Dear Friends and Readers,
I would like to introduce you to my new newsletter created on Substack, which you can access at: blessedbuildings.substack.com. You will find this Introduction copied from my “About” page on Substack, so if you have read that already, please move on to read my first essay on Saint Geneviève.
I am American, retired and living in southern France. In my lifetime, I have launched several newsletters starting in sixth grade just because I loved doing it, I have practiced as a licensed architect, taught art and architectural history and design studio, published articles on medieval architecture and urbanism, illustrated publications, and written monthly columns on gardening. I do not actively use social media, but I do have a website where you’ll find information about me: (https://www.catherinebarrettartifex.com/). Artifex is a Latin word used to designate workers, craftspeople, and architects.
What and Why and a little History
I am excited about using Substack as a platform for a personal research project related to those people known as “saints” on the Christian calendar, and to the places and buildings they have influenced through time. The word “influencer” has recently come into vogue for people effective in marketing on social media, and I suggest that we bend the meaning a bit to see the saints as the original influencers of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Not that they were marketing commercial goods—although, as we shall see, there were plenty of profiteers who marketed their body parts after their deaths—but they did have outsize leverage over crowd control and building projects.
Saints are defined as holy persons who have gone to heaven after death, and early members of this elite group included the Christian apostles, evangelists, and martyrs. They generally must be associated with miracles performed in their own lifetimes, but in many cases their body parts, or body parts attributed to them, were reputed to have performed miracles after their deaths. No matter that Saint X must have had hundreds of toes at the final count; to judge by the number of churches where her relics were displayed. The important thing was that her body part was related to power, and that she would share some of this power if she deemed the supplicant worthy of her favors.
The word “saint” has its origins in the Latin sanctus and in Old French seint, which then moved over to Middle English as saint. Saints continue to exert their influence today, at least here in France, where websites with lists of their names are still frequently used as sources for enfants’ names, where the thousands of calendars distributed by the post office list each day’s saint, and where many people I know who are not religious in the traditional sense maintain their consciousness of these everyday muses. Even a resolute agnostic like myself cannot turn a blind eye to their influence and their interest.
Who decided that saints were saints? Mostly bishops and then popes, especially after the tenth century, but regional popularity exercised a considerable influence too. Before YouTube there was Word of Mouth, which, although it acted more slowly, was no less effective in spreading news and rumors.
Who cares? Well, aside from my personal desire to learn more about the information on the calendars I use, there are some interesting parallels between the culture of saints and this particular moment we are living in. Saints’ status often hinged on their healing powers, on the miracles they performed, firstly in their lifetimes, but afterwards as well. Healing and miracles; what’s going on there? I believe in miracles only insofar as I believe human beings capable of willing themselves into just about any state of mind imaginable. I believe the body and mind are intimately linked, that illness is often the result of stress and can just as often be managed by managing the mental state. You don’t have to agree with me, and my essays will rest peacefully in the realm of observation and documentation with occasional speculation thrown in. But know that I find it fascinating that at certain times and places in history—usually during times of privation, when people lose control of their bodies and souls—they are especially eager to believe in miracles and in alternate realities, and if they have the power to do so, they will do everything they can to maintain those realities.
This phenomenon is in part responsible for the early Christian saints, who lived during a time of political and economic upheaval in the second, third, and fourth centuries. Christianity was just one of many religious cults that promised people a better life than the one they had on earth. Might we think of the Internet as that promise of a “better life” that failed to deliver? Managing one’s life through a plastic screen is as living in an alternate reality, and once that becomes untenable, what next? I am not surprised that people turn to physical violence and any soothing myth that will reassure them that they have some control over their lives.
Is there a corollary between periods of saint-creating, saint-worship and pilgrimage, and general unease? Yes indeed. The first wave of “saint significance” established hundreds of small churches throughout Western Europe in the upheaval following the disintegration of the Roman Empire. These centers of Christian worship were ideally situated on or near the site of a martyrdom or a miracle, and often set up by bishop-missionaries, many of whom were sent from Rome by Pope Leo I (440-461). The power of the site, the event, or the relic was often used for fund-raising. A bishop might make the round of local aristocrats in a physically taxing version of Kickstarter, telling the story of his saint’s life and miracles, but if he had a relic to carry with him his job was made that much easier. As you might imagine, the procuration of sale of relics became a lucrative business. It blossomed to fever pitch in the ninth century after Charlemagne (r 768-814) decreed that oaths must be sworn either in churches or on relics, and the Fifth Council of Carthage declared that altars without relics must be destroyed. This time the demand for saints and relics was engineered from a centralized power. But after the breakup of the Carolingian Empire, and the rise of local violence everywhere, the power of saints and their relics was once again related to hope for delivery from a mean and uncomfortable world. And this trend would persist until several forces united in the thirteenth century to create economic prosperity and widespread intellectual advancement in a secular age.
