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 ( or Robert Wiśniewski ( 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.

Presentations at Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies

On 18-20 March Paweł Nowakowski and Efthymios Rizos participated in the 49th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Inscribing Texts in Byzantium: Continuities and Transformations (Exeter College, Oxford).

Paweł’s paper began with the presentation of the search engine of our database and its functions especially useful for epigraphists, e.g.: browsing inscriptions attesting to the cult of saints, searching for the epigraphic evidence for the cult of a given saint, reading an inscription’s card, etc. The second part of the paper dealt with the changes in the use of inscriptions as a peculiar instrument of cult between the late antique and middle Byzantine period, including the growing dossier of epigraphically venerated saints, the sophistication of saints’ epithets (probably modelled on the epithets of the elite), the appearance of explicit references to emotions of donors, and the introduction of new forms of old types of inscriptions.

Efthymios spoke about inscribed imperial letters, as examples of the institutional transformations of imperial and municipal government from the Principate to Late Antiquity. His talk focused especially on inscriptions from the Christian shrines of Ephesos.

Seminar Series: The Cult of Saints in the First Millennium

Trinity Term (April – June 2016)

Friday 5.00 – 7.00 pm, Weeks 1, 3, 7

Venue: Radcliffe Humanities Building – Collin Matthews Room (Ground floor)

Convenor: Efthymios Rizos

Week 1 (29 April):

Mark Laynesmith (The Archbishop’s Examination in Theology, Lambeth Palace)

“The Cult of St Alban of Verulamium: Romano-British, Merovingian and Anglo-Saxon devotion, c. 400-800″

Week 3 (13 May):

– No seminar –

 Week 5 (27 May):

Simon Loseby (University of Sheffield)

“Thinking about saints with Gregory of Tours”

Week 7 (10 June):

Robert Wiśniewski (University of Warsaw)

“The burials ad sanctos

Gesa Schenke discusses evidence for martyr veneration at monastic shrines

Gesa Schenke, our Coptic specialist, gave a paper on Egyptian Hagiotopography: Documentary and Literary Evidence for Martyr Veneration at Monastic Shrines at a symposium held in Oxford on Monastic economies in Egypt and Palestine 4th–8th centuries CE (Oxford, 16–17 March 2016). Gesa argued that many of the famous martyr and healing shrines might have been run by monasteries located in the vicinity, a symbiosis advantageous to both institutions.

January news round-up

On 17 December Efthymios Rizos participated in the 8th Meeting of Greek Byzantinists in Athens, where he presented the activities and objectives of the Cult of Saints project. We are grateful to our colleagues from Greece and Cyprus for their encouraging feedback and constructive suggestions on the Cult of Saints Database.

On 13 and 14 January, Efthymios Rizos was invited to give lectures at seminars held by the History Institutes of the Universities of Krakow and Warsaw, where he presented his recent research on the iconography of martyrs in the late antique mosaics of Thessalonike. Efthymis discussed the mosaics of the Rotunda and Saint Demetrius, two of the most important iconographic ensembles to survive from the Early Christian World. We are grateful to our Polish colleagues for their warm hospitality and participation in these lectures!

On 19 January, the ‘Cult of Saints in the First Millennium’ seminar held its first lecture for Hilary Term 2016, which was given by our epigraphy specialist, Paweł Nowakowski. Paweł discussed the problems of recognising epitaphs of martyrs in the Greek Christian epigraphy of Anatolia, which is part of his broader research on saint-related inscriptions from that part of the late antique world.