Database launch

The ERC Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity project invites you to the launch on All Saints Day of its on-line database

Wednesday 1st November 5pm

Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies

66 St Giles’, Oxford

There will be introduction to the database, followed by a celebratory drink.

Call for Papers: Remembering and forgetting saints in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (IMC, Leeds, July 2018)

The Cult of Saints is a major ERC-funded research project, which is investigating the origins and early development of the cult of saints in all the cultural zones of ancient Christianity. The forthcoming International Medieval Congress in Leeds (2-5 July 2018) has ‘Memory’ as its special thematic strand. The Project will therefore be running a series of sessions on how saints were remembered in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. As specific topics for these sessions, we have chosen: ‘Adapting Memory’, on how the hagiography of some saints evolved in response to changing circumstances and needs; ‘Annual Remembrance’, focused on the regular annual cycle of remembering the saints, as documented in texts such as Martyrologies; and, finally, ‘Forgetting’, on saints who once attracted cult, but then slipped quietly into oblivion. Those interested in presenting papers at these sessions, particularly if focused on the period before c. AD 1000, are requested to send a short abstract (100 words) to Robert Wiśniewski ( and Bryan Ward-Perkins ( by 15 September. Please note that the project, sadly, cannot cover conference fee and travel expenses.

The Cult of Martyrs in the Fourth Century

In mid July, Research Associate Gesa Schenke was invited to participate in a conference on Innovations in the Veneration of Martyrs in the Fourth Century CE, a conference of the cluster of excellence “Religion and Politics”, taking place at the University of Münster in Germany, 14–15 July 2017. In her paper entitled From Veneration to Expectation: The Use of Martyrs in Personal Conflict Management, she discussed some of the fourth century evidence available from Egypt in the form of papyri, which clearly testify to a cult of martyrs in the second half of the fourth century, an institution complete with critics, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, and enthusiasts.

The conference programme can be read here: Innovations in the Veneration of Martyrs in the Fourth Century CE.

Saints at the Margins at the Leeds International Medieval Conference, 12-13 July 2017

Bryan Ward-Perkins and Robert Wiśniewski

With over two thousand delegates attending, the IMC at Leeds is the largest and most international conference of medievalists in the world.  We were therefore delighted to hold four sessions there, which both explored a central issue of our project with some young and some not-so-young experts in the subject, and showcased the diversity and range of the ‘Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity’.  The issue we chose to focus on was ‘Marginal Saints’, the men and women of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages who either just failed to be accepted as saints, or only just succeeded.  Since there was no formal process of canonisation before the twelfth century, there were a substantial number of these ‘grey saints’, promoted with enthusiasm by their backers, but not necessarily with success.  Examining them is interesting in itself, and also helps clarify the broad issues of what was expected of a saint, and the processes that were needed to manoeuvre him or her into a position of broad acceptance.

Our first session was entitled ‘The struggle to launch and maintain a cult’ and was opened by Bertrand Lançon, professor emeritus of the Université de Limoges.  Professor Lançon introduced us to the ninth-century Actus of the bishops of Le Mans, with their remarkable attempt to establish the first (supposed) nine bishops of the see as saints, able to perform miracles – a claim that failed to take off, except in the case of the founder of the see, Julian.  Pia Bockius, a doctoral student at the Freie Universität of Berlin, then gave us a full and accomplished overview of how Gregory of Tours (who wrote more about saints than any other writer of the early Middles Ages) approached sainthood and the establishment of cult – she rightly reminded us that not everything that Gregory wrote about saints was intended to encourage cult.

The second session was on ‘Unconventional sainthood’, with three speakers.  Alan Thacker, of London’s Institute of Historical Research, introduced us to the many unnamed (but numbered) martyrs of Rome, men and women whose blood shed in quantity gave the city its uniquely high Christian status in the West.  Estelle Cronnier, a researcher attached to the ‘Monde Byzantine’ centre in Paris, talked about Christian veneration of Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, which was a powerful feature of cult in the Holy Land and, more surprisingly, also in Constantinople.  Finally, Abigail Steed, a doctoral student at Durham (who stepped in to fill a gap at the last minute), gave us an accomplished explanation of how the early-eleventh-century archbishop of Canterbury, Ælfheah, who was killed by his Danish captors in a moment of drunkenness rather than religious hatred, became a martyr in late Anglo-Saxon times and, thanks to some ingenious argumentation by Anselm of Bec, even remained a martyr into Norman times.