It was this period of secularization and economic growth that interested me in my own research. I studied urban spaces related to commercial trends, and medieval mansions built by civilians and how those buildings influenced public life. I am fascinated by the link between mortal human beings and the legacy of their influence on places and buildings, and it is in this spirit that I plan to explore the saints.
There are many scholars who have written on the topics that I will mention, and their works will be noted along the way in the “References” sections below the text. What you will find here is a free-wheeling, personal exploration made through writing and drawing, loosed from the constraints of academic peer review but hopefully still responsible in its presentation of factual information. I also disclaim any religious interest in my topics; the saints are presented here only insofar as they have influenced Western European history, calendars, and architecture.
Terms used for discussing architecture and urbanism are second nature to me and so I will use them rather casually, but it is not out of the question that I could create a secondary newsletter as a little course on these topics if there is interest.
The first three entries in January were grouped together as I wrote them “after the fact,” due to events in the USA, which absorbed all my interest. But after that, you should find one entry each Monday for a saint whose feast day occurs sometime that week, and my plan is to continue on that schedule. Substack has options for free and paid newsletters. I plan to publish for free for several months and if it looks like there is enough interest, I may launch a partial paid section; first week free, entire month’s subscription for five dollars a month or something like that. This is an experiment, and if my topics and my writing prove of interest to even a small group, I shall be well rewarded. I will encourage your comments and your own stories about saints or whatever else you find here as well.
Sources on the saints are as grains of sand on the beach; they are endless. Pick your poison: there are as many legends and myths as there are carefully documented studies. This is a personal journey for me, and so I am using the four sources I have handy, supplementing them with my own library of books on architecture and history, and with my access to digital databases such as JSTOR. My four physical sources are: my wall calendar, my Filofax agenda, and two fat little books; one being a late nineteenth-century “Lives of the Saints” given to my great uncle by his grandparents (Shea, John Gilmary, LL.D. Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints: With Reflections For Every Day in the Year complied from “Butler’s Lives” and other approved sources, to which are added: Lives of the American Saints Placed on the Calendar for the United States by Special Petition of The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1894), and the other being a twenty-first century collection chosen primarily for art historical interest (Giorgi, Rosa, Ed. Saints: A Year in Faith and Art. New York: Abrams, 2006).
Taking an initial inventory of my sources to create a Table of Correspondence presented an interesting and not unexpected dilemma, which was that, whereas two of them were in agreement as to which saint governed which day (my Filofax and my wall calendar), the two little books differed considerably at times, both from each other and from the calendar sources. Since there are far more than 365 saints available to choose from in one year, I will have to select carefully from this embarrassment of riches. My plan, dear Reader, is simply to choose the souls that provide me with a good storyline for my themes.
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Thank you! And now, onward…
Bartlett, Robert, Ed. Medieval Panorama. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.
Judith G. Coffin, Robert C. Stacey, Robert E. Lerner, and Standish Meacham, Eds. Western Civilizations: Their History & Their Culture. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Geary, Patrick. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Giorgi, Rosa, Ed. Saints: A Year in Faith and Art. New York: Abrams, 2006.
Shea, John Gilmary, LL.D. Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints: With Reflections for Every Day in the Year complied from “Butler’s Lives” and other approved sources, to which are added: Lives of the American Saints Placed on the Calendar for the United States by Special Petition of The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1894.
Tierney, Brian, and Painter, Sidney. Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 300-1475. Knopf, 1970.
Catherine Barrett Publications (selection)
“Un défi : les fortifications de Cordes.” Revue annuelle de l’association Les Amis de Cordes et de comtat cordais, 2019.
“Les corps hybrides en place centrale sur un bordel dans le Languedoc médiéval.” Revue annuelle de l’association Les Amis de Cordes et de comtat cordais, 2018.
“Margin Moves to Center in Medieval Languedoc,” in Architecture and the Body, Science and Culture, Ed. Kim Sexton, (London: Routledge, 2018), 86-105.
“Medieval Zoning Codes and the Bastides of Languedoc,” in Medieval Urban Planning: The Monastery and Beyond, Ed. Mickey Abel (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017), 121-147.
“Origins of the French Bastides,” Journal of Urban History, Published online through SAGE January 23, 2016, DOI:10.1177/0096144215620620.