Saints: Holy People of the Middle Ages


There are Christian saints (sancti), Jewish saints (hasidim) and Muslim saints (awliya’ Allah–Friends of God). Sainthood in Biblical religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is not a simple matter of leading a “good life” of going to church, synagogue or mosque regularly, praying a lot and doing good works. While they have some differences in how they are defined, saints in all three religions share one major characteristic: they are closer to God than other people. They share a temporal characteristic as well: though saints from earlier and later eras are recognized, the Middle Ages were the golden age of saints in the Biblical tradition for Christianity and Islam. Even Judaism recognizes medieval saints.

How these religions define a “saint” is where they differ.

All three agree on the legitimacy of martyrs (the subject of this article) and theologians for sainthood and all acknowledge their holiness. Even Protestants, who condemn the Roman Catholic Cult of Saints, have their own martyrs, such as William Tyndale, whose English translation of the Bible was later made into the King James Version now so famous.

They all also agree that saints have no actual power in and of themselves–their ability to work miracles come from God and they are conduits of God’s power. This power continued to work through the bodies of saints after death; hence the popularity of the graves of saints as shrines in all three religions.

All three religions agree that saints follow a path of holiness established by an earlier age. Jewish saints try to follow the Mosaic law of the Pentateuch (first five books) in the Torah, from which the Christian Old Testament is derived. Christians generally follow the example of Christ, but also the “apostolic life” of Christ’s twelve apostles and many disciples. Muslims follow the example of Muhammad and his “umma” (community–ie. family and friends). Some Shi’ite mystics even see Muhammad as the Perfect Man. Other Muslims see this ideal as a little too close to the concept of Christ’s divinity in Christian thought. Similarly, while the Christian Church encourages the emulation of Christ, it decidedly frowns on as heretical anything that involves claims of radical reform of current Church practice and Jewish authorities condemn anyone who claims to be a new prophet or even the prophesied Messiah of the Old Testament.

Jewish and Muslim saints are much more informally established than Christian saints through simple popularity, though there are both local and international Jewish and Muslim saints. This resembles informal local Christian saints not recognized by the Church like the 13th century English rebel Simon de Montfort. Many cults are therefore very localized and some saints (like the Muslim Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj) are regarded as heretics in some circles. It’s dangerous to be a saint in any religion, in any period.