Saints

A Very Short Introduction

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Simon Yarrow
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2018.
     168 pages.
     $11.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780199676514.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Simon Yarrow’s Saints: A Very Short Introduction offers, as the Oxford series promises, a concise and readable overview of saints in the Christian tradition (a particular focus that might have been more accurately reflected in the book’s rather general title). Technically and theologically concise definitions of saints as the virtuous dead who abide in the company of God belie sanctity’s complicated history and its perennial entanglements with politics, procedure, and differentials of power. For Yarrow, “[t]here is an unavoidable paradox in the study of saints” (4). Indexed at once to heaven as much as to earth, to God as much as to society, to mystery as much as to the mundane, saints are found “wherever the lives of the faithful are thought to converge with the presence of God” (5).

Over the course of nine historically and thematically organized chapters, Yarrow leads his readers through the highlights of sainthood’s history over the long arc of the Christian tradition. To readers familiar with the historiography of sanctity, Yarrow’s schematization of the evolution of the saint: from apostle to martyr to ascetic to confessor will ring true enough. So, too, will Yarrow’s discussion of the ways in which saints and their relics were deployed (of potential interest for New Materialists!) as agents whose presence could support or defend claims to political authority in the Christian Middle Ages. With laudable attention to the ways in which sanctity played out differently in the Byzantine Empire, Yarrow tells a story of increasing centralization of control over the cult of the saints in the European West—from the Carolingian period through the Gregorian reforms and up to the Council of Trent. Along the way, Yarrow introduces his readers to key figures and terms that dot the landscape of Christian sanctity. He includes brief paragraphs on Saint Antony, Theresa of Avila, the iconoclastic controversy, mendicant saints, pilgrimage, and the Bollandists. The trouble is—and perhaps this is a problem endemic to the mandate of the Very Short Introductions—Yarrow’s treatment of figures and terms like these only skim the surface of sanctity’s history and leaves the reader (at best) wanting more or (at worst) wanting something different. 

The second half of the book takes up major themes in the study of saints and sanctity. Here, in chapters entitled “Gendering the Saints” and “Globalizing Sanctity,” Yarrow considers the difference broad constructs like sex, culture, and colonialism made to the history of sainthood across the centuries. In the chapter on gender, Yarrow examines virginity, widowhood, and abandonment of familial responsibilities as key themes in the lives of female saints. The chapter on global sanctity addresses the subject within the disparate contexts of colonialism in the Americas and Africa, bringing to bear many interesting local examples of syncretic sanctity in non-European contexts, from Our Lady of Guadalupe, to Kateri Tekakwitha, to Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita. Yarrow’s attention to sex, culture, and the colonial context drive him toward the well-substantiated conclusion that “sanctity was always a political craft as well as a personal vocation” (80). 

Following chapters on the Virgin Mary and the hagiographic genre (both of which engage the driving theme of paradox), Yarrow returns to the historical narrative, picking up the threads of the story where he left them in the early modern period. Here in this final chapter, as throughout the book as a whole, Yarrow nuances this easy-listening story of sanctity’s progression over historical time with his persistent reminder of counternarratives—contests over the meanings of martyrdom in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, for instance, or the religious commitments of many of the Enlightenment’s most celebrated thinkers. Despite the tendency toward rationalization and secularism wrought by the Enlightenment, Yarrow argues, sanctity lingers as a presence in the modern world. Against the historiographical tradition that would narrate the modern period as one of religious decline, Yarrow maintains that saints continue to appeal to the imaginations of the faithful. Saint Genevieve, after all, survived her own death during the French Revolution, saved by Parisians who restored her cult against the intentions of civic officials. Sainthood, Yarrow suggests at the end of the book, is forever, for beneath its historical vagaries lies the persistent human impulse to imagine “heroic virtue as a means to explore the deeper humanity underlying customary perceptions of difference” (130).

Although this reviewer was frustrated at times by the book’s superficial treatment of figures and themes that beg for richer, critical analyses, Yarrow is to be commended for his capable execution of an undoubtedly monumental task. For the non-specialist, this book offers a helpful orientation to the broader field of sanctity in the Christian tradition. One can certainly imagine its utility in the undergraduate classroom. Paired, perhaps, with an accessible primary source text like Joan of Arc’s trial transcript, Yarrow’s Saints would provide the essential solid grounding for a richly contextualized discussion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Dunn is Associate Professor of Theological Studies at St. Louis University.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Simon Yarrow was Past and Present Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, London, and worked at St. Mary's University College, Birkbeck College, and the University of Liverpool, before taking up a Lectureship at the University of Birmingham in 2004. From 2011-13 he spent two years as Visiting Fellow at the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute. He is the author of Saints and Their Communities: Miracle Stories in Twelfth Century England (OUP, 2006).

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