Promoting your patron saint, or How to win favor and influence the powerful
Posted in
February 27, 2022

Promoting your patron saint, or How to win favor and influence the powerful

By Gleb Schmidt

Medieval monasteries cared about the way in which they presented themselves to the world no less than todays’ celebrities and businesses do. To communicate and promote an “official” point of view, complex narratives were constantly woven, patched, and unraveled to be rewoven again. The case of Saint-Denis Abbey demonstrates all the aspects of this fascinating process.

Every year, Forbes publishes a list of the world’s most valuable brands, enumerating the most recognizable, influential and expensive names: Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft… Each of them has its history. Each of them promotes a set of ideas and values that constitute its philosophy and are skillfully described by the best copywriters who receive seven-figures fees for their services. All of them are proudly mentioned in yearly financial reports as intangible assets and are zealously protected by intellectual property laws.

All of this may seem to be an exclusive product of the modern capitalist economy, having no precedent in previous ages. Nonetheless, the importance of the idea, image, or legend behind any enterprise was clear to medieval intellectuals. It is perhaps most visible in medieval monasteries, which have been playing a crucial cultural and economic role in the Latin West for centuries. Very often, the construction of a monastery’s identity or ‘brand’ — foundation legend, patron saint’s vita (literally, “life”, a text reporting the “biography” of a saint), glorious past, and group identity —was its focal point and most prominent form of cultural life.

Indeed, a well-established saint’s cult meant for a monastery a steady influx of newcomers and pilgrims, an inexhaustible source of donations, property grants, reliable protection of the powerful, popes’ favor, and prosperous independence: the game was obviously worth the candle. The most talented and industrious of the brethren were regularly commissioned to write (or rewrite) the monastery’s constituent texts in order to polish the image of the community, to enhance its unity, and strengthen its position within the Christian world. This produced often curious and remarkable results, as, for example, in the Parisian Abbey of Saint-Denis, a monastery that was one of the sacred hearts of the Medieval Latin West. Founded at the dawn of the Middle Ages, the abbey became a place connecting, in the imagination of its contemporaries, the West and the East, Medieval Europe to Late Antiquity. It was there that the relics of the French monarchy were kept, that the very history of France was, literally, written. How did it all become possible?

Martyrdom of Saint-Denis – BNF MS Français 2092, fol. 37v

Three graves, one legend

By the middle of the 20th century, the municipality of Saint-Denis to the North of Paris had become depressing. Urbanistic and logistic mistakes had turned what used to be one of the most sacred places in France into a boring armed-concrete-and-steel neighborhood with a strained social situation. In an attempt to reverse this alarming trend, the government started ambitious research and restoration projects, supporting archaeological and historical studies in the area adjacent to the Basilica (Cathedral) of Saint-Denis. A huge late-antique necropolis was discovered — not unusual given that Paris, or Lutetia at that time, was a considerable city. One detail, however, immediately catches the attention of scholars familiar with medieval literature. Three graves in the necropolis were significantly deeper and slightly older than the others and seemed to be the center around which the majority of the necropolis’ tombs were grouped. Excavations also showed that already in the fifth century, the three graves were covered by a small mausoleum. Possible explanations abounded, but one, particularly tempting, haunted scholars.

A mostly spurious late sixth-century text known as The Passion of Saint Denis (“passions” constituted a peculiar genre of medieval literature describing saints’ tortures), reports that a certain Denis with two companions arrived in Paris from Italy to preach the Word of God. Their activity displeased locals who tortured and executed the preachers. The bodies of the martyrs were put at the mercy of wild beasts, but a wealthy tender-hearted matron arranged for them to be buried on her land, “six mile-stones away from the city”. Six miles! This distance separates the three discovered graves from the then limits of Paris. The story seems to have had some historical background. The local population revered three persons buried on the spot of nowadays’ Basilica of Saint-Denis, so an entire necropolis emerged around their tombs, as the first Christians believed that it was salutary to be buried next to the tomb of a saint.

It was the start of the medieval story of Saint Denis of Paris and his most prominent house started.

