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The Exploitation of Saints in Medieval England, 11th - 13th Century

The Commercialisation of Saints in Medieval England, 11th - 13th Century

During the period in which the silver shrine of Saint Erkenwald was completed, the “generous hands of the poor” flocked to collecting stations to grant gifts and donations in adoration of the saintly figure. One woman, “of devout heart”, who had wished to join the celebrations was instead rebuked by her husband from offering gifts. The man, in his bitterness, was later struck by an intense pain and swelling in his abdomen the following night which was deemed as untreatable. Yet, as “the unfaith husband will be saved by the faithful wife”, the woman received instructions from Saint Erkenwald in a dream. It was commanded that the husband should be taken to the saint’s sepulchre in order for him to be cured. Upon doing so, the husband was healed and returned home.[1] This miracle, as Arcoid writes, was “set up as an example of those who stand in the way of the works of holiness.”[2]

The abovementioned story is Miracle 6 from the Miracula Sancti Erkenwaldi, completed by Arcoid in the 1140s. What is particularly notable about this miracle is its multi-dimensional and underlying tones of intimidation and coercion in conjunction with shrine donations. Arcoid begins the miracle by demonstrating the central role of the poor as the ‘heroic financial support’ of the shrine to emphasise that, “although the wealthy citizens contributed little or nothing, the generous hand of the poor set up collecting stations.”[3] According to Arcoid, if even the poorest of London can give financial support, then why can’t you? Hence, when the poor, but devoted woman is rebuked by her husband for attempting to provide financial support to the shrine, he is presented as immoral, stupid, and unholy. The miracle thus promotes a cultural attitude whereby there is an expectation that a proportion of a household income should be donated to the local shrine. Miracle 6 is not necessarily unique in its coercive tone towards financial support. There are a multitude of miracles written by Arcoid that follow the formula whereby someone undermines the wealth or financial support of the shrine and is then struck by severe illness. Such intimidation by an ecclesiastical community regarding financial support is thus the genesis of this thesis: to what extent were saints, such as Erkenwald, largely exploited by their ecclesiastical communities to gain wealth?

This study will be conducted through case studies and evidence from prominent English monastic communities and their saints across England between the 11th and 13th centuries, namely: St. Becket of Canterbury, St. Edmund of Bury St. Edmunds, St. William of Norwich, and St. Thomas Cantilupe of Hereford. These constraints were dictated through a conflict of choice and limitations by the evidence. Quite simply, the rolls and registers of the financial records of any one cathedral are insufficient nor in an adequate abundance to be able to focus solely on a specific monastic community. Any attempt to focus on one community would result in an untrustworthy and unjustified conclusion which is why this essay focuses on a larger time period across multiple monastic communities. This, however, also has its limitations as many communities recorded their finances in a variety of ways which would make any direct comparison difficult. Canterbury in the 1290’s, for example, rounded their accounts to the nearest tens digit as evidenced by the even £200 received in 1291/2 and 1292/3.[4] Yet, the finances of Norwich were consistently recorded to the exact amount.[5] By not placing too much reliance on the raw data of financial records and supporting this with hagiographical and historical evidence, unjust conclusions should be minimised. Equally, by encapsulating this evidence within the aforementioned time period, which is regarded by many historians as the ‘golden age of monasticism’,[6] this should provide a sufficient amount of evidence to make strong suggestions about the financial nature of saint cults.

It is also important to outline and define the constraints of the question itself. The defining aspect of the question is the understanding of ‘exploitation’ as this distinguishes this topic from a simple analysis of the types of church revenue. This question rather challenges the religious institution by insinuating that Saints were appropriated and commercialised by their monastic community in order to specifically accumulate wealth. The overarching issue surrounding this topic, however, is being able to distinguish between faith and wealth in a period dominated by both in monasticism. As to avoid any theological debate of monastic moral values, this is best answered through a series of sub-questions which will be explored through the essay. To begin with, an analysis of cathedral finances across England will enable an understanding as to whether saint cults and shrines provided a viable income to their cathedrals, and if such income was temporary, or had longevity. Secondly, an analysis of the historical context of the cults and ecclesiastical communities will highlight any evidence of simony, the exploitation of relics and indulgences, and criticisms involving the wealth surrounding the saint. Lastly, an analysis of the accompanying miracula and hagiographies of these saints will enable us to see whether there is, as briefly seen in the example of Erkenwald, an insertion of miracles involving wealth and donations by ecclesiastical writers.

Distinguishing between faith and wealth, however, is a highly binary method of analysing this period. As such, this essay aims at presenting a view that these two concepts may have largely co-existed on a case-by-case basis.

