Simon Yarrow is senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Birmingham and director of the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures.
Simon Yarrow is senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Birmingham and director of the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures.
Who was the first saint?
It depends on how you’re defining ‘saint.’ Some of the earliest references are found in the epistles of St Paul to various Christian communities dotted around the Mediterranean and the Near East. He addresses them as ‘holy in Christ’—the word ‘holy’ being that of ‘saint’ that we’re familiar with today. By being Christians, and baptised in Christ, they were all considered saints.
So, in the early church, the notion of a saint is a communal one. Groups of Jews who have converted to Christianity and Gentiles who are new to the faith from different backgrounds, find this common identity that is sanctified. So that’s one, very early notion of what a saint is.
“Recent popes have been very enthusiastic about canonising and blessing candidates.”
Then you have various types of saint—a typology emerges in the early church. First, we have the martyr. Stephen the Protomartyr, in the 1st century, is one of the earliest of these. There are references to intermittent persecutions in the early church, which supply us with names and some sense of the cultural forms attached to devotion and veneration of saints that are beginning to appear. Polycarp of Smyrna is an early saint, in the mid-second century. With him, you get the first reference to relics—of people venerating the remains of a saint, although that doesn’t become a big cultural marker of Christian religious practice until much later.
How did you become a saint?
Communities decided by commemorating the life of a person on their saint’s or feast day, or, perhaps, by commissioning or writing their name and the day they died in a martyrology. The day they experience their martyrdom is seen as their ‘birthday.’ It’s very much a community or a local institutional thing—with ritual and literary specialists within communities commemorating, liturgically and in writing, the memory of a person.
So were there thousands upon thousands of saints?
I imagine there would have been lots of local shrines, tombs and churches with saints’ names. By an accident of survival of the historical record in Britain, we have a lot of late medieval references to early medieval saints in Cornwall. Cornwall was a little bit beyond the fringes of Norman domination and government. There are hundreds of Cornish saints. We have the most meagre references to them, but it gives us a sense of a landscape teeming with locally venerated figures. In the Irish and Anglo-Saxon churches as well, there are indications in the surviving evidence that almost every local church would have had its own saintly figure.
And then, in the twelfth century, the Pope starts controlling who could become one?
Yes. We get attempts to regulate who gets to decide and how it’s decided, because you can imagine how the allocation of the title of saint to a particular figure in a locality can be very useful to local powerful men and women. This can turn into a political tug of war between local and centralising forces—between, say, an emperor like Charlemagne, who is trying to impose and intervene in that little closed patronage network that a local lord might set up through the sponsorship of a saint.
“In the Irish and Anglo-Saxon churches…there are indications in the surviving evidence that almost every local church would have had its own saintly figure. ”
So we get some of the earliest legislation to try and cut down the number of new saints who are being produced in a locality in the 8th and early 9th century, by the Carolingians. That drops off a bit in the 10th and 11th centuries.
The dynamic is renewed again in the late 12th and early 13th century when the papacy really begins to establish itself as an ecclesiastical institution that’s spread across the whole of Latin Christendom. That’s when you see canon law introducing a reserved jurisdiction in establishing who’s officially canonised as a saint—and that it’s the monopoly of the papacy.
I like the way your own book starts with a discussion of Superman and the idea that heroes are universal to human culture. Are you arguing that, just as we’re attracted to superheroes, the saints are just a Christian manifestation of enthusiasm for heroes?
Yes, pretty much. If you were to take a much larger scale, analytical perspective on this—and I think it’s worth thinking in those terms—the Christian saint (with all sorts of ramifications and local inflections) is a cultural manifestation of hero figures that you see across all kinds of societies, communities and religious traditions. I don’t want to suggest that Christian saints are copies or continuations of classical, heroic figures. But they are inhabiting and occupying that role and performing some of the functions that hero figures in the ancient world—or holy men in Hinduism or in Islam—are also performing.
