Margaret Cormack


[open link above to see the figures in the illustrated version of this paper]


The current website is a work in progress for which I am hoping to find collaborators. It represents an on-line interactive database of information pertaining to the cult of saints and (in the case of Iceland) economic and environmental data as well. The challenge I face is to combine large amounts of varied information into a single, easily accessible database that can be used for analysis and study by non-experts, and to which scholars with expertise in related fields can contribute, in order to analyze their own data and allow comparison across regions and time periods.

With its present focus on saints’ cults, the database is of interest to scholars in a variety of fields: religion, history, art, economy, travel, and the environment. The distribution of locations associated with saints can provide valuable social and economic information about a region and its relationship to other areas. Objects donated to the saint, and the decorations of a church or shrine of the saint, can provide evidence of changes in intellectual and artistic fashion and long-distance trade. The path to an important shrine often became a highway along which intellectual or artistic ideas could spread. Such highways can often be traced by mapping the dedications that radiate out from the main shrine. The saints chosen for veneration can themselves alert us to connections between distant areas. The painting of an Irish saint in a Swedish church, or the story of an Icelandic saint in Constantinople, raise questions about the nature of historical contact between these locations.

Saints were often patrons of different social groups and occupations, and their veneration may reflect the presence or influence of such groups and thus indicate political interaction. In order to properly evaluate such evidence, however, comprehensive data needs to be available. It is not enough to know simply that the cathedral in a given country was dedicated to St. Peter; we need to know about the saints to whom small country churches were dedicated, the statues such churches contained, and the devotions that took place in them. Examples of the use to which such data can be found in three articles in the electronic journal Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture at (June, 2011).


Several scholars in the UK have created sites cataloging evidence for the cult of saints, for example Tasc: A Transnational database and Atlas of Saints Cults at which consists of a collection of downloadable spreadsheets for different parts of England, and the Survey of Dedications to Saints in Medieval Scotland at

While these projects are supposed to be on-going and allow for additions, I haven’t noticed any recent activity. My project will allow scholars from around the world to contribute data to a centrally managed site, with consistent terminology, so that users can study and compare evidence across space and time.


Iceland: A test case


I am lucky to have inventories of the c. 400 parish churches that existed in Iceland from the thirteenth through the sixteenth century and provide information about their dedications, contents, and property. The site (search for ‘’ and choose the middle option) currently contains data from parish churches in the northern Icelandic diocese of Hólar. Their dedications, contents pertaining to saints, and approximate dates of the recorded information can be viewed by clicking the icon of the cathedral of Hólar (Fig. 1):

On the next screen, click on ‘Search the Database’. The default option is ‘Search Locations and Categories,’ where one can choose a location, such as ‘Ábær, Austurdalur, Skagafjörður’ from the ‘Locations’ drop-down box, then click ‘Search’ (Fig. 2). Ábær appears as a yellow dot on the map (Fig 3).

Figure 2

In Fig. 3, the green dots are the other churches in the database; hovering over them will bring up the names (Fig. 4). You need to install a Google Plug-In in order to see the mapped data, following the instructions on the Plug-In. This is easier in some browsers than others.

Figure 3

Figure 4

I picked a small church so that that the entire entry would show on the slide; the single reference to Ábær, from the early 14th century, does not mention the patron saint, but does note the presence of an image of the Virgin Mary. Clicking on ‘More Data’ in the ‘Data’ section in the second row (the one that mentions the image) produces Fig. 5. Looking at ‘Category’ gives us the exact wording of the document, namely skript, a term which implies a painted, rather than a three-dimensional, image. The other entries in the ‘More Data’ section includes the pre-normalized, pre-translated spelling of all entries, information about the manuscript and its date, the most precise date for the individual document (‘Source Date’, in this case 1318) as well as the approximate date (‘Source Date A’), where the dates are rounded to the closest 25 years. In the present case, a collection of church charters, made in 1318, is preserved in a copy made in 1639 (‘Date of manuscript’). The ‘Reference’ section identifies the publication from which the data was actually taken (the Diplomatarium Islandicum); the completed database will of course have a bibliography and list of abbreviations.

