All Saint’s Day: Is Being Noble and Leading a Noble’s Life Incompatible with Sanctity?

November 1, 2012

The current misunderstanding of nobility and the analogous traditional elites results largely from the adroit but biased propaganda spread against them by the French Revolution. According to the revolutionaries of 1789, the nobility was essentially constituted of pleasure seekers.

The current misunderstanding of nobility and the analogous traditional elites results largely from the adroit but biased propaganda spread against them by the French Revolution. Such propaganda, continuously disseminated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by ideological and political currents spawned by the French Revolution, has been challenged by serious historiography with growing efficacy. This propaganda, however, still clings to life in certain sectors of opinion. It is relevant, therefore, to say something about this.

According to the revolutionaries of 1789, the nobility was essentially constituted of pleasure seekers. Holding honorific and economic privileges, the nobles allegedly lived extravagantly off the merit and credit acquired by distant ancestors. This allowed them the luxury of enjoying earthly life, especially the delights of idleness and voluptuousness. This class of pleasure seekers was also highly burdensome to the nation and harmful to the poorer classes, which were hard-working, temperate, and beneficial to the common good. According to d’Argenson, “La Cour était le tombeau de la nation” (the Court was the nation’s tomb).

This led to the notion that the life of a noble, with the station and wealth that normally accompany it, induces a moral negligence that sharply contrasts with Christian asceticism. This perception contains some measure of truth. The first signs of the terrible moral crisis of our day were already visible among the nobility and the analogous elites of the late eighteenth century. It is necessary, however, to stress that this perception is much more false than true and is harmful to the good reputation of the noble class.

Saint Peter Julian Eymard has noted that “the Church annals show that a large number of saints, and the most illustrious ones, had a blazon, a name, an illustrious family; some were even of royal blood”

Many aspects of the Church’s history prove this, including the fact that she has raised a great number of nobles to the honors of the altar. She thus affirms that they followed the Commandments and the evangelical counsels to a heroic degree.

Saint Peter Julian Eymard has noted that “the Church annals show that a large number of saints, and the most illustrious ones, had a blazon, a name, an illustrious family; some were even of royal blood” (1). While several of these saints abandoned the world to more securely attain heroic virtue, others, such as the kings Saint Louis of France and Saint Ferdinand of Castile, remained amid the splendor of their lofty noble stations and therein attained heroic virtue.

To complete the refutation of this perception, which seeks to degrade the nobility, its customs and lifestyles, we thought it advisable to enquire about the proportion of nobles who were canonized by the Church.

A specific study on this subject could not be found. Some investigators have broached the subject without undertaking specific and exhaustive research. They based their calculations on registers that they themselves present as incomplete. University of Rouen professor André Vauchez published a study, La Sainteté en l’Occident aux Dernieres Siècles du Moyen Age (2), based on the processes of canonization and on medieval hagiographic documents, that merits particular attention. He analyzes the investigations de vita, miraculis et fama ordered by popes between 1198 and 1431. Of a total of 71 investigations, 35 concluded that the persons examined deserved to be elevated to the honors of the altar, which the Church did in the Middle Ages.(3)

The statistics furnished by Vauchez follow:

Processes of canonization ordered between 1198 and 1431

(71 cases)

Nobles                                  62.0%

Middle Class                       15.5%

People                                    8.4%

Social origin unknown       14.1%

Saints canonized by Popes of the Middle Ages (35 cases)

Nobles                                     60.0%

Middle Class                          17.1%

People                                       8.6%

Social origin unknown          14.3%

Even if very interesting, this data does not offer a complete picture, since it relates to a very small number of people and to a relatively short period. An investigation encompassing a larger number of people over a longer period was necessary—not that it would exhaust the subject. Nevertheless, some weighty difficulties arose.

