Scholars in a range of disciplines from across Europe and the United States are converging on the University of Leicester this week to discuss one of the most ambitious and comprehensive religious surveys ever undertaken.
They are planning a detailed parish-by-parish historical record of religious devotion in order to compile a trans-national database of saints' cults.
And they will use the latest computer technology to create an atlas of saints and their faithful followers throughout Europe.
Dr Graham Jones, of the world-famous Department of English Local History, University of Leicester, where work on the project has already begun, said:
"It is important that a project of this magnitude is undertaken because the patterns of religious devotion in the past tell us a lot about who we are and what we think today.
"The more that religious belief becomes alien to our societies, the more difficult it will be to make those connections. Yet we all benefit from understanding what makes us different, and what makes us the same. Just look at Bosnia, and now Kosovo - and then Northern Ireland.
"It's the right time for this project. Events like the death of Princess Diana force our own society to reassess our attitudes to life and death. At the same time, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are free to explore religion for the first time in three generations - interest is simply exploding.
"What we expect to find is that peoples in Europe have been far more united in their ways of thinking than many people assume. At one level they conducted local wars under a local saint's banner, but far more important at all levels of society was the devotions they shared to saints who meant the same to people right across Britain and the Continent.
"This project gives us a superb chance to get at one important aspect of what we mean when we talk about a common European culture. People in the UK whose ancestors asked a particular saint to help them back to health, say, may be surprised to find that the same help was being asked of the same saint, using the same words, in villages in Spain or Germany or Romania."
Scholars at this week's meeting will hear papers about how the project would be tackled, from Iceland to Spain, and from Finland to Egypt. "Egypt represents those Mediterranean springboards from which Christianity reached Europe, and the debt owed by western churches is only now fully being explored," said Dr Jones.
"In England, evidence of a cult of saints would include not only the dedications of churches but also those of chapels, altars, images, feast- and fair-days, place-names, landscape features, etc. All items would be dated, located, and carry unique identifiers.
"The database records would be mapped using Geographical Information Systems, and accompanied by an interdisciplinary commentary on the resulting spatial, temporal and thematic patterns."
Dr Jones added that the trans-national project would need to be on a modest scale at first - say five institutions in different zones of Europe - before expanding to include other countries.
Dr Jones said there was a wealth of evidence of religious cults in England - including Leicestershire. Late medieval wills provided copious material about personal devotion, and reference to bishops' registers was also useful. Other sources included stained glass windows, ecclesiastical records, statues and paintings.
"Records of fairs are also helpful and identities of locally-culted saints sometimes survive in street-names, and more often in field-names, especially where rent has been devoted to the maintenance of particular saints' devotions.
"The names of settlements, and in this regard all occasions of place-names which include Old English personal names, need to be watched in case they preserve the identities of local saints, for example men and women who may have been heads of early religious communities.
"The same applies to another crucial class of evidence, the ascriptions of so-called 'holy' wells. All well names in a locality need to be examined, 'holy' or otherwise."
The international Colloquium is taking place in the English Local History Department from Friday July 9 to Sunday July 11. It will include visits to sites in Leicestershire, including the Jewry Wall and Guildhall, as well as county villages.
Dr Graham Jones, Leverhulme Special Research Fellow, University of Leicester Tel: +44 (0)116-252-2765 (direct) 252-2762 (department and voicemail) 252-5769 (fax) e-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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