In the immediate aftermath of the Conquest, ten English monastic sites contained a major shrine.[7] Despite this, however, the abbey of St. Augustine was the first to promote and undertake translation ceremonies. In 1091, the tombs of the first six archbishops of Canterbury were opened and their bodies translated to a shrine in a ceremony of great liturgical splendour.[8] The translation of these six archbishops represented a new Norman trend in saint worship, that is, post-conquest England saw the rise and prominence of bishops as newly canonised saints. Bishops arguably became popular saints because they embodied the religious lifestyle and virtuous qualities that a cathedral would want to promote. Secondly, considering a bishop was among the few people to be buried within a cathedral, there was an automatic possession of relics if sainthood occurred. Nevertheless, as the recognition and canonisation of a saint required an expensive investigation into the person’s sanctity of life and posthumous miracles, another way to gain sainthood was through power and wealth. Such wealth and influence was sourced from living bishops who could expend funds to promote the prestige of their predecessor’s shrine, as witnessed in the canonisation of William of York which was secured through the funds of Archbishop Walter de Grey and Archbishop Antony Bek.[9] As such, from the establishment of post-conquest cults, there were already instances of an underlying system of wealth that sought to exploit saints.

Following the translations at St Augustine’s, both Winchester and Bury St Edmunds had also translated their respective saints and updated their accompanying miraculas by 1095.[10] As such, a case can strongly be made for suggesting that the translation of 1091 was so successful in its liturgical celebrations and promotion of pilgrimage that it set a precedent and model for such events in the future. Yet translation ceremonies themselves quickly became so extravagant that they required vast sums of money. In the translation of Thomas Becket, of whom had the quickest canonisation in Medieval England at just 26 months,[11] Stephen Langton’s expenses were so large that they were still being paid by Archbishop Boniface, the fourth archbishop after Langton.[12] Given that the translation of St Richard in 1276 cost Bishop Stephen more than £1,000,[13] it has been hypothesised by historians that the celebrations at Canterbury may have cost a few thousand pounds, a number which may have been a usual expense for translations at major monastic communities. The question is, quite simply, was this worth it? If we are to understand if saints were viable incomes, then there is a predisposed estimate that the output (donations rendered by pilgrims) is greater than the input (cost of translation). It is notable that translations were planned in order to gain high congregations of pilgrims. Becket was murdered on the 29th of December, a terrible period for pilgrim travel due to the winter months. Instead, the major feast and translation of St Thomas in 1220 was held in July during the best of the summer weather in order to fully gather as many pilgrims as possible. Moreover, just as a product is marketed by a retailer, Langton spent two years prior to the translation marketing throughout Europe the celebration to entice potential pilgrims.[14] Considering crowds of pilgrims along with twenty-four bishops and archbishops came to witness the translation ceremony in what is regarded as the largest episcopal attendance of a translation, Langton’s marketing strategies were clearly effective.[15] Yet this was not the only example, as the translation of St Swithun in 1093 claimed to have been attended by “almost all the bishops and abbots of England”.[16] Equally, in the translation of St William of York, it is said that “on no other occasion has the cathedral received within its walls a more illustrious assemblage.”[17] It is also evident that royalty attended such celebrations. The first known attendance of a translation is Henry II at Westminster in 1163.[18] Nevertheless, Henry III and his son Edward each attended at least three within their respective reigns.[19] Arguably, however, the attendance of these ceremonies by monarchs was opportunistic as when larger translation ceremonies become rarer, so does royal attendance.

With the mass migration of pilgrims, lay, nobility, and knights, translations typically turned into larger festivals. Becket’s translation, though an extreme example, lasted two weeks and saw hay and provender being provided to the thousands of travellers along the route from London to Canterbury.[20] Equally, tuns of free wine were placed around the city and banquets, each multiple days long, catered for tens of thousands.[21] In fact, wine is written to have run in the gutters in both the records of Becket’s translation.[22] Yet, within these celebrations was a network of ecclesiastical vendors encouraging the purchasing of indulgences and other religious paraphernalia. We find, for instance, in the celebrations surrounding the translation of St Edmund at Bury in 1094 that sermons were preached to crowds offering indulgences for a select period of time.[23] Thus, shrine accounts show that more donations were offered during translation celebrations and feasts than any other time. The financial records of Canterbury during the translation prove this to be true as the shrine proceeds in 1220 were extremely high at around £300.[24] Furthermore, considering that, in the same year of the translation, the Martyrdom accumulated £27, and the Corona accounted for £40, St Thomas was the source of 75% of the total average income from all offerings.[25] This revenue, combined with the sales of indulgences and other dubious enterprises means that there is an argument for translation ceremonies generating a large amount of wealth. Although the initial investment input to conduct such ceremonies was high, the output of revenue and prestige which could span multiple decades presents the impression that saints provided a strong source of income for their respective cathedrals.

Translations, however, were not a common and frequent occurrence. Aside from saints, such as William of Norwich, who were translated multiple times, saints were typically only translated once or twice in the cult’s history. As such, a closer analysis of the shrine incomes of prominent saint cults, as well as an understanding of how this revenue was directed, will allow for a more general understanding on the extent to which saints were economically viable.

