The Power of the Locale and the Revisitation of Late Medieval Sainthood

Carmen Florea, Babeş-Bolyai University, Romania

  • This newsletter’s guest columnist is Professor Carmen Florea, whose recent monograph The Late Medieval Cult of the Saints: Universal Developments within Local Contexts was just published in the Hagiography Society’s Sanctity in Global Perspective book series. Here is a link to further information about her book.

A paradoxical image emerges from a comparison of parochial patron saints with mendicant saints in late medieval Transylvania. Neither the Dominicans nor Franciscans—the great modernizers of sanctity—chose to promote saints of their own orders by making them the patrons of local churches. This was in spite of the fact that they were both establishing strong networks of houses in the kingdom of Hungary to which medieval Transylvania belonged and experiencing significant success in winning the canonizations of saints of their own orders. This remained the case even in the fifteenth century, when the Observant reform was sweeping the region.

One notable exception worth considering is Saint Elizabeth of Hungary/Thuringia, canonized in 1235. Sources from 1300 show that Elizabeth became the patron of the Franciscan friary established in Sibiu (Hermannstadt, Nagyszeben), one of the most important Transylvanian towns. Sibiu, recently formed as a result of Saxon colonization and royal privileges granting it autonomy, proved a particularly apt protector for the friars. As Gábor Klaniczay’s recent research shows, Elizabeth, descended from the Hungarian Arpadian dynasty, was also a truly universal saint venerated not only in Hungary (hence Elizabeth of Hungary), but also beyond in Germany (hence Elizabeth of Thuringia). Her multiple regional identities perfectly suited the multicultural identity of Sibiu and also the friars’ charitable focus on assisting the poor.

As I discuss in my recent book on cults in medieval Transylvania, centralized and international religious organizations like the mendicant orders distinguished themselves through an ingenious policy of adaptation to local religious realities. Both Dominicans and Franciscans remained faithful to the traditional holy figures of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and early medieval saints dominating the region’s religious landscape. Nevertheless, subtle changes in their saintly strategies can be detected: the mendicants favoured cults that were gaining preeminence in Transylvania—such the cults of Holy Cross and Saint Nicholas—precisely at the time they were settling in the region.

The most interesting transformation occurred when the Observant movement took hold, leading to the reformation of many male convents and the formation of new female houses. Observant Dominicans promoted holy protectors who embodied the exigencies of a cloistered, ascetic, and penitential way of life. These included Egidius, Anthony the Great, and Mary Magdalene. The Observant Franciscans took a different path. They reinvigorated the universal and long-established cult of the Virgin Mary by promoting new devotions to, for example, Our Lady of the Snows who became the patron of their friary in Cluj (Kolozsvár, Klausenburg), and the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin, highly revered in the convent of Şumuleu Ciuc (Csíksomlyó).

Analysis of the competition between the Dominicans and Franciscans, and the more general and often fierce competition between mendicants and parish clergy, clearly reveals how saints were used in the process of identity construction. The patron saints of mendicant convents always differed from those of the nearby parish churches and became visible emblems of mendicant identity. Their identities were marked also by recently canonized mendicant saints such as Bernadino, Bonaventure, and Catherine of Siena. Significantly, these new cults were largely confined within the wall of the reformed friaries and nunneries and were seldom promoted outside the mendicant churches. This was a cloistered sanctity that both shaped and enforced specific identities. It also signalled the equilibirum the friars struck between their propagation of refashioned traditional models and new models of saintliness. Exploring saints’ cults in Transylvania reveals how the mendicants transformed archaic approaches to sainthood and made the borders more permeable between Latin Christendom and a region that had been previously deemed marginal to it.

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