Certain Sainthood

Canonization and the Origins of Papal Infallibility in the Medieval Church

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Donald S. Prudlo
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , December
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Certain Sainthood focuses on the expansion of papal authority in the Middle Ages during the Gregorian reform. Well-written and persuasively argued, Donald S. Prudlo asserts that papal infallibility developed organically during this period in tandem with papal canonizations. Both infallibility and canonization developed from common beliefs and practices in reaction to heresies, and were bolstered by academic arguments. Prudlo shows how the predominance of mendicant saints during this period forced a defense of specific canonizations and the authority of the Pope to have canonized them. He does not, however, examine them in isolation. Rather, he contextualizes the issue within social and cultural realities, including the perspective of the people, heretical movements that opposed the canonizations, and mendicant orders which strove to defend the papal prerogative for canonizations.

The introduction lays the groundwork, offering a brief examination of the various understandings of infallibility as well as a short history of canonizations. While other books exist which examine the development of papal canonizations, Prudlo’s approach remains unique in that it includes an examination of how canonizations and saintly veneration were lived in general and how both general laity and heretics reacted to the development of papal canonizations. Prudlo is not arguing that his interpretation is definitive. Rather, he is positing that studies of the subject should examine the “interrelationship between lived religion and intellectual history” (5).

Certain Sainthood examines a two hundred year period from 1150 to 1350. It proceeds through a study of the roots of the canonization privilege and all that it entailed. Social context and heretical movements are then examined, as well as the coincidence of canonizations and heretics. Prudlo then examines the idea of mendicant holiness and the conflict between mendicants and heretics before analyzing the various articulations and discussions on papal infallibility from this period, including those from both Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas. The book concludes with the laity’s response and a summary of earlier chapters in the conclusion. While the laity seeking to have their local saint on the universal calendar would request the process for papal canonizations, they objected to saints being imposed on the universal Church that they had no connection or devotion to, and they also took issue with the Church’s rejection of particular cults.

Prudlo engages with previous scholars of the topic, oftentimes critiquing their work. He acknowledges Eric Kemp to be useful but critiques him on a few fronts. First, Prudlo criticizes Kemp for only offering a cursory examination of the development of canonizations after the Decretals of 1234, which, for Prudlo, “are axial.” Prudlo decries Kemp’s anachronistic references to “the late medieval-early modern distinction between beatification and canonization in the late 1100’s or early 1200’s,” as well as Kemp’s mistake of isolating infallibility in canonization “within legal and theological discussions while missing the broad social and political realities that gave birth to that doctrine” (18). The concern was the canonization of those who should not have been canonized. 

Prudlo is also critical of Brien Tierney’s interpretation in The Origins of Papal Infallibility (Brill, 1972, rev. 1988). He believes Tierney to be “overly fixated on the poverty controversies” to the detriment of a proper consideration of the true origin of infallibility within the debate on papal canonizations, which were “a response to events on the ground” (175). Prudlo is highly critical of Tierney’s claim that neither Bonaventure nor Aquinas had a doctrine of papal infallibility. He goes so far as to state that “Tierney is flatly incorrect here” (129). He does not entirely disagree with him and later states in speaking of the Augustinian friar Augustinus Triumphus’s work on the papacy that “Tierney is quite right” (171).

Prudlo shows that the centralization of the canonization process was not invented in order to centralize, but was a natural outgrowth of the Gregorian reforms. “The reformers merely refined and enhanced already existing procedures” (23). There was a gradual awareness that “papal canonization is superior to local, spontaneous, episcopal, or conciliar canonization” (32). Local saints were only revered in particular locales, while saints canonized by the Pope were worshipped in the universal Church.

Saints were canonized, such as Francis and Dominic, because of their efforts against heretics. Their sanctity and their identities could then be used against the heretics. Many heretics criticized the canonization and/or the excessive (in their view) veneration of these saints. Treating the rejection of a canonized saint as heresy by the beginning of the 14th century, the Inquisition would at times only ask what one thought of a particular saint before declaring the defendant a heretic. Peter of Verona, killed by Cathars and canonized in 1253, was one such antiheretical saint. This book offers something to medieval historians, with it’s analysis of an under examined part of medieval history that showcases the growing power of the Roman Church, as well as to theologians, with it’s study of how the centralization of the canonization process was a vehicle for the development of the doctrine of infallibility.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marie Nuar is Adjunct Professor of Introduction to Islam and Judasim and Vatican II at the Catholic Distance University.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of History at Jacksonville State University. He is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (†1252) and editor of The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies.



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