Medieval saints and sinners: tales of saintly miracles in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, tales abounded of saintly intervention saving the fortunes of those on trial for their lives. John Hudson looks at propaganda that supported the mythic status of these miracle-performing saints and of Church power
Published: September 23, 2019 at 2:00 pm
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The idea of saints performing miracles would inspire a large degree of cynicism in our largely secular world. In the Middle Ages, however, most people accepted that saints could intervene in daily life, including areas now the preserve of specialists. Most common were miracles concerning illness, but saints also participated in the field of law and justice.
A letter from Hervey, Bishop of Ely, records a noteworthy event in 1115 or 1116. It concerned a man called Bricstan, who lived in Ely’s village of Chatteris. The letter describes him as a layman of modest means, who lent money to his needy neighbours, but not at interest. He was “neither better than other good men nor worse than bad ones”. Bricstan decided that he wanted to become a monk of Ely, a church dedicated to St Peter and to St Etheldreda. However, as the letter details, an official of King Henry I…
…more particularly a servant of the devil with wolf-like fangs, appeared on the scene… His name was Robert and he was nick-named “Malarteis”, from the Latin meaning ill-doer. The name was deserved, for he seemed to have no function except to catch men out… He accused all equally whenever he could, striving with all his might to harm everyone… If he could find no valid reason for condemning them, he became an inventor of falsehood and father of lies through the devil who spoke in him.
He claimed to the monks that Bricstan was a common thief… who has seized the king’s money by larceny and hidden it, and is trying to escape judgement and punishment for his crime, not for any other kind of salvation. For he found hidden treasure, and by secretly stealing from it has become a usurer.
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On Robert’s command, the monks refused to receive Bricstan, and he was sent for trial before the royal justice, Ralph Basset, and the county court of Huntingdonshire. Bricstan denied the charges, but his opponents made fun of his appearance, and he was unjustly condemned. He was bound, taken to London, and placed in iron fetters within a dark prison. Suffering from cold and hunger…
…with a sorrowful heart and all the voice he could raise, he called incessantly on St Benedict, under whose rule he had vowed in all sincerity to live… and on the holy virgin Etheldreda, in whose monastery he had proposed to do so.
A vision of saints
After five months, one night he was still praying in a feeble voice, whereupon, in a blaze of light, like a saintly Arnold Schwarzenegger, St Benedict, with St Etheldreda and her sister St Sexburga, appeared to the suppliant…
The venerable Benedict placed his hand on the ring fetters and broke them on both sides, drawing them from the feet of the prisoner in such a way that he felt nothing at all and the saint seemed to have broken them more by his command than by force. When he had pulled them off he tossed them aside almost contemptuously and struck the beam which supported the room above the dungeon with such violence that he made a great crack in it.
At the sound of the impact the guards, who were sleeping in the room above, were all awakened in terror. Fearing that the prisoners had fled they rushed to the prison. Finding the doors undamaged and locked, they turned the keys and entered. When they saw the man they had thrown into fetters was freed, they marvelled greatly.
The happenings were reported to the queen. She dispatched Ralph Basset, who checked that no witchcraft was involved, realised that a miracle had occurred, and then, “rejoicing and weeping”, brought Bricstan to the queen and barons.
The story of Bricstan is a particularly full and dramatic account of saintly intervention, but otherwise not atypical. Such stories illustrate the belief in the powers of the saints. This was promoted by churchmen such as Bishop Hervey, and publicity may have been necessary, as the same clerical writers mention laymen who were far from reverent, such as the man who bared his bottom and broke wind at St Aldhelm’s shrine as it was borne past him.
Religious belief was closely involved in medieval justice, most notably through trial by ordeal. Through a physical test God revealed his judgement. Some ordeals were undertaken by individuals, for example by the accused carrying a red-hot piece of iron for several paces. The hand that had carried the iron was then bound up and examined three days later. If the burn was clean the accused was innocent, if it was infected, the accused was guilty. In trial by battle concerning a crime, accused and accuser would fight, God’s judgement being demonstrated through victory. Here was another opportunity for saintly intervention…
Two men who had been adjudged to a duel came together, one being much bigger and stronger than the other. The stronger man catches the weaker one, lifts him high above his head ready to throw him hard on the ground. The smaller man hanging thus in the air lifts up his mind to heaven and says a short prayer: “Help, holy Thomas martyr”. The danger was great and sudden, and the time for prayer short. There are witnesses who were present: the stronger man, as if oppressed by the weight of the holy name, suddenly collapsed under the one he held and was vanquished.
Miracle stories thus reveal certain key features of the judicial system of the time. Saints seem to have favoured the young and the physically weak, perhaps providing protection for those lacking a powerful worldly protector. Saints could prevent injustice being done, for example helping the unjustly accused during their trial or before punishment. Such saintly interventions could be seen as making up for some of the defects of judicial processes, the dangers of a court being biased against one party, the problem of the strong fighting the weak in trial by battle, the lack of routine practice of dealing with miscarriages of justice in criminal cases.
Saving the repentant
There may well be some truth in this view. However, miraculous interventions did not necessarily reinforce or correct the judicial system on its own terms. Saints might intervene when a person was guilty but repentant. A hardened criminal, sentenced to death but repentant, invoked the help of St John. The saint duly acted, the manacles fell from the man, and he went and offered his chains to the shrine of St John.
We may have here a distinction between views of crime, including a more worldly one which emphasised punishment for the deed, and a religious one which emphasised the mental state of the accused. Modern historians may want miracles to relate to and illustrate the functioning of medieval society, including judicial systems. Our medieval sources are much more ready to allow saints to make up their own minds when they should intervene.
Medieval justice: power play and might
Cases concerning violence or theft in 12th-century England were generally heard in the court of the county or of the sub-division of the county known as the hundred. Most commonly the prosecution was brought by the victim or – if the offence was one of homicide – by the victim’s family.
Prosecution and the desire for vengeance could be intimately related. In some other instances, accusations were brought by a royal official, responsible for looking after the king’s interests in the area. In either case, the accused’s fortunes were likely to depend on his standing in the community, and possibly on the support he could rally.
The powerful accuser, particularly the royal official, was at a considerable advantage, for example in persuading the accused to admit the offence or to make recompense. If the accused remained recalcitrant, the case might go to trial by ordeal, be it by the individual ordeal such as the carrying of a hot iron or the bilateral ordeal of trial by battle. In either case, power or strength might affect the outcome, be it the power of the royal official in assessing the result of a trial by hot iron or the simple physical strength of one party in a trial by battle.
John Hudson is professor of legal history at the University of St Andrews and author of The Formation of the English Common Law (Pearson 1996).