Saint Kim Kardashian? The Fascinating Story of How the Saints Were the Celebs of the Middle Ages

St George slaying the dragon – Photo Credit 

St Christopher was one of the most popular Saints of the Middle Ages. He was the Patron Saint of travelers, so many Catholics would pray to him before embarking on a journey; a pilgrimage, for example.

His protection was seen as being powerful, and could protect a traveler against bandits, illness or accident en route. Many pilgrims would wear a pendant with St Christopher on it as a good luck charm.

Who Are the Saints?

Saints are people venerated in the Catholic Church as having led holy lives.  If someone is seen as having lived a life of “heroic virtue” then they can be put forward to the Vatican to be “canonized” (made a Saint). Such as process of canonization can take just a few years (in the case of Pope John Paul II) or even centuries, in the case of some medieval Saints.

There are only two qualifiers for Sainthood – living a holy life, and being dead.

Yes, Sainthood is only awarded posthumously. So if you are canonized, you don’t get to bask in the glory in this life!

In medieval times there was a great emphasis on praying to the Saints – the church taught that since they were holy people, Saints went straight to heaven after death. It was assumed that therefore Saints had the ear of God, and could “put in a good word” for the faithful on earth. This is called intercession.

There are literally thousands of such Saints in the Catholic faith. All seen as being exemplars of virtue, having led holy lives worthy of imitation. These Saints have a social function too – serving as the glue that held medieval society together, all helping the medieval person through the journey of life with their intercession.

Who are the Saints today?

But what about the modern world?

Who are today’s Saints?

Well, in the skeptical West, Catholic Saints have lost much of their lustre. So who has replaced them in our hearts?

Well, the answer seems to be celebrities.

From celeb royalty – The Royal Family – through to film stars, pop stars, TV stars and sports stars, the adulation, reverence and esteem that these stars are held in today very closely mirrors  the glory that the Saints were held in the Middle Ages.

Lives of the Saints – Just like Hello Magazine?

For example, a v popular devotional text from the Middle Ages was “The Lives of the Saints”. These came in various forms, but basically told stories of great virtue and heroism from those great figures of history

Whether it was a Saint killing a dragon, or one refusing to recant his beliefs to the point of death in Roman Times, all the stories were today what we would call hagiography – a mixture of myth and history.

Today, in the same vein, magazines like “Hello” and “OK” parade celebrities on their front cover, offering their readers a glimpse into a rich, glamorous life that the reader can aspire to.

In the same way, these modern lives are “touched up” to produce an almost unreal effect, similar to that of The Lives of the Saints.

Relics and Shrines

A similar theme can be struck between the tombs of dead Saints and the tombs of dead celebrities. I’m not the first to find a correspondence between a medieval pilgrimage to Rome or Santiago de Compostela on one hand, and someone holidaying to Graceland today to see where their favourite popstar, Elvis, is buried.

In the Middle Ages, relics and pilgrimage was a massive industry. If a church or Cathedral was able to obtain what was thought of as a Saint’s relics – say, a lock of hair, or a bit of bone – then a whole industry of tourism would be built up around them.

There would be hostels to house the pilgrims, donations to the church, trinkets to sell them, and taverns to feed them. Whole towns sprang up to service this entire pilgrimage industry.

Something very similar greets people in Graceland, USA, when they visit. They pay the entry fee, revere the relics, and stay in the hotels.

There’s money to be made!

And In case you thought the pilgrimage was dead – last year almost 200,000 people walked the Camino in Spain – The Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela.

Not dead yet!

Change in Saints

Avid Kleinberg notes how the type of celebrity in the Middle Ages was not linear – it actually changed around the 12th Century. Before then, Saints tended to be spiritual athletes – hermits, ascetics, bearers of torture and stigmata – closely tied to their communities.

With the 12th Century, you get people like St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Francis of Assisi and St Anthony of Padua, all figures who go beyond the normal mould. The fact that this new breed of Saint was recognized across a broad territory meant there had emerged the beginnings of a network of communication, and the emergence of new ideas.

Indeed there has often been a viable thesis put forward of a 12th Century Renaissance, which would work well here.

Who were some of the most famous medieval Saints?

  • St George – (d.303 AD) – One of the most famous medieval Saints, according to legend George was a Roman soldier who was martyred for his faith for refusing to recant his faith in the face of Roman persecution. George was also famous in legend for slaying a dragon. St George is the Patron Saint of England, Malta and Georgia.
  • Andrew the Apostle – (d.1st Century AD) One of the 12 disciples, Andrew is featured in the Gospels as a loyal follower of Jesus. He is one of the fishermen to whom Jesus says, “come, I will make you fishers of men.” Understandably, Andrew is known as the Patron Saint of fishermen and fishmongers. Many a fishermen has prayed to him for his intercession on stormy seas, I’m sure.
  • St Bede – (d.735 AD) – The Patron Saint of Historians. Bede was an Anglo-Saxon monk who lived in northern England during the Dark Ages. He wrote the classic “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, one of the first histories of England. Historians pray to him for his blessing during writing of their works.

 

Who Might Their Modern Counterparts Be?

  • Russell Brand – Patron Saint of addicts? Brand, the world famous UK born comedian, actor and You Tuber, suffered from addictions to various substances in his youth. These include heroin, crack cocaine, and sex. Brand recovered fully by taking the 12 step program in his youth. He has stayed clean and sober for years now. He could serve as a good role model for people struggling with addiction.
  • Jennifer Aniston – Patron Saint of unlucky in loves? Aniston is most famous for her role in 90’s sitcom friends, but also her roles in many rom-com’s subsequently. She famously has had a string of broken relationships behind her, and is seen as being “unlucky in love”. Many who were in the same position as her could certainly identify with her.
  • Justin Bieber – Could be the Patron Saint of Christians? A devout Christian, Bieber is known for his association with Australian megachurch Hillsong. He has been vocal about his faith, and speaks up for Christians undergoing persecution or strife.

Conclusion

It can be fun to make comparisons between the fame of medieval Saints and modern celebrities. But you could say that, despite the similarities, there are differences too.

Saints are known for their devout holiness, which seems far out of reach for us mortals most of the time. Celebs, on the other hand, are known for very much ordinary-ness, with their car crash lives, broken marriages and drug busts.

But while the Saints may be better role models (as writer Alain De Botton has pointed out) they are part myth, part legend, part history. Many of the Saints’ lives have been obviously made up. Even Catholic historians would agree with that.

So is it realistic to set up the Saints as models of holiness when so many are not realistic?

Well, as these stories have evolved over the centuries, they have taken on a colour that is attractive to many of us today.  We must ask ourselves the question: will today’s celeb stories be known by many in 1000 year’s time?

Perhaps the Saints stories have a longevity that will outlast modern celebs.

Perhaps the Saints are the real heroes, for that fact at least.

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