Let’s turn to your books. The first one you’ve chosen is the Confessions of St Augustine, who was a bishop in Hippo (in modern day Algeria) in the 4th-5th century and was canonized in 1298 by Boniface VIII. Though it was written a while ago, interestingly, it is, nonetheless, one of Five Books’s most recommended books. Why did it make your list?
St Augustine is, in some ways, misunderstood and misappropriated in modern scholarship and popular perception. I can understand why, because reading him can be a bit of a hard slog to begin with. His Confessions can seem unfashionably self-hating, and the drama that’s being played out, the way he makes a first-person address towards this God figure, feels a bit artificial and it can put people off.
But if you work out what’s going on, what his motivation is, and what the context is, what he’s making is an incredibly modern, intimate, psychological diagnosis of the human condition. People can identify with it. They might not recognise it—because of where it’s coming from—but a kind of journey of self-exploration is what I hope people might get from it.
“He’s making is an incredibly modern, intimate, psychological diagnosis of the human condition.”
St Augustine is often thought of as the inventor of ‘original sin.’ He’s all about birching ourselves and feeling guilty—all the things we might popularly associate with (medieval) Catholicism. It’s contrasted with modern, Enlightenment lineages of human dignity, of free will, individuality, human rights etc. He’s often also seen as a misogynist and not a big fan of sex either, although for much of his adult life he was pretty far from celibate.
Some more sophisticated philosophical critics in the 20th century also see him as being soft on authority and authoritarianism. By emphasising humanity’s default sinfulness, he offers little grounds upon which we can make a calibration of relative moral goodness. He doesn’t give us the apparatus by which we can identify, critique, and challenge something like fascism or Nazism. Hannah Arendt—who is a particular critic of Augustine—sees this as a big fault. She says he has nothing to offer her by way of identifying the evil of certain forms of authoritarian political institutions.
So that’s the indictment against him. But I think more thoughtful readings of this particular work, and the intellectual context it was written in, really bring out what he’s trying to do. It’s quite subtle, wise and practical, and makes him a thinker relevant to all ages. St Augustine is writing in an autobiographical form that has classical origins. There’s nothing particularly Christian about this literary form—although Christians are beginning to experiment with it.
“Augustine…builds on traditions of stoicism, the self-mastery of body and of mind in the honing of a compelling ethical personhood.”
For Christianity, a large part of the 4th century was spent trying to capture the loyalties—the emotional commitment and the material resources—of the late Roman aristocratic and ruling elite. They were the oligarchs of that period; they are sitting on huge amounts of money, land and patronage, but they see the Bible as intellectually inferior. Making Christianity respectable to these people is one of the tasks of educated Christian converts.
So, it’s the classical canon of literature and philosophy that Christians really need to infiltrate. They need to take it on, reframe it and then present it back to these people to gain some respectability on behalf of Christianity. They need to make them take it seriously.
This is a book that is doing just that. Augustine is, himself, partly from that elite, pagan philosophical background, though his mother was already a Christian convert. He has a conversion experience after trying other variants of religion, such as Manichaeism. His journey provided him with the literary, intellectual and philosophical means to do the job. An important aspect of his achievement is in offering a synthesis of Biblical wisdom and Neoplatonism; he brings the two together in this very intimate, personal account of the progression of an individual towards something. That something is a transcendent, divine, oneness.
Augustine also builds on traditions of stoicism, the self-mastery of body and of mind in the honing of a compelling ethical personhood. Stoicism was not just the philosophical affectation of elite men. It was actually also the way that politics was played out. It’s the way that powerful men competed for power by demonstrating their fitness for public office.
“Asceticism is almost the ‘new technology’ of the 3rd and 4th centuries. It’s been going since the 2nd century but it’s becoming more widespread and prevalent.”
