"Saints and Mystics: Before Trent"

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The cult of saints was a key expression of popular piety and Christian doctrine in premodern Europe. While holy people strove to transcend the sinfulness of the world, after their death their remains were sought out to satisfy worldly needs. This paradox lay at the heart of the Protestant rejection of the cult of saints, which prompted the Catholic hierarchy to institutionalize profound changes in approved models of holiness and in the canonization procedure aimed at recognizing true sanctity after the Council of Trent (1545–1563) (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Saints and Mystics: After Trent”). In the pre-Tridentine era—broadly conceived as spanning from the Great Schism (1378–1417) to 1545—the canonization process controlled by the papacy, as crystallized in the 13th century, did not undergo such a structural transformation. Nonetheless, the end of the Schism was followed by a lull in canonizations (in 1418–1445) and the ensuing imposition of stricter standards for approved sanctity. As in the 13th and early 14th centuries, aspiring saints in the pre-Tridentine era continued to hail mainly from urban settings and were predominantly Italian, followed by a considerably smaller number of Iberian and French and even fewer holy people from other parts of Europe. Nonetheless, some distinctive features distinguished holiness in this era from other periods in the history of Christianity: (1) Humanist engagement in ancient texts, combined with the new technology of print, led to an upsurge in hagiographic production. (2) Humanists and Mendicant preachers promoted cults of recently deceased saints in campaigns that fueled anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments, and contributed to the rise of witch-hunting (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Witch Hunt”). (3) The Great Schism deepened suspicions toward charismatic women, whose public visibility had reached its apex during the Avignon Papacy (1309–1377), when mystics such as Catherine of Siena (b. 1347–d. 1380) attained notable public influence. The burning for heresy in 1431 of Joan of Arc (proclaimed a saint in 1920, see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Joan of Arc”) is emblematic of the increased blurring of the distinction between the divinely inspired woman mystic and the diabolical heretic. (4) The importance that city dwellers ascribed to oral eloquence paved the way for the success of reformist Observant preachers such as Bernardino of Siena (d. 1444) (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “San Bernardino of Siena”) and Antonino Pierozzi (b. 1389–d. 1459). Observant preachers who attacked key facets of Renaissance culture, though, were treading on dangerous ground; Girolamo Savonarola (b. 1452–d. 1498) (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Girolamo Savonarola”), who exemplified the political use of prophecy, was publicly executed—although he continued to be venerated for centuries. (5) Among those who contributed to the creation of Savonarola’s cult were women who conformed to the Italian typology of live women saints (sante vive), and who fashioned themselves as faithful emulators of Catherine of Siena. The so-called Catherinian model also inspired pious women in Iberia, where the end of the Reconquest ushered in the rise of female mystical sanctity that would peak after Trent, as well as in central Europe, where the Reformation ultimately led to the disappearance of ecstatic holy women.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Bibliographies Online: Renaissance and Reformation
EditorsMargaret L. King
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)0195399307
StatePublished - 2018


  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)


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