On the nature of late medieval Christianity

Good evening. For my next blog post I would like to briefly articulate some of my thoughts regarding a book that I recently finished reading. That book is, Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000-1700 by Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell. This is a large-scale study of the phenomenon of sainthood, published originally in 1982. The authors’ aim was to break away from the traditional tendency to study individual saintly vitae. Rather, their wish was to study broad patterns, both to do with the relationship between saint and society, hence their title, but also about perceptions of sanctity more generally. They chose as their sample 864 Latin Christian vitae from the years 1000-1700.

The first section of the book deals with saints whose call to holiness began at each respective stage of life, beginning with childhood and ending with adulthood. What is discovered first, is that children who showed an interest in saintly living often could not entertain their wishes without significant input from their immediate family. This could appear at one extreme, as violent conflict between parent(s) and child; or, at the other, as full acceptance and even active cooperation with the child’s spiritual goals. Weinstein and Bell note that the input of family on a child’s decision to become holy, as it appears in the vitae, is strongest in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, precisely the time when a new urban-based economy created many new opportunities for secular work for the children of the towns. This increase in opportunities meant that parents could now envision a secular career for their children that was both profitable and appropriate to the dignity of the family name. This partly explains the conflict that erupted between Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) and his father Pietro, who as a good, wealthy cloth merchant father, could not stand to see his own son adopt the attire of a poor beggar. Indeed, Francis’ voluntary poverty was a travesty that transgressed both Pietro’s plans for his son’s future in the family business, as well as the perceived honor of the family itself. Weinstein and Bell conclude their chapter on childhood by arguing that the affective, close-knit family existed long before the date it is generally held to have emerged in the eighteenth-century. Contrary to the scholarly consensus, Weinstein and Bell see the concept of childhood as already existing in the late Middle Ages, and their proof is in the increased emphasis on family dynamics in the hagiography between 1200 and 1500. To them, this is an indicator that parents genuinely cared about and played an active role in the upbringing of their children; the conflict that sometimes broke out between child saint and parents would not have occurred otherwise.

This first section to the book draws detailed attention to the quest for holiness that child, adolescent, and adult saints experienced. In doing so, Weinstein and Bell stress what, for them, is one aspect of a “dualism”, that characterized piety in medieval Christendom. The lives of saints are a reminder of the “individual responsibility” aspect of Christian religion, one pole of this dualism. What do they mean by “individual responsibility”? Before the time of Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) and Francis of Assisi, Christian piety tended to be vicarious. Spiritual merit was seldom sought after by the vast majority of the population. Ordinary people, entrapped in the sin of sexuality, were simply too sinful for the undertaking. On the other hand, there were monks and nuns, who had explicitly devoted their lives to virginity and divine worship. These people, whose perpetual virginity, made possible by a God who had granted them this power, were in a position to acquire the necessary spiritual graces on behalf of an entire community. Priests too, were employed in the pursuit – their daily saying of mass acting as a necessary act of propitiation against a vengeful God. Thus, a community relied upon its priests, monks, and nuns, to avert natural disasters and to assure good crop. But saints also accumulated spiritual graces by reason of their holy lifestyle. Hence, they too healed people from illnesses and protected against misfortune, both during their lifetime and after, through their relics.

 In this religious environment, there is little to no room for the direct participation of ordinary people in spiritual life. In fact, there is essentially no awareness of the idea of individual conscience and personal relationship to the divine. Rather, Christians of the earlier Middle Ages looked to their spiritual superiors for the material prosperity and good health that it was believed God would bestow under the right circumstances. In short, this was a Christianity that was at its heart utilitarian and passive. Religion was simply a means of accessing supernatural help in a world that was all too cruel to the ordinary peasant, rendering them helpless in the face of life’s many adversities. The spiritual merit of monks, nuns, priests, and saints, could then serve to force positive supernatural change, change that otherwise seemed impossible.

But if one examines the lives of the saints themselves, it becomes immediately apparent that there is much more at stake here. This takes us to what Weinstein and Bell have identified as the parallel, although not independent, current of “individual responsibility” piety, which contrasts that of vicarious spirituality. Individual responsibility piety refers to a Christianity that affirms the possibility of earning one’s salvation through one’s own efforts. In this view, there is less emphasis on acquiring spiritual merit through the holy actions of others. Rather, God has made it possible for each and every person to do this for themselves, without the need for an intermediary. Thus, beginning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there arose in Europe an immense movement of lay religiosity that involved ordinary people in a life of spiritual living as never before. Indeed, itinerant preachers, Waldensians, Franciscans, confraternities, and beguinages, all began to recruit to their ranks ordinary people of all backgrounds, including women. People were now increasingly attracted to the vita apostolica (living in the manner of the apostles) and the imitation of Christ as a means of drawing near to the divine. In addition, ordinary people now chose to adopt a life of prayer and penitence while still living fully “in the world” as a married, working person. Another way of ascending further up the ladder of salvation was to bestow liturgical goods on needy churches, and indeed, rich lay people began to do this in droves beginning in the thirteenth century, as this act was believed to acquire spiritual merit for the individual on a scale equal to that which he or she was generous. To sum up, this was a piety that was increasingly active, rather than passive. Christians now had direct control, and thus responsibility, over the state of their souls, and here the goal was, generally, to enter into mystical union with Christ by imitating him, through a combination of renunciation and service. This spiritual climate is a far cry from the vicarious, utilitarian piety that dominated the earlier Middle Ages. But as Weinstein and Bell point out, and this is perhaps the most important point, it would be a mistake to view vicarious, utilitarian piety as somehow separate from the piety of individual responsibility. On the contrary, their very coexistence was what constituted Christian culture in the late Middle Ages.

It was brazen paradox. Saints, by the example of their life, call us to imitation of Christ through renunciation of the world. Yet, by nature of the cults themselves, saints simultaneously drag us back down to earth, promising material well-being and good fortune in an all-too cruel world. This is what is curious about late medieval Christianity. Indeed, Weinstein and Bell go so far as to argue that this paradox is what spurred Luther’s Reformation, which was an explicit condemnation of everything that vicarious, utilitarian piety stood for. Whatever the case, the authors make it clear that more research must be done on a local level in order to further glimpse the complexities of this dynamic. In addition, I know that Caroline Walker Bynum addresses a similar question in her recent book, Christian Materiality, which I will be writing a blog post about at a later date.

Until then, I am left to ponder the connections between my own thesis and the issues raised by Weinstein and Bell’s book. On a cursory level, this book will be important for me going forward as a reference work. It is full of tables and statistics, specifically relating to the 864 saints of their sample and various aspects of their life. This information will allow me to glimpse broad trends in the history of sanctity, that will then allow me to consider the case of Abruzzo as it pertains to the rest of Europe. This work is also useful to me because it condenses much of the history of late medieval sanctity into broad themes. Specifically, I am quite excited about Weinstein and Bell’s five-fold criteria for the perception of sainthood (namely: supernatural grace, asceticism, good works, worldly power, and evangelical activity), because I can apply it to Abruzzo and ask the question of which of these qualities were most important to people in this region in identifying saints and why.

Lastly, I would like to further explore the question of the relationship between vicarious, utilitarian piety and that of individual responsibility. I do believe it is related to the question of Christian materiality that Caroline Bynum has wrote her book on, and I agree with all three scholars that there must be some connection with the Reformation. My plan is to explore this question as it played out in Abruzzo in this time period. Doing so will bring further clarity to the nature of Christianity in the centuries before the Protestant Reformation, and thus help us further understand the nature of what changed in the sixteenth century and why.


Weinstein, Donald and Rudolph M. Bell. Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000-1700. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.


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