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum says that Augustine injects a dose of emotion into classical moral philosphy. He’s trying to demonstrate how this idea—of the mastery of the self—is a farce. He introduces the idea of the parody of the self-fashioning man. In some ways, Augustine’s notion of original sin is about changing the ground upon which these figures are allowed to assert their authority. He does so by placing God in the picture. We should look inwards—in good Neoplatonic fashion—but we’re looking for our souls and for God. The soul is an alienated part of the godhead that is trying to get back home to God.
So it’s a radical decentring of the old techniques. Peter Brown describes it as a kind of self-therapy. It’s not about achieving mastery because we never achieve mastery. It’s about learning through a degree of humility.
To me, it speaks to a very modern, 20th century way of thinking about the human brain and body. There is a kind of ‘lizard impulse’ that we all have that generates these libidinous, greedy, damaging habits and thoughts. Augustine is playing with and thinking through this with his meshing of Neoplatonism and the Bible and the voice of the Psalms, though which he conducts, in the Confessions, an extended conversation with God.
And there are these beautiful little vignettes that you come across from time to time. He goes around with a gang in his youth—he’s about 12 years old, he’s running around, damaging property, stealing pears and throwing them at pigs. He’s just running riot.
He talks about his concubine, his conversion, his relationship with his mother.
The title of the book is ‘Confessions.’ There’s a real rolling around in the dirt of his own shame. But it’s not a shame of greed: it’s the shame of pride. Turning and orienting this painful experience towards God achieves consolation for him and allows him to get beyond his shame at what he did.
And is his shame being dictated by the social norms of late antiquity? Why is he against sex, for example?
I’m not sure he’s against sex. Sex, in the late antique world, is about power and control. It’s about male mastery of one’s sexual urges. If you have concubines, if you’re adulterous behind your wife’s back, it means that you’re not fit to be a person of public authority because you’ve demonstrated your weakness. You’re not stoical.
Augustine’s point is not that women are evil or that they tempt us or that sexual desire is bad. Rather, it is that pride is bad, in thinking that we can control our sexual urges. And this is not just a critique of these elite Roman men, it’s also a critique of some of the nuttier ascetics who are around at the time, doing virtuoso performances of bodily discipline. In another book, The City of God, he says that these people are no better than jesters in the marketplace who fart tunes or swallow objects and regurgitate them. These are just cheap tricks, gimmicks. Augustine is often seen as the champion of asceticism but, actually, he’s advocating for a kind of moderate asceticism. He’s warning against the dangerous distraction that ascetic practices can pose.
So you like the Confessions because you feel that, though it dates from the 4th century, it says some fundamental things about the human condition?
I think so. Without being particularly religious myself, I do wonder sometimes whether libertarian and economistic concepts of ‘the individual’ that dominate today might not be very healthy for individuals. Augustine shows us why this might be so and offers us different grounds for exploring our identity, purpose, and perhaps, self-worth.
Augustine himself was inspired by St Anthony. Does this mean that, already in his day, people were being inspired by saints?
Definitely. Asceticism is almost the ‘new technology’ of the 3rd and 4th centuries. It’s been going since the 2nd century but it’s becoming more widespread and prevalent. It’s spread through people visiting St Anthony, writing and translating his life and disseminating his practices and monasticism into the West—places like Gaul or France—and to the East as well, to the Eastern church.
Let’s talk about the next book on your list which is Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (1981). Peter Brown is one of the great historians of our time (note: he has chosen Five Books for us here, but not yet done an interview). Tell me about this book and why it’s important.
To say that Peter Brown had a huge effect on me and my intellectual formation would merely repeat the testimony you’ll get from dozens and dozens of people more eloquent and intelligent than I am, who have also been hugely inspired by this man. It’s not really an exaggeration to say he invented a whole new historical period and place—the world of late antiquity—which historians have since been comfortably working away within and recognised that it’s here to stay. It’s being expanded upon, it’s being nuanced, but it’s still, recognisably, his world.
