Debating the Saints’ Cult in the Age of Gregory the Great by Matthew Dal Santo

Book Review by Ian Hughes

The concept of being able to pray to the Saints for intercession is one that is central to the religious beliefs of modern Christianity, especially with regards to the Catholic Church. Such an idea is now taken for granted by many Western Christians, as is the belief amongst many modern historians that the practice was established prior to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the transformation of the Eastern Empire into the entity now known as the Byzantine Empire.

Some modern historians, and many members of the public, link such practices to their own conviction that the ‘Dark-’ and ‘Middle-Ages’ were low points in intellectual acumen: the Earth was seen as being flat; Demons and Angels lurked behind every corner; and it was possible to ask the Saints to intercede between man and God. The latter view was made more palpable by the proliferation of Saintly relics, especially in the form of body-parts, used by religious foundations to ‘lure’ the faithful to their churches.

In Debating the Saints’ Cult in the Age of Gregory the Great, Dal Santo uses an analysis of two of the main documents concerning belief in the Saints’ Cult as the pivot to establish the true nature of faith at the turn of the seventh century. By focusing on Dialogues on the Miracles of the Italian Fathers by Gregory the Great in Rome, and On the State of Souls after Death by Gregory’s contemporary Eustratius in the East, Dal Santo convincingly argues that, rather than being ‘sensation-seeking yarns’ (p.28), the works of Gregory, as of Eustratius, are addressing a contemporary debate concerning the nature of the soul and the subsequent legitimacy of the miracles ascribed to Saints, the value of praying to Saints, and the validity of pilgrimages to Saints’ sanctuaries.

To further establish his assertion, Dal Santo goes on to link other works concerning the Saints from both before and after this period in order to demonstrate that, although such controversy has now been eliminated by the Church, at the time many questioned the role of the Saints and the nature of the ‘afterlife’

The main thrust of the debate is simple to understand: in Christianity, all life will end and all Souls will be judged by God after the ‘Resurrection’ on the ‘Day of Judgement’, following which the ‘Worthy’ will ascend to Heaven and the ‘Unworthy’ will descend to Hell. Dal Santo demonstrates that the main question being asked in the late-sixth century was: if this is the case, what happens to a Soul after the death of the body but before the Resurrection and Judgement by God? More important for the book, what happens to the Souls of Saints after their death?

Dal Santo demonstrates that many of the works written between the fourth and eighth centuries were dealing specifically with an on-going argument concerning these questions. Furthermore, Dal Santo does not limit his analysis to the ‘Catholic’ West or the ‘Orthodox’ East, but goes further, to the ‘Eastern’ Christian Church that existed in Sasanid Persia and survived through the Muslim Conquests. In the process he demonstrates that each of these entities formed their own solution to the dilemma based upon their individual circumstances.

Despite its focus on the religious questions unfolding during the period, the book also has connotations for the students of political history. The Byzantine Emperors during this era were attempting to reinforce the concept that the emperor was God’s vicegerent on Earth and that all Byzantine subjects should therefore obey the emperor as he was ‘speaking with God’s voice’. The imperial court used the Saints’ cults as a method of reinforcing this concept, and the debate against the cult therefore had strong political overtones – especially after the conquest of a large part of the empire by the Muslims with a concomitant need to explain the assumed removal of God’s protection.

Dal Santo weaves a compelling narrative of the debates around the analysis of the texts relating to the belief in Saints’ abilities to help the living. His mastery of the subject is worthy of praise and his arguments are well-put and convincing.

Sadly, there are a few small caveats to be made concerning the book. The first of these, and an on-going problem with ‘specialist’ textbooks, is the price. As this review is being written the cost of the book is £70/$110, placing it far beyond the reach of the average reader.

The second is that the reader needs to have some familiarity with the different Christian beliefs current during the 4th-8th centuries. Without this, there is a strong chance that the reader will become confused by the bewildering array of different sects and beliefs surrounding Christianity. Having said that, this is unavoidable and neither the author nor the publisher can be blamed for this technical difficulty.

The last problem is that, although superbly argued and well-written, the book can sometimes become a little repetitive as Dal Santo constantly reinforces his ideas and hypotheses. Again, this is only a minor drawback: indeed, for those with only a limited knowledge of the subject these repetitions will effectively clarify many of the arguments being deployed.

Despite these qualifications, for anybody wishing to expand their knowledge of ‘early’ Christianity and/or the major debates that raged at times in the Christian world, this book is a must. Even for those whose focus is not on the religious aspects of the period, the book offers many valuable insights into the belief systems prevalent during this pivotal period of history and the effect they could have on political intrigue at the heart of government. Highly recommended.

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