One image, three persons

The veneration of the buried developed, and a group of zealously religious persons started to live next to the necropolis on a regular basis. In the seventh century, the existence of the monastery was officially recognized. Moreover, Merovingian kings were particularly favorable to the new institution. It was, on the one hand, comfortably situated close enough to Paris, an important economic and political center, and, on the other hand, emerged around a cult that had an important advantage: by the middle of the seventh century it had already been centuries-old. The abbey benefited from the kings’ protection. The connection between Saint Denis and royal authority was established.

The next important step in this process was made in the eighth century. A new dynasty came to power, the Carolingians. Unlike the Merovingians, who merely tried to run the rudiments of Roman heritage in Gaul to the best of their abilities, the Carolingians saw themselves at the helm of a vast political and religious project. Its utmost goal was to unify all the Christian peoples, restore the Roman Empire and honorably prepare it for the Second Coming and Last Judgment, as the Carolingians considered themselves to be directly responsible to the Lord for the salvation of their subjects. In this new context the legend of Saint Denis — still a local saint, albeit extremely venerated — did not suffice anymore; it was not compatible with the scale and scope of the ambitions of the new dynasty. To preserve and enhance the connection with royal power, the abbey’s community had to adjust and search for ways in which it could represent new ideals of its most powerful patrons.

A new version of Saint Denis’ Passion was created. In a new ideological atmosphere, several important details were added. The first was the legend of cephalophory (literally, “carrying of head”). The author of the new version claimed that after decapitation Saint Denis picked up his head and went northwards to the place where the abbey would be later founded. This detail may seem weird and completely unrelated to us today; the hint was, however, obvious for those with a medieval mindset. If the saint, obviously led by God, quit the place of his martyrdom in Paris and went to another place himself, this meant that he preferred that other place to the city. This detail was a neat sideswipe against the bishops of Paris who pretended to have formal power over the abbey.

Saint Denis’ carrying his head (Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris) – photo by Thesupermat / Wikimedia Commons

The second addition introduced by the new version of the Passion was more important. The text identified Saint Denis with Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian who was converted to Christianity by the Apostle Paul and was believed, although not everywhere, to be ordained the first bishop of Athens. Again, the identification seems unexpected only at first glance. Its purpose is, however, quite straightforward. Lutetia, a distant provincial town at the time when the apostles’ preaching rippled through the Eastern Mediterranean, might seem to be too uninvolved in sacred history, unfit for the Carolingians’ grandiose endeavor. A renewal of the legend had to correct this disbalance. By identifying the Parisian martyr with someone baptized by Jesus’ disciple himself, the revised version connected the city with the apostolic tradition and put Lutetia almost on the same level with Rome, the only place in the West unquestionably connected to the apostolic tradition.

The bold identification was controversial. Saint-Denis’s community defended its position by writing a polemical sermon. Its author claimed that “some Greek texts” he had studied confirmed the legitimacy of the identification. This vague reference to unnamed “Greek texts” seems to be the first indication of the familiarity of western savants with the so-called “pseudo-Dionysian corpus”, a collection of notoriously complex philosophical texts whose author was also believed to be Dionysius the Areopagite (although these texts were most probably written in the sixth century by a Greek author). To the two personalities already combined in the image of Saint Denis — Parisian martyr and Athenian neophyte and bishop — a third one, a philosopher, was added. The third version of Saint Denis’ passion, molding this triple identity of the saint, was written in the 830s in verses and prose. It was supplemented by a Latin translation of what was believed to be Saint Denis’ writings as well as a thorough description of Saint Denis’ miracles. This corpus has become the core of Saint-Denis monks’ self-consciousness.

One saint, many relics

The extent to which the monks of Saint-Denis cherished their legend is best demonstrated by their fervent reaction to two remarkable events. The first happened when the monks of Bavarian Saint Emmeram’s Abbey claimed to have discovered Saint Denis’ relics. From the point of view of the Saint-Denis community, the claim was utterly nefarious. The relics were kept in their crypt, their authenticity is beyond any doubt. The arrogance of the Bavarians had to be tamed; the French king and the Holy Roman emperor got involved in the affair. With deceptive openness to dialogue and misleading hospitality, the monks of Saint-Denis invited the Bavarians to Paris. The shrine was opened. The remains were there, except for the arm of the saint, transported to Rome on pope’s demand, and several neckbones, whose situation was also known. The Bavarians had to retreat, humiliated, although never recognized their defeat. The community of Saint-Denis celebrated its triumph: not just the status of the monastery was vindicated, but also the honor of the French monarchy, and its patron saint.

