Saints, Cure-Seekers and Miraculous Healing
RUTH J. SALTER
Hello and welcome to the Herald! Before we begin may we pry and ask about the origins of your interest in medieval studies and how it shaped your career to date?
Hello, thank you for having me! Yes, of course you can pry into the origins of my interests in medieval studies!
I’ve always loved history. I was a ‘90s child so grew up on the Horrible Histories series, and History also was one of my favourite subjects at school. At school, I always enjoyed premodern history topics, and, when it came to taking A Levels, the only option for History at my chosen college was modern history. But, my college did offer A Levels in Ancient History and in Classical Civilisation so I took both, and I’m so glad I did. For my undergraduate degree, I wanted to keep some ancient history but to combine that with (slightly!) more recent history, so I did a degree in Classical and Medieval Studies. It was then that I was truly bitten by the medieval bug. I did an MRes in Medieval Studies and – surprise, surprise – my doctorate was also in medieval history. More specifically, my doctoral thesis focused on saints’ cults and miraculous healing.
Since completing my doctorate, I’ve been lecturing at the University of Reading where I’ve taught and convened some on some of our core, survey modules. I’ve also taught students (undergraduate and postgraduate) on saints and their cults, and medieval medicine and healthcare – the focus of my research interests.
What led you to the subject of miraculous healing?
I’ve got to credit one of my undergraduate modules for sparking my initial interest in the history of medicine. I took a module with Prof. Helen King on classical medicine, and it opened my eyes to this whole field of study especially the border between what we might think of as medicine and healing. What especially stuck me was the classical cult to Asclepius and the process of incubation (sleeping overnight at temples related to the god). This piqued my curiosity about medieval medicine and the role of faith in the search for a cure … Long story short, this curiosity led to my interest in high-medieval miracle accounts, their place within wider contemporary healthcare practices, and the experiences of cure-seekers (a term I’ve used for the individuals recorded in these sources who sought out the healing assistance of God and the saints).
And why did you choose to focus on the twelfth century in particular?
I’ve always found the High Middle Ages, and especially the long twelfth century, a fascinating period of time. There was just so much going on! From a healthcare and medical perspective, this was when the so-called ‘twelfth-century renaissance’ began the process of reintroducing classical and Arabic scientific and medical works into Western Europe. This is when we see the birth of the universities and the development of the medical profession. However, this was also a time when the Catholic Church was seeing a flourish of church building and, in England in particular, there was a boom in saints’ cults. The consequence of this is that the twelfth century provides an extraordinary social and cultural environment in which to consider the place of saints and the miraculous healing attributed to them within the wider scope of contemporary healthcare.
It’s a really fascinating subject, the intersection of saints’ cults, the faith of believers and the increasing popularity of medical texts. Please tell us something about the different medical texts that were circulating at the time.
This was a period when we see an increase in the production of hagiography [writings about the lives and posthumous miracles of the saints] – this was part of that ‘boom’ in saints’ cults I mentioned above). But, this was also an era in which the transmission and translation of medical texts were on the increase. Much of this scholarly interest in medicine came from learned churchmen (both clerical and monastic). In brief, ‘new’ medical writings (including the translations of ancient and Arabic medical texts by figures such as Constantine the African) found their way into Western Europe via the Mediterranean. Alongside this, schools and universities really began to develop and some of these had a real interest and focus on medical learning, such as at Salerno and Montpellier. The monasteries, however, also maintained a strong interest in the collecting and writing of various genres of material and we see large institutions, including those in England such as Bury St Edmunds and St Augustine’s in Canterbury, accumulating, conserving and producing medical works.
In terms of the types of medical texts that the circulating, there was quite a range. There were writings, such as those of the abovementioned Constantine the African, that included medical theories translated from Greek and Arabic into Latin. However, we must also consider books like herbals as part of contemporary medical and healthcare writings. Many of these medical works were written in Latin, which can be seen as indicative of the Church’s interest in understanding medical theories, but we do also find texts emerging in vernacular languages (such as Anglo Norman) that could possibly indicate wider readership of a learned, lay audience.
There was a healthcare culture of medical texts and practitioners, but also of saints and miraculous healing, did the two ever overlap?