Some of the Noble Saints Canonized between 1198 and 1431; Top, L to R: St. Robert of Molesme, St. Dominic de Guzmán, St. Lawrence O’Toole. Bottom Row: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Elisabeth of Hungary & St. Hugh of Lincoln

First, there is no official list of the saints venerated in the Catholic Church. This is explicable and is related to the very history of the Church and the gradual perfecting of Her institutions. The veneration of saints had its start in the Catholic Church with the homage paid to the martyrs. Local communities honored some of their members who were victims of persecutions. Of the thousands of those who shed their blood in testimony of the Faith in the first centuries of the Church, only a few hundred names have come down to us. We know them through the acts of the Roman tribunals, which transcribed the oral processes, and through reports made by eye-witnesses of the martyrdoms. Many records of the martyrs were simply lacking. Of those that had existed—whose reading inflamed the souls of the first Christians and gave them the strength to bear new tribulations—many were destroyed during the persecutions, especially that of Diocletian.(4) Thus it is impossible to know all the martyrs venerated by the faithful in the first centuries.

During the persecution of the early martyrs, one of the delights of Nero was to make the Christians into human torches, so his garden would be lit up at night.

After the persecutions, and for a long time, saints were venerated by restricted groups of faithful without prior investigation and pronouncement of an ecclesiastical authority. As the authority’s participation in the organization of the Catholic communities grew, its role in deciding who should receive veneration also grew. The bishops began to sanction this or that cultus, and often ratified it at the request of the faithful. They even made the exhumation and translation of a new saint’s relics.

Only at the end of the first millennium did the popes begin to intervene occasionally in the official recognition of a saint. As the Roman Pontiff’s power was affirmed and the contacts with Rome became more frequent, the bishops began to solicit the pope’s sanction of these cults. This occurred for the first time in 993. Between 993 and 1234 many bishops continued to translate relics and to confirm cults according to the ancient customs. Later, recourse to the Holy See was made compulsory by the 1234 Decretals, and the right of canonization was reserved to the Pontiff. From 1234 on, the processes for determining the veneration of a saint were gradually perfected.

Translation of the relics of St. Elizabeth of Hungary with Emperor Frederick II and his Court.

From the end of the thirteenth century, the pontifical decisions were based on a prior investigation carried out by a college of three cardinals especially entrusted with this task. This remained the case until 1588, when the causes were confided to the Congregation of Rites, established the previous year by Pope Sixtus V. In the seventeenth century this development reached its term. In 1634, Urban VIII’s brief Coelestis Jerusalem cives established the standards for canonization, which remain essentially the same to our day. The Constitutions of Urban VIII established the confirmation of cult, or equipollent canonization, for those servants of God whose public veneration had been tolerated after the pontificate of Alexander III (1159-1181). An equipollent canonization is a “decision by which the Sovereign Pontiff orders that a servant of God who is found in public venerations from time immemorial be honored in the Universal Church even though a regular process has not been introduced.”(5) This procedure was valid also for similar cases occurring after the Constitutions of Urban VIII.

From 993 on (the date of the first papal canonization) it is possible to establish a list of saints designated by the Holy See. This list, however, is still not complete. Documents of extensive periods are missing. Furthermore, the list does not contain all the saints, for between 993 and 1234, as noted, the bishops continued to ratify cultus. For this reason, many individuals were objects of public veneration independently of Rome’s intervention, which was often—but not always—requested only some centuries later.

Photo of the Canonization of St. Joan of Arc on May 16, 1920.

Only with the beginning of the sixteenth century can one be certain that the list of saints and blessed (a distinction established by the legislation of Urban VIII) is complete.(6)

Apart from the difficulty in compiling a complete list of the saints, there is the problem of determining who among them belonged to the nobility. The certainty of a person’s noble origin is not always easy to establish. On the one hand, the concept of nobility developed progressively and organically, conditioned by local characteristics. On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to determine with precision the ancestry of a person, and thus to determine the social origin of a saint.

