The Decline of Punishment Miracles in Medieval Europe, c.1000-c.1200

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • David Rogan


While the study of hagiography has become more popular recently, few historians have explored why saints would be depicted killing Christians. Most representations of the saints picture them healing the sick. Yet, saints were depicted punishing individuals causing them to suffer and, sometimes, die. These events were included in miracle collections and have become known as ‘punishment miracles’. It has been alleged these miracles represented one out of ten of all miracles during the sixth and tenth centuries, before declining, and almost disappearing in the thirteenth century. Few medievalists have attempted to explain why punishment miracles, seemingly, declined during such a turbulent period in European history, though. This study aims to solve this problem and explore whether the assertion punitive miracles declined is accurate, how they changed, and why these changes might have happened. It focuses on the period c.1000 to c.1200 and attempts to answer these research questions by analysing the miracle traditions of six saints (SS Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Benedict of Nursia, Faith of Conques, William of Norwich, Bavo of Ghent, and Thomas of Canterbury). These saints’ traditions were analysed as source-based case studies. These case studies were combined to form three chapters comparing two saints’ traditions each. Each saints’ tradition was examined from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives. In so doing, an inquiry that sits between a purely quantitative approach (one that attempts to discern patterns through the accumulation of data) and a qualitative analysis (one that examines a few examples in detail but arrive at conclusions that bear little weight beyond the individual instances concerned) was achieved. Each of the chapters in this study showed comparatively similar results across geographically distant cults that were affected by different local factors. Chapter one explores punitive miracles from the perspective of Cuthbert and Benedict. It discovered that punishment miracle numbers declined relative to non-punitive miracles, the saints’ appeared less often in their miracles, saintly punishments became less severe, and both saints’ punitive miracles were affected by external secular factors which contributed to their decline. Similar results to these were found in chapter two (Faith and William) and chapter three (Bavo and Thomas). These results led to the creation of a new way of thinking about the role punishment miracles performed in hagiography, one that reforms current historiography: ‘grievance repositories’. This dissertation also highlighted many of the connections punishment miracles had with non-monastic society, systems of justice, and secular elites.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Aug 2022