Holy Shrines and Miracle Healers

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Holy Shrines and Miracle Healers


During the Middle Ages, medicine and religion were interrelated in many ways. While some have criticized the medieval church for hindering medical progress through its opposition to dissection, the Church did provide comfort and assistance for many when medical knowledge was at its lowest ebb. However, it was clear that the Church always put divine interests over the human.

Holy shrines and miracle healers have been meaningful to people in many civilizations. Never were they more important than in the Middle Ages. In Europe, especially during the eighth through eleventh centuries, the Church helped transform historical locales related to the lives (and deaths) of martyrs into sacred healing places and shrines. Special saints became patrons of healing, and miracles were performed in their names. Pilgrimages to sacred places were increasingly viewed as a way of securing divine favor. The rich could go to the shrines of Rome and Jerusalem, while the poor had an abundance of local sites to visit.

Shrines and healers gained in popularity during this time in large part because secular medical treatment in Europe abysmally ineffective. The medical help that was available, primarily to the wealthy, was still based on the Greek system of humors. The peasants were left to care for themselves with folk remedies, superstition, and the healing shrines.

Even today shrines are very important to many worshippers. In a day of enlightened scientific medicine, healing shrines at Fatima and Lourdes draw many visitors and pilgrims.


Throughout antiquity religious healing has been a part of many sacred religions. The treatment of physical or spiritual ailments by non-medical means has been a part of religion in many cultures. The relationship between healing and religion has developed because many ailments were thought to be caused by possession by demons or manifestations of evil.

Healing usually centers around a certain place or holy shrine, on certain operations, or on a particular person. There are many categories of sacred sites, including sacred mountains like Mount Olympus and sacred manmade mountains like the Great pyramids of Egypt or the Mayan pyramids. Ancient ceremonial sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru and Stonehenge in Britain were similarly places for worship.

From time immemorial, man has sought healing in the waters of natural springs and other bodies of water. Water, essential for life, indispensable for cleansing, became embodied in myth and legend and imbued with curative powers. From ancient times and continuing into the medieval era, people were drawn to water for healing. Rituals and legends evolved around these places, where the deities were believed to dwell. Cathedrals were often built at these ancient sites, with saints (or their relics) substituted for the pagan gods, and pilgrimages to these places became a source of comfort to the religious of many civilizations.

The mineral springs of Spa, Belgium, known to the Romans, were rediscovered in 1326, beginning centuries of popularity, especially among the rich and famous. The hot sulfur springs of Baden, Austria, were a Roman bath, or aquae, as were those at Bath, England; Aixles-Bains, Grisy and Saint-Sauveur in France; Fiori in Italy; and Saint Moritz in Switzerland. Here those seeking to restore their health sought healing for both diseases and disabilities; others simply hoped to preserve the well being they already enjoyed.

During the early years of Christianity, Christians were persecuted and many martyrs were made at the hands of the Romans. In 313 Constantine, emperor of what remained of the Roman empire, converted to Christianity and worship changed dramatically. Already, in the second century, it was customary to commemorate the anniversary of a martyr's death by celebrating communion where they had been buried. Churches were built on the sites and eventually people began to think that worship was especially valid if it was celebrated in one of these holy places. If relics of the martyrs were also kept at such locations, it was even more sacred. The bodies of many martyrs were exhumed and placed under the altars of new churches that were being built. Other people began claiming visions of martyrs that were not known or forgotten.

Eventually, the places and relics of the saints and places of New Testament fame were said to have miraculous powers. Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, gave special impetus to the development of this idea when, in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she thought she had discovered the cross of Christ. Soon this cross was said to have miraculous powers and pieces of wood that were claimed to have come from it were found all over Europe.

While these ideas were developing, some leaders of the church viewed them with disfavor and tried to prevent superstition from becoming extreme. They contended that, to be a good Christian, visits to the Holy Land or to the place of martyrs were not essential and should not be exaggerated. However, this idea was overwhelmed by the demand of people flocking to the shrines and later such objections disappeared.


