The emergence of holy men and their ascetic lifestyle can be traced back to the end of the 3rd century. It was during this time that St. Antony emerged from the desert after a long period of isolation that included a number of bizarre penances and a continual fight against the demons that tempted him with thoughts of comfort and lascivious pleasures. St. Antony came to exemplify the solitary model of the ascetic life. The askesis gave Antony a spiritual and physical firmness that gave him the gift of teaching and the ability to heal the sick.
Through physical suffering and spiritual strengthening St. Antony had become an intermediary between God and the world. Many others followed St. Antony’s path and embraced the monastic and ascetic life. In death the relics and shrines of these saints became places of healing and centres of worship. The saint in life achieved saintly status by performing miracles and immense feats of physical and psychological endurance. The validity of such miracles is clearly open to debate, but in many ways this debate is irrelevant. It is clear that the peoples of the Mediterranean believed in these miracles.
In this essay it will be important to discuss the perceived as well as the actual virtues of the saint in life and in death. Saints and holy men were certainly perceived by contemporaries as doing good during their lifetimes. There are a number of common threads in the behaviour of these holy men. The healing of the sick and the exorcism are the most common miracles attributed to holy men. Theodore of Sykeon was a particularly notable exorcist. His biographer tells us how Theodore expelled the demons from possessed men and women and dispatched the demons into a previously dug excavation.
The biographer also tells us of a variety of rodents and reptiles being released from the mouths of these men and women after the exorcism. A more pragmatic approach to healing also seems to have been taken. Brown tells us that a holy man would often act as a triage nurse; deciding whether the sick should see a proper doctor, be given a placebo or be miraculously cured. Other, less personal miracles were also performed. For example, Symeon Stylite successfully ended a Syrian drought. By the 6th century we see holy men venturing into the temptation ridden city to perform their ministry.
We see in the example of St. Syemon of Emese an example of the holy fool. A holy man feigns madness to observe and reform the most despised members of society; prostitutes, Jews, heretics and even actors. This type of holy man can be seen to be performing a form of social work in their urban ministry. These holy men also provide the historian with an interesting and rare insight into the lives of the ordinary men and women of late antiquity. Mango balances these heroic accounts by pertinently lowering the importance of individual miracles.
He suggests that ame stemmed, not from historical character or activity, but from the prominence of the cult in death. He uses the example of St. Nicholas of Myra’s miracles whose character and fears became conflated with Nicholas of Sion. Miracles were exchanged between the two characters, and, after dissemination by the seaman at Myra, St Nicholas became one of the most familiar saints in iconographic repertory. Whilst the contemporary perception of miracles is important, we must be careful not to exaggerate the importance of saintly healing and exorcism in the Late-Antique world.
Brown complements Mango by suggesting that miracles were of secondary importance. Brown suggests that the miracles so often ascribed to saints were proof of their power. According the Brown the miracle is merely a pointer to the many other occasions when the holy man has used his position in society to positive effect. Using anecdotal evidence from the Syrian countryside Brown goes on to compare the role of the holy man to the role of the patron. As an outsider the holy man was in an ideal position to arbitrate and mediate between “increasingly free” members of the village.
The holy man, usually living outside of the village, refrained from integrating with the local village. Thus he fulfilled the need of all small communities to find a figure to resolve tensions and explosions of violence. Anthropological evidence suggests a natural reliance on strangers and outsiders to make unpopular or difficult decisions. Brown sees exorcism as the prime example of the holy man bringing out into the open pent up religion and anger. In his work Browns links the use of a holy man as a mediator with rural people’s desire for a communal identity.
If we are to believe Brown we see the holy man as beneficial to society in a more pastoral way. Indeed this argument can be extended into the more difficult conditions of urban life. Brown points to the need for objective mediators as a marked feature of late-antique world. He see Daniel the Stylite’s most important role as a stranger in a faction-ridden city. Daniel’s mastery of the peaceful protest during the usurpation of Basicilus and the blessing of a patrician lady’s son on the condition that it was called Zeno are just two examples of Daniel’s objectiveness aiding the resolution of disputes in Constantinople.