Some miracle accounts do refer to earthly medicine and medical practitioners, but (as you might expect) they rarely are complimentary of other forms of healthcare! Hagiographies, and particularly posthumous miracles, often criticised doctors for prescribing treatments that were very costly and resulted in either no improvement or exacerbated the patient’s symptoms. This probably was the experience for some patients, but we must also acknowledge that this is a literary trope that we find in miracle accounts. Highlighting how doctors and earthly medicines were ineffective further elevated the saints and their brand of healthcare (or, more specifically, the miraculous powers of God that worked through the saints and their intercession).
Within what could be termed a ‘healthcare hierarchy’, God’s miraculous healing, brought about through the saints and their intercession on behalf of devotees, was understandably seen as the most powerful form of healing. However, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t competition from other earthly forms of healing or that cure-seekers might first turn their attention to these alternatives before requesting the assistance of the saints. Within the miracle accounts, doctors (medici in Latin) are the most often mentioned initial route for cure-seekers to have considered. We get few mentions of more simple attempts at healing, such as homemade cures, but the evidence indicates that doctors who would have had some formal training and (possibly) some academic learning, were seen as the greatest healthcare competition.
Your book focuses on seven collections of miraculous healing, but I imagine that there must have been many more to choose from. How did you settle on your seven?
Yes, I focus on seven case-study miracle collections in the book that relate to the cults of: Æbbe at Coldingham Priory; Æthelthryth at Ely Cathedral Priory; Dunstan at Canterbury Cathedral Priory; the apostle James the Greater at Reading Abbey; Modwenna at Burton Abbey; Swithun at Winchester Cathedral Priory; and William of Norwich at Norwich Cathedral Priory.
There were many twelfth-century miracle collections that I could have used for this book, but I wanted to focus on saints that held a predominantly localised appeal and whose twelfth-century miracle collections were on the shorter side. Why? Well, the local appeal of the saint as a patron and protector should not be overlooked, and, through looking at these collections, you can really start to picture the importance of ‘local saints for local people’. I wanted to use smaller collections so that I could really focus on the cure-seeking individuals that were recorded within the miracle accounts and on their experiences of the cure-seeking process that resulted in their miraculous cure. I wanted to be able to follow the journey of the cure-seekers in my seven chosen collections and progress with them through the journey from ill health to cure. In a strange way, I feel like I’ve got to know some of the individuals recorded within these collections (at least, as far as one can ever can know people who lived 800 years ago!).
And their subjects were all successful? Did they share a common route to their healing?
Success is key to being recorded within the miracle collections! Something that I’d love to know, but one of those things that I accept we will never get to the bottom of, is how many others came to the shrines but went away either without a cure or were healed away from a shrine and never reported this to shrine keepers. Our successful cure-seekers, whose accounts made it into these formally written up compilations, would have been the tip of the iceberg when it comes to thinking about interaction with the cults and petitioning the saints for their aid in bringing about healing miracles.
In terms of thinking about patterns and common routes of healing, there are two main patterns of cure-seeking that emerge from the miracle collections. The first of these, and the most frequent, begins with the afflicted individual travelling to the cult centre and requesting the aid of the saint at that place. On arrival, these cure-seekers petitioned their chosen saints for their intercessory aid and, more often than not, then spent time in prayer and vigil. After some time (although this varies in length), the cure was accomplished, and the successful cure-seeker gave thanks to God and to the saint before returning home. The second route began with the cure-seeker making a vow to visit the saint’s shrine (often while they are at home); on making the vow, the cure-seeker began to recover and they could then make their journey to the shrine having already been healed. The risk in the latter is that, if the cure-seeker did not make their promised pilgrimage to the cult centre, the saint would not be above enacting a punishment. In one example from the miracles of St James at Reading, an adolescent whose broken arm was miraculously healed suffered from a second broken arm after he failed to fulfil his vow to come to Reading. The second injury acted as a retributive reminder to him. He then came to Reading, fulfilling the original vow and giving thanks, as he had promised, and he was healed for a second time.
Were any saints or shrines more popular that others? Were different saints believed to heal different ailments?
