BMCR 1994.02.15

1994.02.15, Van Dam, Saints and Their Miracles

, Saints and their miracles in late antique Gaul. Gregory, Bishop of Tours, Saint, 538-594. Works. Selections.. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. 1 online resource (viii, 349 pages) : map. ISBN 9780691032337. $16.95.

In spite of its title, the subject of this book is primarily the interactions between Gregory of Tours and the cult of St. Martin. V. discusses, in addition, the lives of St. Hilary and St. Julian, and Gregory’s association with the latter, but this occupies little space, and the other saints brought in from time to time receive even less attention. Most certainly, V.’s treatment of Gregory carries broader implications for the study of saints in Late Antique Gaul, but he himself warns against the conflation of evidence, i.e., the creation of a “virtually generic ‘cult of the saints'”, and the compression of time (13). The book does not address what its title suggests; instead, V. treats in detail a specific example and successfully avoids the pitfalls just mentioned.

A brief Introduction (3-7) outlines V.’s main goals in his book, the parameters of interpretation, and the focus of each of his chapters. The three goals of the book are the presentation of translations of miracle stories, “to provide some orientation to the usefulness and implications” to the stories (both 5), in the process modifying and supplementing earlier studies, especially those of Peter Brown, and to apply some comparative studies conservatively (6-7) as an aid in interpretation.

The first chapter (11-49: “Different Saints, Different Cults”) outlines the development of the three separate cults of St. Martin, St. Hilary and St. Julian. Since Hilary appears hardly in the rest of the book, he is apparently included for the purposes of comparison and contrast. For each saint, V. describes the vicissitudes experienced by his cult. It is immediately apparent that the patronage of bishops and/or aristocrats, sometimes Frankish kings, was an important factor, while V.’s discussion of each cult as it developed over time leads his readers effortlessly to the less recognised point that the “cult of the saints” did not develop as a single entity in Late Antique Gaul. Each cult emerged in its own way, and some, as the discussion in later chapters confirms even more strikingly, became for a time almost the private preserve of an aristocratic family.

V. next discusses the relationships of Gregory of Tours with his patron saints (50-81: “Gregory of Tours and His Patron Saints”). He is especially concerned with the transitions in the bishop’s adherence to saints’ cults (51), pointing out against the normal view that the connection with St. Martin had not always existed. Early in life, because of his family’s patronage of St. Julian at Brioude near his paternal home at Clermont, Gregory was himself a devotee of that cult. Later he became bishop at Tours, due, as V. argues, largely to his maternal ancestry (55-63, a good discussion of the importance of family connections and royal support in obtaining a see). His mother’s family already adhered to the cult of St. Martin of Tours; it is hardly surprising that Gregory soon adopted St. Martin as the leading saint in his arsenal, and an arsenal it was. Gregory faced a variety of difficulties in the early years of his episcopal career and used the support of St. Martin, to use V.’s phrase, against his enemies and opposition, including Frankish royalty. In essence, Gregory patronised and increased the importance of St. Martin and claimed through personal experience of miracles that St. Martin was supporting him. He then turned a predisposition toward belief in saints to his own benefit, with St. Martin as the focus of his propaganda and politics. Over time, the continued performance of miracles by St. Martin strengthened his value as a saint and consequently his value to Gregory, who nevertheless did not entirely abandon St. Julian. It is hardly surprising that the bishop took it upon himself to write of the lives and miracles of these two saints.

