject of medieval sainthood. Its publication is a major event."--Gbor Klaniczay, Central European University

"Comprehensive, up-to-date, and highly readable, this ambitious survey of medieval sainthood is, in its scale and range, unlike any other book on the subject. Robert Bartlett successfully balances an astute analysis of the underlying and universal dynamics driving the medieval conception of, and response to, sanctity, with an imaginative depiction of chronological and regional variation and particularity. And he has a remarkable eye for telling and offbeat details. This is major book."--Alan Thacker, University of London


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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly and fun 17 Jan 2014
By waspish
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
You might not think you'd enjoy a detailed study of the mediaeval cult of saints, but, unless you have no sense of humour, you'll enjoy this. It manages erudition without ever losing the (reasonably knowledgeable) general reader. It is comprehensive but never repetitive, and it is fun. Bartlett, like Gibbon, loves the jolly, gossipy bits. There were times when I laughed out loud. Mind you, if you really believe in saints,this might be a bit of a facet.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Hansen
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a very comprehensive and scholarly presentation of just about all concievable facets of saints and their cult through the Middle Ages. Taking its origin in the commemoration and cult of the martyrs at their tombs, new persons for veneration were quickly found among holy men and women after persecutions of Christians stopped after 300 AD. Eventually a cult of saints developed and their remains were venerated all through Christendom and the saints became prime actors in everyday life of medieval people. Quickly the cult of such persons also became a tool for power and prestige and thus an important factor in the evolvement of medieval church and society. The book tells this story with many examples and a high degree of detail which is quite entertaining as well as thought-provoking. The book is thoroughly cross-referenced (I have already ordered a couple of follow-ups) and all in all it is an excellent read.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Miraculous History 23 Dec 2013
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
St. Augustine pondered the miracles the saints could do (this was before he became a saint and presumably dabbled in miracles himself) and asked a question that the medievalist scholar Robert Bartlett has taken for the title of his new book. _Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation_ (Princeton University Press) is an academic doorstopper, over 600 pages of small-print text, not to mention notes and a voluminous bibliography. It is a treat, though, to see such erudition amassed this way; it is hard to imagine any aspect of the cult of the saints that Bartlett has left out in this extraordinarily comprehensive text. Yet there is enormous entertainment here as well. The times were far different from our own, and if miracles are happening now, they are not the same sorts of miracles that so astonished and inspired the men and woman described in these pages. We do not have dead now doing such great things, for instance, as did St. Edmund of East Anglia, who even though dead got so angry with King Sweyn Forkbeard for pillaging his abbey that he ran him through with a spear. Bartlett does such a splendid job of sympathetic understanding and neutrality, it is hard to figure out his own views of such miracles. Those of us who take a skeptical view of the supernatural will find much to condemn here, but readers among the millions who believe in saintly miracles will find no reason to leave off believing.

Holy men and women doing wondrous things are part of many religious traditions. The early Christian church took this a few steps further. Not only was death no barrier for saints who wanted to continue working miracles, but their corpses, or bits and pieces of them, possessed wonder-working capacities. It is fun to read the words of contemporaries who thought there might be something wrong in worshipping dead people rather than the supreme being they followed. In the twelfth century, a critic confronted the problem that there were competing revered heads of John the Baptist, one in Constantinople and one in Saint-Jean-d'Angélyin France: “There were not two John the Baptists, nor one with two heads!” Calvin mocked the slipper of St. Peter which was preserved at Poitiers, a slipper of satin and gold: “See how they make him stylish after his death as a compensation for the poverty which he had during his lifetime.” These saints violated physical laws by such things as levitation, and some turned water into wine as Jesus had done, though Bartlett explains that “in the cooler northern and western parts of Europe, other beverages might be more suitable.” He gives as an example St. Arnulf of Metz, who miraculously provided beer for all the entourage carrying his body to burial. The chief miracles worked by saints, however, were cures attested by many grateful petitioners. It is a surprise, then, to read that saints were not always healing in their saintly way. Sometimes they caused rather than cured illness. A woman who swore a false oath to St. Bertrand that she was innocent of adultery “saw her hand wither and dry up.” A man who falsely swore to St. Cuthbert immediately went blind. Around 840, men claiming to be monks brought some bones to Lyons, saying they had forgotten which saint they belonged to; perhaps objecting to this neglect, the relics “did not heal, but knocked women about the church, striking them to the ground.” St. Etheldreda took her staff and stabbed a man in the heart with it for oppressing her believers; he lived long enough only to tell what she had done to him. Simon de Montfort, who died in battle in 1265, was regarded as a saint, but when some skeptic derided him, the skeptic “lost the power of speech and was unable to move a hand or foot but sat like a dead person.”

This huge mass of scholarship never gets around to answering the question of its title; believers only, it seems, can understand why the dead can do such great things (and maybe how, as well). Perhaps this is as it should be; Bartlett summarizes that “the cult of the saints met needs, in particular the need for the hope of a cure in a sick and suffering world without effective medicine, but it also suffused the imagination of worshippers.” That may have to do for a “why.” But who, and when, and where - this enormous and humane reference work gives all that, along with with stories that are appalling and ghoulish and mysterious and funny.
4.0 out of 5 stars Robert Bartlett Explores the Power of the Saints 25 Jun 2014
By Michael - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
The emphasis of death and the afterlife in Christianity is a major component of the religion's history. Robert Bartlett explores the Christian saints, known as the holy dead in this great book. He discusses a variety of saints and their alleged miracles, pilgrimages, and works.

One of the strongest points of this book is that it covers a large group of saints - even a dog! It emcompasses a group of women, political bishops, and the trade of relics. Bartlett's strength as an author comes from his experiences as a professor of medieval history in Scotland. His previous books include Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal and The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350, both of which cover different subsets of the middle ages.

Another of Bartlett's strong points is that it explores a human aspect of the saints. His best point is that "the cult of the saints met need" and provided a positive outlook for the "sick and suffering world." Adding personality to the tet makes it an engaging and thought-provoking read.

The main criticism readers might have of this book is that it does not necessarily set out to answer the question it poses in the title. Still, readers will appreciate this book as a demonstration of the prominence of religion in Christian Europe. Bartlett's story is one of passion and a search for happiness.
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