One of Peter Brown’s first books was a biography of Augustine in 1967. He then wrote a book about late antiquity in the early 1970s [both books are recommended by Robin Lane Fox in his interview with Five Books here]. He’s an example of someone who wears his learning very lightly.
“The things we often associate with saints are pilgrimage, veneration at a shrine and relics. All of that paraphernalia—the material environment of veneration and of piety attached to saints—is pretty much a product of the 4th century.”
What he brings that’s new is interdisciplinarity—before we even knew what that word meant—between history and anthropology, and history and psychology, as well as an openness to breaking down some of the partitions between different types and areas of historical studies.
For example, the Roman aristocracy are a subject here; the early church and the church fathers is a subject there; the late Roman state and socio-economic conditions of the late Roman world and the Mediterranean are another subject over here. There was very little attempt to synthesise these different areas of enquiry, and to understand how one might inform the other. This is something he’s done: he’s broken down those barriers that are, in some ways, an accident of our historiography.
Tell me about the rise of the cult of the saints.
The things we often associate with saints are pilgrimage, veneration at a shrine and relics. All of that paraphernalia—the material environment of veneration and of piety attached to saints—is pretty much a product of the 4th century. There’s hints of it in the 2nd century with Polycarp, but nothing like it becoming a mainstream aspect of Christian faith until the 4th century.
Two key thinkers defined the railway tracks of historiography on this: Hume and Gibbon. Neither have much positive to say about it. Gibbon’s big thesis about the late antique world is that it’s about strong Roman elite men going soft and dropping out of society. Instead of being military rulers keeping this empire running, they’re joining together in little groups and becoming monks. There’s this effeminising of a whole culture and that seeds the decline of the Roman Empire.
“As you get shifts towards regionalism and the end of the apparatus of centralised government, the thing that is left is bishops.”
Hume wrote his book, The Natural History of Religion, in the 18th century. That lays down one of the big fallacies that Brown really explodes, that of the ‘two-tier notion of religion’. He says that Hume argues that, in the Christian faith, we have these cycles, these two forces that pull in different directions.
One of them is the elite monotheistic religion of the Church—which, in Hume’s write-up, is, implicitly, a noble, progressive thing. The other is this tendency towards polytheism, which is a vulgar playing out of religion by the masses that drags down the better aspects. The cult of saints is, in this analysis, a regressive cycle in the history of Christianity. In some ways, Hume is reflecting the prejudices of his own time, frankly, as all historians with greater or lesser self-awareness, do.
And Brown does away with that?
He does away with that. He sees the materiality, the devotion, the emotional investment as a great lurching forward of a society. It’s not just the elites and the church structures but it’s also the people. It’s a transformation, a moment of radical change that all of Christian society is invested in. This book is looking at the context in which that change is taking place.
The book has been criticised on a number of levels but it’s still revolutionary in the way that it offered us a functionalist account of what’s going on with the cult of saints. It’s about, among other things, the way that private customs of veneration of the dead were made public by bishops, how the very special dead were given central positions within civic space in the cathedral.
It’s about how bishops acted as the impresarios of this rewiring of patronage networks of friendship, of support, spanning different sections of society in the Roman world. And, of course, heaven and saints as the pivotal figures in these relationships. He’s showing how what might be written off as populist, superficial forms of the cult of saints are actually immensely fundamental to the way that society is working its way through different problems at this time.
Are you saying that the bishops are using the saints to become more powerful and establish their authority?
Yes. As the Roman world and its secular authority and structures are disintegrating around them, Brown is evoking the one institutional survival of the western Roman empire—the episcopal office. It’s an office of the state, that has always been a secular and as well as a religious position.
As you get shifts towards regionalism and the end of the apparatus of centralised government, the thing that is left is bishops. And they have huge resources. They have literacy and they are enlisting the support and the patronage of saints to help them focus and channel energy—imaginative energy, as it were. These are the patron-client relationships and sources of consolation and hope that small local communities have. It’s redirecting them.