With a history of shrines, holy objects, and pilgrimages, it was not unusual for people of the Christian faith to incorporate these into their beliefs. In fact, one of the most widespread features of the medieval religious life was the pilgrimage. These pilgrimages were not only motivated by religious fervor, but by a desire to travel. Visits to such sacred sites also served as a beckon of hope in the dismal lives of many medieval worshippers. The wealthy found great solace in the sites of Palestine, and thousands flocked to the places of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Rome, with its churches and tributes to Peter and Paul, lured thousands. Poorer individuals settled for visiting tombs of local saints and their relics.

During this time, Christian monasteries evolved as key medical centers in Europe, more important than universities before the 1300s. Monks were involved in bleeding, purging, and surgery, the treatments of the day. However, the Lateran Council of 1215 forbade churchmen to shed blood, thus ending much of their function as healers. Thereafter, monasteries became places of shelter for pilgrims and for sick monks, and hospitals began to develop separately.

Almost every saint and holy person has been associated with the ability to heal. The same is true for certain unusual natural characteristics, scenes of epiphanies, and locations related to the life or burial places of holy men. The monastic orders throughout Europe also had as their primary function the care of the sick, as taken up by the Knights of Malta, the Augustinian Nuns, the Order of the Holy Ghost, and the Sororites Order. The ability to heal is often reserved for a select few, and some healers traced their knowledge back to the gods. The physicians of Myddval in Wales, active herbalists for more than five centuries, are one such group that claimed a divine origin.

The development of healing activities around certain healing saints resulted in specialized sacred organizations. Saint Cosmos and Saint Damian, for example, promoted organizations that required training, the need for special equipment, and libraries. Many religious leaders were also physicians and the origin of hospitals in both the East and West is linked to these special monastic orders.

One example of a place that became a famous shrine for healing is Canterbury in England. In 1170 Thomas Becket, the humble archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in this cathedral for refusing to let the English king become involved in Church matters. The people of England were horrified, and Becket was immortalized as a saint. Even before his body was moved, people were dipping their fingers and rags into his blood to receive the benediction of the martyr. Miracles of healing were reported at once, and within 10 years there were claims for more than 700. The blood of Becket was supposed to cure blindness, insanity, leprosy, and deafness. The shrine became a famous place for pilgrimages in the Middle Ages. The idea of the pilgrimage was made famous in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in which a group of pilgrims relate their various stories during their travels.

Most of the healers possessed a sacred gift or commission. Scores of saints were called upon for healing. Each organ of the body and each complaint acquired a particular saint. Instead of the pagan Asclepius, Damian and Cosmos became the patron saints of medicine. These brothers lived in Cilicia in Asia Minor at the close of the second century. They performed a famous surgery involving the amputation of a white man's and its replacement with the transplanted leg of a black Moor. News of the transplant and the man with one white leg and one black leg spread near and far and they became celebrated for their healing powers. Emperor Diocletian stoned the men, burned them, crucified them, sawed them in half, but only after decapitation did they die. Many medieval paintings depict their miracle operation.

Saint Luke and Saint Michael may be called upon for all kinds of illnesses, but many saints had a specialty. Saint Anthony was called upon for erysipelas (or Saint Anthony's fire), Saint Artemis for genital difficulties, Saint Sebastian for pestilence, and Saint Christopher for epilepsy. The story of Saint Roch emerged during the plague. This humble saint, who had ministered to many with the plague, contracted the disease himself and was healed by an angel. Throat complaints, such as goiter, were the realm of Saint Blaise, and backache was the domain of Saint Lawrence. Saint Apollonia became the patron saint for toothache because all of her teeth were knocked out during her martyrdom. Saint Margaret of Antioch was the helper of women in labor. While walking one day Margaret was swallowed whole by a dragon. She made the sign of the cross and the cross grew, bursting open the dragon and releasing the saint.

The healing shines of Europe acquired a wide range of relics and images, attracting visitors and providing hope to the people of the day. Many of the medieval shrines remain and are still visited by throngs of pilgrims seeking miracles.


Further Reading

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. 2 vols. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1975.

Porter, Roy. Medicine: A History of Healing. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1997.

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