It’s seven o’clock on a Friday night and Dr Janina Ramirez is storming up and down the stage at Lincoln Drill Hall in a pair of massive platform boots, showing history what’s what. Tonight, we’re dealing with the saints – characters that walk the tricky line between factual history and the divine – the subject of Ramirez’s new book: The Private Lives of the Saints. Over my years writing for the YJA, I’ve attended a great many author talks. Few have been delivered with as much enthusiasm as the one Ramirez gives tonight. On her website, Ramirez says that this word – ‘enthusiasm’ – has appeared in every single school and university report she has ever received. I’m now going to add another word. Not only is Ramirez incredibly enthusiastic, but she’s also really, really cool. Only that morning, she was interviewing Philip Pullman for her podcast series The Art Detective, in which she discusses the importance of art with experts and cultural icons. Right now, though, it’s all about the saints.
Ramirez studied Old English and medieval literature at Oxford. Her interest in Art History led her to studying artefacts, such as the Sutton Hoo treasures and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Throughout her research, Ramirez kept stumbling across the same figures; not kings or queens, but saints.
“I’d been studying Anglo-Saxon history for fifteen to twenty years,” Ramirez told me, a few minutes before she began her talk. “It was always the same names. I wondered if I could isolate those big names and tell a story about a millennium of this culture, through those individuals. I whittled it down – a lot of my favourite saints didn’t make the cut – and it was a hard choice but, in the end, the ones I settled on move through from the time of the arrival of Christianity in the British Isles, right through the collapse of Rome, through the Anglo-Saxon period and up to the Norman conquest. I felt that those people’s lives told the story of the time really well.”
It’s difficult to understand the importance of religion in those times, living in a generally pretty secular culture now in the UK. In an attempt to try to bridge the gap, Ramirez says that a possible candidate for a modern-day saint would be Diana, Princess of Wales. Diana was a wife and mother to Kings, was known throughout her life for good deeds and her death prompted a cult pilgrimage to Kensington Palace. However, of course, it’s not that simple. Sainthood in the Anglo-Saxon era was sometimes recognition for a pragmatic feat, something good a person had achieved independent of religion. However, in other cases, figures were sainted as recognition of their devotion to God, either dying martyrs or voluntarily suffering physical hardship in order to achieve enlightenment or peace.
Skellig Michael, an island just off the South West coast of Kerry, in Ireland, is the site of a Gaelic Christian Monastery, built between the 6th and 8th centuries and abandoned in the 12th century. The monastery, perilous to access, with the sheer sides of the rock face making it incredibly difficult for climbers to ascend, is 600 feet above sea level and consists of six small cells. Monks would shelter inside these cells, unable to see anything other than the heavens above. This practice, of isolation and meditation, was said to connect the monks with God. The journey to the island was incredibly dangerous. It was difficult for Ramirez herself to make the voyage, accompanied though she was by experts and the BBC film crew. She went with a group of anthropologists and they found, in the monastery graveyard, skeletons of travellers, including those of children, that have suffered serious trauma. The bones of the skeleton’s feet show lacerations so deep that they indicate that pilgrims cut their feet on the rocks, climbing until the rocks sliced through bone. This, Ramirez says, is what is so difficult about dealing with the saints; attempting to reconcile the idea of saints as celebrated people that had achieved good deeds, with the intense religious devotion of the time.
“They were the difference between life and death, these weird portals between Earth and Heaven,” says Ramirez. “The more I looked at them as living, breathing people, who touched objects, who walked in places we can walk, I just felt so connected to them. It was like the time collapsed; when you read their books, you’re looking over their shoulder, when you walk into the crypts they built, you’re walking behind them. They’re really tangible.”
This idea shatters the traditional, common view of saints: the view Ramirez held herself when, as a child in her Polish grandmother’s house, she would pass two-dimensional images of these holy, slightly stern-looking individuals hanging on the wall on the way to the loo. Though she had to be selective with the saints she included in her book, the characters provide an amazing cross-section of personalities. I was curious to know which one was her favourite.
“I think my favourite is probably Hilda of Whitby because she’s just so rock,” she says. “Her name means ‘battle’ – ‘hild’. She was a warrior for half her life and then she ran a double-monastery with men and women under her, where it was very luxurious and there was all this learning and education. It must have been the most exciting place to be, and she was all at the head of it. It was this rare time in Christian history, where women could have a really powerful role to play in the Church.”
There is a slightly melancholic note to the way she says this. The opportunities for women within the church were, of course, soon limited. In the same fashion, with the arrival of the Normans, the criteria for becoming a saint suddenly seemed to include being a member of the royal family. In her talk, Ramirez goes on to say that there is a clear record of popular saints, people nominated for sainthood by the communities in which they lived, being annihilated systematically by the Norman church. Religion, being so powerful, became a way of suppressing the people. Saints, particularly those created by individual communities in localities, could easily be used as rallying points and therefore had to be policed. The people had to be suppressed, in both life and death.
It’s gripping stuff and, judging by the size of the queue of people waiting to get books signed, seems to have gripped a great deal of the audience.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a signing line as long as this,” I hear an usher say to his colleague. The line also seems to take a while to move and, as I inch closer to the front, I see why; Ramirez is hugging each person individually and thanking them for coming. Not only is she Very Clever, but she is also Very Nice which, I would argue, is more important. However, Ramirez is also Very Busy – the next day, she is booked to fly to Dublin, to give a talk there about Gaelic Christianity. It’ll mean getting up at five in the morning, she tells the crowd but, seeing as she’s driven from Oxford to Lincoln in a pair of towering platform boots, she doesn’t seem to be intimidated by a challenge.
Travelling around the country, discovering interesting things and then telling people about those interesting things, seems to be a pretty good life. Ramirez’s teachers and lecturers were right; ‘enthusiasm’ is the word. Ramirez has enough of it to captivate an audience through a talk, then a signing queue and send them all home smiling.