This has been criticised as being very broad brush but it reconfigured an area of study which had seemed quite moribund.
Saints are quite popular aren’t they, as a concept? They appeal to people. So it seems a good way for the bishops to get people involved and get stuff done.
Yes. It introduces an infrastructure that’s open, that’s a public space that people can occupy. But you can build things and people don’t necessarily come. You’ve got to give a lending hand and you’ve got to be perceptive about the needs of these communities. When I think of ‘popular,’ I think of ‘populist’. Some things are genuinely, authentically popular. They are bottom-up, ground-up initiatives that serve local needs. And some things are populist—condescending efforts to hijack those energies and channel them. There’s a mix of both here, of course, shorthand analytical polarities rarely survive in reality. But the tendencies are there.
Let’s move on to your next book. This is Miri Rubin’s Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary.
Mary is a constant presence in all the different Christian religious traditions. She seems to be universally, genuinely popular.
She is, in many ways, a headache for the church and for theologians. She gets very little reference in the Bible. She doesn’t get much of a look-in in the early church.
The way I see it—and this emerges out of Miri’s book—is that there’s a certain set of challenges that arise out of the concept of Christ Incarnate, that is Christ as both human and God. This is a concept that emerges in the 1st or 2nd century and there’s disagreement among different Christian traditions. Eventually there is an authoritative understanding that Jesus was a god-man.
As soon as you establish that as a fundamental premise of the faith, it raises all sorts of questions about Mary. What is her role in this? She gave birth to him but he’s a god and she’s mortal. How can that be? There are all sorts of logical problems that arise out of the god-man paradox that need to be dealt with. I still don’t think they’ve been dealt with because they are irreconcilable.
“She gets a reputation as being a particularly special person to go to for help. When all other saints fail, she’ll help. She’ll redeem even the worst of sinners, even at the 11th hour.”
But what it means is that Mary, amongst all the saints, is uniquely and pre-eminently standing at a junction between cultural and biological reproduction. She’s a mother and we all know how biological reproduction works. But, uniquely, she gave birth biologically without the physical process of conception. Culturally she’s also this one exception, who conceived by a different means.
This introduces and opens the door for stories—and is somehow figured in the biggest story of all, the story of Jesus Christ.
When you think about it that way, she’s a pivotal figure and you can’t escape from that. The great thing about Miri’s book is its beautiful, rich serving of an almost comprehensive reference—a cultural ethnography—of all the different ways that Mary has been imagined, of all the different kinds of fault-lines and paradoxes and contradictions that she sits at the very junction of; how different religious traditions, different communities, artists, churchmen, parishioners, through different material cultures, through different rituals, through different kinds of emotional experiences, have woven Mary into a Christian tradition.
Does it start at the beginning and go through to the present?
Yes. It starts off talking about the early sources—the lack of them. Many of them are apocryphal, they’re not officially recognised, there are different interpretations available. She’s Jewish but a Christian; she’s a virgin but she’s a mother; she’s mortal but she’s the mother of a god. In some ways, she’s the antidote to Eve, she redeems rather than betrays humanity. Where Eve pointed the way out of paradise, the Virgin Mary points the way back—to Jesus. There is the whole tradition in the Byzantine church of the Hodegetria: depictions of Mary holding Christ on her lap and pointing to him. She is the one who is the way to Jesus.
When was she made a saint?
I don’t think she’s ever been made a saint. She’s considered a saint and she appears in all kinds of theological discussions. Some church figures and theologians like a strong version of Mary, almost a fourth dimension to the Trinity. Others, who are considered heretical, such as Arius, would consider her to be not at all important and needs to be put back in her place.
Do we know anything about her, historically speaking?
She appears in the Gospels but very fleetingly. She’s in the background of little aspects of Christ’s life but there’s no big role.
So, basically, she’s written into the story later, not based on any particular evidence?
