Saints in the folk devotion of medieval England

The cult of the saints played a central role in pre-Reformation English Christianity. The saints formed a kind of pantheon of friends and helpers – essentially of benevolent spirits – with whom the human community had a working relationship. Particular saints could be invoked in relation to particular needs and by particular groups of people. In medieval Christianity, the pre-Christian practice of engaging with tutelary deities and spirits was, with a few theological modifications, turned into the system of tutelary saints, with places, occupations, and conditions all being allocated their ‘patron saints’, who could be prayed to in lieu of the old gods.

Just as with church rituals and holy texts, the people did not see their relationship with the saints as one of piety, so much as one of contract. ‘The need to do good and to be good, was never a dominant feature of the popular veneration of the saints’ but, instead, it was devotion that mattered, and devotion that was rewarded.[1] Saints could be appealed to as ‘loving friends’ who offered grace to all. Devotion to the Virgin Mary was seen to be particularly efficacious, and popular legends of the Virgin told of her intervention to help even ‘scoundrels, thieves, and unchaste priests’ escape judgement.[2]

On a personal level, the devotee was a client of the saint and the saint’s primary desire was honour from the client. An individual could request the assistance of the saint in almost any matter, and in return would promise to undertake pilgrimage to the saint’s shrine, to visit the saint’s relics, and to offer a coin or candle. Such a promise was said to be the most likely way to attract the interest and help of the saint.[3] On the communal level, meanwhile, particular devotion was accorded to tutelary saints of individual churches, and this was particularly strong where relics of a saint were present in the church:

The relationship between saints in particular and the communities in which their bodies or relics lay was perceived as reciprocal: the saint was the protector and patron of the human community which responded to this protection and in fact earned the right to it through the veneration accorded to the saint.

[4]

All of this was undertaken as part of a reciprocal magical system, which was in reality only tangentially related to the Church’s official theology of seeking the intercession of saints with God, and of praying through, rather than to, the saints.

References:

[1] Eamon Duffy (2005) The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale: Yale University Press), p.187.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p.183.

[4] Patrick Geary (1985) ‘Humiliation of Saints’ in Stephen Wilson (ed.) Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p.123.

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