As a focus has already been made on the translation of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, statistical analysis will begin here. Between 1198 and 1207, the offerings being donated to Canterbury in St Thomas’ name were already high and on average, paralleled the revenue of the translation ceremony. The highest recorded revenue from donations accumulated at Canterbury was 1200/01 as King John and his queen held their coronation at Canterbury. Such an event rendered £620 4s. from donations. [26] As the personal memory of Becket faded in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, donations meandered between the low of £65 and the high of £300.[27] From 1257 onwards, almost nine decades after Becket’s murder, donations had reached a steady decline and stagnation as a result of a moderation of pilgrim travellers to the shrine as the virality of the cult’s establishment and translation had dwindled.[28] Yet this income should not be disregarded as it accounted for 28% of Canterbury’s total revenue which is a considerable proportion.[29] These revenues were redirected in a number of ways, but it is certain that a great percentage of offerings were distributed amongst officials and clergy, a factor which reiterates the impression that these ecclesiastical communities accumulated wealth in a self-serving manner by capitalising on saints and their cults. Two clerks at the tomb of St Thomas Becket received a well-paid wage of 1d. per day which included bread and ale. Equally, when those said monks carried holy water in processions, they received portions of food from the refectory.[30] Moreover in 1284, a clerk of exchange at Canterbury gave the clerk of the shrine, Andrew of Bregge, 50s. as payment for maintaining two tapers.[31] Thus, Canterbury provides an outstanding example of the incomes incurred from a saint, and clearly the churchmen of Canterbury profited from this. What is particularly noteworthy about the cult’s success, however, is the extent to which Becket influenced and divided monastic competition over saints among other churches. Some religious sites claimed association to the saint to cash-in on this enterprise.[32] Carlisle Cathedral was one such site that appropriated the saint as they quickly claimed to hold the sword that martyred Becket.[33] On the contrary, with the establishment of Becket’s cult, monastic communities with major saints were keen to protect their own saints, miracles, and relics. Reading Abbey, for example, reaffirmed and emphasised visions of St James the Great who informed the sick that they could only be cured at Reading, not anywhere else.[34] St Frideswide of Oxford and St Cuthbert of Durham follow similar narratives of striking down a coercive message that only they could help the poor as to deter pilgrims from diverting attention to Becket.[35] Thus, there is an affirmation and marketing of saint power occurring across England, because of Becket, in order to maintain the flow of pilgrims that are key in shrine revenue and prestige.

In conjunction with the statistical analysis of Becket’s cult, his miracula provides notable examples of miracles with underlying tones of exploitation. There are two prominent miracle collections that will be discussed. The first was written between 1171-1200 by Benedict of Peterborough, whilst the second was written by William of Canterbury in 1172-1176. William, in describing the death of Becket, explains that many townspeople came into the cathedral to view the corpse and dip their fingers in his blood.[36] As such, “there was no-one who did not carry away some portion of that precious treasure.”[37] Whilst this does not contain a coercive voice as with the miracula of St Erkenwald, William of Canterbury’s description of the blood as “precious treasure” emphasises a potential insight into his views on the commercial value of Becket’s relics. Such a notion is greatly supported if we understand that shrine keepers accumulated high margins of profit from selling ampullae of what was regarded as ‘Becket’s Blood’. Furthermore, around 20% of the miracles collected by Benedict and William discuss the use of Becket’s healing water. Even Henry II is recorded as drinking a some of it on his visit to Canterbury.[38] This is interesting as typically healing occurs through the saint’s direct intervention rather than a consumable vessel of power. Only when analysing these miracles through the scope of commercialising saints is it clear why Canterbury repeatedly emphasises the power of Becket’s blood. It is also noteworthy that this exploitation of Becket’s cult would soon become controversial and contribute to the cult’s downfall. Suspicion of relic souvenirs and simony involving the blood of St Thomas provided Tudor critics with a foundation to begin a process of defaming the cult.

Emmanuel Walberg, in a highly regarded article, argued that Benedict began his miracle collection “almost the day after the murder”.[39] According to the miracula, the first miracle of a woman in Sussex was experienced just three days after Becket’s death.[40] By April 1171, only four months after the martyr’s death, Canterbury opened its crypt to visitors and distributed his healing blood. During this time, the monks of Canterbury also allowed free access to Becket’s relics, and with this, miracles occurred “every single day” as Benedict records.[41] The rate at which these events occurred in conjunction with the speed of Becket’s canonisation and production of multiple miracula, are phenomenal, yet peculiar. Some may regard this as a testament to devotion, and whilst this may be partly true, it could be suggested that given this evidence and the hindsight of the revenues generated, certain churchman of Canterbury may have foreseen the potential commercial opportunities of Becket’s veneration, especially in light of successes at other cathedrals and abbeys. Understandably, this is all speculative, but considering that the political rawness of Becket’s death and speed of pilgrim worship led to a planned attack on Canterbury,[42] clearly policies were implemented sooner than what respectfully should have been. In conjunction with this, the first appeal for Becket’s canonisation, written in early autumn of 1171, was rejected on the basis that it happened too quickly. Alexander II wrote to the monks that they should “seek to know the truth of this more fully from bishops and other secular persons”, then, “write to us about the miracles and make known to us the certainty of the thing with all diligence.”[43] Alexander’s doubtfulness surrounding the quick appeal reiterates the suggestion that Canterbury was impulsive towards establishing a cult surrounding Becket, potentially in order to establish a highly successful stream of revenue and prestige.

