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47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2006
Peter Brown investigates the rise and function of the Christian "cult of saints" in late antiquity between the third and sixth centuries A.D. (1). In each chapter, he demonstrates a comprehensive framework of explaining how the cult of saints became prominent. He offers an original and alternative perspective that counters modern scholarship. He focuses on cemeteries, shrines, and relics, which embody the cult of the saints. He provides comprehensive explanations for the function of these powerful elements, which had a profound effect on the spread and growth of Christianity in the late Roman world. Chapter 1 is essentially a diatribe towards modern scholarship and the "armchair anthropology" that helped shape Enlightenment thought (13). He argues that modern scholars have inherited traditional attitudes that lack the sensitivity to understand the cultural contexts, which led to the cult of the saints' rise and expansion. He takes particular issue with the categories "true religion" and the "vulgar" which David Hume is famous for initiating (16). In addition, Brown offers an alternative to the "two-tiered" model offered by modern scholarship (17). The two-tiered model assumes that historically, changes arising in late antiquity were a grass-roots phenomenon. In this sense, the cult of the saints lies in the category of "popular religion" or vulgar religion, and that its rise is due to the capitulation of the enlightened Christian elites (18). Brown vehemently disagrees, arguing in the following chapters, that it is the exact opposite, which occurs during this time-period.

In chapter 2, Brown argues that originally the tension over saint worship became a debate over the "privatization of the holy" arising not between the masses and the elite, rather the elites and the clergy (34). Early church leaders Augustine and Vigilantus worried that "loyalties to the holy dead" disrupted the ideal community and could cause a "neglect of the local church" (32). Bishops, like Ambrose of Milan, began playing the part and seizing more power during this conflict. Burial practices, shrines, and the remains of the saints became tools compiled by the elites and ecclesiastics. The rise of the cult of saints was purposeful and deliberate. In other words, the saints and the procedures involved with saint reverence would provide identification for the Christian community. The clergy used the graves of the martyrs to "buy off envy" assuaging the gap between the masses and the elites. Shrines and cemeteries also provided a new definition and strengthening of the urban Christian community by including women and the poor. They offered a sort of escape for the marginalized. This would further support Brown's claim that the cult's rise is an elitist construction appeasing the masses. The "democratization of culture" in late antiquity is democratization from the top (48).

In chapter 3, Brown posits that Augustine used the cult of martyrs to invert the traditional hierarchy of the universe. They could bind fellow men closer to God because martyrs were more authentic than angels were. The need for patronage also offered a "perpetual hope of amnesty" in regards to sin and the last judgment (65). In chapter 4, the "relic" became a new therapeutic tool helping in the inevitable negotiation with death (78). The relic's removal from the cluttered grave and direct association with physical death heightened the "imaginative dialectic" which was the notion that the saints were still alive in Heaven and on Earth (79). This helped perpetuate the immortality motif essential for Christianity's growth. In chapter 5, Brown notes that originally, the holy was available in one place. If one lived outside the proximity of a shrine, a pilgrimage was the only means to experience the holy. Church leaders were innovative when enacting the notion that if relics could travel then those believers that were not in the proximity of shrines or cemeteries could experience "praesentia" or the physical presence of the holy (88). Another function the cult of saints provided was "concord and the unsullied exercise of power" (93). The saint's praesentia offered protection and prestige for the individual and power over evil. In chapter 6, Brown notes that the late-antique shrine was also a place for an exorcism, demonstrating the "potentia" or ideal power of the saint through God (107). The saint's power shows the ability to change the "social status" of the healed recipient (113). The healed could either keep their status or become property of the "invisible lord" or saint from whose shrine they were healed (113).

The Cult of the Saints does not read like modern scholarship, and I believe this is Brown's intention. There is no introduction or conclusion, Brown just begins pouring information out from the beginning to the end. This gives the book a rather authentic appeal insinuating that Brown has no agenda other than deriding the analytical methods of modern scholarship. Brown, however, is guilty of doing this himself in some cases. He uses terms like "therapy of distance" when discussing pilgrimages in chapter five (87). In addition, he refers to exorcism as a "psychodrama" and posits that exorcisms were alternatives to the traditional penal system aiming for the reintegration of individuals back into the community (111). This, however, in no way takes away from the scope of Brown original arguments presented in this erudite work.