She’s written in almost as a kind of a clause, an abstraction. In the early church, there is a big debate over what Mary is. One of the responses is she’s the ‘Theotokos,’ the ‘Godbearer’. Some of the heretics, or those who lost out in this debate, would argue that she can’t be, because she’s human: she’s the ‘Christotokos,’ the bearer of Christ, who is the human aspect of Jesus. That would appear to be a much more realistic and scaled down, sensible version of what Mary is.
But the ‘theotokos’ is the one that wins through and gets asserted repeatedly at ecumenical councils. She acquires these titles and she gets a reputation as being a particularly special person to go to for help. When all other saints fail, she’ll help. She’ll redeem even the worst of sinners, even at the 11th hour.
She’s much more Catholic than she is Protestant isn’t she?
She is. Though there are Catholic theologians in the late Middle Ages trying to rein in this fanaticism about Mary.
The Reformation introduces a much more domestic version of Mary. There’s still veneration for her, but they are seeing this great edifice of a corrupt Catholic church propped up by something for which there’s no Biblical, scriptural authority.
But she remains popular…
We all like our mothers. That’s where we might start with this—regardless of what strict theological nuance we might interpret or load her up with. Mother figures are important to us all. That’s what makes her a popular figure, I think.
We’ve got to book no. 4. Tell me about Mohawk Saint by Allen Greer.
Mohawk Saint is about a 17th century Mohawk Native American who joins a Christian community in a place called Kahnawake on the St Lawrence river—just upstream from Montreal. It’s under the pastoral care of a Jesuit mission from France. Catherine converts when she’s 18 or so and then dies from smallpox aged 24, on April 17, 1680.
This is another example of a book where there’s massive learning behind it—but it’s a short book and a real page-turner. It’s wonderfully compact and an example of what you might call ‘micro-cultural’ history. He’s evoking a local world that allows him to explore big themes in great detail. The main one here is the colonial encounter between Native Americans and French Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century.
He’s putting her life into that context as well as the life of Claude Chauchetière, a Jesuit from Poitiers, who goes out to Canada and arrives in the same village, Kahnawake, about three months after Catherine. He observes her formation as a Christian, as an ascetic, and while sitting by her deathbed he is convinced—by the beautiful death that he thinks she had—that she is a saint.
“He’s evoking a local world that allows him to explore big themes in great detail. The main one here is the colonial encounter between Native Americans and French Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. ”
These are the two star-crossed protagonists of the story. There are parallels in their lives that the author draws out. He doesn’t overegg, he doesn’t overburden, but this whole book is about their meeting, from which we have Saint Catherine Tekakwitha.
Greer is working with scraps. He has very little direct evidence of her experience but remnants of information that we learn from a few different hagiographical works written 20-30 years after her death. He’s reconstructing the context and gradually liberating her life from the fantasies of these Jesuits. He is giving her space to breathe as a Native American woman going through a conversion experience to Christianity. He’s showing the power of her life in effecting the way that they react to her. In that sense, it is a beautifully feminist piece of salvage history.
It’s also about race. It’s breaks down the assumptions and the boundaries between the normative historical accounts we hear about great, civilised western people engaging with these savage primitive people. It’s a wonderful examination of syncretism—the nuts and bolts of what happens when you get these different worlds colliding with each other.
Why was she made a saint?
She wasn’t made a saint until 2012. She was locally venerated as a saint by the French colonial community in the area. These Jesuits functioned, in some ways—like our 4th century bishops—as impresarios, managing the healing cures that her remains performed. They took dirt from her tomb and aspects of relics from her clothing to heal people and cure people.
The Native Americans didn’t venerate her as a posthumous cult at all. That was something that was totally alien to their expectations of what the dead are. But his final chapter discusses the reception of her cult in modern America. He talks about how different Native American communities have imagined her and made use of her as an anti-colonial emblem. She’s their saint.
