Even a quick glance at medieval history will reveal that there are a lot of saints from the Middle Ages. How many are there? The short answer is that we don’t know exactly and that the number is still growing.
In his book Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, Robert Bartlett spends a few pages examining the question and notes that several historians have tried to supply an answer. The largest project to list all the saints is the Bibliotheca Sanctorum, which produced over 12 volumes of the books in the 1960s. They found over 22,000 saints from both the Roman Catholic and Eastern churches, but this covers all periods.
“It would be a laborious task to calculate how many of these are pre-Reformation,” Bartlett writes, “but the average per century is 1,000 so, if saints should happen to be distributed evenly in time, there would be 15,000 from the early Christian and medieval period.”
In 1978 Jane Tibberts Schulenburg attempted to count the saints from the Bibliotheca Sanctorum for the period 500-1200, and came up with the figure 2,680. However, her list omits the later medieval period, and she also excludes saints from Ireland, the Iberian peninsula, and those “whose existence appeared to be highly improbable or undatable.”
Seven years later another historian took a look at the numbers. David Herlihy used a different set of records – Bibliotheca hagiographica latina – which was created to list all the hagiographical writings in Latin from the beginning of Christianity to the end of the Middle Ages. His total was 3,276 saints, but one must keep in mind this lists only saints mentioned in Latin literary works.
Meanwhile, Michael Goodich tried a more narrow chronological focus in his book Vita Perfecta: The Ideal of Sainthood in the Thirteenth Century. He used another set of sources, the Acta Sanctorum, to determine how many saints come from that century – those “whose immediate post-mortem veneration is attested to by at least two contemporary or nearly contemporary sources.” Goodich found 518 saints.
Yet, another way of calculating saints is to look for those who had an official canonization process from the Papacy. This process probably only began in 993, although it may have been used as early as the year 804. Going by this list, we can find that between the years 1198 to 1431 there were 71 new saints created.
These different calculations reveal that it would be very challenging to come up with any exact figure. Bartlett writes:
The difficulties that arise in counting saints, sometimes from the simple problem of inadequacies in the surviving sources, but also from the very conceptualization of sanctity, as in the case of people who are regarded as saints in one place or time but not in another, become acute when considering the distribution of male and female saints in the Middle Ages. Particularly awkward is the question of how one is to weigh the significance of different saints, for while there is no doubt at all that most saints, either canonized or non-canonized, were male, the most popular and indeed ubiquitous saint was female – the Virgin Mary. Medieval Christendom generated far fewer female saints than male saints, but revered one saint at a level far beyond any male saint.
Bartlett also notes some interesting patterns that emerge when one looks at the numbers of medieval saints when split into various periods. Based on Herlihy’s figures, there are 925 saints from the early Christian period (the years 1 to 313). The period following the end of the Roman Empire (years 476 to 750) would see another 866 saints, but following this the number of new saints went into decline. From the year 751 to 999, there were just 248 saints. During the High Middle Ages the average number of new saints being created increased a little, but in the period from the Black Death to the end of the Middle Ages (1348 to 1500) only 87 new saints could be discovered by Herlihy.
Barlett suggests a few reasons why we see more new saints being created in the Early Middle Ages compared to the Later Middle Ages – perhaps later on people didn’t need new saints, since their spiritual needs were being fulfilled by the older ones like the Virgin Mary. Christians could have also been spending more time with other devotional practices, such as focusing on the Bible.
However, Barlett notes something else that must be considered:
the problem with any system of counting based on the date of the saint’s life is that this fails to show the rise of old saints to new importance, or their decline in importance. St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, who was an important saint in the eastern Church from early days, only rose to prominence in the West in the later Middle Ages. Simply categorizing her as “first century” obscures this important fact. The real life of saints, as saints, is when their cult is active, not when they themselves trod the earth. For example, the Anglo-Saxon abbess Æbbe of Coldingham lived in the seventh century and details of her life are reported in several trustworthy contemporary sources. There is no hint in this material that she was regarded as a saint. After her death, there is a silence of some 400 years. Then, basing themselves largely on the information from those early sources, the monks of Coldingham concocted a cult for her. She is, in any meaningful sense, a saint of the twelfth century (and subsequent centuries), not a saint of the seventh.
One last thing to consider when calculating the number of medieval saints is that they are still being added. The current pontiff, Pope Francis I, has canonized four people from the Middle Ages – Amato Ronconi, a 13th-century Franciscan; Angela of Foligno, an Italian mystic who died in 1309; Antonio Primaldo, who was said to have been killed by the Ottoman Turks when the Italian city of Otranto was captured during a siege in 1480 (the historical accuracy of his own martyrdom and that of 813 companions is in doubt), and most recently Margaret of Castello, a 14th-century Dominican. One can expect that more medieval saints will be added in the future.
Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, by Robert Bartlett, was published by Princeton University Press in 2013. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com
Top Image: Medieval saints in British Library MS Additional 16997 f. 137