This was something I wondered about when I began my research. Were any of these seven saints perceived to be specialists in any particular ailments, or were they popular with a particular cure-seeker clientele? The answer, at least in relation to these seven cults, is no; these were saintly figures who were seen to be on hand to support all cure-seekers with any ailments. What was important for these saints with a predominantly localised appeal was this sense of their universal accessibility and support. In this way, these cults very much mirror the variety of healing miracles performed by Christ in the Gospels (as do miracles recorded in hagiographical collections more broadly). That is not to say that some saints in the Middle Ages weren’t seen to be particularly attentive to certain conditions – a good example of this is Margaret of Antioch and her association with pregnancy and childbirth. However, our seven saints can be seen as having had an ‘everyman’ appeal as intercessors for a broad range of afflictions from paralysis and sensory impairments (such as blindness), to sickness and mending broken bones and swollen limbs. I think the fact that there was this belief in the saints’ abilities to help remedy such a wide range of afflictions, and that there weren’t boundaries put up as to who could access this form of healthcare, is very telling of twelfth-century attitudes to, and faith in, the saints.
How, if at all, had things changed by the end of the period you studied?
The collections that I focused on in this book date from c.1100 – c.1200, and we cannot ignore that this was a century where there was a great deal of change. I mentioned previously that the twelfth-century renaissance progressed the translation and transmission of medical texts, but this was also a period in which the Church was going through a golden age in terms of developing saints’ cults and building the great cathedrals. This was also a time when the papacy really started to push for a centralised, bureaucratic, process for the canonization of would-be saints. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, a number of these developments were coming into their own, and this naturally impacted upon saints’ cults and the healthcare climate of the time.
In terms of the saints’ cults themselves, and particularly our cults in England, we cannot overlook the events of 1170. Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral was followed by the rapid development of a cult around the martyred archbishop. This was a cult that not only attracted local devotees but rapidly became of national and even international importance. This had an impact on other saints’ cults in the later twelfth century too. Evidence of this can be found in three of the book’s case-studies (where the miracle collections were produced in the closing decades of the 1100s). The miracles of Æbbe at Coldingham, James at Reading, and William of Norwich all make references to cure-seekers who first sort Becket’s aid and who, when no cure was forthcoming, sought the assistance of our three saints instead. It would be wrong to say that the monks who wrote these three collections were disrespectful of Becket, but clearly it was important to promote the fact that their saint could do what Becket could not. In one account, interestingly, this rivalry very much seems to be a friendly one, as Becket himself is recorded as having appeared to our cure-seeker at Canterbury and told them that they needed to visit William at Norwich as it would be the latter who would assist them.
Of the many texts that you must have researched, do you have a favourite?
Oh, this is a tough question! I’ve always had a soft spot for Swithun and Winchester Cathedral, and I’ve also really enjoyed ‘getting to know’ Æbbe and Coldingham Priory (if you ever find yourself up in the Scottish Borders, I really recommend a visit to Coldingham and to St Abb’s Head).
In terms of the texts themselves, I’m not sure I could pick a favourite as an overall collection of miracles, but there are certain miracle accounts that I have come back to again and again. Possibly my favourite account within these seven collections is that of Ysembela, a girl cured by St James of her paralysis. Ysembela’s account is fairly lengthy and details many aspects of her experience of her affliction and her journey to miraculous healing. Because of this, it is perhaps no surprise that Ysembela appears multiple times in this book! (And anyone who’s heard me present a paper has quite probably heard me speaking about Ysembela then too!)
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?
The last year’s been odd, but I stayed well, thank you. I hope you, and all the readers of The Herald, are well too.Finishing the book during the first lockdown and then working on final edits and proofs during the second and third lockdowns was challenging, but it also gave me a form of escape, which I really appreciated. I must give a ‘shout out’ to the editorial teams at York Medieval Press and Boydell & Brewer, so many thanks to Caroline Palmer, Peregrine Horden, Linda Voigts and Pete Biller for your amazing support!
RUTH J. SALTER is a Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Reading.
Images: Saint James with Madame Marie and other pilgrims in the Livre d’images de Madame Marie, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, NAF 16251, fol. 66r.