Canterbury, however, was not the only prestigious monastic house to exploit its saint as Bury also provides an overwhelming amount of compelling evidence on how saints were exploited for the accumulation of wealth. Bury had translated St Edmund in 1095, and Archbishop Herman had constructed a grand miracle collection in the previous year to accompany the ceremony. Spearheaded by Abbot Baldwin and Archdeacon Herman in the late eleventh century was one of the first post-conquest examples of a business enterprise surrounding a saint that included a series of strategies to market and promote the saint to pilgrim populations. As stated previously, at the translation of Edmund, a sermon preached by Walkelin outside the precinct to a crowd enticed them to purchase indulgences from the shrine within a specific period of time.[44] Once the translation was completed and Edmund’s casket was installed within the new presbytery for pilgrims, Herman exploited this by preaching sermons at the altar to pilgrims at the apse and granting those with money and donations the opportunity to touch, handle, and kiss the martyr’s relics. Equally, Herman also orchestrated private handlings of the relics to wealthier patrons of the cathedral held within the crypt.[45] Healing oils, according to one miracle, also exuded from the saint’s body and were sold to pilgrims in small ampoules. Another example of such enterprise was St Nicholas at Bari whose monastic community established a highly profitable business off such oils.[46] Lastly, Baldwin, in order to yield higher amounts of pilgrims, capitalised on contact relics which were distributed throughout the continent to promote the cult.[47] All of this, however, was to develop an ecosystem revolved around the saint that encapsulated pilgrims in order to take advantage of their pockets.

A major piece of evidence to corroborate this point is the details of Herman’s death. It states that Herman, to entice crowds and donations, sent for the chest containing the St Edmunds relics in order for him to display and allow paying pilgrims to handle them. Three weeks later, when a powerful magnate arrived to see those relics, he was led into the crypt and handled them. Such an event led to a spur of pilgrim visitors wanting to see the relics, an opportunity which Herman could not refuse.[48] It is notable, in a slight diversion from the story, that the author regarded these relics as priceless. Yet Herman, on the other hand, regarded the saint’s relics as being worth “more than all the gold of Arabia”.[49] In other words, Herman, unlike other monks, did place a value and price on these seemingly priceless holy objects. This emphasises Herman’s business and wealth-driven mindset towards the saint and relics. Herman, with the bustling crowd awaiting, held up the blooded garments punctured with arrow holes and invited anyone to kiss it. Seitha, a recluse resident of the abbey, is recorded to have borrowed money in order to donate and kiss the saint. Herman soon after became ill and died three days later in what is described as a sickness that “befalls transgressors”, morbo illicitorum.[50] It was believed that Herman’s death was the result of divine retribution and charges of simony.

Besides from the retribution, St Edmund became a prominent saint in England, being regarded as the saint of the East. In fact, Abbot Lambert of St Nicholas in Angers regarded Edmund as the “totius Anglie patronum”.[51] Miracles involving the North Sea, the Channel, and regions as far as Italy proved the influence that Baldwin had sought to promote.[52] This ‘golden age’ of the cult, however, soon passed with the deaths of Herman and Baldwin. Yet, the utilisation of the saint for the acquisition of wealth remained. From 1097, the diocesan Herbet Losinga took over as abbot after Baldwin. In 1101, Herbet, who owned the estate of Hoxne, sought to transfer the cult centre to his property.[53] Such a notion arose from the first miracle of St Edmund whereby a blind man was given sight. This was deemed controversial as it occurred outside of Bury at the chapel at Hoxne. Herbet thus aimed to promote a rival cult within his domain to increase his personal wealth and prestige – a pursuit which ultimately failed but highlights the wealth connected to saints and how greed persisted.[54]

Bury also provides evidence which shows that aside from pilgrims, a saint could yield extremely high donations from monarchs. In 1296, the fines and forfeitures exacted, whenever the king’s ministers of the market passed through Bury, were granted to St Edmund.[55] These large sums went towards adorning the shrine in luxurious items and detail. In 1238, Henry III granted both Bury and Canterbury over 300 one-pound candles to burn on feast days.[56] Considering that wax at this time cost between 5d. and 7d. per pound when bought in bulk, this was a considerable and wealthy donation.[57]

From the wealth of Bury, it is understandable why cathedrals would later catch onto this phenomenon and virality of saints to also gain wealth and increase their prestige. Hereford provides a perfect example of one such cathedral that established a cult to participate within the monastic competition over pilgrims. The financial aid that St Thomas Cantilupe provided the cathedral was enormous.[58] The cult of Cantilupe, in the first thirty years of its establishment, funded significant building projects at the cathedral. The fabric roll of 1290/91 shows that revenues from donations amounted to £178 10s. 7d., or rather 60% of the cathedral’s total income.[59] In fact, Worcester also found its income increase by £10 simply by being on the pilgrim route to Hereford.[60] Thus, as a source of income the shrine was very profitable, and these funds were reinvested into the clergy and cathedral to boost pilgrimage and, in turn, develop the prestige of Hereford. In 1291, Hereford accumulated more wax through donations than what was burnt, thus reporting a wax revenue of £20. Of this amount, a third was given to the chapter as payment.[61] What is notable is that the veneration and establishment of Cantilupe as a saint emerges from the backdrop of Bury’s successes with the cult of St Edmund. It is known that a great number of pilgrims from Hereford travelled to St Edmund.[62] Thus Hereford, in competition with Bury over territorial influence, wished to elevate their saint to regional prominence just as St Cuthbert, for example, was regarded as the saint of the north in the twelfth century.[63] Ultimately, adorning the cathedral in wealth to elevate the prestige of both the clergy and cathedral, as a result of the saint, shows that there is a viable economic gain from capitalising on saints.