Figure 5

‘Search Locations and Categories’ can also be used to find the locations of different types of objects associated with saints (chosen from the drop-down box), such as ‘Tapestries’ (Fig. 6); hangings would provide decoration as well as warmth in churches built of turf and lined with wood, which would not have been as easy to paint as the plastered interiors of churches found elsewhere in Scandinavia. Several of these items have survived. Examples featuring numerous saints can be viewed using key-word searches for‘Icelandic Medieval Tapestry’or ‘Icelandic Medieval Tapestry, National Museum’ at

Figure 6

The fact that a tapestry depicting him is found in a church reminds us that Charlemagne may have been venerated as a saint in Iceland (a cycle of his adventures was translated as Karlamagnus saga). That the church at Illugastaðir owned a tapestry depicting its patron saint, Nicholas, (marked ‘yes’ under ‘Titular Patron’ in Fig 6) is not surprising. If we return to the ‘Search Locations and Categories’ and choose ‘Illugastaðir’ and ‘1450’ under ‘Approximate Source Date’ (Fig. 7), we see (Fig 8) that at this time the church owned images (in this case, statues) of both St. Nicholas and the Virgin Mary: the entry ‘cloth’ in line 2 is not the tapestry, but rather a fabric covering the statue of St. Nicholas – whether to protect it better or because the image of the Virgin needed to be more accessible shall not be speculated about here. The tapestry is still there, in the last line. Frustratingly, we do not know whether the ‘shrine with relics’ in the line above contained the remains of St. Nicholas or of some other saint. It should be noted that ‘Approximate Source Date’ gives information from a particular dated source (the exact date can be found by clicking ‘More Data’ beside the item of interest when the search has been run), not cumulative information, which at this time can only be found by choosing a location and leaving ‘Approximate Source Date’ set at ‘All Sources.’

Figure 7

Figure 8

Books owned by churches

In 1450 we see (line 5 of Fig. 8) that the church at Illugastaðir owned a vernacular life (‘saga’) about St. Nicholas, as well as numerous liturgical manuscripts (‘ms’) not necessarily pertaining to Nicholas but of general interest for the liturgical life of the church. The precise terms used for individual manuscripts or groups of manuscripts are given in ‘More Data’: ‘legendubækur ij per annum de tempore et de sanctis,’ ‘de sanctis bok,’ ‘saungbok fra ionsmesso baptiste de sanctis til adventu,’ or assessments like ‘several manuscripts in poor condition’ or ‘three booklets worth six ounces (a unit of value).’ This information will be translated and entered in English under ‘Comments.’ I hope eventually to enter the complete library of each church. While these consist mostly of liturgical books, there is interesting incidental material to be found, for example the numerous books that are listed as ‘foreign’ – sometimes specifically ‘Dutch’ or ‘Irish,’ though in the latter case it is unclear how the place of origin of the volume would be identified. Liturgical books are typically in Latin, and I agree with Guðmundur Jónsson (Dómkirkjan á Hólum í Hjaltadal, Safn til Sögu íslands V nr. 6 Reykjavík: 1917 pp. 375-6) that ‘Irish’ crosses were probably in fact crosses from Limoges, France.

It should be possible to examine churches in the vicinity of ports or monasteries to see if we can draw conclusions about the acquisition and/or copying of books. Some existing manuscripts have been associated, on grounds of paleography, with individual scribes or monasteries. Such information is an additional, more speculative, type of data that will eventually be included – and extended into the post-Reformation period. Manuscript culture continued in Iceland long after printing was the primary mode of book-production elsewhere in Europe, and mapping the contents of manuscripts (i.e. individual texts contained in different manuscripts), scribal hands, styles of illustration, and so on could provide valuable data about literary, and scribal, mobility. Several other digital projects deal with such material, and it is our hope to link them. In the meantime, choosing ‘life’in the column ‘Category’ will reveal the lives of the saints from parish churches in Hólar diocese, and whether they were written in the vernacular or Latin (Fig 9).