Chapter 3 (82-115: “Bodily Miracles”) is the most interesting part of the book, as V. attempts to come to grips with the ancient views of miracles and the modern interpretation of them. In general, he eschews the typical modern response to consider the illnesses cured either psychosomatic or a reflection of faulty diagnoses. Instead, he adopts an approach from anthropology, specifically a distinction between disease and illness, between cure and healing respectively (84). This allows him to focus on the attitudes of Gregory’s contemporaries, since he can ignore disease and concentrate on illness. Understandably, given a lack of sufficient data for statistical accuracy, V. discusses the miracles of St. Martin reported for Gregory’s entire twenty year career as bishop in a single group, with little regard to transitions over time (86). His first point on this theme is the fact that many ailments were regarded by the afflicted as the consequences of guilt about the commission of a sin. Healing was, of course, a relatively simple matter in such cases: absolution from sin could remove the guilt and thus the ailment. In such cases, the “holy medicine” offered by the saint might better be termed “holistic medicine.” Given the difficulties of travel in this period (see 116-117), it is possible, perhaps likely, that only individuals requiring absolution would seek the aid of a saint. And in any case, St. Martin was not always successful, as some examples cited in the next chapter indicate. A woman whose blindness was not cured was nevertheless overjoyed to have been at the saint’s shrine, and the ailments of at least two pilgrims disappeared while they were still on the journey to Tours (127). This offers a further solution to the historian: some afflictions were simply the aches and pains for which time was the best cure, too short a time in these two cases. Others were healed after a few days of vigil at St. Martin’s tomb; the absence of the stresses of daily life and the travel to Tours, in other words, the relaxation of a vacation, might be held responsible in these cases. In general, we do not know how often the saint failed his clients. Gregory includes the incidents mentioned above because they nevertheless add to St. Martin’s glory. He would not have included any spectacular or frequent failures; the evidence is thus slanted entirely in the saint’s favour. Nowhere does V. address this question fully, preferring to discuss principles of interpretation which might enable historians to understand the ancient mind. This is a necessary and useful approach, but he might have been less conservative here in his use of comparative studies, citing modern data and statistics on the efficiency of alternative medicine.

The second topic in this chapter is the relationship between illness and the power structure of the ancient community. Gregory maintained a rather belligerent stance toward other practitioners of medicine, of whatever type. Not unnaturally, he preferred reliance on St. Martin, since the power of the saint was so closely linked to his own authority. Thus bishops with saints as allies could oppose even the Frankish rulers. The saint was efficacious elsewhere too, since he protected women and slaves. V. discusses a number of instances where St. Martin used his healing power to dissolve marriages even of royalty, often through vows made after an illness, and slaves were sometimes set free when their masters had benefited from the saint. V. closes with a discussion of the impact of illness on theology, since Gregory equated heresy with illness, and resurrection of a healthy body in death requires a healthy body in life. The connection to the main theme of the chapter is somewhat tenuous, but the remarks are not without interest.

The final chapter of Part I addresses pilgrimages to Tours (116-149: “Pilgrimages and Miracle Stories”). Since Gregory mentions the origins of a reasonable percentage of the pilgrims, it quickly becomes clear that most pilgrims were from the regions around Tours itself or from that part of Gaul under Merovingian control and tended not to be of very low status. To some extent, political disputes affected even these religious pilgrimages; tourists from areas at odds with the rulers of Tours, even when these fell within the regions controlled by Gregory as the metropolitan bishop, were few in number. In essence, the cult of St. Martin remained even at its most popular somewhat of a local cult, centred on the church of St. Martin rather than the cathedral in Tours. On the other hand, various communities throughout Gaul had begun to claim that the saint had once visited their region and performed some miracle; shrines and other markers were often established in these areas. The stories of his activities we recollected by Gregory and included in his account of St. Martin’s life and miracles, which V., on the basis of Gregory’s vow to write of his hero, calls a “literary pilgrimage” (145). V. astutely points out (137) that the veracity of these stories can sometimes be doubted, since the bishop’s obvious interest in the saint may have induced his informants to retail a story of their own. A brief Epilogue (150-151) closes the first part of the book.

Part II offers the translations that represent one of the main goals of the book. The six texts include Fortunatus, The Miracles of St. Hilary, Gregory, The Suffering and Miracles of the Martyr Julian, and The Miracles of the Bishop St. Martin, two anonymous pieces, The Suffering of the Martyr St. Julian, and A Sermon in Praise of St. Martin, and a group of 18 poems by various hands composed for various sites dedicated to St. Martin. Each text is given a brief introduction, and some useful commentary and interpretation appears in the notes. Bibliographies of ancient sources and modern works, a map and the Index complete the volume.

V. begins his Epilogue with the following sentence: “Beliefs about saints and the miraculous healings associated with their cults provided late antique people with one means to think about themselves and their communities, to articulate some of the deepest emotions and concerns, and, perhaps, to come to terms both with their inner selves and with their roles in their communities.” The first part of the book presents a solid description of the different aspects of this thematic statement. The focus on Gregory and St. Martin enables V. to offer considerable detail in a book that is as interesting as it is informative. That V. includes the main texts on which his narrative is based only adds to the value of his work. However much one needs to be careful about drawing wider implications about saints and their miracles generally from a specific study, there can be no doubt that some can be drawn. V.’s work will thus provide the parameters of discussion for many future studies.