The establishment of cults, however, was not always as successful as Hereford, Canterbury, or Bury. Norwich provides evidence for the repeated pursuit to capitalise on a saint for the gain of wealth. Between 1144 and 1172, the body of the young boy St William was translated four times: first from Thorpe Wood to the Monk’s cemetery; then to the Chapter House; then to a place on the south side of the High Altar; and lastly to a Chapel on the north side of the High Altar.[64] The question is of course, why was he translated so many times? One suggestion could be made that this was conducted in order for building works to progress. The shrine of Edward the Confessor, for instance, was translated two feet to the west to accommodate Henry V’s tombs.[65] Yet typically in those examples, a translation ceremony is not present. Another reason for multiple translations is that they are undertaken in conjunction with the completion of building projects. There is evidence to suggest that one of the translations of William coincided with the completion of a re-built church.[66] Yet, this does not fully explain why St William had such frequent translations. Instead, each translation at Norwich could be regarded as an attempt to rejuvenate the cult. An example of this can be seen at Much Wenlock where, upon the decline of the Anglo-Saxon community, Cluniac’s went to great lengths to discover and translate the relics of Milburga and rejuvenate her cult.[67] Quite simply, the popularity of Bury combined with the dubious nature of William’s martyrdom meant that Norwich could not establish and maintain a prominent cult.

Nevertheless, what is particularly interesting about Norwich is the insistence in its miracula of St William to donate candles. For example, a well-known man in Norwich named Hildebrand was struck by severe illness. Believing that he seemed to near his end, his friends who were present advised that “a candle should at once be made and taken to the martyrs sepulchre” for the recovery of the sick man.[68] When this was done without delay, he began to get well. What is particularly interesting is the following emphasis: “According to the testimony of those who were with him when we was ill and when he got well, we have been informed that it was at that very instant when the candle was brought to the holy martyr that the anguish of his disease abated.”[69] That reiteration is particularly interesting as it stresses the importance of the candle being donated, and this is not the only example of this insistence. Another miracle details a woman cured twice of a cancer. The woman, like Hildebrand, donated a candle to the shrine and her cancer subsided, but “day to day she put off presenting the wax to St William in accordance with her vow.”[70] As such, “the disease again attacked her breast more violently than before.”[71] This punishment is reminiscent of the coerciveness detailed in the miracula of St Erkenwald because again, there is an inherent morale culture that you must donate to the saint and honour your vows for the reason that if you don’t, then you will suffer more. The woman in the miracle once again donates and offers wax whereby she is immediately cured. Equally, only when “a certain Ida” with pain in all her limbs,[72] “a certain man with the dropsy”,[73] and a “ten-year-old whose whole body was powerless” donated candles to the shrine were these people then relieved of their pain.[74]

What is interesting about the miracula of any saint is that they will all contain a set of similar stories, for instance the blind being cured, which emerged from a conflict between personal stories and the typological canon reminiscent of writes such as St. Augustine, Sulpicius Severus, Bede, Gregory of Tours, and Gregory the Great.[75] The process in which miracula was constructed can provide an in-depth understanding into the context and motivations of the authors. Thomas Head, for example, has stated that there are two movements within the hagiographical writing process: “from the folkloric culture of the layman to the clerical culture of the monk.”[76] In other words, from reality to the topos. It is in this understanding that a strong argument can be made that most miracles contained inserted motifs, and that other miracles were even invented in their entirety. Thus, in the miracula of St William, once we remove the topos, very little ‘folkloric culture’ remains. As such, consistent motifs that reinforce the need for financial support, especially regarding wax, are highly frequent within the countless inserted miracles.

Candles were central to cult worship, yet for cathedrals they were a highly expensive commodity. Norwich represents a clear picture of the costs a cathedral may incur from candles. The sacrist spent, on average, £30 out of a £50 budget which included ten to twelve hundredweight of wax as well as its conversion into candle form.[77] In order to attempt to avoid such costs, any candles left unused at altars and shrines were collected by cathedrals to be melted and reused elsewhere. The bellringer and chamberlains at St Paul’s cathedral, for example, would collect unused candles offered to the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary situated in the nave and take them to a room below the chapter house where the candles would be melted down and the wax reused for general ceremonies by the dean and chapter.[78] Pilgrims also recognised the hefty cost of wax by occasionally granting rents to support candles which is why cathedrals, such as Norwich, exploit their saints to specifically alleviate those costs.[79] What is particularly notable is that, on the occasion that the demand for wax was reached through donations or even exceeded, this great cost could transform into a wealthy revenue. This was the case with Hereford where, according to taxation records, so much wax was donated in 1291 that a wax profit, rather than deficit, was reached.[80] Though true that this scenario was a rare occurrence, this pursuit to alleviate wax costs and even profit from them provides strong evidence for Norwich’s candle obsession in St William’s miracula. Especially considering that, unlike the other cathedral’s previously analysed, records show that St William’s shrine never accumulated an income more than a few pence. In fact, throughout the majority of the shrine’s history, donations were so small that any gift could drastically change the year’s total revenue.[81] As such, the statistical analysis of St William’s shrine is largely futile. Thus, given the financial strain of candles on cathedral expenses in conjunction with the lack of offerings to alleviate such costs, it is fairly clear that Norwich undertook a series of translation ceremonies with a coercive miracula to ‘kick-start’ its cult following and acquire wealth.