Having these difficulties in mind, we had to choose the most complete and trustworthy sources possible in order to determine the approximate number of nobles among the saints. The Index ac Status Causorum (7) was chosen because it is an “extraordinary and most ample edition” made to commemorate the fourth centennial of the Congregation and “contains all the causes that came before the Congregation from 1588 to 1988, even the rather ancient ones preserved in the Vatican’s Secret Archives.”

Top row, L to R: St. Joan of Arc, St. Nuno Álvares Pereira, St. Katherine Drexel. Bottom Row: St. Jadwiga of Poland, St. Norbert of Xanten & St. Ivo of Kermartin (also called St. Yves).

The work includes several appendices of which three are of special interest to this study. The first contains confirmations of veneration, some names of the blessed that were added, and those that were removed but later included in the catalogue of the saints. This appendix is based on the Index ac Status Causorum written by Father Beaudoin in 1975. The second appendix enumerates only those beatified since the institution of the Sacred Congregation of Rites but still not canonized. Lastly, the third appendix enumerates the saints whose causes were considered by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, including the cases of equipollent canonization.

St Elizabeth Ann Seton, the 5th American Saint.

With this list of names in hand, we consulted the respective biographies in the Bibliotheca Sanctorum (8) to discover which saints were nobles. This work, supervised by Pietro Cardinal Palazzini, former prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, is considered the most complete catalogue of persons who have received veneration since the beginning of the Church.

The Bibliotheca Sanctorum does not focus its principal attention on the social origin of the listed persons, but rather on the problems related to their veneration. Thus, it is frequently impossible to know who was noble. To follow a strict criterion, we counted as nobles only those whom the work identifies as nobles or descendants thereof. Those whom the text merely depicts as belonging to “important,” “known,” “old,” “powerful,” or similarly-designated families were not included. In order to avoid doubtful cases, we further excluded persons who noble origin could reasonably be presumed or even established with certainty through sources other than the Bibliotheca Sanctorum.

For yet greater precision, it also seemed convenient to distinguish the following categories, in accord with the Index ac Status Causorum:

  • Saints canonized after a regular process;
  • Those beatified after a regular process;
  • Those whose venerability was confirmed;
  • Servants of God whose processes of beatification are under way.

In the percentages presented in the table which follows, care was taken to discriminate, in each category, between those who were the object of an individual investigation and those who were part of a group, such as, for example, the Japanese, English, and Vietnamese martyrs.(9)

Cruxifixion of 26 Catholics in Nagasaki, Japan on February 5, 1597.

To correctly asses the appreciable percentage of nobles in these various categories, we must consider the percentage of nobles in relation to their respective country’s population. We limit ourselves to two quite diverse and significant examples. According the renowned Austrian historian J. B. Weiss, who drew on Taine’s data, the nobility in France before the French Revolution comprised less than 1.5% of the population.(10) In his treatise on universal geography, La Terra,(11) G. Marinelli furnishes statistics on the nobility in Russia, basing himself on the work of Peschel-Krümel, Das Russische Reich (Leipzig, 1880). According to Marinelli, the sum of the hereditary nobility and personal nobility did not exceed 1.15% of the population. He also states that Rèclus, in 1879, and van Lëhen, in 1881, presented similar statistics, both arriving at the figure of 1.3%. Obviously these percentages varied slightly depending on time and place, but the variations are not significant.

CANONIZATIONS Total Number of persons Number of Nobles %
Individual Processes          184              40              21.7
Collective Processes          364              12                3.3
Total          548              52                9.5
BEATIFICATIONS
Individual Processes          182              22               12.1
Collective Processes        1074              46                 4.3
Total        1256              68                 5.4
CONFIRMATIONS
OF CULTUS
Individual Processes          336             107               31.8
Collective Processes        1087              10                 0.9
Total        1423             117                 8.2
BEATIFICATION
PROCESSES UNDERWAY
Individual Processes        1331             149               11.2
Collective Processes        2671               13                 0.5
Total        4002             162                 4.0

The data presented above shows that in each of the categories (canonizations, beatifications, confirmations of cultus, and beatification processes underway) the percentage of nobles is considerably greater than in the total population of the country.(12) This contradicts the revolutionary calumnies about the supposed incompatibility between practicing virtue and being and living as a noble.

