The preface to Kyle Smith’s book about the commemoration, celebration, and imitation of those who testified to Christ even at the cost of their lives—the martyrs—provides unusual insight into the book’s character. He tells us there that his interest in the topic was triggered by the discovery of Antonio Gallonio’s sixteenth-century Treatise on the Instruments of Martyrdom in a Toronto used bookstore. Reading this treatise stimulated Smith to undertake a research project that convinced him “how Christianity became (and how it still remains) a cult of the dead.” The reader is thus prepared for an investigation that combines an antiquarian’s interest in the oddities of historiography with a passion for the ways in which ritual, literature, and art intersect. (In addition to many scattered illustrations, the volume contains sixteen handsome plates.) Whether “cult of the dead” fairly characterizes Christian history is another matter, to which I will return.
Smith’s preferred approach to his subject is indirect, and each of his chapters has a circumambulatory character. He begins his opening chapter, “The First of the Dead,” with a reminiscence of walking his children through St. Alban’s Square in Toronto, then moves to the Venerable Bede’s account concerning that martyr, then makes his way to the second-century Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, who passionately longed for martyrdom, and finally reaches the New Testament for a consideration of Jesus and his followers (above all, Stephen) as martyrs. Smith accepts the conventional contemporary view that the evangelist Luke created the image of the martyr in his portrayal of Jesus’ death based on the Greco-Roman model of “Noble Death,” and then, in his depiction of Stephen’s death by stoning, set in motion a tradition (a “genre”) that persisted for centuries. Smith quotes approvingly Candida Moss’s “inescapable but repugnant conclusion” that “dying for Christ may be a central, rather than peripheral, part of the Christian experience.”
Subsequent chapters offer similar scholarly peregrinations. In “The Names of the Dead,” the chief fascination is the literary labors of the ancient ecclesiastical historians Eusebius and Sozomen, who preserved accounts of early martyrs, and Cureton’s nineteenth-century identification of a fifth-century Syriac manuscript that contained, among other things, the lost original of Eusebius’s Martyrs of Palestine. In the lengthy chapter titled “The Remains of the Dead,” Smith leads his reader from the contemplation of Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle in Paris to a bemused consideration of every peculiar moment and odd turn in the centuries-long trade in the relics of martyrs. That trade certainly had seamy aspects, but it was based on the conviction that through such relics God performed miracles. Smith includes in his survey the persistent though contentious claims made for Veronica’s Veil and the Shroud of Turin.
Smith’s chapter on “The Feasts of the Dead” provides him with the opportunity to move from the fairly obvious construction of the sanctoral liturgical cycle (in which martyrs occupy a significant if by no means exclusive place) to a detailed general examination of the marking of time through lunar or solar calendars, and from there to an appreciation of the way the sixth-century Rule of Benedict structures the moments of the day as times for prayer.
Another dimension of martyrdom is a life dedicated to solitude and asceticism, which from the time of the desert monks in the fourth century was regarded as a sort of “living martyrdom” available to those living after the age of persecution. In “The Living Dead,” Smith examines the rituals and practices attached to the medieval recluses known as anchorites (the most famous of whom was Julian of Norwich). He pays particular attention to a hortatory work called Ancrene Wisse, written by a male confessor for female solitaries.