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The Commemoration of Saints at Late Medieval York Minster

The Commemoration of Saints at Late Medieval York Minster

By Fenna Visser

Master’s Thesis, Universiteit Utrecht, 2008

Introduction: Saints played an important role in late medieval English society. In order to comprehend the way they functioned in everyday life it is necessary to understand the way people from the Middle Ages viewed reality. The medieval way of looking at everyday events was very different from our modern outlook. In her book Miracles and the Medieval Mind Benedicta Ward argues that while we tend to ask the question how things happen, during the Middle Ages the main question was why they happened. This can be seen, as Ward writes, in ‘the number and diversity of events regarded as in some way miraculous.’ Basically it can be said that during the Middle Ages people tended to interpret many things as God wielding his power on earth, either through signs or through miracles. Signa would usually be natural phenomena like a thunderstorm, and these would often be interpreted as indications of God’s discontent or as warnings of bad or good things to come. Mira on the other hand were events like a miraculous healing or a vision of a saint; supernatural interference in the ordinary course of things. The general opinion was that miracles were an integral aspect of everyday life, rather than singular events. They provided a connection between earth and heaven, and saints played an important role in this. They were considered to be intermediaries between man and God, pleading causes for the problems and needs of the people who turned to them for help.  After their death saints would be able to perform miracles as well as when they were alive. In the medieval notion of life after death the dead were not cut off from the world of the living. This notion is based on the theological concept of the communio sanctorum. Thomas Heffernan describes this concept as:

…a mystical union of the faithful on earth, the suffering in purgatory, and the saints in heaven into one spiritual body with Christ as its head. 

This concept is in turn based on a biblical passage from 1 Corinthians 12: 12-27, in which the apostle Paul compares the community of Christians to one single body with different members that are mutually interdependent. The notion of the community of the living and the dead lead to the idea that people could pray for the deceased in order to shorten the time they had to spend in purgatory, while the dead on the other hand could try to put in a good word for their relatives on earth. These notions will be discussed more elaborately in chapter four. However, another notion during the Middle Ages was that no-one would be allowed to enter the kingdom of heaven immediately after their death, except for the people who were free of sins: the saints. The fact that they were this close to God and Christ meant that they could direct divine powers at the people venerating and calling upon them. This is why there was much concern for the veneration and remembrance of the saints during the Middle Ages. Because of this important role the saints played, their commemoration is an important subject to study. The accounts of their lives, the way they are remembered in liturgical celebrations, the way their legends are depicted on works of art are all important parts of the commemoration of saints during the later Middle Ages. Studying them can therefore provide us with an insight into a significant aspect of medieval society.

The aim of this thesis will be to study the commemoration of saints in the later Middle Ages, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, in a multidisciplinary perspective. In order to do so within the scope of a research master thesis, the subject has been narrowed down to the case studies of three saints who were commemorated at York Minster. The main questions that I will attempt to answer here are:

In what way are hagiographic texts, the liturgical commemoration of saints and the depiction of saints lives on the late medieval stained glass windows of York Minster related, how did they influence each other, and what role does the community of York Minster play in this?

Click here to read this thesis from Universiteit Utrecht

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