Sunday, 30 December 2018

My cult is bigger than your cult: judging the popularity of saints in the Middle Ages


December the 29th was the feast of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket. Just in case you didn't know. You might not I suppose. It is possible that there are those out there who don't spend their lives dealing with medieval saints and pilgrimage, and therefore might have missed this momentous event. However, if you have an interest in medieval history, and happen to be on social media, then it was pretty difficult to miss. There were medievalists tweeting and posting images of beautiful pilgrim badges, amazing stained glass, and a few rather gory wall paintings, whilst others discussed the location of his shrine at Canterbury cathedral, or the archaeology of cathedrals themselves. It was rather like Christmas day all over again for the average medievalist. However, it left me with something of a question. It was clear that the cult of St Thomas was incredibly popular during the later Middle Ages, with all these works of art, written references, and archaeology telling us so, but how do we judge the popularity of lesser known saints from the period?

So how do you judge exactly how popular a saint was during the Middle Ages? The obvious thing to do was ask the experts, and garner a few opinions from others as to how they would determine the general popularity of a medieval saint? So, in time honoured tradition, I posted the question to twitter. The results were certainly plentiful, and there were a wide variety of answers soon filling my twitter feed. However, it soon became clear that nothing was really very clear at all. That there was no single answer, and that each source of evidence was likely to produce different, and sometimes outright contradictory, results.

One of the first suggestions was that the number of churches dedicated to a particular saint could be deemed a general indicator as to how widespread was the devotion to that particular cult. Churches, unlike works of art or manuscripts, are fairly solid and enduring pieces of evidence. However, it was also pretty clear that, what seemed at face value a fairly straightforward indicator, was anything but clear. In the first instance there is the little known fact that church dedications are nowhere near as stable and unchanging as many people perceive them to be. In short, they changed. South Lopham in Norfolk began life dedicated to St Nicholas, but today stands as St Andrews, Binham Priory is today dedicated to the Holy Cross, but undoubtedly began life as St Mary's. Studies of Norfolk church dedications (we have 650+ surviving medieval churches after all) have suggested as many as 20% of modern church dedications are not the same as the original medieval dedication.

Binham Priory

There are also still churches today where we are a little unclear as to what the original dedication was, or if there even was one. Take Great Witchingham in Norfolk, commonly referred to today as St Mary's - the most common dedication in England. However, it has been argued that the original dedication was to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a dedication you will find in several guidebooks and websites, whilst others argue, based upon the evidence of the carved porch spandrels, that the original dedication was actually to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Exactly what it was in the medieval period - we don't know. It has also been a long held belief amongst some scholars that church dedications may have had nothing to do with the veneration of a particular saint, but rather reflect the name-saint of the principal donor, or even the saints day upon which the church was consecrated.

Then there are the saints that we know were popular in the late medieval period, and yet almost never appear as church dedications, or amongst most surviving art works of the period. The most obvious is perhaps St Christopher, whose image was to be found upon the walls of most medieval English churches, and is the most common single saint to be found amongst surviving medieval wall paintings. Reference to these images are also frequently to be found amongst the written records, and yet, despite this near universal popularity, you will find a bare handful of churches dedicated to the saint, and even fewer depictions in the other surviving artworks of the period. For example, you will look in vain for the saint on East Anglian rood screens. The same is true of St Barbara, who is commonly depicted on rood screens and panel paintings, and is amongst the most popular saint depicted on late medieval copper alloy pilgrim badges, and yet has only two known medieval churches dedicated to her - both now lost.

It is also worth remembering that a church dedication represents only a single moment in time. St Remigius for example, has no less than four medieval churches dedicated to him in the county of Norfolk (out of only six in the whole of England), and yet you will hunt in vain through the documentary records and wills, the images on rood screens and wall paintings, for reference to this fifth/sixth century evangelist who reputedly baptised the king of the Franks (or was Bishop of Lincoln, or rector of Hethersett - depending upon which source you choose to believe). If church dedications alone were an indicator of popularity then Remigius can be regarded as being far more popular than St Christopher or St Barbara.

Almost all of the arguments above can also be applied to other strands of evidence, such as the time taken to officially recognise a saint, or precedence of festivals and feasts. This is particularly true when looking at a period when 'unofficial' cults could take a firm hold in a very short space of time, and yet never resulted in the formal acceptance of the potential new saint. Consider for example the popular cults of Richard Caister of Norwich, John Shorne of Long Marston, and king Henry VI. All three of these individuals had popular cults grow up around their memories in the fifteenth century, and yet none of the three were ever formally canonised.

