[ELH] Dr Graham Jones, Recording medieval saints' cults

This and other images of saints from churches in East Anglia can be viewed on the pages of Dr Dave Postles, formerly Marc Fitch Fellow in the Centre for English Local History and now University Fellow in the DSchool of English, whose many acts of generosity I should like to acknowledge.

Also on this page, Venerating saints in the Middle Ages: Expected components of a typical cult

Sources of evidence for recording
cults in England

The most copious source of evidence for the dedications of churches and their internal devotional apparatus generally (side chapels/altars, images, lights, gilds etc.), is the mass of late medieval wills, occasionally published (for example by county record societies) and even more occasionally referred to, though not systematically, in certain volumes of certain VCH county histories, but in the main still waiting in record offices to be examined.

Other important sources for this class of evidence include bishops' registers, again occasionally published, chiefly by county societies; cartularies of monastic houses (ditto); other ancient deeds and charters; state papers (both administrative, such as the Inquisitions Post Mortem, and political, such as the correspondence of Thomas Cromwell's men in Letters and Papers of Henry VIII); and chantry certificates. This doesn't exhaust the list, however, and there is a guide to published material up to 1975 at least in Graves' Bibliography of British History to 1485, supplemented by Mullins' Texts and Calendars, the PRO guides and catalogues, and so on. Parochial records are also important: churchwardens' accounts are increasingly coming to light and being published, and often refer to devotional apparatus, feasts and processions, and relics.

We should not forget antiquarian materials, such as the (mainly) eighteenth-century county histories, and occasional diocesan surveys such as that by Richard Parsons of Gloucester in the 1680s, nor indeed the documentary and topographic recordings of Dugdale (e.g. Monasticon Anglicanum). Eschew the eighteenth-century versions of the Liber Regis unless forced to employ them as a surrogate source in the absence of any other evidence in respect of a particular church, as one would trade directories and the listings of Frances Arnold-Forster, Studies in Church Dedications, 3 vols., 1899, where there is no footnote to confirm that the source was medieval. But we certainly ought to take seriously what Leland and Worcester recorded.

Ecclesiastical records also include, for occasional references to names of churches, the 1291 Taxation of Pope Nicholas. There must also be a mass of relevant papal documentation unexamined: some papal correspondence has been published, of course. The latter includes pre-Conquest material: which prompts a mention of Anglo-Saxon sources - in particular the large quantity of charters associated with monastic houses, and AS wills/writs.

Non-documentary ecclesiastical evidence includes statuary (patron saints over the main entrance, on the west face of west towers, etc.); wall- and screen-panel paintings (surveys of wall-paintings by Keyser and Tristram, soon to be supplemented by Gill for the fifteenth century), and stained glass, for which now see particularly the volumes of the Corpus Vitrearum, in both cases taking care to distinguish the devotional from the merely decorative; the occasional inscription, including not only dedication notices but also the christenings of bells (for which see the relevant county volumes); and last but not least, shrines where they survive.

Turning away from the church and its precincts, attention has to be paid to some important secular (and in certain cases 'popular') classes of evidence. The days on which fairs were licensed (chiefly found in the Calendar of Charter Rolls) rarely fails to reveal something about the pattern of locally-observed cults. Parish feast days are also important in this respect, but need to be handled with care where post-calendrical reform evidence is being used. It is possible that the choice of particular saints' feast days as the due accounting dates for annual payments and settlement of debts, may reflect on occasion a sense of regional identity: St Botolph's and St Margaret's days feature as such in Lincolnshire charters of the twelfth century, for example.

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 devotional apparatus. The county volumes of the English Place-Names Society form the chief source of material here, though a comprehensive examination would require a systematic examination of the Tithe Maps and estate records/terriers. More accessible are 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 putative heads of early religious communities. The same applies to another crucial class of evidence, namely the ascriptions of so-called 'holy' wells. All well names in a locality need to be examined, 'holy' or otherwise, using both the EPNS volumes and large-scale Ordnance Survey and other maps. Some counties have been surveyed by scholars, for example that of Oxfordshire in Oxoniensia (1990) and of Leicestershire in the Leicestershire Historical and Archaeological Society's Transactions, both by James Rattue. Some surveys need to be assessed critically before their evidence is used. A final onomastic category of evidence is the frequent appearance of much-venerated saints' names in baptismal records, required to be kept by incumbents from the 1530s but surviving only patchily for that century.

For many of these classes of evidence, a trawl through the indices of the various county record and historical societies' publications can produce a surprising number of leads. Attention to local lore, if carefully handled, can also pay dividends.

As for the routes by which cults were diffused, these include, at a local and district level, the dedications of daughter churches and distribution of relics, so that the relationships between churches need to be kept under review. What was the extent of early parochia? Did pensionary relationships survive long enough to show up in late medieval ecclesiastical records? On a broader canvas, who were the eleventh-century tenants-in-chief, mainly recorded in Domesday, which also includes the occasional mention of the dedication of a church; and a century later, to what monastic houses might their churches have been given? Where a saint's relics have been the subject of translation, where did they originate, and under what likely circumstances? (Sources of evidence include the Resting-Places of the English Saints, and the various monastic chronicles.) Then there is the evidence for the hierarchies of healing places and the extents of their hinterlands, showing up in analysis of miracle registers kept at shrines, pilgrim routes, and the possesssion of relics.

For a fuller treatment of these themes, see my Cults and Culture: A New Approach to the Study of Religious Dedications (London, Scolar Press, forthcoming).

Venerating saints in the Middle Ages:

Expected components of a typical saint's cult in the Middle Ages

Physical presence and perceived effect
Reported miracles
Corporeal relics
Secondary (contact) relics

Celebration of the saint and the saint's doings
Recognition of sanctity
by acclamation (by 'the people' or a community)
or by episcopal/pontifical endorsement (canonisation)
Feast day(s) (as entered in kalendars)
Liturgical commemoration, including
- supplication in litanies
- collects, lections (readings) and hymns on the feast day(s)
- sermons
Life story (hagiography), often with recognised (imitated) motifs
Iconography, including
saint's attributes (artefactual symbols of martyrdom or efficacy)
Songs and perhaps dances
Drama (including 'miracle' plays)

Engagement and enacted supplication
Attendance at shrine (often stimulated by translation(s) of the body
Pilgrimage (especially sacrificial)
Processions (of images, relics, banners). See my page on St Magi and photos of the procession of St Blaise at Maratea in Italy.
Physical contact
Burial near the saint
Tertiary relics (such as a saint's cell)
Miraculous images (including icons)
Offerings (ex-votos, candles, bequests, etc)
Souvenirs (domestic statues, badges, etc)
Perceived efficacy for particular
conditions - intentions - patronage

Further commemoration in the church, the wider world and society at large
Association with landscape features and
other aspects of natural world, e.g. wells and flora
Dedications in the saint's honour, particularly of
religious buildings - altars - and other devotional foci
Establishment of gilds and confraternities
Fairs held at times of saint's festival(s)
Baptismal naming patterns
Communal festivities / Calendar customs
Pseudo-history (appropriation of the saint to group identity)

George, but no dragon - an example of iconographic representation which appears unusual to Western eyes. The saint on horseback accompanying the apostles, paired, and two abbots. From a fifteenth-century Ethiopian diptych (Piotr O. Scholz, ed.)(1992), Orbis Aethiopicus (Albstadt, Karl Schuler Publishing), p. 361

Also on this page

Sources for recording saints' cults in medieval England.

[Leicester University] [*] [Back] Towards an atlas and database of saints' cults
Last updated: 31 March 2000 20:05
Dr G.R. Jones

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