Yes, Daniel’s incredible feat of endurance is important, but it was the fruits of these endurance, respect and objectivity, which was of most value to late antique society. The revolution of holy men as he called it was not a result of an increasingly primitive religious society based on the infamous two-tier model, but an expression of the crisis of freedom that had beset the late Antique world. Whilst Brown’s work has had a great effect on our interpretation of the role of the saint in life we must now overestimate its importance.
His anecdotal evidence is as narrow as his geographical range and it is often dangerous to place too much emphasis on history based more on anthropology than on hard fact. Nevertheless Brown’s work is in important in moving the perception of saintly work away from dramatic healings and exorcism toward the more rational and consistent day-to-day work of patronage and objectivity. Saints after their death played an important role in late Antique life. We see the saint, via the example of Paulinius, as an extension to the self and as a source of inspiration, friendship and protection.
Paulinius says of Felix: “Felix, revered father, everlasting patron, Felix my nurse, Felix, dear friend of Christ”. By associating themselves with a saint people of the late Antique world, and especially ascetic men, tied themselves to a figure closely linked with God. In life these holy men, through their acts of mortification were close to God, but they were even closer after the grave. Relations with this invisible protector could take on human nuances. We see in the case of Maximus of Turin the reliability of saints in comparison to humans.
The wealthy landowners had fled Turin upon warnings of Barbarian invasion, but the local martyrs buried within the city walls remained. The physical presence of the holy, or praesentia as Brown calls it was extremely important. As in life the relics of saints were deemed extremely holy and used for healing purposes. Similarly pilgrimages to relic sites were made to ask for the saint’s favour. The saint, being after the grave in close proximity in God, was best placed to plead for the sinner’s forgiveness in front of God.
The distribution of relics also added accessibility to God. There was no need for pilgrimage sites such as Mecca if holiness could be found on the wide reaching network of relics. This network of relics added prestige and indeed power to relic sites. The shrine of Felix outside Nola in Gaul became a provincial centre, whilst the keeper of the shrine, Paulinius, rose from a humble ascetic to an imperial arbiter in the papal election of 419. Brown furthers the importance of the saint in death by emphasising its social importance.
The arrival of a relic he suggests was created an unusual sense of togetherness in a socially differentiated society. He cites the saint day in Rouen where Frankish counts as well as the lowliest in society joined together in celebration. This social element adds to the more traditional benefits. The discovery of St. Stephen’s body and the ensuing touch of divine mercy led Lucianus to exclaim: “And at that very hour, from the smell of that perfume, seventy three persons were healed”. In many ways the saint in death was more powerful than the saint in life.
The holy man and the saint were powerful in the eyes of the community at large due to his perceived proximity to God. Clearly this proximity was intensified after the grave. The saint in death was important for the people of the time by providing a psychological layer of protection, a further source of exorcism, a network of holiness and a source of prestige and social togetherness. To modern eyes the ascetic life is not necessarily good. What was achieved by the grazers who locked themselves in barns, or the stylites who lived on columns?
It is not always appropriate however to view the past through a modern lens. The people of the day clearly drew inspiration through the miraculous acts of saints in life and death. Other, less pious traits, such as objectivity stemming from isolation were clearly of benefit to society. The holy men and saints of the late Antique world may not have been the most productive members of society, but their effect, whether perceived or real, was extremely important to other members of society.
As Mango points out the difference between a dead saint and a saint in life is surprisingly narrow. The exploits of saints in life were often confused and conflated with other saints, and the cult of a saint was often more important than the origins of his holiness. Clearly saints in death were important, but a Brown shows it would be wrong to dismiss out of hand the role of saints in life. Thus it would be wrong to categorically state that the only good saints are dead saints.