Field Trip to Rome

Bryan Ward-Perkins writes: In September last year six members of the Cult of Saints project teamed up with three members of the Warsaw-based ‘Presbyters’ project, and went on an intensive five-day visit to Rome. The purpose of this visit was to familiarise ourselves with the physical evidence for the early cult of saints, and there is nowhere better to do this than Rome, with its quite extraordinary collection of catacombs, excavated cemeteries, early churches, inscriptions,and mosaic and fresco depictions of the saints, all supplemented with rich contemporary documentary evidence and unique levels of modern scholarly engagement.

  In the course of our five days we covered huge distances on foot (since this is the best way of forming an impression of the city’s topography, pre-Christian and Christian), and visited most of the highlights of early Christian Rome, including the excavations under St Peter’s and some twenty churches.  I had the good fortune to be born and brought up in Rome, and therefore had some familiarity with almost everything we saw – but seeing these monuments in an group was deeply enlightening, since, at every site, at least one of our number was guaranteed to know something I didn’t.  For instance, in S. Maria Maggiore I learned more about the fifth-century nave mosaics (and some fairly obscure passages in Genesis) than I had ever dreamed was to be known!

The high points of our fieldtrip were definitely: our visit to the newly reopened S. Maria Antiqua on the Forum (which coincided with an excellent exhibition about its early medieval frescoes and their context); a private tour of the catacombs of Domitilla, Calixtus and S. Sebastiano, accompanied by two great experts on these, Antonio Felle and Donatella Nuzzo; and a visit to the Congregatio pro Causis Sanctorum, the present-day Vatican office where the cases for possible new saints are carefully scrutinised.  Here Father Zdzisław Kijas OFMConv, who works for the Congregatio, took us very thoroughly and patiently through the modern process of vetting an application.  There are of course huge differences between the careful legalistic procedures of the modern Vatican, that have slowly evolved since the twelfth century, and the very informal processes of early centuries, that are our area of study.  But some central things have remained unchanged, such as the Church’s concern over unregulated cult, and the need for miracles to prove that a saint has intercessionary power.

We left Rome, as we had hoped, with a good understanding of the city’s remarkable physical evidence for saintly cult – cult that had built a string of impressive churches over the graves of the martyrs, including the massive basilicas of Old St Peter’s and St Paul’s, and had created the stunning mosaics of SS Cosma e Damiano and S. Agnese fuori-le-mura.  But, more than knowledge of a single city (important though that city is), we took away from Rome a much better understanding of how to read and interpret similar physical evidence from the same period across the rest of Christendom.

The Cult of Saints in Mainz and Heidelberg

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Bryan Ward-Perkins writes: ‘In November I visited Mainz and Heidelberg to give general introductory talks about our project at the two universities’ Ancient History seminars.  Such talks are largely given to spread the word that a big project is underway, and to explain how we are setting about collecting and tagging the evidence from all six languages of early Christianity and across all types of evidence – from passing references to shrines in papyrus documents to full-blown Lives of saints, by way of dedicatory inscriptions, martyrologies, homilies, etc.  But it is also very useful to address different audiences from different scholarly traditions, to see how we need to refine our own approaches, or, at the very least, justify the limitations on our project that the pressures of time dictate.  In producing a searchable corpus of all the available evidence up to c.700 AD (or at least of as much of it as possible), we are inevitably having to cut some corners, since completeness in this context is more important than perfection – but, at the same time, these corners need to be cut in a suitably scholarly way!  There is no better way of refining our thinking on how to do this than to talk to as many established scholars, students, and members of the wider public as possible.’

The Cult of Saints in the First Millennium seminar series

Time: Friday 5.00 – 7.00 pm

Venue: Trinity College (Sutro Room), University of Oxford

Convenor: Efthymios Rizos

Week 1 (28 April)
Conrad Leyser (Worcester College)
Through the Eyes of Two Deacons: Church Property, Clerical Office, and the Cults of Stephen and Laurence in Fifth-Century Rome

Week 3 (12 May)
Gesa Schenke (Oxford)
Invoking Martyrs for Justice, Expecting Healing through Saints: a Glimpse into the Early Realities of Cult through Greek and Coptic Documentary Evidence

