In This Article Saints and Mystics: Before Trent

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals

Renaissance and Reformation Saints and Mystics: Before Trent
Tamar Herzig
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0377


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.

General Overviews

Pierre Delooz’s groundbreaking study of the sociology of canonized sainthood pointed to the potential of canonization inquests and miracle collections for shedding light on the sensibilities of Christian society and their transformation over time, boosting historical interest in sanctity as a major category of human experience. Delooz 1983 (first published in 1962) had a notable influence on two monumental works from the 1980s that remain the standard points of departure for studying premodern sainthood, Vauchez 1997 (originally published in 1981) and Weinstein and Bell 1982. The former stops with the early 15th century and the latter does not focus exclusively on the pre-Tridentine era, yet both call attention to the typical aspects of Renaissance holiness, namely the preponderance of women mystics and the predominance of Italian candidates for sanctity. In light of these underlying features, most works in this section deal either with the Italian Peninsula or with female sanctity. Peterson 2000 insightfully surveys late-20th-century studies that have contributed to dismantling earlier notions of the “secular Renaissance” by demonstrating the importance of religion, including mystical spirituality and devotion to the saints, in Renaissance Italy. Zarri 2005 presents a valuable roadmap for studying the cult of saints in this period. Bornstein and Rusconi 1996 supplies a collection of seminal essays that allows for an appreciation of the crucial aspects of female mystical sanctity in Italy from the Great Schism to the Reformation. Zarri 2007 highlights the continuities, as well as the discontinuities, that characterized conceptions of women’s holiness before and after Trent. Though concerned chiefly with the late 16th and 17th centuries, De Certeau 1992 has had a notable impact on scholarship on premodern mysticism. Hollywood and Beckman 2012 is a collection of introductory essays by leading experts delineating the monastic, exegetical, and liturgical contexts for the evolution of Western Christian mysticism, providing a valuable resource from which to approach the field. McGinn 2012 is an indispensable exploration of the vernacular texts produced in various spiritual and cultural milieus in the 14th through the 16th centuries, from the Dutch Devotio Moderna (Modern Devotion) to the Florentine Platonists, with particular attention devoted to the Italian and English traditions of female mystical writing.

  • Bornstein, Daniel, and Roberto Rusconi, eds. Women and Religion in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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    Seminal collection of essays by leading scholars of Italian religious history. Originally published in Italian (Mistiche e devote nell’Italia tardomedievale [Naples: Liguori, 1992]), it elucidates the persistence of mysticism, asceticism, and charity as central traits of female sanctity from the 13th to the 16th centuries and illuminates the gendered aspects of Renaissance preaching and hagiographic production. Also includes a valuable historiographical introduction and concluding discussion of sources and methodology.

  • De Certeau, Michel. The Mystic Fable. Vol. 1, The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by Michael B. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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    Originally published in French (La fable mystique: XVIe–XVIIe siècle, tome 1 [Paris: Gallimard, 1982]), this is the first of two volumes (the second remaining in fragments and published after the author’s death in 1986) employing a transdisciplinary approach to the historical figure of the Christian mystic. A seminal work of post-structuralist thought that focuses on the late 16th and 17th centuries, it also touches on the pre-Tridentine mystical tradition.

  • Delooz, Pierre. “Towards a Sociological Study of Canonized Sainthood in the Catholic Church.” In Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History. Edited by Stephen Wilson, 189–216. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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    Originally published in French (“Pour une étude sociologique de la sainteté canonisée dans l’Église catholique,” Archives de sociologie des religions 13 [1962]: 17–43). This classic study of the sociology of sanctity points to the crucial distinction between the “real” lived experience of saintly individuals and their remodeling into canonized saints that embody the ideals of contemporary society. Stresses the different emphases in the social construction of sanctity and their historical transformation.

  • Hollywood, Amy, and Patricia Z. Beckman, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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    An important handbook on the Christian mystical tradition as practiced in the West from its origins until the Reformation era. Albeit concentrating mainly on the Middle Ages, it offers useful background for the pre-Tridentine period by providing historical context and introducing the key terms and main areas of research on Christian mysticism, as well as select bibliographies of major premodern mystical texts and modern works related to their study.

  • McGinn, Bernard. The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. Vol. 5, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, 1350–1550. New York: Crossroad, 2012.

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    The fifth volume of McGinn’s multivolume history of Western Christian mysticism, this masterful examination of key vernacular texts produced during the “Golden Age of Mysticism” in the Low Countries, Italy, and England reveals their broad range. Analyzing tracts, poems, and prophecies, McGinn traces the evolution of mystical teaching in an era fraught with calls for Church reform, illuminating the contribution of lay and female authors to developments in mystical theology.

  • Peterson, David S. “Out of the Margins: Religion and the Church in Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly 53.3 (2000): 835–879.

    DOI: 10.2307/2901500E-mail Citation »

    Excellent overview that locates trends in the study of pre-Tridentine sanctity and mysticism within broader advances in the historiography of Italian religious life in the 14th through 16th centuries. Peterson proposes that the articulation of new devotions and cults in Renaissance Italy amounted to the creation of a distinctively “Italianate” Christianity, which Italians ultimately sought to maintain by opting to remain loyal to the papacy during the Reformation.

  • Vauchez, André. Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages. Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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    Originally published as La sainteté en Occident aux derniers siècles du Moyen Âge (Rome: École française de Rome, 1981 [rev. ed. 1988]). Drawing on canonization processes from 1185 to 1431, Vauchez distinguishes southern and northern European models of holiness. Emphasizing the rise in canonizations of female saints in the 14th century, he points to the hiatus in canonizations in 1418–1445 and argues that it was followed by the papacy’s imposition of stricter standards.

  • Weinstein, Donald, and Rudolph M. Bell. Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000–1700. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

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    This landmark study explores the pursuit of holiness in premodern Europe as a form of individual religious expression that was bound up with socially and culturally defined notions of piety. The analysis of (chiefly) hagiographic accounts of 864 individuals who were reputed for sanctity enables Weinstein and Bell to discern key religious and social concerns and developments from the 11th through the 17th centuries.

  • Zarri, Gabriella. “L’età rinascimentale.” In Storia della santità nel cristianesimo occidentale. Edited by Anna Benvenuti, Sofia Boesch Gajano, Simon Ditchfield, Roberto Rusconi, Francesco Scorza Barcellona, and Gabriella Zarri, 224–260. Rome: Viella, 2005.

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    Helpful overview in Italian of pre-Tridentine sanctity. Surveys the main traits of Renaissance hagiography and the typologies of saints who received official recognition, changes in longstanding cults, and the ascendancy of popular visionaries and prophets who were never canonized. Zarri highlights the connection between the emergence of new cults and the surge in witch-hunting and anti-Jewish pogroms and discusses the impact of humanist and Lutheran critiques on early-16th-century sanctity.

  • Zarri, Gabriella. “Female Sanctity, 1500–1650.” In Reform and Expansion, 1500–1660. Edited by R. Po-Chia Hsia, 180–200. Cambridge History of Christianity 6. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    Probes the chief models of early modern female sanctity. Makes a strong case for the continuation of the medieval model of women’s mystical holiness and of “spiritual maternity” throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. Stressing the resurgence of female political prophecy—primarily in Italian but also in Spanish, German, and French regions—on the eve of the Reformation, Zarri argues that after Trent mysticism became the prerogative of cloistered nuns and was apoliticized.

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