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Water to Wine? I Get Fifteen Percent

Successful medieval saints, such as William of Norwich and Thomas Becket, required the efforts of public relations specialists.

Saint Simeon Stylites was a gent who spent most of his life sitting atop progressively taller poles. Before that, he would pass Lent without eating, drinking, or sitting down; he wore rough camel-hair shirts and delighted in the bodily stench and flesh-eating worms his grooming habits encouraged. Indeed, an account indicates that one of these worms fell out of his body and turned into a pearl in the hands of an "Arab King", driving said sovereign to convert to Catholicism.[1]

St. Brigid turned her bathwater into beer to slake the thirst of unexpected guests.[2] St. Lucy had her eyes torn out but miraculously restored, was "exposed" in a brothel but survived untouched, set ablaze but remained unharmed, and finally dispatched by a sword to the throat. St. Scholastica conjured a storm to keep her brother from leaving and therefore interrupting her plan to "go on talking till morning about the joys of heaven."[3]

These saints had some serious chops. If you were to ask us, it almost seems the folks in this lot were competing against each other. And, well, we'd be right.

Praying for the Home Team

Trying to get your local saint publicized was a common sport in the Middle Ages.[4] Widespread veneration brought travelers and money to the town (one has to remember that the saint was dead by this point, and the pilgrims would flock to the shrine and donate money). Some saints, according to the keepers of the shrines, professed a preference for trinkets and baubles, which was a way to get pilgrims to donate jewelry. Clearly, a powerful saint could be parlayed into an economic boon. As such, townspeople held a great affinity for their saint.

The local saint's shrine could be viewed like a farm baseball team: local pride ran alongside religious fervor, and opportunities to one-up the town down the road were welcomed. Indeed, every once in awhile townships close to one another held little contests to see whose saint was holier.[5] Sometimes candles would be lit for each and the brighter flame declared the winner; other times a pilgrim would beg at one shrine for healing only to be told in a vision that she'd best scuttle off to the other, more powerful one.

Henry II argues with Thomas Becket
Henry II argues with Thomas Becket

Of course, this begs the question of how one saint got to be more powerful than another in the first place. Or, failing displays of actual power, how one got to be more famous. In Miracles and the Medieval Mind, Benedicta Ward[6] notes that successful cults surrounding saints tended to succeed on the basis of, well, their propagandists. If the saint was truly a local that helped, as did the presence of some galvanizing political controversy. For example, Henry II's soldiers murdered Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, dismaying the king's subjects no end. As a result, the Archbishop swiftly became a spectacularly successful saint.[7]

But Becket also enjoyed the benefits of moral outrage on the part of a few overactive record-keepers, and his veneration grew far and wide.

Doubting Thomas? Yeah, Us Too

For lesser, local saints, propaganda was no less important. For example, a young child named William of Norwich was allegedly crucified by evil Jews (apocryphally, although he was murdered by somebody) in 1144 and amassed a decent local following. However, the kid didn't really get popular until six years later, and only after Thomas of Monmouth, a monk, started "recording" miracles occurring at his tomb. He also didn't start promoting William until after everyone directly involved with the boy's death was already dead, and even then encountered considerable resistance from the townspeople to his efforts:

There were many, ungrateful for the divine benefits or for the signs shown, who mocked at the miracles when they were made public and said that they were fictitious. These suggested that the blessed boy William was likely to be of no special merit after his death, whom they had heard was a poor neglected little fellow when alive.[8]

These "divine benefits" conformed to the usual litany of medieval healings: toothaches, "dropsy", withered limbs and the like.[9] At one charming point, the "saint" cured oxen belonging to local Denis the Chamberlain. However, not all the miracles wrought by William were beneficent. William was rumored to die at the hands of Jews,[10] so when a local Jew was killed by Christians, Thomas took it to be divine intervention. The monk decided revenge was also a key factor when the local sheriff, who had defended the Jews, died of internal bleeding. Obviously, the brother thought that Saint William was able to both heal livestock and create hemorrhages or incite murder.