Damon Neely
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2003
This monograph has become the classic work on the cult of the saints, and is part of Peter Brown's monumental contribution to the study of early Christianity.
Brown takes on the complex phenomenon of the cult of the saints, countering the prevalent view, expoused by no less a thinker than David Hume, that the cult of the saints was merely a folk continuation of a pagan world view.
Indeed, just the opposite was true. The cult of the saints dramatically reversed the pagan view of the universe. In pagan thought, heaven and earth were distinctly separate, but now through the cult heaven and earth were linked by the physical presence of saints and their relics on earth. Rather than being a supersition of commoners, the cult was developed and perpetuated by the most educated and cultured elites of the church.
Brown shows that the cult was not "medieval." Indeed it developed from the classical values that permeated the late antique world. Saints become "spiritual friends," reflecting the warm sense amicitia that was so cherished Roman elites, and saints were said to be "patrons," who could intermediate before God in the same fashion that a patron would mediate for a client before a Roman official.
Brown paints a vivid picture of early Christian piety, a world filled with genuine emotion and profound spirituality.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Dr. Brown's classic lectures on the source of the cult of the saints is an anthropological more than theological study of those sources. In the first lecture Dr. Brown demolishes the 'two-tiered' popular historical model that assumes a vast difference between the educated Christian elite and less educated members of the faith. He finds that the cult of the saints did not arise from the undereducated and superstitious as has been theorized by modern post-enlightenment biased historians. Indeed, there is evidence that the cult arose from the very elite with which the modern historian so quickly identifies. In this, Dr. Brown has done a great service to identify our tendency to project our modern bias in historical thought.

But, while Dr. Brown identifies modern bias he may hold some of his own. He consistently refers to the rise of the cult in the 4th century as so many have asserted in the past. But such an assertion ignores how fully developed the cult had already become from such early 2nd century writings as the martyrdom of Polycarp or the martyrdom of Perpetua. Dr. Brown talks little about the early development of the cult focused on martyrs of the early centuries. And, he makes no mention of some of the roots in Jewish traditions. Assuming a 4th century explosion of the cult on Christendom loses much of the continuity of earlier centuries and leaves us grasping for the theological mindset that could apparently create the cult as a theological reality from nothing. By focusing so much on the anthropological roots, Dr. Brown loses the continuity of the theological roots. His myopic approach to history results in many of the same historical biases he rightly decries. Because of this one-sided approach, his anthropological arguments are very interesting but not as enlightening as they might have been.

There are two other works that are a bit more rounded with the theological continuity that balances Dr. Brown's work. The reader would do well to pick up a copy of 'Let us die that we may live': Greek homilies on Christian Martyrs from Asia Minor, Palestine and Syria c.350-c.450 AD or The Cult of the Saints (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press Popular Patristics) for homilies through the 4th century that provide inside evidence of the cult of the saints. In these works we find the early development of the cult and the continuity of its theological roots.

Dr. Brown gives us some interesting insight into the anthropological roots of the cult of the saints. But, in the end, the reader will want to round their understanding more with other works to truly understand the phenomena. Still, a worth-while work with some interesting insight that counters much of the popular historical bias.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The Cult of the Saints is a scholarly look into how the saints, who were after all only human, came to occupy such exalted places in the minds of Catholics. The entire Christian world, it must be remembered, was nothing but Catholic for centuries. Peter Browns series of essays shows how, far from being a pagan holdover, the use of saints as mediators between earth and heaven became so popular and so accepted.

This is not a book to breeze through; rather, it requires careful, line by line reading. Recommended for readers who have the patience necessary to glean understanding from this scholarly material.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2007
In the Cult of Saints, readers are offered a fascinating glimpse into the religious and cultural life of Late Antique and early Medieval civilization. Peter Brown's narrative is gripping and his expositions on the topics he addresses are learned, informative and lively. Now some of the main points of interest will be his discussions on the (1) affinities and differences between Pagan and Christian views on death, burial and the afterlife. For instance, he does a fine job isolating the pagan concepts of guardian spirits, or daemons [=genius, Latin], from the developing cultus linked to deceased Christian holy men and martyrs. Also, Brown brilliantly (2) explains the foundation and formation of the Cult of Saints--its genesis at the humble graves of the holy dead to its maturation and rise to prominence in the Church, in civic life and in the daily lives of believing men and women. Other valuable aspects of this work are: (3) Brown's survey on the significance and power of relics and (4) the interesting insight he sheds upon the development of saints as patrons, protectors, healers and as invisible agents that exorcise demons. Perhaps the most notable feature of this work is this--that such was the importance and power of the cult of saints in late and post-classic life that the tombs, shrines and relics of sainted men became the meeting ground for Heaven and Earth.
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23 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2000
Peter Brown's book on the Cult of Saints has become a classic work on the formation of the cult of saints in Late Antiquity/Early Medieval Europe. Meticulously researched (as always with Peter Brown), this is essential reading for anyone interested in the cult of saints. It is highly recommended for all students of Medieval history and religion. Though dense and scholarly, this is a worthy read for anyone interested in the topic.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This review is for the original edition of THE CULT OF THE SAINTS, copyrighted 1981.

