Conference on late antique Demons in Berlin (5-6 November 2015)

Robert Wiśniewski took part in the conference ‘The perception of demons in different literary genres in Late Antiquity’ at Humboldt University in Berlin. In his paper, which obviously dealt with evil spirits rather than with saints, Robert argued that in early Latin hagiography demons played an unexpectedly minor role. They had a narrative function, but their presence and activity was not considered essential for understanding the diverse misfortunes which befall mankind.

Colloquium on ‘Christian and Muslim Saints: Roles and Functions Compared’, held in Oxford, 12 November 2015

This colloquium was a joint initiative of Oxford’s ‘Centre for Global History‘ and the Cult of Saints project.  The aim of the meeting was to examine and discuss differences as well as similarities between the Christian and Muslim traditions of ‘sainthood’ (though the word ‘saint’ is difficult, because of its powerful Christian associations), and also to explore variant attitudes within each of the two religions.  Though extremists within both Islam and Christianity (whether Wahhabi Muslims or austere Protestants) have sought to banish saints to the realm of superstition, the belief that some people have privileged access to divine power, which can even extend beyond their mortal deaths, remains widespread.  There are, however, also significant differences within religious traditions: for instance, the heritability of sanctity has been, and remains, much more a feature of sanctity within Islam than within Christianity; while Christianity, through the experience of early persecution, evolved a strong belief that suffering could grant spiritual power, which is largely absent from Islam.

A copy of the programme is available Christian and Muslim Saints programme 12 Nov 2015.

Seminar Series: The Cult of Saints in the First Millennium

Dr Efthymios Rizos of the Cult of Saints project is convening a seminar series at the University of Oxford on The Cult of Saints in the First Millennium.

Seminar Programme

Time: Friday 5.00 – 7.00 pm

Venue: Radcliffe Humanities Building, University of Oxford – Seminar Room (3rd floor)

22 January: Paweł Nowakowski (Oxford, The Cult of Saints Project)

Epitaph for a saint: considerations on the epigraphical aspects of the burial of martyrs

5 February: Nikoloz Aleksidze (Pembroke College)

King Vačagan the Pious and his Long Hunt for Relics

19 February: Maria Lidova (Wolfson College)

Art as Evidence for the Joint Cult of Saints: John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in Early Medieval Rome and Byzantium

4 March: Philip Booth (Trinity College)

Text, Shrine, and Supplicant in the Eastern Cult of Saints (5th – 7th centuries)

Conference in Paris on Hagiography and Cult, 25-26 September

On 25 and 26 September, the Cult of Saints project held a joint conference in Paris with the Centre d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance (Collège de France), which kindly, and most efficiently, hosted the event.  The organisers were Vincent Déroche of the Collège, and Robert Wiśniewski and Bryan Ward-Perkins of Cult of Saints.  The theme of the conference was ‘Culte des saints et littérature hagiographique: accords et désaccords / The cult of saints and hagiographical writings: agreements and disagreements’, with the aim of exploring the connections, and lack of connections, between cult in practice and hagiography in all its manifestations: Martyrdoms and Lives of saints; collections of posthumous miracle stories.

The first session of the conference was focused on broad issues.  Bryan Ward-Perkins outlined the overall aims of the Cult of Saints project and some of the ways that we hope to explore the intersection of hagiography and cult on the ground, while Bernard Flusin explored the connection between the so-called ‘epic’ Martyrdoms and cult practice (particularly as expressed in martyrs’ final prayers), and Arietta Papaconstantinou compared practice, as described in the Coptic Life of Viktor Stratelites and in a series of legal documents recording the donation of children to the monastery of St Phoibammon.  In the second session, the conference switched to some of the more extreme accretions of apocryphal material, looking at the rich accumulation of stories that developed around Joseph of Arimathea (in a paper by Anne-Catherine Baudoin) and around Stephen the first martyr (by Damien Labadie).  The third session was dedicated to collections of miracles, with Phil Booth examining the evidence for different collections developing around the same saints, sometimes with very varied agendas, and Ildikó Csepregi arguing for the central role of place in the development of the practice of incubation.