Week 5 (26 May)
Aude Busine (Brussels)
Saints Basil and Basilissa at Ancyra

Week 7 (9 June)
Leslie Brubaker (Birmingham)
Mary at Daphni

‘Saints at the Margins’ panels series, IMC 2017

The Cult of Saints project has organised a series of four sessions at this year’s International Medieval Congress in Leeds (July 2017) which will explore the lower reaches of sainthood: men and women who nearly, but didn’t quite, make it into sainthood; and those who just succeeded in being accepted as saints, sometimes only to sink back into oblivion. The session organisers are Bryan Ward-Perkins (University of Oxford) and Robert Wiśniewski (Instytut Historyczny, Uniwersytet Warszawski), and full details of the sessions can be found in the IMC programme available here.

International Congress of Coptic Studies and the International Congress of Papyrology

The 11th International Congress of Coptic Studies took place at the Claremont Graduate University in California this summer (July 25–30, 2016). Gesa Schenke, our specialist in Coptic and Papyrology, flew out to chair a session on hagiographical texts and to give a paper on a late 4th/ early 5th century papyrus document with a private invocation to martyr saints (P.Mich. inv. 1523).

Main Congress Venue

Main Congress venue, Claremont

The paper, entitled It’s in Their Bones. On the Origins of a Coptic Cult of Saints, argued that for an understanding of the practicalities of a working cult of saints, the direct non-literary evidence known as “documentary” evidence, found predominantly in Egypt, cannot be stressed enough. Unaltered by evolving literary, political, or religious agenda and conventions, the Egyptian documentary evidence confronts us with a directness that can only be taken at face value. It is the most reliable primary evidence one could wish for. P.Mich. 1523 is an example of such primary evidence. The papyrus attests the attempt of a woman named Theodora to invoke the intercession of martyrs in her lawsuit against a married couple. Theodora claims to be the injured party and invokes their assistance to ensure the financial destruction of her opponents. ‘May they see your miracles and wonders!’, she implores the martyrs. Such an unmediated witness to a woman seeking the help of saints, asking them to display their power to her advantage, illustrates that the saints, within a hundred or so years of Constantine’s religious revolution, were sought out as powerful allies in Egypt.

Following the Coptic Congress in California, Gesa moved straight on to Barcelona for the 28th International Congress of Papyrology (August 1–6, 2016). There she chaired a session on Christian papyri and presented a paper on a Greek letter of the 7th century sent from a female monastery of Shenoute, which announced the dispatch of a fragment from the garment of its patron saint for the purpose of healing a woman suffering from a daemon (P.Paramone 14). In her contribution, entitled Reconstructing the Origins of the Cult of Saints in Egypt: Documentary Evidence for Healing Miracles, she illustrated that contact relics sent from monasteries were supposed to convey the patron saint’s power to the patient and were expected to have a healing effect on the afflicted, regardless of whether the saint was a famous martyr or a former abbot. The claim to miraculous power was made not just for the relics or contact relics themselves, but for anything associated with the saints, even churches or monasteries that just bore their name.

Call for Papers: Grey-zone saints in Late Antiquity and early Middle Ages

At the forthcoming International Medieval Congress in Leeds (3-6 July 2017) the project team is organising a strand on grey-zone, or marginal, saints in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

A limited number of Christian heroes, mostly New Testament figures and martyrs, were renowned across Christendom. Many more struggled hard to gain a wider prominence, or even local recognition, and often remained saints only in the eyes of single partisans or restricted groups. Their sainthood was suggested but not fully accepted, or promoted but contested; their cults almost succeeded, but finally failed. Sometimes their very existence was put into question.

Those interested in presenting papers on such saints and their cults, particularly if focused on the period before c. 900, are requested to send title and short abstract (c. 100 words) to Bryan Ward-Perkins (bryan.ward-perkins@history.ox.ac.uk) or Robert Wiśniewski (r.wisniewski@uw.edu.pl) by 20 September. Please, note that, sadly, the project is unable to fund speakers’ expenses.

Workshop: Rulers and Saints

A workshop on Rulers and Saints: Concepts of `dynasty` and `sanctity` from Late Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages has been organised by the research fellows of the `Cult of Saints` and the `Jagiellonians` research projects and will take place in Oxford on Friday 13th May 2016. A full programme is available here: Rulers and Saints.