God's On My Side... And Not Yours

Thomas grew quite comfortable invoking William's hand in a variety of deaths, not least in cases of the good brother's own enemies. A monk named Richard died of an illness, which delighted Thomas, because they were at odds over tomb decorations. Following Richard's death, Thomas wrote

...for perhaps [our townspeople] may say in their hearts that the martyr William punished -- and justly punished -- by the vengeance of his wrath the insult offered to him by the hardened [Richard].[11]
Smiling Leper
Smiling Leper

We bet. It must have been mighty nice settling the occasional minor domestic dispute with a display of omnipotent power. Thomas later obtained certain relics, including two of William's teeth, for his own private use. He also recorded a vision wherein the young saint requested that Thomas become his "private secretary", thereby cementing the monk's authority. Such brownnosing wasn't restricted to Thomas, by any means: William's mother subsequently got in cahoots with the church and was treated quite well, despite having let her child wander off with strangers to get killed. The boy's uncle, a priest, charged for cures brought about by a relic; another devotee of William secretly got ahold of a rock from his tomb which she then ground up and fed to her family as medicine.

Cult of Personality

The cult thrived under Thomas's tutelage, even when he sort of gave up after four years and stopped recording the healings and visions. He was surprised to learn the cult had attained a life of its own and that that "miracles" kept happening without his help, and said so:

Quite suddenly when we were least expecting it... the power of the holy martyr renewed itself and shone forth with a greater multitude of signs than before. I therefore take up my pen once more.[12]

Indeed, for a local saint, William grew comparatively well known: he enjoys a sizable entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia.[13] Other dictionaries of saints likewise feel obliged to mention him and in particular his alleged murder by evil Jews. The reference works then swiftly disavow any anti-Semitism and offer apologies aplenty, not least because this murder started a trend of accusing Jews of ritualized anti-Christian murder that made it all the way till the end of the nineteenth century.

This is not to say William's cult itself kept up that long: little mention is made of it after the fourteenth century. But for its time it did enjoy decent success in the face of other martyrs, particularly so in the years shortly after William's death. Other cults did not fare nearly so well. For example, about the same period, Guibert of Nogent records a story of another youngster who died on a holy day. Folks started praying to the kid as a saint, and various miracles were reported (Guibert disapprovingly calls them "falsa"). However, the cult flourished and disappeared in a matter of weeks. What went wrong?

Propaganda. With only grumpy, doubting Guibert to record and disseminate the stories of the alleged saint, it was destined to die. However, William received the benefits of Thomas of Monmouth, who actively kept the ball rolling for a few decades. In that time enough critical mass developed to firmly seat William into Catholic lore. That it gave Christians in the Middle Ages another excuse to persecute Jews didn't hurt much, either. Miraculous healing coupled with justifiable prejudice is a mighty powerful combination, and it was simply a hit in Norwich.

Aspiring saints of the world -- get an agent.

Footnotes

  1. Doran, p.94. We're not so sure we believe this one.
  2. Not the first to use the bathwater trick. See our article on False Christs in Medieval times.
  3. If she were our sister, we'd smack her.
  4. Still popular, actually. Visit El Salvador, where the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, not officially canonized, is the local Michael Jordan of saints. The whole counrty sports paintings of "San Romero" If they say it often enough, it'll presumably come true.
  5. By the same token, saints "deferred" to one another when an expected miracle did not occur.
  6. Yes, she's a nun.
  7. Juuuuust like San Romero. See?
  8. Ward, p.70
  9. "Dropsy" meant edema in the Middle Ages. Edema is swelling of body parts, usually due to circulation problems.
  10. Note the tidy political controversy here -- nothing like a little anti-Semitism to hold the medieval interest.
  11. Ward, p.69
  12. Ward, p.71
  13. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15635a.htm

Bibliography

  1. Donald Attwater. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. Penguin, 1978.
  2. John J. Delaney. Dictionary of Saints. Doubleday, 1980.
  3. David Hugh Farmer. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford University Press, 1983.
  4. Benedicta Ward. Miracles and the Medieval Mind. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

 
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