Of What Importance Were the Saints in the Middle Ages?
The idea of saints developed with early Christianity, evolving over time alongside the religion. By the time the book of Acts was written, the idea of saints was already in place. It describes the virtuous lives of Peter, Paul and Stephen in saintly terms, and tells the stories of several martyrs who willingly gave their lives for their religion. During the Middle Ages, the saints were important sources of inspiration and teaching for European Christians.
1 Development of Saints
Initially the bar for sainthood was quite low. In the New Testament the word "saint" was used to describe anyone who accepted Jesus Christ as the son of God, regardless of heroic or public acts of devotion. The definition of the term quickly narrowed. By A.D. 200, the term saint was being used primarily to describe people who were martyred for the Christian religion. During the Middle Ages, Christian martyrs became more rare, so the term saint began to be applied to those who were deemed to have served the Christian faith in any significant way, such as outstanding bishops and ascetics.
2 Designating Places for Worship
One of the most important functions saints served during the Middle Ages was as justification for the designation of holy places. Christian teachings do not ascribe holiness to certain geographical spots based on location alone. Rather, it is through association with important people that locations become sacred. In the very early days of the Christian church, places were only deemed holy through association with Jesus Christ. As Christianity spread during the Middle Ages, more places for worship were needed. The idea of saints allowed for locations to be granted sacred status due to their association with them. If a saint had visited a place, or a relic of theirs was housed there, that spot could be regarded as sacred.
3 Justification for Expansion
The relationship between the worship of saints and physical locations provided many Christians with strong motivation to take pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. The Roman church in particular encouraged followers to journey to specific locations to participate in devotions, or gather with other believers for worship. The idea that miracles could be accomplished by visiting certain locations that were associated with specific saints began to be widely accepted. Men and women of all social classes began to travel to saintly shrines in hopes of gaining forgiveness, healing or a blessing.
4 Inspiration for a Christian Life
In addition to providing motivation for pilgrimages, the saints also provided Christians with inspiration and motivation during the Middle Ages. The stories of the saints often told of heroic and inspiring feats, and untarnished virtue. Many people believed that the saints could act as intercessors, petitioning God for the specific earthly needs of believers. Since many saints were internationally known, they often served as uniting figures, connecting Christians of different classes and nationalities in their support for a single movement.