The Medieval Cult of Saints: Vulgar Compromises or Divine Experiments?

by  Michael S. Hahn

The cult of saints was one of the most prominent and significant forms of worship and devotion in the late-antique and medieval periods. However, in the last forty years, there has been a shift in scholarly opinion as to how this movement began and developed, and its place in late-antique society. This is largely due to Peter Brown and his role as part of a wider movement in ecclesiastical history of applying increasingly socio-anthropological methodology. But how exactly did Brown do this? And what impact did it have?

To answer these questions we first need to examine the more classical perspectives of David Hume and Edward Gibbon, before looking at Brown’s reactionary work, its major arguments, and its methodology. Then we will turn to consider some criticisms to Brown’s work, and the subsequent state of scholarship on the issue.

Before Brown: Hijacking Vulgar Paganism

Brown’s work is in reaction to previous views: specifically, he is writing to oppose the so-called ‘two-tiered’ model, which was espoused by Gibbon, who built on the work of Hume. Hume relegates the vast majority of medieval people to his classification of ‘vulgar’, which is everyone who was not politically significant or either clergy or religious. He argues that the religious history of mankind is not a simple history of decline from an original monotheism, but, especially among the vulgar, is one of constant struggle between theistic and polytheistic thought: ‘it is remarkable that the principles of religion have had a flux and reflux to the human mind, and that men have a natural tendency to rise from idolatry to theism, and to sink again from theism to idolatry.’ The elite — the leading classes and clergy — were more cultivated, and so could easily control the vulgar’s primitive beliefs.

Gibbon used this perspective to connect the decline and abolition of paganism of the Roman Empire with the rise of the cult of saints in Christianity, and believed that the transition from one religion to the other was not significant for the vulgar. For him, Hume’s work had made the shift from polytheism to the cult of saints obvious:

‘The imagination, which had been raised by a painful effort to the contemplation and worship of the Universal Cause, eagerly embraced such inferior objects of adoration as were more proportioned to its gross conceptions and imperfect faculties. The sublime and simple theology of the primitive Christians was gradually corrupted; and the monarchy of heaven already clouded by metaphysical subtleties, was degraded by the introduction of a popular mythology which tended to restore the reign of polytheism.’

So, Gibbon argues that the cult of saints was a way that bishops could get a large proportion of people to engage more thoroughly in Christianity by using pagan-like elements to control the vulgar religion of many. Henry Milman furthered this argument, and presented the spread of the cult of saints in Europe by starkly dividing the late-antique population’s religion into a developed theism of the enlightened few and the barbaric religion of the vulgar, easily controlled by their superiors. In more modern scholarship, this takes the form of a ‘two-tiered model’ where the enlightened minority react to the upward pressure from the habitual ways of thinking of the vulgar.

A New Approach

Peter Brown’s work focusses predominately on religious culture in Late Antiquity. Probably his most significant work is The Rise and Fall of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity, which was originally published in the Journal of Roman Studies in 1971, and later reprinted in Brown’s book, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity, in 1982. Whilst this has some indirect importance for the topic of the cult of saints, Brown published a more specifically relevant work 10 years later, in the form of The Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Brown’s advancement of the field is, arguably, due to his increasingly socio-anthropological approach. James Howard-Johnston, a former student of Brown, pointed out that there was acceleration in the growth of research across the humanities in the second half of the twentieth century, and that ‘there has been an immeasurable improvement in understanding of economic, social, and cultural processes and of their interplay in different material environments across different historical epochs.’ This has been nowhere more dramatic than in late-antique studies, where ‘many subtle, imaginative and scholarly intelligences have contributed to a rapid extension and deepening of knowledge, but none can match the inspiration given by Peter Brown […] which his writing [has] imparted to research in the field.’ This is exactly the beauty of the Brownian method — he is able to confidently place one foot firmly in the field of social-anthropology, whilst keeping the other in the field of history and late-antique studies.

Don’t Overlook the Little Guy

This methodology places Brown as part of the wider scholarly movement known as the New Cultural History. Although this essay will not extensively address the historiographical influence of the New Cultural History, it is important to briefly summarise its main purposes, given that Brown’s work falls generally within this movement. According to Smith, this is a diverse movement in historiography which engages with culture in its widest sense, which ‘prefers to endow the men and women of the past with agency, instead of understanding historical change as a series of forces, trends, or movements that reduce individuals to passive pawns in the group of impersonal processes.’ As we shall see, Brown’s approach very much fits in with this. One of the main goals of the New Cultural History is to uncover the religious and social lives of the lower classes, the laity, and the illiterate. However, this task is wrought with historiographical problems, specifically a lack of sources, and variety of sources. This movement clearly influenced Brown, and created the scholarly environment in which he functioned.