 

Footnotes:

(1) Mois de Saint Joseph, p. 62.

(2) André Vauchez, La Sainteté en l’Occident aux Derniers Siècles du Moyen Age (Rome: Ecole Française de Rome, Palais Farnese, 1981), 765 pp.

(3) Several others were canonized later.

(4) Cf. Daniel Ruiz Bueno, Actas de los Martires (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1951).

(5) T. Ortolan, “Canonisation,” in Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1923), Vol. 2, part 2, col. 1636.

(6) Cf. André Vauchez, La Sainteté en l’Occident; John F. Broderick, S.J., “A Census of the Saints (993-1955),” The American Ecclesiastical Review, August 1956; Pierre Delooz, Sociologie et Canonisations (La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969); Ruiz Bueno, Actas de los Martires; Archives de Sociologie des Religions, published by the Group of Sociology of the Religions (Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, January-June 1962).

(7) Città del Vaticano: Congregatio pro Causis Sanctorum, 1988, 556 pp.

(8) John XIII Institute of the Pontifical Lateran University, 12 vols., 1960-1970; Appendix, 1987.

(9) The Index ac Status Causarum does not have the precise number of persons considered in some of these group processes, thus making it impossible to give an exact number. Our figures are, therefore, approximate.

(10) Weiss, Historia Universal, Vol. 15, p. 212.

(11) G. Marinelli, La Terra—Trattato popolare di Geografia Universale (Milan: Casa Editrice Francesco Vallardi), 7 vols.

(12) We notice, in the several categories, an appreciable difference between the percentage of nobles in the individual processes of beatification and in the collective processes. This can be explained by two main reasons. In many cases, the Biblioteca Sanctorum only mentions the names without furnishing the biographical data that would permit one to know if they were nobles or not. Also, most of the collective processes refer to groups of martyrs. Persecutions are usually directed against the whole Catholic population, regardless of social class. Thus, it is to be expected that among the martyrs the proportion of nobles would be similar to that within the population.

 

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Documents XII, pp. 519-523.

____________________________________

 

Some noble saints to remember on All Saints Day:

October 31 – He forced the devil to build a church

October 27 – This Christian King Invaded Arabia

October 28 – Saint, Soldier, Statesman

October 25 – Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, but we in it shall be remember’d

October 21 – The Tale of Saint Ursula

October 21 – Blessed Karl, Emperor of Austria

October 19 – This Earl was found guilty of praying, and starved to death in the Tower

October 19 – Barefoot from Spain to Rome

October 13 – His reign was one of almost unbroken peace

October 11 – Model Archduke, both spiritual and temporal

October 10 – This man is proof that God can take good out of evil

October 6 – Princes and popes coveted the advice of this silent man

October 4 – You Want Chivalry? A More Heavenly Chivalry? Try This.

October 3 – What does a pious soldier do after a difficult assignment?

September 30 – The cantankerous noble who became a saint

September 29 – In battle or in prison, he never missed Mass

September 27 – These exemplary nobles personified virtue

September 23 – He ensured the immunity of non-combatants in warfare

September 20 – Court preacher to Charles V

September 19 – She begged to ransom Christian captives

September 16 – The pope who exacted tribute from the Mohammedan ruler of Tunis

September 15 – The noble apostle of purgatory

September 8 – The Blessed Virgin Mary descended from King David

September 7 – Grandson of Queen St. Clotilda

September 5 – Unashamed to beg alms from his family

September 2-3 – The September Martyrs of the French Revolution, Blessed John du Lau and Companions

August 31 – Unborn

August 30 – She smuggled a priest out of prison

August 30 – Saved by the cross

August 28 – Restless Heart

August 26 – This noblewoman survived the Terror and founded the Daughters of the Cross

