(Towards a unified theory of miracles)
“Healing shrines are of necessity local shrines.
Compostela, Rome, and Jerusalem had local inhabitants,
however, no more healthy than people elsewhere.”
(Ward 1987, 125)
Five or ten centuries ago dead men were less dead than they are today. In contrast to people of our own time medieval people maintained a close relationship with the world of the dead. To borrow a nice formulation of Régis Boyer, this archaic world was “hanté (…) par les morts devenus esprits, si l'on veut, en vérité passés à un autre état, vivant d'une autre vie, en interférence permanente avec les humains 'actuels', et toujours susceptibles, soit de les informer, soit de céder à leurs impérieuses solicitations. (…) Il n'y a pas vie et mort, il y a deux modes de vie” (“Postface” in Lecouteux 1986, 238).
Saints were not the only ones able to communicate across the boundary separating the living from the dead. In the Middle Ages virtually all the non-living had this capacity. In other words, one part or layer of the saintly condition was widespread and nonspecific. When placed in this context the posthumous activity of the saints loses something of its extraordinary quality.
Let me illustrate this with an example. According to Claude Lecouteux, a large part of ancient and medieval “revenants” were a response of those who were not properly buried (insepulti and indeplorati). He quotes letter VII, 25 of Pliny the Younger which tells how a ghost appeared to the Greek philosopher Athenodorus and led him to the place where his body was secretly buried (Lecouteux 1986, 21). Similarly, a folk-tale known as “The singing bone” narrates how a human bone, turned into flute by a shepherd, revealed that its owner had been murdered (ibid. 141). These “ghost stories” have an obvious hagiographic parallel in the inventio genre. An inventio from the early fifth century narrates how the body of St. Stephen was discovered after the ghost of Gamaliel (a jurist known from the Acts of the Apostles) appeared