“Some of those captives are ritually tortured by the children and the women of the village. They have bits cut out of them, they have firebrands held to their feet, they are lacerated, they’re whipped, and then they’re killed.”
It’s a beautifully rich evocation of a world in which you don’t have these two blocks of uniform, unchanging civilisations bumping into each other. The Native American world, at this time, is caught up in wars that are totally destroying communities. These communities are then reconstituting themselves through the adoption of enemy villages and captives.
I call Catherine a Mohawk, but her mother was an Algonquin who was captured when she was young. Iroquois is the generic name for American Indians of this area, of which the Mohawks are one. Part of their struggle, in these bellicose times, was to reconstitute themselves from captives in war through a horrifying, but effective, reception ritual. They have their battles, they win, they take captives, they bring their captives back to the village. Some of those captives are ritually tortured by the children and the women of the village. They have bits cut out of them, they have firebrands held to their feet, they are lacerated, they’re whipped, and then they’re killed.
This is all a performance for those who are chosen to survive, and, after this, are invited to take on a new identity as Mohawks rather than their old ethnic groups. Catherine’s mum was pregnant with Catherine when she has this experience. She was married to one of the Mohawks. Once you were embraced within the community, it was incredibly generous.
Greer is wonderful in the way that he explains the logic of what we, perhaps, and, certainly Europeans of the time, regarded as savage behaviour. He’s really good on the sophistication and rationality—social, communal, and also technological—of these people.
Why was she suddenly canonised in 2012?
Recent popes have been very enthusiastic about canonising and blessing candidates. In 2006 there was a report of a second miracle—the healing of a boy in Washington state—which put her in the frame to be canonised.
To be canonised, do you need to have a miracle?
You need to have two miracles, nowadays. Your first one makes you a ‘blessed’ and the second one makes you a saint.
Do you need to do anything else?
There’s a whole legal process, or enquiry. This goes into the medical proofs of miracles. There also has to be evidence of a life lived according to the moral and spiritual qualifications of the saints. It’s changed over the centuries and, in recent years, especially the 1980s, the whole process has been accelerated because John Paul II was a very enthusiastic canoniser.
Do you have a favourite saint?
I’m quite fond of Catherine but it’s incredible how much he makes out of the little direct evidence we have for her. That’s not to say he has made it up, but the way he provides a wonderful context for thinking about her is very appealing. I’m also interested in the way she has divided communities of the faithful in the 20th century.
What do you make of the fascination with relics? Why do people like them?
You could ask, why does anybody value any material object? Why do we put value in money? It’s not clear exactly how money works, other than through our diffuse mass-agreement that it does work and the assumption that somewhere there is some sort of authority that’s checking up on it and backing it up.
In some ways, there are a lot of similarities between relics and money. They enable people to do things together, they enable people to complete transactions, to trust each other remotely, to lay a claim to the past or to put a claim on the future of other people’s duties and obligations. To me, they are a very useful, symbolically saturated physical media through which humans engage socially with each other in lots of different ways.
That’s my way of thinking about it, which is to look at what people actually do with relics rather than simply accept the claims made about them by literate elites. And, it is to insist on the vibrancy and vitality of whatever objects we culturally enlist for various purposes as well.
Lastly, on your list, we have Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them.
Again, this book comes out of conversations between anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. This author took to heart a turn that took place in anthropology in the 70s and 80s—this moment of reflection on the whole discipline and its epistemological underpinnings. What is knowledge in anthropology? How do we know what a fact is? There was deep concern, influenced by postmodernism and post-structuralism, especially amongst the cultural anthropologists in America, that the conditions and the circumstances in which the ethnographer, the observer, is doing the observing imposes, intervenes with, and has a kind of Othering or orientalising, contaminating effect on the subject matter.
Robert Orsi has taken this on board and applied its lessons to a particular subject of ethnographic study. He is both observer of and participant in mid-20th century American Catholicism. He introduces the idea of ‘lived religion.’