There followed a session on contested, or doubtful saints, with Nikolos Aleksidze showing how Armenians and Georgians, after the split between their churches, struggled to assert rival claims to the founder saints of Caucasian Christianity, and Vincent Déroche examining that curious branch of sanctity, the saloi or holy fools – saints who attracted little cult and who were described in hagiography more for moralising than cultic reasons.   The fifth, and penultimate, session was dedicated to the Lives and Martyrdoms of saints.  Pascal Boulhol introduced and examined the exceptionally rich hagiography of Nicomedia (which has produced a dossier of some thirty martyrdom accounts); Michael Williams explored the complex interplay between ‘reality’ and literary creation in Paulinus of Nola’s enhancement of the cult of Felix; and Robert Wiśniewski discussed the great popularity in the Latin west, but lack of subsequent cult, of the Lives of eastern monks, men who were admired and honoured, but not initially venerated.  In the final session, two eastern texts were examined from a literary angle, exploring the connections between ancient novelistic conventions and early hagiography: Koen De Temmerman unpicked the complex narratological structure of two accounts of Sinai monk-martyrs, and Flavia Ruani explored a Syriac story where an apparently incidental character attracted cult into the late 19th century, while the real ‘hero’ was quietly forgotten.  The two latter scholars work in Gent on another ERC project, Novel Saints – Ancient Novelistic Heroism in the Hagiography of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

All in all, it was universally agreed that we had a highly successful conference, with wide-ranging and high-quality papers, closely focused on the central theme, which will make for a strong and useful published volume.  From the perspective of Cult of Saints this was certainly an important meeting, reminding us of the many and complex ways that cult practice and hagiography can interlink.

The Cult of Saints project at the 17th International Conference of Patristic Studies, Oxford 10-14 August 2015

The Cult of Saints project was well represented at the Patristics conference, with four team members giving papers.  One of the plenary sessions was addressed by Robert Wiśniewski, who discussed whether there really was a difference in the treatment of relics (in particular the dismemberment  of bodies) between East and West in the late antique period, as traditionally supposed (with ‘the East’ supposedly much more ready to distribute corporeal relics than ‘the West’).  His conclusion was that, while there were regional differences in how relics were treated and distributed, these cannot remotely be simplified to a simple binary distinction between western and eastern practice, but were much more complex and nuanced. Efthymios Rizos presented the thinking behind our database, and explained how it would be useable by scholars and a wider public, at an ‘Instrumenta Studiorum’ session of the conference, dedicated precisely to new tools of study.  The session was attended by members of other projects involved in producing electronic resources, and led to some fruitful exchanges of ideas and possibilities of collaboration. One of the workshops of the conference was dedicated to ‘Marginal saints, and disputed saints, in the late antique East and West’.   Bryan Ward-Perkins explained, using examples from the evidence of Gregory of Tours, how working on the project we have come to a highly inclusive definition of a ‘saint’ (in other words, of the men and women we are considering) – as anyone for whom there is reasonable evidence of cult, however temporary and however misguided in the view of the source that records this.  Marta Tycner introduced our most extensive, but also most difficult, text, the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (a massive compilation of saints’ feast-days, that survives in variant versions of a 7th-century redaction produced in Gaul).  By examining part of one day’s entry, she showed how scribal error has produced a mass of ill-understood names of saints, the understanding of which has often been complicated, rather than simplified, by scholarly attempts to make the evidence fit what ‘ought’ to be there.

Robert Wiśniewski’s talk on Latin monastic hagiography at the Medieval Congress in Leeds

Robert Wiśniewski presented a paper entitled `Eastern Stories Retold by Westerners: The Beginnings of Latin Hagiography’ at  the International Medieval Congress in Leeds (6-9 July 2015). He argued that though texts, heroes and literary motifs that can be found in early western hagiography very often came from the East, Latin authors frequently used them to express their own views on sanctity, theological ideas, and vision of monastic life.

Gesa Schenke, Coptic specialist, presents her research

Gesa Schenke, our Coptic specialist, presented her research on The Healing Shrines of St Phoibammon and the Evidence of Cult Activity in Coptic Legal Documents, at a recent workshop in Oxford entitled `After Rome’. She argued that the child donation and self-donation documents addressed to the monastery of Apa Phoibammon on the mountain of Djeme were in fact not dedications to the monastery itself, but to the healing shrine of St Phoibammon which was run by it. Such donations are a common feature especially to shrines of healing saints as demonstrated by their frequent descriptions in miracle stories circulating widely in the early Arab period. Her paper juxtaposed phrases used in these Coptic legal texts with those from miracle stories of famous Egyptian healing saints, such as Coluthus, Menas, and Phoibammon himself, demonstrating the impact hagiography had on the experience of daily life, and vice versa.