Figure 9

Under ‘Comments’ on the far right we see that the church at Sauðanes had a single volume containing the lives of three saints, Mary, Nicholas, and Silvester. The church at Staður in Hrútafjörður probably did not own two sagas of the Virgin Mary (though this is not impossible), rather the note that such a saga was a gift from biarne (Bjarni) was added to recognize the donation after the inventory had been recorded.Occasionally there are several copies of the same saga. The church at Glæsibær (not included in the above slide) had two sagas of St. Nicholas: clicking on ‘More Data’ for each reveals that one was was old, the other new, probably a more recent version of the saga known to have been composed in the fourteenth century. Manuscripts of saints’ sagas could serve a similar purpose to bibles elsewhere – the church’s inventory, which also definied its legal status, would be copied into a manuscript containing the life of its patron saint.

Starting with Saints

If instead of ‘Search Locations and Objects’ we choose the ‘Search Saints and Objects’ search (cf. Fig 2), we can select the saint of our choice, Brigid of Ireland (Fig 10)

Figure 10

or Zita of Lucca (Fig 11):

Figure 11

both chosen for their ability to illustrate both map and data on a single slide. What is interesting about St. Zita is that the recorded statues are in or close to monasteries. The fact that they are recorded at the churches at Holtastaðir and Möðruvellir in 1450, at the monasteries of Munkaþverá and Þingeyrar only in 1525, is not in itself significant; we have no earlier records from the monasteries, so the age of the statues they owned cannot be determined. However, the donor of one of the statues was a wealthy woman with English connections (England was a center of veneration of this Italian saint). It could be that she introduced the veneration which spread to the monasteries, rather than the other way round.

Also noteworthy is that statues were purchased for churches not dedicated to the saint in question. This is often the case for saints like Zita who became popular in the later Middle Ages, when most of the churches already existed and had been dedicated. Statues were the easiest way of showing veneration for a saint, whether a newcomer or a tried-and-true favorite.

Again limiting ourselves to the evidence from the diocese of Hólar, we find that eighteen churches mention St. Nicholas in their dedications, and search results return a total of 27 images, a third of which are at churches not dedicated to him. It is the presence of images that indicates local interest in a saint. The bishop was in charge of the dedication, but the wealthy locals would decide which statues to buy. Usually the first statue was one of the patron saint, and a saga about that saint might eventually follow, though not necessarily before additional statutes (including one of the Virgin Mary) were purchased.

Viewing Chronology

All data is dated, so that developments through time can be observed. If we examine the north-western part of Iceland, the Westfjords (Fig 12), we see (in blue) churches that had resident priests in 1200, when a count was made to make sure there were enough clergy in the country to allow priests to travel abroad (the larger dots represent churches with more than one priest). There may have been other churches which did not have priests; in 1400 another count was made, this time of all churches or chapels with an endowment, allowing the green dots to be added to the total. The green churches are not necessarily younger, just less important. The red dots, however, represent new foundations, made between 1400 and 1550. Many were small churches with no resident priest that got services from a larger one. Note that private chapels with no endowment are not recorded.