From the analysis and research of the abovementioned shrines, it can be theorised that there is a two-tiered categorisation of saints that is key in answering the question at hand. All saints in their origin relied on an initial viral spread of popular enthusiasm and fervour. Yet within the following decade, a divergence occurs which is dependent upon official veneration. The outcome of which, distinguishes the commercial longevity of the cult. Saints, like St William of Norwich, who were never officially canonised, tended to receive a burst of high income in the initial establishment of the cult which was then followed by an extremely rapid downfall. As such, in these cases, the cult relied predominantly on reputation of the acclaimed saint which lasted only as long as that reputation and memory remained. Sacrist rolls show, for example, that the cults of Wharton at Durham and Archbishop Winchelsey at Canterbury cease after only fifty years, at which point donations fall below 1s.[82] Equally, the cult of St William of Norwich had struggled to entice crowds and donations by 1272/3 despite the production of the vita.[83] The second category, however, equally began with the initial burst of popularity, but was able to sustain such enthusiasm through official veneration, sponsorship, and clergy involvement. This includes St Edmund and St Swithun, but ultimately St Thomas Becket was the most prominent saint of this category. The enterprise surrounding these saints was vast and included grand translation and jubilee celebrations, as well as numerous collections of miracles written within the accompanying vita. Typically, however, it was these cathedrals that also had successful underlying enterprises which capitalised on those said saints. Operations of relic handling, indulgences, and simony. Yet, it was not completely smooth sailing for this category of saint as these cathedrals consistently saw ebbs and flows of pilgrims, leading to an irregular pattern of revenue. Understanding these categories is significant as it leads to the conclusion that saints, at best, only ever provided their cathedrals with a temporary and highly unstable revenue, rather than a consistent income.

A large reason for such an inconsistency of revenue originates in pilgrim donation culture. Evidence suggests that offerings presented to shrines were not entirely related to the wealth of the person. Rather, it seems that pilgrims typically donated a single coin, as if it were part of a symbolic discourse of dedication and faith. Illustrated in numerous miracula, such as the Vita Sancti Wulfstani by William of Malmesbury, are references to such devotional ideas that pilgrims not only offered a coin, but also partook in a practice of bending pennies or hanging them around the neck to seal an oath or vow of pilgrimage.[84] With fluctuating wage-rates and inflation, there would be an expectation that as the value of the coin changed, so would the donation, yet this does not seem to be the case.[85] Obviously, some pilgrims, such as monarchs, would donate notable amounts of rent, commodities, or money. But, for the majority of pilgrims, a single coin was the appropriate devotional token. What is notable, however, is that there is little evidence found to accuse clergy of encouraging pilgrims to increase their spending at altars. Commercialisation instead took hold in the surrounding enterprises, such as devotional stations, indulgences, and relic handling, which hoped to attract additional spending. It is this pilgrim tradition, however, that leads to the consideration that faith and wealth co-existed together.

Unlike the arguments for wealth in which statistical and literary analysis can build an understanding, faith is an intangible factor. Yet this essay has narrowly focused on a case-by case scenario of only a few monastic communities, and within that, an analysis of a particular period and monastic administration. In the example of Bury, though Archdeacon Herman ran a large and successful enterprise of saint commercialisation, his miracula was later revised and edited by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin because of accusations of simony (as well as personal vendetta). And though there are miracula whereby coercive tones of manipulation are present, there are equally as many genuine miracle collectors who aimed to express faith and devotion in their writing. Such authors include Eadmer of Canterbury who sought to write with “the love of truth alone”,[86] and Osbert of Clare who believed “it is splendid to fill the ears of the people with a series of miracles […] and even more splendid to set them down in reliable writing.”[87] Many miracle collectors follow a pattern whereby they condemn their predecessor’s ‘negligence’ whilst stating that they will uphold and promote posterity.[88] As such, saints gave writers and church administrators either a humility or arrogance dependent upon their own point of view. Some believed in a genuine expression of devotion and faith whilst others sought to exploit. Yet even when exploitation was rife, certain representations of devotion and faith persisted in traditions.

