Oldfield, Paul. Sanctity and Pilgrimage in Medieval Southern Italy, 1000-1200

Oldfield, Paul. Sanctity and Pilgrimage in Medieval Southern Italy, 1000-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. xvi, 310. $99.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9781107000285 (hardback).
Reviewed by: Valerie Ramseyer, Wellesley College
In The Medieval Review

Paul Oldfield’s book provides a comprehensive overview of the hagiographical sources related to southern Italy and Sicily from 1000 to 1200, as well as a detailed outline of the main features of sanctity and pilgrimage in the region. Drawing on a large body of primary and secondary sources, the author traces some of the important changes that occurred in the region with the arrival of the Normans, the development of papal and local programs of church reform, and the establishment of the crusader states in the Holy Land. One of the author’s main theses is that newly emerging political powers in the region, including Norman rulers, reform bishops and abbots, and urban communities, used cults of saints as a means to promote and legitimize their power.

The book begins with an introduction to the political and religious history of the region, including the Norman conquest, the creation of new ecclesiastical and secular lordships, the receipt of papal reform in the area, the ethnic and religious diversity characteristic of the region, and the increasingly Latin-Christian outlook of the population. Next, the book examines sanctity in the early Middle Ages, in particular the series of hagiographical sources related to Greek eremitical monk-saints. It also discusses the relics and saints found in the urban centers of pre-Norman Italy, including the episcopal saint Barbatus in Benevento, various local cults in Naples, and the translation of the body of the apostle Matthew to Salerno in 954. The section ends with a brief examination of Montecassino, the famous shrine of St. Michael the Archangel on Monte Gargano, and the martyrs and episcopal saints venerated in early medieval Sicily.

Turning to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the author traces the rise of new cults, both indigenous and imported, as well as the reemergence of some older, local saints. Although Norman leaders in some texts from the eleventh century appear as enemies of local saints, by the 1050s and 1060s their image was being rehabilitated due to their patronage of churches and shrines in the region. Also at this time, local bishops revived and, in some cases, invented new cults in order to help them rebuild and reorganize their dioceses. The hagiography related to these saints became a means by which the prelates promoted their reform ideas. In some cases, bishops « rediscovered » episcopal saints of questionable historicity from the paleo-Christian era.

Also at this time new Latin monastic saints appeared who continued older traditions found in the hagiographies of the early medieval Greek eremitical saints while at the same time reflecting new trends, such as the growing popularity of Benedictine monasticism. Thus saints such as John of Matera and William of Montevergine lived as anchorites yet founded important Benedictine monasteries in the region, and later hagiographical sources on these saints tended to fit them into more traditional Benedictine frameworks. Urban populations in southern Italy at the time began to promote patron saints, such as St. Matthew in Salerno and St. Nicholas in Bari, using these cults to articulate their emerging political power and civic identities, similar to what was happening in cities in other parts of Europe.

Turning to Greek saints and « East-West » relations in the Norman-Swabian era, the author stresses the importance of southern Italy as a place of transmission of both Greek knowledge and eastern spirituality. He uses hagiography, and specifically the furta sacra of three Byzantine saints–Nicholas, Agatha, and the apostle Andrew–as illustrative of relations between southern Italy and Byzantium. The authors of all three accounts exhibit both sympathy and respect for the Byzantine empire, while at the same time depicting the empire as fragile and weak. The author also notes that the popularity of eastern saints in the region did not diminish at this time, and that Latins continued to venerate Greek saints, and vice versa. Thus despite growing hostility between Rome and Constantinople, relations between Greeks and Latins in frontier regions such as southern Italy remained cordial. The author also notes how Greek hagiographical sources often do not specify whether a person was Latin or Greek, due partly to the fact that most of these sources survive only as later Latin translations which revised and perhaps excluded information found in the original Greek texts. However, equally important was the socio-cultural fluidity of the region that meant Greeks and Latins were not always easy to distinguish from one another.

In Sicily, the Norman conquest led to the revival and invention of new cults as part of the Christianization of the island, and the reorganization and reestablishment of ecclesiastical networks. The author points out how such a project had to be carried out in the context of religious pluralism and interfaith tensions. He believes that such an environment meant that the island saw the promotion of fewer new saints in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in comparison to the mainland, and that religious leaders perhaps engaged in a more conservative use of Sicily’s sacred past in order to avoid conflict in the island’s multifaith communities. Similarly the author suggests that the religious diversity of the island made the kings based in Palermo reluctant to promote any single national or patron saint in their capital city, although perhaps the Byzantine idea that the king’s power came directly from God meant there was no room for saintly intermediaries in the city. Turning to the cult of St. Agatha, the author sees the saint’s revival as a way both to integrate Sicily into Latin Christendom and to assert Catania’s superiority over other cities on the island. Crusaders who traveled through Sicily on their way to the Holy Land visited Agatha’s shrine and spread her cult outside of Sicily.

The second part of the book is devoted to pilgrimage in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the increasing popularity of long-distance travel to shrines. Southern Italy’s central location in the Mediterranean made it a convenient transit point en route to both Rome and Jerusalem. In addition, southern Italy’s reputation as a liminal and hazardous region made it an attractive destination for penitential pilgrims. As a consequence, local shrines began to attract pilgrims from foreign lands, and inhabitants built hospitals, inns, bridges, and religious houses to cater to the growing pilgrim traffic, while rulers issued laws to protect the pilgrims. Yet despite the appearance of pilgrims traveling from far-off places, most pilgrimage activity in southern Italy remained local, with pilgrims rarely traveling further than forty kilometers to visit a shrine.

The increased pilgrim traffic characteristic of the eleventh and twelfth centuries led to a burst of promotional activity surrounding both new and revived saints, including the production of hagiographical texts and the construction of new churches to house the relics. The author stresses the localized nature of this activity, pointing out how textual evidence reflects the unique needs, ambitions, and circumstances of each shrine. For example, the sources produced at Montecassino focused on the position and protection of the monastery and its patrimony, the spiritual qualities of the abbey’s monks, and the enforcement of discipline within the monastic community. The miracles of St. Agatha of Catania centered on establishing the saint’s presence in the city and promoting Catania’s religious and political preeminence in the region. Texts related to urban saints sought to engender a sense of civic and communal identity.

In his conclusion, the author emphasizes that, although sanctity in southern Italy was linked to the distant past, it should not be seen as conservative or static. Old cults were renewed and reconfigured to serve the needs of a changing world. New episcopal saints played an important role in the reorganization of dioceses and the emergence of new forms of spirituality spreading throughout Latin Christendom. Urban saints were central to the development of new civic and communal identities in cities. The author also sees sanctity as a source of syncretism for Greek and Latin, and as a way to bind communities located far away from one another, both in terms of distance and culture. Overall, sanctity in southern Italy offered the opportunity to develop positive interrelationships between the past and present, between distant territories, and between members of different religious faiths.

Paul Oldfield’s book brings together a wealth of information related to saints, shrines, and pilgrimage in southern Italy, based on an extensive reading of primary and secondary sources. By including both Sicily and the mainland, and both Greek and Latin forms of Christianity, the book offers an overview and synthesis of many topics that have tended to be studied regionally. This book will be a starting point for any student or scholar interested in sanctity and pilgrimage in southern Italy and Sicily, and will add to our growing knowledge of religious life and practices in the so-called « frontier » regions of Europe.


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