Figure 12

International Connections: Comparison and Queries

I would like to be able to compare Icelandic data with that of other countries, diocese (or even parish) at a time. Fig 13 shows four known churches dedicated to Thomas Becket in Hólar diocese:

Figure 13

If we add churches that register their patron simply as ‘Thomas’ (some of which might refer to the Apostle Thomas, less common in Iceland than Becket; disambiguation will take place at a future stage in the project; for the time being, they are listed as ‘Thomas unknown’) the result is Fig 14:

Figure 14

In the Diocese of Bath and Wells, where data was collected by Michael Costen and entered in a different format, we see the churches dedicated to Becket in pink (Fig 15):

Figure 15

Figure 16

Miracle narratives

Another aim of the database is to include miracle stories from saints’ lives: accounts of healings, resuscitations, recovery of lost objects, rescues at sea, or other events attributed to the intercession of the saints. Without accepting the miraculous nature of such events, the anecdotes provide a rare glimpse of the non-elite members of society, including women, children, workmen and peasants, and how they interacted among each other and with the elite. These narratives are thus important sources for social history, as well as the history of disease, and, of course, travel. Donald Prudlo of Jacksonville State University has already created such a database for several saints. It contains, first, the type of ‘miracle’ (lost object, resuscitation, different kinds of accidents and illnesses); second, the gender and social status of the recipient of the miracle; third, the gender and social status of the individual who called on the saint – not necessarily the same as the immediate beneficiary. There are numerous examples of parents making vows for children, wives for husbands and vice versa, even farmers for hired hands. All of these will be entered in another input template. What is most striking in Prudlo’s work was the speed at which news of a new saint spread. Medieval people did not wait passively for a papal announcement of canonization; if Thomas Becket had cured someone in Canterbury of blindness, why not you?

People who believed the saints had helped them in some way came to saints’ shrines to give thanks for cures, paying by the visit, and perhaps also a donation, the debt incurred by a vow or prayer that was answered. The stories of the events for which they give thanks provide windows into everyday life. Comparison of the stories themselves is also of interest. How does the same account appear in different manuscripts? If miracles are the ‘urban legends’ of the Middle Ages, how do they spread, and how are the narratives re-framed in different contexts?

Unanticipated Results of ‘Advanced Search’ Data

Everything I have discussed so far has been done by scholars of the Middle Ages whose data comes from medieval documents that require significant linguistic skills to decipher. Data collectors are, by definition, graduate students or better, with knowledge of whatever languages were spoken in the area under study. The database is designed so that the basic searches can be done in English, but there is a second layer, an ‘Advanced Search,’ indicated here by ‘More Data,’ which allows scholars to look at the original language of the documents. This is essential in order to proofread the data, make sure it has not been duplicated, and so on. It can also be possible (it already is to some extent) to use the database to study the manuscripts in which the data is contained, and the language in which they are written. A classic example concerns a page lost from an early manuscript containing inventories. It appears at first glance that in 1318 there were no churches in a particular valley. In fact, when one looks at the manuscript, one sees that one inventory ends in mid-sentence while the next one – for a church located two valleys over – is missing its beginning. Clearly a page has been lost from the manuscript, as opposed to the inhabitants of the middle valley failing to build churches. Scholars need to be alerted to such features in the sources. One needs to look at all churches in a specific source (here, a specific book of inventories) to discover the extent of that source before drawing conclusions about the presence or absence of different kinds of objects or information.

Holy People from other religious traditions

 The individuals commemorated in the database need not be Christian. I hope to be able to include Muslim shrines as well. While some of these are known from historical documents which need little adjustment (other than translation/transcription from Arabic) for incorporation into the existing database, many of these shrines are still in use, and, as noted by Eric Ross of Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, they and are studied (among others) by art historians as well as anthropologists and sociologists. While the latter groups would benefit from the same categories as the ‘miracle’ database, Ross suggested that I needed different kinds of information about existing shrines for the use of those studying them as physical objects rather than texts in a manuscript. A comparison of the different types of Muslim shrines with Christian ones such as St. James at Compostella or the Virgin Mary at Lourdes would be extremely interesting. What beliefs and practices are associated with holy wells in different faiths, for example? To what extent do rituals differ, or overlap, at different shrines? Can they be visited by members of different religions? Some of these questions are addressed in Muslims and Others in Sacred Space, ed. Cormack, (Oxford: 2012).

