The Oxford Dictionary of Saints

When I was a kid, my dad brought home a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Farmer from a clergy conference. It was probably the 3rd edition (1992), but maybe the 2nd (1987). I thought it was the most excellent thing ever, so I was quite pleased to buy my own copy of the 5th revised edition (2011) for half price from Blackwells last week. Since it’s the Octave of All Saints, here’s my review.

As the front cover states, the book covers ‘the lives, cults, and associated art of more than 1,700 saints’. The immediate question, especially in our ecumenical age with western Christians becoming ever more aware of the eastern churches, is: Which 1,700? Since my dad’s edition (and probably since the first), the main focus of this book has been English saints — unsurprising, given it’s point of origin. However, it has now been expanded to include saints from North and South America.

Farmer’s Introduction (p. vii) gives us these 5 criteria:

  1. All English saints including those of English origin who died abroad … and those of foreign origin who died in England.
  2. All saints whose feasts are in the important calendars such as the Roman Calendar of 1969, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Sarum rite as well as those who are patrons of churches or places.
  3. The most important and representative saints of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.
  4. Other saints have been included because of their importance of the history of the Christian Church.
  5. Candidates for canonization called Venerable … or Blessed are not included in this volume

This gives us a range covering the English Venerable Bede, Augustine of Canterbury, and Willibrord, as well as Fathers such as Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and John Chrysostom, and modern saints such as Mary Mackillop,  Gemma Galgani, and Thérèse of Lisieux, and pre-schism eastern saints such as John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor, and Theodore the Studite. The inclusion of Prayer Book saints means that Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria, despite suppression by the papacy in 1969, are here.

Unfortunately, Canada seems barely to exist in this book. Kateri Tekakwitha is not here, and of the eight Canadian Martyrs only Jean de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues are present. Canada is also not included in the list of countries and places with their patron saints. Given that the book has tried to become global by including African, South American, and Asian saints, it is a bit disappointing to see it lacking Canadians.

The next question, after considering the range of saints included, is whether the entries are any good. I believe the answer is yes. Each entry begins with the saint’s dates and a brief mention such as ‘monk and bishop of Lindisfarne.’ Then follows a brief, critical biography that mentions the activities and reputed character of the saint as well as miracles performed within his or her lifetime with neither accepting all miracle tales outright nor rejecting them out of hand.

In the case of a saint such as Cuthbert, there follows a long discussion of what happened to the body/relics and the establishment of the saint’s cultus, possibly also where mediaeval artwork concerning the saint is to be found. The entry proper closes with the saint’s feast day. Then Farmer gives a brief bibliography of both primary and secondary sources for the saint’s life, and where the works of saints who were writers may be found. Sometimes I think mentions of English translations would be useful, but the critical engagement of each entry is to be lauded.

The Introduction to the volume discusses the origins of the cult of the saints, then its progress in the British Isles in the Early Middle Ages, and then the development of the system in the Roman Church from the High Middle Ages to today including the fate of the cults during the Reformation. There is a brief bibliography as well as footnotes throughout the Introduction.

A series of appendices close the book. Appendix 1 covers ‘Principal Patronages of Saints’  — Matthew, my namesake, is the patron of accountants, while Bede and Jerome are the patrons of scholars. Appendix 2 is very helpful, ‘Principal iconographical emblems of saints.’ With this knowledge in hand, one can more easily identify saints in art. Interesting entries: ‘Breasts (on dish) Agatha’, ‘Eyes  (on dish) Lucy’, ‘Eyes (on book) Odile’, and ‘Intestines Erasmus’. Appendix 3 is a useful discussion of ‘Pilgrimages’, accompanied by maps of pilgrim sites in Britain and Ireland, Europe, the Holy Land, and North and South America. Then follows an Index of Places, a Calendar, and Patron Saints of Countries and Towns.

Finally, this book is ‘Web Linked.’ This means that OUP has a web page of useful links about saints to accompany this book, undoubtedly chosen and recommended by Farmer. The page includes links to resources on Benedictines, Cardinal Newman, some general saints websites, Celtic saints, Greek Orthodox saints, the Marist Brothers, the Crusades, the Bollandists, Mary Mackillop, and a link to the Vatican’s website.

Overall, this book is a very handy resource and I highly recommend it. Its gaps are disappointing but few. Maybe the 6th Edition will have more Canadians. 😉 Otherwise, it covers in a brief yet critical way that opens the reader up to further reading most of the saints that interest me from the Patristic and Insular world.

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