Our third session on ‘Failed saints’, again with three speakers, looked at people who nearly, but not quite, made it to be accepted as saints.  The first presentation, by one of us (Bryan Ward-Perkins), was centred on the fascinating figure of Winnoc the Breton, an unfortunate whom Gregory of Tours seems initially to have believed to be a saint, but who then came spectacularly off the rails, descending into drunkenness and insanity. This was followed by a talk from David Defries, of Kansas State University, on the case of William Longsword, a tenth-century count of Normandy, who suffered political assassination, but for whom implausible efforts were made to present his death as that of a good Christian, struck down for his faith.  Just as implausible, but in the long run much more successful, were the efforts of Eusebius, and of Constantine himself, to present this emperor as a saint, an equal indeed of the Apostles, which James Corke-Webster, of the University of Durham, presented as the final paper of the session.  In the eastern church, Constantine crossed the barrier into sainthood; but he was never accepted in the same way in the West.

The fourth and final session of this ‘strand’, with two speakers, was under the playful title ‘Saints, but by a whisker’.  Matthieu Pignot, of the Cult of Saints project, introduced us to Torpes of Pisa, a saint of exceptional obscurity in Late Antiquity, whose Martyrdom attributed his burial to an unknown place in Spain, but who somehow became popular in Carolingian times and later, even giving his name (if he is he is same saint!) to Saint Tropez on the French Riviera.  Finally, Michel Kaplan, emeritus professor at the Sorbonne, spoke about Antony, archbishop of Thessaloniki, a staunch defender of icons who died in 843.  Antony was acknowledged as a saint but only within the Life of another, much more successful figure, the nun Theodora, who attracted considerably more cult than Antony.

The individual talks hung together well, both speaking to each other and provoking a lively discussion of what made a saint and what made a successful cult.  Next year’s IMC conference will be centred on the theme of ‘Memory’, which is of course a central feature of the cult of saints – we will be there, and are already planning the themes of the individual sessions!

‘Saints at the Margins’: International Medieval Congress 2017

The full programme of the Cult of Saints’ sessions at the 2017 IMC has now been published.

The four sessions of ‘Saints at the Margins’ 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 slowly back into oblivion.  This first session is focused on the difficulties of establishing a successful cult in a world already crowded with saints.


Bryan Ward-Perkins, Faculty of History, University of Oxford

Robert Wiśniewski, Instytut Historyczny, Uniwersytet Warszawski

Session 1224, Wednesday, 5 July, 14.15-15.45, Emmanuel Centre: Room 11


Bertrand Lançon, Université de Limoges

No worship for old saints: the Carolingian construction of the Actus of the bishops of Le Mans

 Pia Bockius, Freie Universität, Berlin

Texts and tangibility: Fighting oblivion in Gregory of Tours’ hagiography

Vincent Déroche, Centre d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance

Successes and failures in the launching of an eleventh-century cult: the contrasting cases of Symeon the Studite and Luke of Anazarbos

 Session 1324, Wednesday, 5 July, 16.30-18.00, Emmanuel Centre, Room 11


Alan Thacker, Institute of Historical Research, London

Converting and sanctifying the marginal: Baptism in blood

Estelle Cronnier, Independent scholar

Figures from the Old Testament, and the cult of saints in Late Antiquity

Abigail Steed, Department of History, Durham University

Creating a Martyr: The Case of St Ælfheah

Session 1530, Thursday, 6 July, 9.00-10.30, Emmanuel Centre: Room 11


Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Cult of Saint Project, Oxford University

Uncertainty and anxiety in the mind of Gregory of Tours

Dave Defries, Kansas State University

Pagan, apostate or saint? The unconvincing martyrdom of William Longsword, second count of Normandy

 James Cork-Webster, Durham University

Imperial peg, saintly hole: Eusebius of Caesarea on Constantine

Session 1630, Thursday, 6 July, 11.15-12.45, Emmanuel Centre, Room 11


Matthieu Pignot, The Cult of Saints Project, Uniwersytet Warszawski

The mysterious origins of the cult of Torpes of Pisa

Michel Kaplan, Université Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne)

A saint with hagiography but no cult: Antony, archbishop of Thessaloniki († 843)

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.