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)

Dr Nowakowski presents at Humboldt University, Berlin

On 15 May Paweł Nowakowski gave a talk at the Faculty of Theology of the Humboldt University in Berlin, at a seminar meeting of the project ‘Inscriptiones Christianae Graecae’ supervised by Cilliers Breytenbach and Klaus Hallof, and sponsored by the Excellence Cluster 264 TOPOI. Paweł presented a collection of epitaphs from three villages (modern Beyözü, Elmapınar, and Kozören) in the immediate area of ancient Euchaita in Pontus, the principal sanctuary of Saint Theodore, which he is now publishing with permission of the Euchaita/Avkat Project directed by John Haldon (Princeton University, NJ) and Hugh Elton (Trent University, Canada). The collection throws new light on the clergy, monks, and pilgrims active in the area of provincial sanctuaries of saints, and supplements a collection of inscriptions from Beyözü published  by Mustafa Adak and Christian Marek in 2016.

For the project ‘Inscriptiones Christianae Graecae’, see

For the Euchaita/Avkat Project, see

Description of the image: Epitaph for the deaconess Theodora, who ‘sought refuge at the receiver of strangers (xenodochos), the great martyr of Christ’, Saint Theodore. Found at Çorum near Euchaita and first published by Adak and Marek in 2016 (no. 99) = our database no. CoSe02652.

Talking in Warsaw and Kraków about the Cult of Saints

Bryan Ward-Perkins writes: At the end of May I gave papers in Poland about our project, in Warsaw and in Kraków.  Warsaw is a research hub for the ‘Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity’, where our extensive Latin evidence is being worked on by Matthieu Pignot, helped by Marta Szada and Kasia Wojtalik, all under the direction of Robert Wiśniewski; it is also the home town of our epigraphist, Paweł Nowakowski.  So I was more or less guaranteed a friendly reception there; but I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a seminar table loaded with strawberries (it is apparently a very happy tradition to serve fruit and biscuits at the Warsaw seminar).  Kraków didn’t rise to strawberries, but it did provide an equally interesting and appreciative audience, and is a fascinating city for the study of saints, if of a slightly later period: high points being the shrine of St Stanisław in Wawel cathedral, and Veit Stoss’ amazing altarpiece of the Dormition of the Virgin in the church of St Mary.

I talked to the title ‘Levels of sainthood and of cult in the Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity project’, exploring the implicit (and sometimes) explicit hierarchy of the saints in Heaven, and the different levels of cult they attracted on earth (which did not necessarily tally with their heavenly importance).  It was a very general paper, aimed primarily at showcasing the huge richness and diversity of our evidence, and the value of our database – which we have decided to launch (before completion) on 1st November (All Saints Day) this year!

Late antique Greek inscriptions in Athens

Research Associates Paweł Nowakowski and Efthymis Rizos spent the week 26th February – 4th March in Athens. The aim of this research journey was the examination of a database of late antique Greek inscriptions, maintained at the Faculty of History and Archaeology of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. The ‘Saints’ were hosted there by Professor Katerina Nikolaou.

The Athenian database comprises more than 120,000 records ranging from the 4th c. to the modern period, and covers all the epigraphic editorial series up to the early 1990s. It originated as a set of paper files (which we were also allowed to examine), later converted to FileMaker format. It allowed us to get a number of entries for mainland Greece and the Balkans, as well as proved the completion of our evidence from already processed regions.

Another task was the examination of Egyptian clay lamps from the Benaki Musuem with the kind assistance of Anastasia Drandaki. This collection owes its unique appearance to the fact that most of the lamps are inscribed with names of saints, many of them of Anatolian hagiographic background and bearing very sophisticated, rare names. It is a real mystery how those obscure figures found their way to the Egyptian countryside. Perhaps the efforts of Paweł and Efthymis will let us solve this puzzle.

Vacancy announcement: post-doctoral researcher (Latin evidence) at the University of Warsaw

The Institute of History, University of Warsaw, is seeking to recruit a post-doctoral researcher  for a position in the project The Cult of Saints: a Christendom-wide study of its origins, spread and development. The successful candidate will work as part of a team of seven post-doctoral researchers reporting to the Principal Investigator, Prof. Bryan Ward-Perkins (University of Oxford), but under direct supervision of Dr hab. Robert Wiśniewski  (University of Warsaw). The postholder will have responsibility for collecting and researching Latin evidence consisting mostly of literary texts, inscriptions and calendars. The postholder is also expected to produce sole-authored articles on aspects of the cult of saints in the West.

Full information about the vacancy and how to apply can be found here: Call for candidates

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.