Author Peter Brown may be most familiar through his recent book Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, but that only capped a long list of other works concentrating on Late Antiquity and the rise of Christianity. In his chosen niche, he is perhaps the preeminent scholar writing today; his biography of Augustine of Hippo is seminal, and both works of his that I have read (The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 and CULT OF THE SAINTS) are marked by original interpretations that often differ greatly from conventional wisdom.

In THE CULT OF THE SAINTS, Prof. Brown disputes the previously held view of how and why the cult of the saints began and endured: rather than a holdover from pagan times, and grudgingly condoned by the elites of the early church, the author argues that the ideas and functions related to the saints were important to all hierarchies of the church, and were natural outgrowths of a society that was rapidly changing due to the breakdown of the empire in the West. To do so, he takes a closer look at some of the evidence upon which those earlier assumptions were based, and refutes their conclusiveness: for example, from the writings of Augustine, it was believed that around the time of Constantine, there were 'mass conversions' which brought many bodies--and their old beliefs--into the church. Prof. Brown looks a little deeper for evidence of these conversions, and finds little. So the idea that great unwashed masses were flooding churches with pagan beliefs--which the educated then subtly coopted into a more palatable structure--may have been only a bit of early Christian propaganda. Instead, it was more likely the early Christians themselves, reacting to changes in their world, who developed internally the cult surrounding human intercessors.

THE CULT OF THE SAINTS is derived from a series of six lectures that the author gave at the University of Chicago's School of Divinity in 1978. As the chapters progress, Prof. Brown goes beyond simply postulating on how the cult of the saints began, and examines what the saints and their relics meant to the common person of the fourth through sixth centuries. So along with a credible origin story of the cult, there is also an examination of burial practices, the personal relationship of the saints to the people, the presentation of the relics, and the reputed power of the intercessors. What makes Prof. Brown's contributions valuable to me is how he emphasizes the common people's beliefs and ideas--he doesn't reach his conclusions based solely on sensationalistic events or well-publicized political struggles, but often from far more mundane sources. It is the grassroots beliefs of the peasant and the catechumen as well as the leaders of the church--which are derived directly from their everyday lives--which provide a logical, step-by-step backstory to the plate tectonic shifts that affected the Church during this time.

This seems structurally sound to me, and he used the same techniques in the other book I've read of his, yet for some reason I found THE CULT OF THE SAINTS to more difficult than THE WORLD OF LATE ANTIQUITY; I suspect the problem is me, and that the topics in the general survey simply held my interest more than this rather specific niche area. I do, however, feel as though there were times when the thread of the narrative was unnecessarily circuitous. Not impenetrable, but certainly more elaborate than I thought it needed to be.

Still, for any faults it may have, if this subject holds any appeal at all, then this is an easy choice. Although my experience with this time period is not extensive, Prof. Brown's treatment is far beyond any other that I've read. Rather than a superficial or popular approach, this is exhaustive scholarship. Recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2014
Peter Brown's style is exquisite. He has imbibed the ethos of the late-antique nobility he writes about. There are (from our perspective) gains and losses as the invisible patrons (the saints) supplant visible ones. And while the loss of "horizontal" power in paganism is replaced with vertical authority, we ought to be broad-minded enough to see the gains as well as the losses there. Reconciliation between eternally warring strata of society is a real accomplishment, and is somewhat achieved through the cult of the saints. Not to be missed is Brown's description of demon-possession. Again, we carry our prejudices with us if we think that one labelled as possessed is thereby ostracized or oppressed. The very opposite is the case.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2011
I have to admit, I haven't finished the book yet so I could not give it the full 5 stars. I used it for a research paper I wrote on the topic - I read into the 5th chapter. As a student, I rarely have time to read anything outside of coursework.

As an outsider to the history behind the Catholic Cult of the Saints, I found (what I read from) Brown's book to be very knowledgeable in the historical aspects. It is a great introductory book for anyone beginning to dig deeper into his faith's history. Brown's style of writing keeps one focused (unless you're reading at 1 in the morning) and intrigued throughout his writing. The worst part about it is probably the untranslated Latin but that was only because I didn't have a computer to translate for me while reading it.

Brown proves to be a great authority on retrieving an ancient tradition for the modern world. I will definitely have to finish this book before I return to school for the Spring semester.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2014
Peter Brown is the foremost historian in the world for late antiquity. Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP, who actually studied under Peter Brown, is the foremost authority for the early medieval period. So if you are interested in either of those time periods, you should look into either of these historians. This is a great read for anyone interested in learning about the saints and their history with the Church and society.
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