Brown’s greatest contribution to scholarship on the cult of saints is his use of this socio-anthropologically and culturally based method in his attempt to disband the two-tiered model formed — with regard to this topic — by Hume and Gibbon. He recognises that it is not a successful or useful model, and there are numerous advantages to abandoning it. One of its major problems is that it assumes that any change in the piety of the late-antique man — such as the rise of the cult of saints — must have necessarily been the result of the submission of the elite Christians to forms of devotion previously predominant among the vulgar. Post-Constantine, there were mass conversions to Christianity among the new governing classes of the Empire, and the ‘two-tiered’ model believes that this led the leaders of the Church to accept a wide variety of pagan practices, especially in relation to the cult of saints.

He believes that the greatest advantage of abandoning the two tiered model ‘would be to make what has been called “popular religion” in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages more available to historical interpretation, by treating it as more dynamic [… because] the basic weakness of the two-tiered model is that it rarely, if ever, is concerned to explain religious change other than among the elite.’ The two-tiered model makes the assumption that the religion of the vulgar is uniform, that ‘it can cause changes by imposing its modes of thought on the elite; but in itself does not change.’ Whilst we can probably accept that the average man or woman of the Mediterranean at this time was uneducated and unsophisticated, it would be foolish to continue to think of the lower classes as unmoving. In Western Europe, an empire fell, which ensured ‘new structures of social relations, and these manifested themselves differently in different regions, and worked deeply into the lives of men of all classes and levels of culture, not merely the elites.’ However, this is often ignored prior to Brown. The rise of the cult of saints broke down many barriers at the time of previous views of heaven and earth, and it is crucial, in order to understand this change, to set aside the two-tiered model, and, instead, view this ‘as part of a greater whole — the lurching forward of an increasing proportion of late-antique society toward radically new forms of reverence.

Not so Vulgar after all

Possibly the most significant impact of Brown’s contribution is the perspective that the late-antique cult of saints was not primitive, but highly developed, and a form of worship that bore direct significance for both the elite and the vulgar. Rather than seeing the cult of saints as a tool to control the vulgar, which enabled Christianity to triumph over the various pagan alternatives, Brown argues that the cult was the realisation of the highest spirituality of the period.

The cult, according to Brown, is definitely not a mere continuation of paganism for the vulgar. It is true that the belief that success, both worldly and ‘upperworldly’, depended upon one’s standing in the eyes of the deity was equally as intrinsic to polytheism and paganism as it was to Christianity. However, whilst paganism had its deified heroes, they were conceived of as gods, whose immortality, and other divine qualities, made them completely other than humanity, and inaccessible. Conversely, the saints and martyrs, had a special relationship with God, but remained accessible to humanity. They hence were able to adequately bridge the gap which the pagan heroes could not, not least because they were able to have a share in Christ’s experience, having ‘partaken in human mortality through his Incarnation and death, and since they suffered martyrdom after his example.’

The cult was, according to Brown, in no sense superficial, working its ways ‘slowly and deeply into the lives of Mediterranean men of all classes and levels of culture.’ Many of the Christian elite, who were highly educated, such as Sulpicius Severus or Paulinus of Nola, played significant roles in the cult’s developments. It also helped to bring about a reorganisation of society, by offering a distinctive system of religious beliefs which Paul Antony Hayward, a former student of Brown, claims allowed for a considerable social manoeuvring. Women found a place of refuge at shrines, and peasants could escape oppression by committing themselves to serve the saint. It represented an entirely new social order: ‘new forms of the exercise of power, new bonds of human dependence, new, intimate, hopes for protection and justice in a changing world.’ Hayward argues that ‘Brown’s representation of the cult of saints refutes Gibbon exactly.’ The cult’s rise remains, in Brown’s account, closely connected with the process of Christianisation, but his revolutionary work places the cult as the primary means by which late-antique society developed as a community, which was inaccessible to previous societies. Hence, Brown’s work changes the view of the cult of saints from being something belonging in the realm of popular religion, which was grudgingly accepted by elites and church leaders, to viewing it as a high form of devotion, which was espoused by the highest members of the church and society as a whole — and it is only through Brown’s interpretation in which we can truly understand the profound effects which this cult brought upon late-antique society.

Was Brown too Anthropological?

However, Brown’s work has not been received with universal acclaim. One criticism of Brown is of his reading of medieval sources concerning saints. Averil Cameron argues that Brown often reads hagiographical texts, saintly biographies, through the lens of modern social-anthropology. Similarly, Mark Vessey recognised that, in overcoming the shortcomings of Gibbon, Brown went too far in the opposite direction, and ‘looked past the hagiographer and his texts to the sociology of that appreciation.’ Brown, according to Vessey, places hagiography in the context of a general late ancient preference for literature in the form of biography and autobiography. The result of this is that Brown treats early medieval sources as ethnographies, with very little acknowledgement of the fact that they were, often, not written as objective records of social reality. This means that he often fails to recognise that the authors of these texts often had motives other than simply recording attitudes of the time.