“It’s quite disturbing, his chapter on children, because he talks about how in the Catholic community’s efforts to reproduce itself through the generations, children are seen as these very malleable and culturally loaded vehicles.”
It’s a turn away from a set of assumptions that are based on structuralism, that the way to do the history of the church or of religious communities is to look at the institutions, and look at their texts, their authorities, and see how far the laity conform or not to the demands of the institutional church.
There’s a confessional element to that too, are you critical or being an advocate for it? There’s a complicity. If you’re then becoming a spokesperson for a church—a church thought of both as an institution, of priests, but also in the wider sense of community of people—you’re, in some way, speaking on all of their collective behalves to an audience beyond that.
Orsi breaks all of those barriers down and shows how the church is a multifarious, many-faceted intellectual but also emotional, socially mixed world with opportunities for different kinds of agencies and roles, different kinds of expertise to be developed, different kinds of imaginative initiatives to be pursued, risks to be taken. In that way, it’s a fascinatingly nuanced cross-sectional study of North American Catholicism.
Some of his findings are quite startling and I think he might have upset a few people amongst his own community because of that. This world that he’s documenting is the world between heaven and earth and it’s occupied by saints and relics and devotional objects and spaces and rituals and also by people, real people who are trying to negotiate their lives, who are trying to make sense of that world.
Children feature quite heavily. It’s quite disturbing, his chapter on children, because he talks about how in the Catholic community’s efforts to reproduce itself through the generations, children are seen as these very malleable and culturally loaded vehicles. He talks about all the different ways that children are introduced to, disciplined with, given roles (altar boys, girls being dressed up as the Virgin Mary) in, the annual cycles of seasonal rituals and festivals. And how their bodies are being disciplined. In many ways, the experience of a Catholic child in America is one of being worked upon and co-opted into this adult fantasy—largely male, because it’s often the priests pulling the strings, but also nuns because they’re very important educationally—of what a Catholic church should be. He almost says that it sometimes crosses over into abuse. Not sexual abuse—that’s a separate issue which he doesn’t raise—but psychological abuse or sociological coercion.
“He talks about the ways communities imagine the afflictions disabled people have as being in some way symptomatic of hidden sin or perhaps even evil within the community. ”
The same applies to the disabled—what he says the community describes as being ‘shut-ins’ and ‘cripples’. His uncle Sal features as a kind of emblematic figure. There’s an incredibly heavy burden placed upon the disabled in these communities to do with the fundamental question of how you make sense of evil—the question of theodicy. How come, even when you do the right things, evil or undesirable or ill-fortuned consequences occur anyway? How do we explain the presence of evil in the world?
He talks about the ways communities imagine the afflictions disabled people have as being in some way symptomatic of hidden sin or perhaps even evil within the community. How did the disabled get enlisted in the processing of anxieties about communal evil? Communities saw them as either scapegoat figures or else in roles akin to that of the saints, their logic being, ‘God has afflicted you because of his overwhelming love. He has given you a special role. Your life is going to be one of misery and pain and that means that you are specially blessed by him. He has given you a particular wonderful opportunity to imitate the suffering of the saints’—and so on and so forth. And this is the last thing that disabled people need. As well as dealing with the practicalities of their physical challenges, they are also lumbered with these cultural expectations.
It’s a very personal account. The book opens with his mother very ill in hospital and holding a tiny blue statue of Our Lady of Fatima tightly in one hand. What light does the book shed on the saints specifically?
Saints dip in and out of what I think, for him, is what you might call a thick description of a traditional faith community entangled in that complicated phenomenon known as modernity. But when the saints do feature, they feature quite prominently because they’re important parts of this material, sacred world that’s being invented, constructed, and negotiated through these different communities imagining what Catholicism is about. Mary gets her own chapter as well. The saints are important props and hinge-figures and mediators between the subject of his book, which is heaven and earth.
Interview by Sophie Roell
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by visiting our site before you make purchases from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.