It was much more difficult to fight critics and doubts coming from inside of the community. Especially, when they were formulated by a brilliant mind as that of Peter Abelard. One of the most revolting thinkers of the Middle Ages, he left behind scandals wherever he went. He did not hesitate to plume himself on his intellect, take money for his lectures (although medieval cathedral school and later universities were free for students and were financed from diocesan money), initiate provocative polemics, denounce, humiliate, mock bitterly, make enemies, and — quite unexpectedly for a medieval cleric — live a vibrant romantic and sexual life. This attitude ultimately ruined Abelard’s life. Entering into an affair with Heloïse, one of the most educated women of the time, Abelard infuriated her uncle and tutor, who paid a band of petty criminals to castrate Abelard.

The disgraceful injuries and ruined reputation foreclosed any kind of career for the philosopher, and he decided to seclude himself from the world at Saint-Denis. There, however, he remained steadfast in his habits. Having found the monks’ blind conviction in the trustworthiness of Saint Denis’ legend entertaining, he amused himself with finding and bringing to light different inconsistencies in the official narrative about the abbey’s patron saint. He accurately disclosed the weakest point of the legend — the identification of the three personalities — demonstrating that authoritative Christian authors disagreed on the details, and not all of them considered one of Saint Denis’s alter egos, Dionysius the Areopagite, to be the first bishop of Athens: according to a respectful Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, for example, the Areopagite had been the first bishop of Corinth. The community could not tolerate Abelard’s casuistic intellectual games, and, to get rid of the troublemaker, the abbot allowed him to quit the monastery and live wherever he would wish.

15th century depiction of Dionysius the Areopagite – Wikimedia Commons

Abelard’s attacks and the reaction that followed made any further discussion impossible. The official narrative was, once again, defended. But this was achieved at the expense of the legend’s creative vivacity. With a lot of tact, but plainly enough, the tacit understanding of the legend’s inconsistency was expressed by Innocent III, an influential 13th-century pope and prolific Church writer. When the relics of Denis of Corinth, the first bishop of Corinth, believed to be “the Areopagite”, were brought to Rome from the defeated Byzantine empire, Innocent decided to present them to the Parisian abbey. In a cover letter, he explained the sense of his gift to the monks of Saint-Denis: “As you have now both relics of Denis (i.e. those brought from Byzantium and those already kept in Saint-Denis), no one will ever doubt that those of the Areopagite are indeed kept in your famous house”. Obviously, he knew they did doubt — and always would.

Many layers, one narration

The legend of Saint Denis that developed over the course of centuries is a particularly significant, though not the only, example of how laboriously and consciously the evolution of a legend could be animated and steered. What may seem to be an arbitrary addition of a curious and fun detail, turns out to be an attentive and deliberate adjustment of existing narratives. With a confidence perhaps inaccessible to today’s public figures and companies, medieval minds knew that behind the tangible reality of things, there was another, and by far the most important, level of being, that of the faith in ideas.

This article is part of The Power of Medieval Texts series

Shari Boodts, Iris Denis, Riccardo Macchioro and Gleb Schmidt together make up the team behind a European research project on the reception of patristic sermons in medieval manuscripts (PASSIM), housed at the Department of Medieval History at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. You can learn more about their work on the project website.

Further Readings:

The interpretation of the mentioned polemical sermon is gratefully borrowed from Helvetius, A.-M., “Un sermon anonyme en l’honneur de saint Denis de Paris BHL 2187”, in Bulletin de la Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France, année 2013, 2015, p. 214-225 and her further analysis in the chapter in Delannoy, P. (ed.) Saint-Denis: dans l’éternité des rois et reines de France. Paris, 2015.

Top Image: Saint Denis Holding His Head in a 15th-century manuscript – Getty Museum MS 5 February 27, 2022 at 09:47AM

Comments & Reviews

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *