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.

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.

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.

Project presented at key conferences in Vienna and Paris

Principal Investigator, Bryan Ward-Perkins, recently took part in two conferences (one in Vienna and one in Paris) at which he presented aspects of the Cult of Saints project.  The Vienna conference, held on 11-13 December 2014, was around the theme of ‘Linking the Mediterranean’ within the period 300-800 CE, and he opened the conference with a key-note lecture entitled ‘Did saints link the post-Roman world?’.  In this lecture he stressed that, while some saints successfully straddled wide geographical areas, the sphere of influence of most saints was purely local, or regional at best.  He also pointed out that the successful movement of saints was primarily from East to West and South to North, very seldom in the opposite directions.

At the Paris conference, on ‘Approches topographiques du fait religieux’ (which examined the topography of religious practice from archaic times to Late Antiquity), he outlined how the Cult of Saints database, currently under construction, will allow scholars and the interested public to track the spread of saints’ cults throughout the Christian world, including into regions that are sometimes wrongly considered peripheral by western scholarship.  He also explored some of the problems in defining ‘cult’ and in differentiating it from what might be termed ‘encyclopaedic’ interest in the saints of other regions.’