Another, related, criticism of Brown is that he is so concerned with approaching the cult of saints, and other topics, from a socio-anthropological perspective, that he ends up stripping away many other crucial elements. Vessey comments that Brown ‘brought “culture” and “society” so closely together [… and] presented a “civilization” in which “society” and “culture” were products of each other and “religion” an aspect of both.’ Culture was often heavily indebted to religion so, by searching specifically for culture, and often ignoring religion, Brown is misinterpreting the period he is working in. Aron Gurevich believes that a key historiographical task is ‘to not isolate popular culture by removing its Christian overlays, for such a ‘pure form’ did not, and could not, exist’ at the time. Culture and religion were so intrinsically interlinked that it is, therefore, impossible to extract any true opinion of a culture or society which is void of religion, without entirely misrepresenting both the period and its people. Hence, attempting to view any aspect of ecclesiastical history, especially within the late-antique and medieval periods, from a purely socio-anthropological perspective can cause many problems for the historian.

This is a common historiographical problem many anthropologically-centred approaches to ecclesiastical history face. The functionalism associated with anthropology commonly ends up being very reductionist in its approach to understanding medieval mentalities. They often fall into the trap of treating specifically religious or theological elements of history as something negligible, which is at least as erroneous as approaching topics from an overly-biased confessional identity. Brown, for example, treats miracle narratives as necessarily having cultural or political aims without ever considering that the hagiographer may have genuinely just believed in this miracle — although Brown does correct himself in a subsequent review article. Approaching medieval history from hindsight, the historian can often possess an arrogance of posterity that unintentionally treats medieval writers as ‘vulgar’ just as Gibbon had done.


It is clear that, through his increasingly socio-anthropological methodology, Brown offers a new perspective which can be seen as a historiographical nodal-point, and has shaped the study of the cult of saints and late-antique society as a whole. As we have seen, there are various criticisms of Brown — both in his methodology and the conclusions which he draws — which view him as too interested in a perspective dealing primarily with a modern social-anthropology to properly examine a topic of ecclesiastical history. However, with Gurevich’s criticism comes the wise suggestion that it is very possible to examine this period of ecclesiastical history from a perspective interested in social-anthropology and culture, providing that one accepts the premise that religion and culture cannot, and should not, be separated in this period. Since Brown, historiographers of the cult of saints have not viewed it as such a universally positive phenomenon. The most recent trend has been to focus on how the cults were used politically, specifically in relations to rivalries with other saints’ cults. However, despite being different from Brown’s perspective, the most recent scholarship is one heavily informed by the Brownian tradition and its subsequent criticisms.

Probably the major strength of Brown’s work is that he has been able to completely oppose the work of Edward Gibbon. In arguing against the out-dated perspective of the two-tier model which Gibbon espoused, Brown is able to direct scholarship on the cult of saints away from this towards the view that the cult was not, in any way, primitive or merely held by the vulgar. Instead, Brown’s work has moved historiography of the cult of saints towards a thorough understanding that it was among the highest forms of late-antique and medieval devotion which was popular amongst the ecclesiastical, political, and social elite, as well as the vulgar.

Further Reading

  • Bartlett, Robert. Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013.
  • Biller, Peter. ‘Popular Religion in the Central and Late Middle Ages.’ In Companion to Historiography. Edited by Michael Bentley. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Brown, Peter. The Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Late Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981.
  • Brown, Peter. ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity.’ In Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity. London: Faber & Faber, 1982.
  • Brown, Peter. Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Cameron, Averil. ‘On Defining the Holy Man.’ In The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Edited by James Howard-Johnston and Paul Anthony Hayward. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Foot, Sarah. ‘Has Ecclesiastical History Lost the Plot?’ Studies in Church History 49 (2013): 1-25.
  • Freeman, Charles. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
  • Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 2. Philadelphia: B. F. French, 1830.
  • Gurevich, Aron. Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception. Translated by Janos M. Bak and Paul A. Hollingsworth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Hayward, Paul Antony. ‘Demystifying the role of sanctity in Western Christendom.’ In The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Edited by James Howard Johnston and Paul Antony Hayward. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Howard-Johnston, James. ‘Introduction.’ In The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Edited by James Howard-Johnston & Paul Anthony Hayward. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Hume, David. ‘The Natural History of Religion.’ In Essays: Moral, Political and Literary. London: Longman, Green and Co., 1875.
  • Hunt, Lynn. ‘Introduction.’ In The New Cultural History. London: University of California Press, 1989.
  • Milman, Henry. A History of Latin Christianity. New York: Armstrong, 1903.
  • Smith, Julia M. H. ‘Saints and their Cults.’ In Cambridge History of Christianity 3, Early Medieval Christianities, c. 600- c. 1100. Edited by Sarah Foot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Smith, Julia M. H. Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Vessey, Mark. ‘The Demise of the Christian Writer and the Remaking of “Late-Antiquity”: From H. I. Marrou’s Saint Augustine (1938) to Peter Brown’s Holy Man (1983).’ Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.3 (1998): 377-411.

All Saints” by Fra Angelico is in the Public Domain