Fundamentally, although the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury consistently attracted hundreds of pounds per year which accounted for 88% of all offerings and 28% of Canterbury’s total revenue,[89] this was an exceptional example of a saint cult that was unlike no other. Yet, even still, 1220 to 1260 saw a smooth decline in shrine revenue at a rate of 5.2% (a natural relaxation of pilgrims following the translation ceremony).[90] In conjunction with other shrines, however, the majority of donation incomes were inconsistent and rarely surpassed £100 (only usually when notable events occurred). Across the period in question, these incomes only ever accounted for an averaged 10% of cathedral revenue. [91] Though these percentages should not be disregarded as this was still a substantial contribution to church revenue, but the question remains if saints were economically viable. Given the hefty cost of translation and jubilee ceremonies combined with expenses of wax, shrine maintenance, and pilgrim hospitality, it is open to debate the extent to which cathedrals made profits. In 1218/19, the cellarer’s expenses at the shrine of St Thomas Becket amounted to £692 7s. 11d., whilst donation income accumulated £872 7d, resulting in a considerable net profit.[92] A reasonable argument, however, is that the years which saw a profit were those that contained special events, ceremonies, or royal visits. Profits, however, are evident in cathedral records. But when profits did occur, these were reinvested predominantly into the clergy. 90% of the pyx income at Durham, along with rents and other incomes, was enriched firstly to the monks, and secondly to the priory administration.[93] As such, a sensible conclusion is that shrines provided a supplementary income to their respective cathedrals which was predominantly paid to churchman. I, for one, believe that though it is difficult to be precise, it is reasonable to state that saints were exploited by certain monastic communities due to the fact that they were largely profitable throughout the 11th to 13th centuries. Yet this essay has focused primarily on the period relatively contemporary to the post-Conquest establishment of cults surrounding saints. To aid in this research, a study of the later centuries, especially the appropriation of cults during the Black Death, will allow for a greater understanding as to how new cults emerged and current cults survived. Equally, a study of the commercialisation of saints on the continent, especially of cathedrals along the famous Camino de Santiago, will aid in understanding if expressions of faith are proportionate to financial exploitation.

It must be mentioned, of course, that in its core, saints, shrines, and their accompanying miracula, were all part of a grand ecosystem of monasticism, patronage, and devotion within Christianity. As such, faith and wealth have a symbiotic relationship within the enterprise of saints that is highly difficult to distinguish between in the Middle Ages.


[1] Arcoid, The Saint of London: The Life and Miracles of St. Erkenwald, ed. E. Gordon Whatley, (New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1989), pp. 133-135.

[2] Ibid, p.135

[3] Ibid, p.133

[4] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, (BOYE6; Illustrated edition, 2001), p.147

[5] Ibid.

[6] This understanding has been utilised many writers, but most recently in Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages, (New York: Viking, 2021), whom devotes Chapter 6 to this concept.

[7] These were: St Dunstan and St Alphege at Canterbury, St Indract and St Paulinus at Rochester, St Erkenwald at London, St Chad at Lichfield, St Swithun at Winchester, St Oswald at Worcester and St St Cuthbert at Durham. Ely, not yet but soon to be a cathedral, possessed the famously uncorrupted body of St Etheldreda. Of course, many of the greater abbeys also held ancient shrines, notably those at St Albans and Bury St Edmunds.

Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.9

[8] Richard Sharpe, “The Setting of St Augustine’s Translation, 1091” in Canterbury and the Norman Conquest (Bloomsbury Academic 1995), p.1

[9] Peter Draper, “Bishop Northwold and the Cult of Saint Etheldreda” in Medieval Art and Architecture at Ely Cathedral (BAACT, vol. 2, 1979), p. 19.

[10] Winchester translated St Swithun in 1093 and Bury translated St Edmund in 1095.

[11] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.13-14

[12] Thomas Burton, Chronica Monasterii de Melsa, ed. E.A. Bond (RS, vol. 43, 1868), vol. 1, p. 406.

[13] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.21

[14] Ibid, p.24

[15] Walter of Coventry, The Historical Collections of Walter of Coventry, ed. W. Stubbs (RS, vol. 58, 1872), vol. 2, p. 245.

[16] 'In praesentia omnium fere episcoporum atque abbatum Angliae': Annales Monasterii de Wintonia, in Annales Monastici, vol. 2, ed. H.R. Luard (RS, vol. 36, 1865), p. 37

[17] W.H Dixon, Fasti Eboracensis, (London: 1863), p. 228.

[18] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.24

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid, p.25

[21] Henry of Avranches, Shorter Latin Poems, pp. 689, 73.

[22] 'The archbishop caused the barrels of wine to be laid on their sides in bowers in the middle of the street, and his servants to be set there, to give liberally to the people during the heat without any payment of money': A.P. Stanley, 'The Shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury', in Historical Memorials of Canterbury (12th ed., London, 1891), p. 200.

[23] Tom License, ‘The cult of St Edmund’, in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2014) p.107-112

[24] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.148

[25] Ibid.

[26] C.E. Woodruff, 'The Financial Aspect of the Cult of St. Thomas of Canterbury', Archaeologia Cantiana, vol. 44 (1932), p. 29

[27] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.148

[28] Ibid, p.169

[29] Ibid, p.182

[30] C.E Woodruff, 'Sacrist's Rolls of Canterbury', Archaeologia Cantiana, vol. 48 (1936), p. 76.