Geography and Environment

Large-scale geographical features such as mountains and rivers, which prevent or encourage interaction between populations, will be obvious from the maps themselves, but, as we know, landscape changes with time – not only because of floods, avalanches, and volcanic eruptions, but (as we now realize) due to climate change. The expanded version of the Icelandic section of the database will contain information about land use – pastures, farmed land, woodland – the latter was especially important in Iceland, where the original scrub-birch land-cover was soon destroyed by sheep and pigs, and where erosion has led to an even worse situation in modern times. ‘Peter’s woods’ mentioned in 14th-century inventories are nameless in early charters, though the boundaries of the wooded area are carefully described. In the course of a few centuries the woods acquired the name of the patron saint of the church that owned them, and describing the boundary was no longer necessary. And those boundary descriptions, as well as lists of church property, contain numerous place-names which not only indicate areas ‘belonging’ to the saint, but can can indicate the state of the landscape in past times – marsh, fields, woodland, desert. The problem with place-names is that we never know exactly when they were first applied, but the inventories provide reliable termini ante-quem – we know the place-names must have existed at the time of writing. When they were originally given is another matter, and claims to certain kinds of land-use, such as wood or turf cutting, may be conservative – the Church was reluctant to relinquish rights, even if they were no longer realistic. The medieval place-names can, however, provide evidence for the nature of the landscape at the time of writing or earlier. And place-names involving saints’ names can sometimes add to our knowledge of church property (see Cormack, “Possible Christian Place-names in Medieval Iceland,” in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 6 (2010) pp. 31-82). Such knowledge allows us to analyze the economic influence of individual churches, and the Church as a whole, on society at different times.

Future Directions

Obviously I would like, where possible, to add in illustrations and texts, as is being done in an Oxford study of the first seven centuries of Christianity, see:

Creating an appropriate set of Categories that will apply across many cultures, and creating the input template, demand intelligent thought, but not much in the way of technology. I am deliberately using the most basic type of template to gather data (Google Forms, which populates gathered data in spreadsheet form) so that the template is not proprietary or dependent on any one specific technology. Additionally, gathering entries in spreadsheet form allows for easier data clean-up and rectification. One can then transform cleaned-up data into tab-delimited text files for simple importation into the project database. The next technological problems I face include the ability to work, not just from the database to the map, but from points on the map to the database. At present I can hover over a point and get the name of the church – I want to be able to call up the entire entry and find all information associated with that point. (In fact, I want to be able to connect mine with other Icelandic databases – a grant with such an aim is at present in the works in Iceland.) I want to be able to choose a group of points – whether the result of a search, or one by one – and play with the map, adding and deleting individual items, or looking at the results of two searches simultaneously – St. Bridget in green, for example, and Mary Magdelene in purple. The user should be able to choose the colors and symbols for the searches as easily (or more so!) than on Google. I will of course want a ‘timeline’that will allow the user to scroll from the twelfth century to the sixteenth (or the twenty-first), and layers showing ecclesiastical and political boundaries at different times. Such layers can be turned on or off at will. Finally, a ‘shopping basket’ that will allow users to choose locations in which they are interested, and save the results of their searches ‘live’ for future use and experimentation.

My immediate goals are to complete the templates for data like that above, and create new ones for miracles stories and for contemporary shrines. Finally, of course, there is the technological work of putting it all on-line, which will require a mjor research grant. If anyone is interested in collaborating on such a grant, I’d like to hear from you! The potential of this project for social, historical, and environmental research is limited only by the number of scholars willing to contribute to it.


Margaret Cormack

Professor of Religious Studies

College of Charleston, Sc.



See illustrated version of this essay from link at top of this document.  Examples from the data-entry Template (not live!)

Additional sections deal with the type of written material (printed book, manuscript, charter) and the language in which it is written: types of monastic house; and various lands, dues, and rights pertaining to churches, monasteries, etc.