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Brown versus modern scholarship
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.