[31] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.137

[32] A. J. Duggan, ‘Canterbury: The Becket Effect’, in Canterbury: A Medieval City, ed. C. Royer-Hemet (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2010), pp.71-74

[33] Paul Webster and Marie-Pierre Geli, The Cult of St Becket in the Plantagenet World, c.1170-1220, (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016), p.8

[34] Ibid, p.9

[35] Ibid.

[36] Rachel Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), p. 141

[37] Ibid.

[38] Paul Webster and Marie-Pierre Geli, The Cult of St Becket in the Plantagenet World, c.1170-1220, p.8

[39] Emmanual Walberg, “Date de la composition des recueils de Miracula Sancti Thomae Cantuariensis.” Le Moyen Age, Vol 22. (1920): 259-274.

[40] Rachel Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England, p. 142

[41] Ibid, p.145

[42] “Sed ut dicunt, in corpus sancti martyris vel in ecclesiam Cantuariensaem vindicari minatus est; usque adeo enim iniqui susurrstores et serpentine instigstores eum exasperaverant.” As written by the Lansdowne Anonymous Writer, sourced from Rachel Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England, p. 145

[43] Walther Holtzmann, “Decretales Ineditae Saeculi XII” Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana Vol 4, no 36, (1982), p.36-37

[44] Tom License, “The cult of St Edmund” in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest, p.107-112

[45] Ibid, p.12

[46] C.W. Jones, The Nicholas Liturgy and its Literary Relationships (Ninth to Twelfth Centuries), with an Essay on the Music by Gilbert Reaney (Berkeleym 1963), 45-6.

[47] Miracle 28 of St Edmund’s Miracula: “When Lord Baldwin set out for Rome, he took with him some of the aforesaid relics of the saint, giving a share of them to many people, both to inculcate pious devotion and to ensure that the saint’s good reputation would grow in the opinion of the faithful.” Sourced from Tom License, “Miracles of St Edmund by Herman” in Herman the Archdeacon and Goscelin of Saint-Bertin: Miracles of St Edmund (Oxford: Oxford Medieval Texts, 2014), p.81

[48] Tom License, “Herman and his Career” in Herman the Archdeacon and Goscelin of Saint-Bertin: Miracles of St Edmund, p. lii-liii

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Tom License, “The cult of St Edmund” in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest, p.117

[52] Such miracles include Miracle 28 whereby a boy in Italy is cured, and Miracle 43 whereby sixty-four sailors were rescued from perish when crossing “the great sea”. Sourced from Tom License, “Miracles of St Edmund by Herman” in Herman the Archdeacon and Goscelin of Saint-Bertin: Miracles of St Edmund (Oxford: Oxford Medieval Texts, 2014).

[53] Tom License, “The cult of St Edmund” in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest, p.118

[54] Ibid.

[55] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.146

[56] Ibid, p.137

[57] Ibid.

[58] Penelope Morgan, 'Effect of the Pilgrim Cult on Hereford', in St Thomas Cantilupe, bishop of Hereford: essays in his honour ed. M. Jancey (Hereford, 1982), pp. 151-2.

[59] Nigel Yates, 'The Fabric Rolls of Hereford Cathedral, 1290/1 and 1386/7', The National Library of Wales, Vol. 18 (2004), p. 79.

[60] Acta Sanctorum, October, vol. 1, p. 584; D.L. Douie, 'The Canonization of St. Thomas of Hereford', Dublin Review, vol. 229, no. 469 (1955), p. 276.

[61] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.160

[62] Tom License, “The cult of St Edmund” in Bury St Edmunds and the Norman Conquest, p.114

[63] Ibid.

[64] Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1896), p. lxxxi

[65] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.18-20

[66] Ibid, p.20

[67] Ibid.

[68] Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich, p.159

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid, p.266

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid, p.155

[73] Ibid, p.158

[74] Ibid.

[75] Rachel Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England, p. 29

[76] Thomas Head, “I Vow Myself To Be Your Servant: An Eleventh-Century Pilgrim, His Chronicler and His Saint”, Réflexions Historiques, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Fall 1984), p.230

[77] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.137

[78] William Dugdale, The History of St Paul's Cathedral in London from its Foundation (2nd edn, London, 1716) p. 21

[79] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.307

[80] Acta Sanctorum, October, vol. 1, p. 584; D.L. Douie, 'The Canonization of St. Thomas of Hereford', Dublin Review, vol. 229, no. 469 (1955), p. 276.

[81] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.157

[82] Ibid, p.172

[83] Ibid.

[84] See for example miracles in William of Malmesbury, Vita Sancti Wulfstani, pp. 1246, and 128

[85] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.175

[86] Rachel Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England, p. 93

[87] Ibid, 98

[88] Ibid 97; An example of which is that “a large number of Modwenna’s miracles had been forgotten through negligence” as written by Geoffrey of Burton between 1118-1135, (and also sourced from Koopman, p.97).

[89] Benjamin Nilson, The Cathedral Shrines of England, p.182

[90] Ibid, p.169

[91] Ibid, p.182

[92] Ibid, p.185

[93] Ibid, p.186


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