Book Review: Debating the Saints’ Cult in the Age of Gregory the Great (Matthew Dal Santo)—By Rebecca Browett

Matthew Dal Santo. Debating the Saints’ Cults in the Age of Gregory the Great. Oxford Studies in Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 416 pages (HB, e-book available). £79.00. ISBN: 9780199646791.

Adapting his PhD thesis into an impressive monograph, Matthew Dal Santo’s Debating the Saints’ Cults in the Age of Gregory the Great presents a reinterpretation of Gregory’s Dialogues on the Miracles of the Italian Fathers as an apology for the cult of the saints in early Byzantine Italy. Reviewing the rising significance of the cult of the saints between 300 and 700 AD he goes against the ‘triumphalist’ model of the role of the Christian saints in this period and builds on the work of Gilbert Dagron, arguing that there was a scepticism and doubt concerning saints’ cults and their miracles that simmered in the minds of the late antique populace. Dal Santo purports that Gregory’s Dialogues must be considered in this context, and was a work justifying and defending the cult of the saints.

The study is split into four chapters, excluding the introduction and conclusion. In the introduction Dal Santo introduces the reader to the scepticism that surrounded the cult of the saints and their miracles in the fifth and sixth centuries, which sprouted from a revival of Aristotelian psychology. The very nature of saints’ post mortem miracles and intercession was in conflict with the Old Testament’s doctrine of Sheol, and the soul’s supposed inactivity after death before the resurrection, which lead to tension in late antique intellectual circles.

The first chapter focuses on the second of Gregory’s Dialogues, on the Life of St Benedict, arguing that it was a gloss defending the relationship between God and the saints to circumvent and appease fears and anxieties in the minds of intellectuals. The doubts and scepticism were vast and varied: from whether worshipping the saints was idolatry, to wondering if their miracles were actually performed by God or angels. Dal Santo convincingly argues that the second dialogue was written to debate the nature and miracles of the saints’ cults: containing accounts of Miracle stories, each is a refutation against the contemporary anxieties surrounding the cult of the saints. In his own words, the Dialogues are “a careful exploration of the nature and operation of the saints’ miracles and implicitly of the legitimacy of the saints’ cults themselves” in a culture of fierce debate within the elite circles of the church (28). The standard question and answer rhetoric was employed so that Gregory could specifically answer all the questions raised by doubters and rationalists. Using the Dialogues in conjunction with Eustratius’ On the State of Souls after Death, Dal Santo credibly asserts that there were objections to the saints’ cults, stretching from Rome to Constantinople, which were then debunked in both works.

Chapter Two argues that Gregory’s fourth dialogue was an intense discussion on the nature of the soul and its post mortem state and activity. Dal Santo places Gregory’s fourth dialogue firmly in the context of an on-going contemporary debate surrounding the soul and afterlife that was present in the East Roman world and Constantinople, proven by the fact the same fears were expressed in Eustratius’ text. Gregory and Eustratius’ works were rebuttals against the rationalists who questioned the activity and existence of the soul after death. Demonstrating the soul’s invisible continuation beyond death, Gregory then placed the cult of the saints into this theological framework, cementing their irrefutable reality and conformity with Christian doctrine. After death, the saints’ souls were instantly received into heaven: their miracles demonstrated their immediate glorification and activity after death. However, this lead to an eschatological problem: if the saints were judged immediately post mortem and accepted into heaven, what happened to the souls of the rest of the dead? Dal Santo persuasively argues that the increasing amount of literature written from the end of the sixth century onwards, pertaining to the state of the soul after death, was directly linked to the scepticism of the saints and their miracles that began in the fifth. The Church leaders wanted to present a logical thesis on the state of the soul after death, but before the Last Judgement, in order to explain and incorporate the world of the saints and saintly intervention.

