The Making of Catholic Saints in the Middle Ages


Medieval beatification and canonization were not always bestowed from Rome, holiness was recognized by communities and authorised by local bishops.

As attested to by their outbreaks of hysteria at the sight of holy relics, equal in emotional ferocity to any of today’s celebrity-sightings or -deaths, medieval people of faith tended to extravagant devotion and worship. Dignified popes had to go to their burials without decent coverings; so frenziedly would the faithful tear at the cloth for souvenirs that they’d damage the blessed body on its final earthly progress.

The passion of the medieval public attached itself to local figures noted for their holiness, a difficult-to-differentiate mix of qualities including (but not confined to):

– Heroic amounts of moral virtue
– Miracles, performed both while alive and after death
– Rare physical courage, often in response to religious persecution

These cult figures were venerated within their communities, and before the 900s only sometimes did those communities approach Rome for permission to do so. Veneration occurred naturally, flowing out of the passionate, illiterate Christianity of the Middle Ages and only secondarily were the bishops of Rome involved. Concerned clergy did what they could to minimise veneration of false cult figures but they could only control external ritual, not the invisible attachments of faith.
Two Pivotal Saints: Ulrich of Augsburg & Walter of Pontoise

The first saint from outside of Rome to be canonized by the Holy See was Saint Ulrich, Bishop of Augsburg. He was recognized twenty years after his death by Pope John XV in 993. Reports of his miracles include, while still alive, a sick Ulrich being helped by angels to say Mass and, after his death, healings occurring at churches named for him.

The last saint to be canonized not by a pope but by a local bishop was Walter of Pontoise (1030–1099), noted for persistently running away from his Abbey to become a hermit—despite being repeatedly found and brought back by his fellow monks. He was recognised in 1153 by Hugh de Boves, the Archbishop of Rouen. As with all cult figures, the Archbishop allowed the erection of altars in Saint Walter’s name; also, he allowed feasts, the offering of Masses in his honor and the collection of relics and devotional objects.

Medieval Rome & the Making of Saints

In 1181 Pope Alexander III received reports of abuse from the diocese of Lisieux where cult honours were being paid to a man killed in an alcohol-fuelled fight. He responded by reminding his followers that ‘drunkards shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven’ and further stated that from then on it would be unlawful to venerate anyone ‘without the authority of the Roman Church’.

This decree didn’t stop the public cult venerations entirely, but gradually it became a general convention. Benedict XIV recorded the last extant instance of public cult veneration in 1603. The Archbishop of Malenes allowed public beatification of the now officially recognized Saint Boniface of Lausanne. Pope Alexander III’s 1181 decree was finally regularized in 1634 by Urban VIII.

The processes of canonization were fundamentally settled from this year, with some minor modifications in 1918 and 1983. Witnesses to the life of the so-called saint were heard and reports of miracles, investigated. From 1587 the office of the Devil’s Advocate was instituted. This officer tested the arguments for the canonization, and attempted to disprove miracles by suggesting natural causes for the events.

While waiting for Papal authorization, it was forbidden for any form of public cult to form around the candidate. Literature describing their possible miracles was banned, and their personal visions silenced. Artistic renderings of the venerated ones featuring auras or other marks of sanctity were disallowed unless authorised by the Holy See. Recognition of sainthood was now achieved only after Roman investigation and inquisition.

The Official Saints

Canonization does not make saints, it merely recognizes them. The saints are believed to be in heaven already, from which place they can intercede on behalf of their petitioners in the form of miracles. There are over ten thousand Catholic saints. This includes the not-quite-so saintly beati.