Thursday, November 14, 2013

Robert Bartlett's "Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?"

Robert Bartlett is the Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Mediaeval History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a fellow of the British Academy. His books include The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225, and The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages. He has also written and presented documentaries on the Middle Ages for BBC television.

Bartlett applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, and reported the following:
I am particularly pleased to be dealing with page 99 of my book, since it contains one of the most pithy — if also one of the most derisive — descriptions of its subject: ‘“What’s a saint?” ask the devils in Cardinal Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius, and answer with glee, “A bundle of bones, which fools adore.”’ Well, the book certainly does not assume that only fools adore saints, but it does start from the assumption that a saint is indeed “a bundle of bones”. The title of the book is a question asked by the great Christian thinker, St. Augustine, as he pondered the miracles worked by the saints. For hundreds of years, and in some places to this day, Christians revered the physical remains of the holy dead. As p. 99 puts it, ‘The corpse was a source not of pollution but of supernatural power. When Elizabeth of Thuringia’s body was laid out after her death in 1231, crowds assembled and cut away portions not only of her clothing, but also of her hair, her nails, even her nipples, which “they preserved for themselves as relics”.’ The book attempts to make sense of these beliefs and this behaviour.
Learn more about Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? at the Princeton University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages.

--Marshal Zeringue