The third chapter is an analysis of an impressive representative selection of Greek hagiographical and miracle collections from the later sixth to the early seventh centuries, originating from Constantinople or other Eastern areas, demonstrating that the same issues and themes in Gregory and Eustratius’ works were present throughout early Byzantium. Dal Santo establishes that the anxiety and doubts concerning the nature of the saints and their post-mortem miracles were ever-present in the hagiographical works, and this was a reflection of the debate that framed the East Roman world in this period. Taking the reader through each hagiographical work, Dal Santo tackles the debate thematically, discussing each doubt the hagiographers wanted to dispel and providing examples of rhetorical devices and stories from the texts. His succinct analysis demonstrates that accounts of scepticism towards the saints’ post-mortem miracles was a typical topoi or rhetoric employed by hagiographers, as the saint would then demolish them by performing an array of miracles. The hagiographers’ aim was to highlight common doubts and then nullify them, verifying the reality of miracles and the saints’ personal intervention. Consequently the scepticism surrounding the saints helped to shape their nature and created the opportunity for hagiographers to impose an authoritarian discourse. The chapter cements Dal Santo’s central thesis that Gregory and Eustratius’ works were responses to doubts and scepticism which were common in this period.

The final chapter is perhaps the most impressive. Shifting the parameters of the study far beyond what the book title may suggest, Dal Santo probes the emerging hagiology of the East Syrian Church.  He discusses how and why the Eastern Church came to and promulgated a completely different view of the afterlife: the doctrine of ‘soul sleep’ that included the post-mortem ­inactivity of the soul before Resurrection. Tying the chapter in with his thesis, he convincingly asserts that there was a prolonged debate concerning the human soul and its relationship with the body and afterlife that took place in the region spanning the Eastern Mediterranean world and the Near East between the end of the sixth and start of the ninth centuries. Whilst the Western Church eventually went against the Aristotelian view of the relationship between the body and soul, the Church of the East responded to the debate conversely and continued the inherited Judaeo tradition, thus creating their own doctrine. Dal Santo discusses how this was reconciled with the cult of the saints and the liturgical commemoration of the dead, both of which were shared with the Western Church, even though they held such different eschatological doctrines. He then tentatively suggests that the rise of Islam could be tied to the increasing ideological value placed on the cult of the saints in the Church of the East from the end of the sixth century.

Dal Santo concludes his book on the incorporation of the saints’ cults at the imperial court at the end of the sixth century as a legitimizing authority, and reviews the previous chapters and his thesis, ending on the compelling discussion of seventh-century Islam being a critique of patristic Christianity.

Dal Santo pieces together a compendium of literature into a coherent model of exchanges of ideas. He primarily deals with written evidence but also displays an awareness of the material culture surrounding the discussion: at one point in chapter one he touches upon the development of shrines and the ad corpus sanctity therein. His command of language is impressive: placing the discussion in English, he jumps from primary sources in Greek and Latin, to secondary sources in Italian and French.

Dal Santo’s presents a fantastic discussion, not only for researchers on the cult of the saints and the Byzantine world, but for historians looking into the development of Christian doctrine. Due to its specialised nature it is probably more suited for post-graduates, but sections could be informative for more advanced undergraduates. His dialogue on the development of the different types of ‘purging fire’; katharsis, for the post-mortem judgement throughout the Eastern Mediterranean world, is especially compelling.

Historiographically it is easy to see Peter Brown’s influence (whose work Dal Santo himself admits his admiration for) throughout the book. The intellectual debates of Rome and Byzantine Italy are throughout placed into the broader Mediterranean world, viewing them in relation to developments in Constantinople and the Greek world, and the Near East. As Dal Santo succinctly states, nothing ‘is produced in a vacuum, but stands, almost inevitably, in an implicit dialogue with other literary products from its own immediate historical past and present…’ (151-2) and this view is evident throughout the work, when he consistently resituates Gregory’s work into the wider Byzantine world.


Rebecca Browett is a second year PhD student at the Institute of Historical Research in London, researching the development of the cult of St Aethelwold.

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