How a saint’s cult gets started

When as medievalists we are told by our sources about a saint’s cult, it is most often of all via hagiography, a written Life of the saint that explains his or her lifelong holiness and authenticates it by means of miracles, especially by miracles after death, since these tell you that the person in question has gone to Heaven (because God does not hear the prayers of the damned). Such an account is still part of the required apparatus for recognition of saints by the Catholic Church now, I believe, but it’s also reckoned to have been a vital part of a cult site’s own propaganda. We don’t often catch the cult before that point, when the propaganda hasn’t really got started and everyone’s only just cottoning on that something special may be happening here. But there is such an episode in the charters of St-Pierre de Beaulieu, with which I was finishing in April 2014 when I stubbed this post. Let me introduce you to the Blessed Rainer.

Apses and chapels of St-Pierre de Beaulieu en Limousin

Let’s have a different picture of St-Pierre from the normal one… By MOSSOT (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Rainer’s cult doesn’t seem to have stuck, but a man called Remi wanted it to and at some point in the reign of King Lothar III (954-967) he gave Beaulieu a manse in Oriols (in Davazac in the Limousin) for the benefit of his own soul and someone called Robert, and:

“in honour of the blessed Rainer who was provost of the selfsame place already said, and because of this, that the selfsame man showed his great virtue to all who were there present, when a crippled adolescent who had been brought to his tomb, through the great felicity of his intercession, quickly came running before the altar of Saint Peter; and this great miracle was produced on the feast of Saint Martial.”1

This is almost all we get on Rainer; one other charter from 968 refers to a church or altar of St-Rainer that had already received some of the testator’s land in a place called Flexo in Puy d’Arnac, right by the monastery, so perhaps he was moved out into his own chapel, and that’s the last notice as far as I know (not that I have gone looking).2 Even here there are some interesting questions, though. Why didn’t the monks keep him, if he was already a focus of popular devotion? (Presumably one doesn’t dump one’s invalids in front of a nobody’s tomb when there’s an altar of St Peter nearby…) Why is it on the feast of Saint Martial (who was culted not here but at the local diocesan of Limoges) that all this occurred? It may be that, since this was a monastic church, people simply couldn’t access it except on feast days, of course, and the house’s ties to its bishops were usually pretty good early on so an open house for Beaulieu on St Martial’s in recognition of that is not implausible.

View down the nave towards the altar of St-Pierre de Beaulieu en Limousin

A view down the nave to that same (well, not *the* same, but a similarly-positioned) altar of St Peter. By MOSSOT (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Still, one would expect Peter to make a better showing here. Was he just too big and universal to petition? Beaulieu did have other saints present, though: at various points in its charters it claims additional dedication to all of Felix, Felicitas, Felician, Denis, Martin, Benoît and Eloy, so you’d think that one of them at least meant something to the visitors. I wonder if that wasn’t perhaps precisely the problem: they had all this holy weight stored up and it was one of their provosts who attracted the popular attention. Was he getting out and doing good works and making the rest of them look bad? (Another Cuthbert?) We can’t know, of course, but today is as good a day as any to take notice of one medieval man who was thought a bit more remarkable than most by those who remembered him.

1. Maximin Deloche (ed.), Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu (en Limousin) (Paris 1869), doc. no. LXX:
“in honore B. Rainerii qui de ipso loco jam dicto præpositus fuit, et propter hoc quia ipse virtutem magnam omnibus qui aderamus ostendit, adolescens etiam qui deportatus ad ejus tumulum contractus fuit, ipsius intercessione cum magna felicitate, ante altare S. Petri currendo festinus pervenit; et illud magnum miraculum ostensum fuit in festivitate S. Martialis.”

2. Ibid. doc. no. CIX.

5 responses to “How a saint’s cult gets started

  1. This Rainer looks to me like a Gerald of Aurillac without Cluny…
    On the miracle on St Martial’s day, I bet it was because that was the main cult of the chuch; probably Rainer was (or was suppoused to be) a loyal believer of this (big) saint.

  2. St Martial’s day is directly after the feast of Sts Peter and Paul at the end of June, so liturgically there’s a very close connection indeed with both the diocesan saint, and the local patron. The identification of significant days in the post-mortem career of a new saint often seems to be highly significant — in this case I find it hard to believe it would be anything but a conscious attempt to hitch the new institutional saint to the major patronal feast, exploiting a day that was already primed as liturgically significant in the wider region. There are plenty of examples of local saints whose cults didn’t flourish: I think it’s a salutary reminder that even though cults served the interests of particular communities, those same communities couldn’t entirely engineer their success by wishful thinking alone. If a newly promoted saint didn’t attract veneration and patronage from outside the community at some point, it’s hard to believe that much energy would be put into maintaining the cult.

    • The feast day conjunction is helpful, thankyou, I should have checked that myself. That would be a big time in the calendar for St-Pierre then, and one of the things I ought to do with this as with all my corpora is spreadsheet them in such a way as to make peak transaction dates more obvious. The main reason that I haven’t done this hitherto, however, is precisely that they are not obvious; I made a first sally with Sant Joan de Ripoll, because their big hearing over the Vall de Sant Joan seemed to have been misdated away from the Feast of St John the Baptist, and it was obviously more sensible for them to do it then. What I found was that that was the only document in their pre-1000 corpus dated to that Feast day! Vic clusters in February, July and December somewhat, it seems to me, but not on particular dates. Particular weeks still might be significant, though. ANYWAY. What interests me about this cult is yes, its failure, but also the fact that it seems to have been deliberately moved out of the main abbey church. That could be precisely because it was popular, thus diverting the ‘masses’ away from the monastic sanctum, but it could also be an attempt to get rid of an embarrassment, I feel. I’m just not sure why I feel that latter should be a thing!

  3. Pingback: Europe’s History Map

  4. Pingback: All Saints Day, 2014

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