The Saints

A Short History

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Simon Yarrow
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2016.
     176 pages.
     $16.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198784388.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Saints consistently fascinate the religious imagination although, as Simon Yarrow shows in The Saints: A Short History, what constitutes holiness and what claim those possessing it have on believers has consistently changed over the course of Christian history. Much of the literature on sainthood has traditionally consisted on the individual or collected lives of saints; this book is not that. Instead, Yarrow provides a broad history-of-religions-inflected view of holy persons and their veneration in Christian practice.

The introduction frames the book as investigating the interplay between “a ‘magnetic north’ that points towards the divine, and a ‘true north’ allocated to [the saints] by human beings” (7). This is a truly interesting claim, and one that deserves more engagement than it receives in the book. How do the “immediate emotional, intellectual, and institutional needs of the faithful” that constitute the “true north” relate to the “magnetic north” of the divine?

After three chapters, progressing through the history of the saints up through the early modern period—“Inventing the Saints,” “Saints in the Middle Ages,” and “Early Modern Sainthood”—follows a chapter on sainthood and gender and one on the prototypical female saint: the Blessed Virgin Mary. Then a chapter follows on hagiography, one on sainthood in the colonial and post-colonial eras, and then finally a chapter on “Sainthood in the Modern World.” This outline occasionally feels somewhat disjointed, melding as it does historical and topical elements. But Yarrow’s choices for examples are illuminating, and his writing balances specificity and breadth-of-attention well.

As an introduction to the history of Christian engagement with holy persons, this book achieves its goal. It is very readable, does good—if broad—history, and raises many of the important questions about what defines sanctity, how it is written about, and how the cult of the saints both shapes and is shaped by the cultures in which it is practiced. Readers looking for a theology of the saints will be disappointed, but this is not what the book promises.

The saints and their commemoration are rich sources for understanding the fides et mores of different Christian groups, and this book provides a strong introduction to the beginner who wants to understand this history. More attention to the interaction between the “needs of the faithful” expressed in particular times and places and their understandings of the divine would have been appreciated, and would have helped the reader learn to see the connections between careful institutional, cultural history, and a history of theology.

Yarrow’s initial insight that the saints and their cults exist at precisely this crossroads is important. He returns to the idea in an afterward that sketches some of these connections among a few of the contemporary saints. It left this reader wishing for a deeper engagement with these insights—perhaps too much to ask of “A Short History.” This text a good primer that will hopefully spur students to deliberate what studying the lives and the veneration of these holy ones might contribute to our understanding of the divine.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jakob Karl Rinderkencht is director of the Pastoral Institute at the University of the Incarnate World.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Simon Yarrow graduated from the University of Newcastle in 1994 with a First in History. After staying on to take an MA, Simon moved to St Cross College, Oxford, where he completed his PhD under the supervision of Professor Henry Mayr-Harting in 1999. Since then, he has been Past and Present Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, London, and worked at St Mary's University College, Strawberry Hill, Birkbeck College, London, and the University of Liverpool before taking up a Lectureship at the University of Birmingham in 2004. He has published several articles and is the author of Saints and their Communities: Miracles Stories in Twelfth-Century England (OUP, 2006).

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