All of these informal cults are exceptionally visible in many of the strands of evidence, with all three attracting pilgrims to their sites, having pilgrim badges created in the honour, and being depicted in stained glass, on rood screens, and in wall paintings. However, you'll find none of them amongst the lists of the festivals and feasts of the medieval church. You'll find no formal and orthodox dedications to their memory. As saints, they do not formally exist, and yet we can see evidence of their popularity on myriad levels. There are almost as many surviving medieval pilgrim badges attributed to Richard Caister of Norwich as there are to St Alban, and Henry VI appears nearly as often on East Anglian rood screens, and amongst references to church statues, as Mary Magdalene.



So where then does that leave us?

One would consider the documentary evidence, particularly at a parish level, to be a fairly solid source of evidence, but even here things are not always as they seem. Take for example the tiny Devon parish of Morebath, whose accounts and records have been subject to detailed study by Eamon Duffy in his excellent book - 'The Voices of Morebath'. On the 30th August 1520 the village welcomed a young and enthusiastic new priest, ChristopherTrychay, who was to remain in the parish for the next fifty-four years. However, the priest brought more than just zeal and enthusiasm with him to his new parish. In his first year it is recorded that he personally paid for the creation and gilding of a statue of St Sidwell, a local saint popular in the Exeter region, that was placed within his new church. Over the coming decades Trychay fostered the cult of the saint in the parish, encouraging gifts and small acts of devotion, bequests and benevolences, so that by the eve of the reformation the cult of St Sidwell in Morebath was almost as prominent as that of the Virgin Mary - with at least two young girls within the parish having been named after Sidwell.

Seen from an outside perspective, the growth of the cult of St Sidwell within the parish would appear to clearly evidence the local growth in popularity of what was clearly a local saint. A superficial examination of the paperwork would support this, and might even lead a historian to ponder how such localised cults become established? However, the deeper research into this particular parish has allowed us to understand that the growth and popularity of this particular cult was actually the direct result of the personal zeal of one particular parish priest; one man whose own devotion to the saint has led to a complete bias of the written evidence. If this was the case in Morebath it raises the question of how often this may well have been the case elsewhere?

It becomes perhaps more complex still if we consider other areas of written evidence. My own research has clearly indicated that even such seemingly straightforward sources such as post-mortem pilgrimage bequests - when an individual left money in their will for others to undertake pilgrimages on their behalf - were more likely to appear within surviving wills from particular locations than from others. In essence, such bequests appear in geographical clusters, suggesting either that those making their wills were influenced by the individuals writing them (scribal influence), or they were simply emulating the actions of others in the same locality - a post-mortem 'keeping up with the Jones'.

And if you think all that is just a bit confusing - it actually gets even worse. Certain saints appear largely in only one strand of evidence, and are almost entirely absent elsewhere. Take for example the late medieval cult of Catherine of Sienna. Jennifer N. Brown has convincingly shown that the saint became incredibly influential in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, particularly amongst literate female followers, with extracts of her writings surviving in numerous sources. However, the saint almost completely fails to make the translation from the written works to being depicted in popular religious art. Despite Catherine's demonstrable importance she appears only on a single retable (the Dartmouth, or Battel Hall, retable), and a rood screen in Devon. A third possible depiction, on the rood screen at Horsham St Faith in Norfolk, now appears more likely to be a depiction of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven - and why anyone ever thought it might be Catherine is something of a mystery.

In complete contrast to Catherine of Sienna is the story of 'Mistress Ridibowne'. She appears on the fifteenth century painted rood screen at Gately in Norfolk, with additional references to pilgrimage bequests in a very small number of Norfolk wills, and the 'possibility' that there was a further image of her at Hackford church - also in Norfolk. The thing is, we have absolutely no idea who she was. Although it has been suggested it might be referring to Christina of Markyate, and it is clear that the cult involved a minor site of pilgrimage, she really is a complete enigma. What is perhaps worse is the fact that she isn't alone. We have references to other bequests and offerings to minor shrines and cults that are just as much of a mystery.
Gateley rood screen figure

So where then does this leave the original question I asked on Twitter? How is it possible to judge the popularity of an individual saint in the medieval period? Well, I think the only true answer is that there is no one clear way; no single strand of evidence that can reflect the reality of late medieval piety, particularly on a parish level. We can say the St Thomas Becket and St Mary were incredibly popular in the later Middle Ages, and judge other cults from relics, pilgrims, and bequests, but once you get down into the nitty gritty of judging actual popularity, no one single strand of evidence will ever tell us more than a single 'version'; a truth that may well be supported by other forms of evidence, or, as we have seen, may well be totally contradicted by them.

There were other suggestions made by those on twitter that I do particularly like. For example, if the number of supposed relics claimed by various churches adds up to more than one whole individual - and I'm thinking of multiple claims to objects such as Aaron's rod, or the foreskin of Christ here - then they were undoubtedly popular. A saint with eight arms, three skulls, and five legs was undoubtedly a sought after individual. Likewise, I see a bright future for the idea of Medieval Saints Top Trumps.

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