August 25 – The King who would rather die than sin

August 25 – King Crusader Saint

August 24 – Chancellor of the court

August 23: He brought peace to Italy’s war-torn city-states in the Middle Ages

August 21 – He was one of a network of aristocrat bishops

August 20 – Saint Philibert of Jumièges

August 20 – The Knights Templar owe him

August 19 – The prince who was made bishop at age 22

August 18 – The Empress who lead the search for the True Cross

August 17 – Her great beauty aroused the jealousy of the queen

August 16 – Apostle of the North

August 16 – His nobles and subjects mourned him for three years

August 13 – Crusader nun

August 13 – The Ottomans lived in fear of this Capuchin

August 12 – His pontificate was spent in opposing royal absolutism

August 12 – St. Jane Frances de Chantal

August 11 – As soldiers scaled the walls of the convent, she met them with ciborium in hand and put them to flight

August 10 – His sister founded the Conceptionists

August 7-8 St. Dominic and St. Cajetan

August 6 – He told his assassins “God does not die!”

August 5 – Valor in a King

August 3 – Secretive Leader

August 1 – From impoverished Neapolitan nobility to Doctor of the Church

July 31 – St. Germain

July 31 – St. Helen of Sköfde

July 31 – Militant Means Something

July 30 – Patron of Charcoal

July 27 – Wanted: Noble Men for the Missions, Never to Return Home

July 24 – Chaste Queen

July 23 – St. Bridget of Sweden

July 20 – Carolingian Reformer

July 19 – Her whole family became saints

July 18 – “Don’t drink water, drink beer” said the bishop

July 17 – Martyred in the Name of Equality

July 14 – The Lily of the Mohawks

July 13 – Good King Henry

July 13 – Saintly Elite

July 11 – The noble saint who fled the world, but the world ran after him

July 10 – Seven Holy Noble Brethren

July 10 – Charlemagne Was Stricken for His Rudeness to Her

July 6 – The King Had Three Daughters, All Saints

July 6 – Mother-in-law Woes

July 4 – Patroness of victims of adultery, jealousy and unfaithfulness

July 2 – Caught Between Two Masters

June 30 – How the New York Upper Class Was Transformed by One Humble Servant

June 28 – To Avoid Their Desecration, He Ordered the Relics of the Saints to be Brought Inside the Walls

June 27 – The Saint-King elected to lead the First Crusade

June 26 – Chartreuse is not only a drink

June 22 – He Confronted the Mandate

June 21 – More Angel than Man

June 19 – Execution of second group of those who believed in the religious exemption, but only at first

June 19 – His father the Duke was a murderer

June 19 – Love Accepts No Limitations

June 16 – Death threats meant nothing to him

June 15 – St. Bernard dogs carry his name

June 13 – He Died Aged 36, But the Whole World Knows Him

June 12 – He Crowned Charlemagne

June 8 – Saint Cloud

June 8 – Accused of theft and sexual misconduct

June 5 – My God Stands Stronger Than Yours

June 5 – It is in adversity that we test friendship

June 1 – This Aristocrat Gave His Life for the Poor

June 1 – Kidnapped for Christ

May 30 – Maid of Orleans

May 30 – Most Valiant

The death of Saint Ferdinand III, the very noble King of Castile and Leon

May 28 – Upstairs, Downstairs, Ever Steady

May 25 – She withstood the devil

May 22 – Hanged for Publishing

May 22 – Queen’s Confessor

May 19 – Charlemagne’s Scholar

May 19 – He Grabbed the Devil By the Nose

May 16 – Crusader King and Leper

May 16 – Patron of Poland

May 15 – Beautiful Princess, Tragic Story

May 12 – Would you accept the crowns of England, France and the Holy Roman Empire? She said no

May 10 – Saint Damien: A Hero Who Died on the Battlefield of Honor

May 8 – Patron in War

May 8 – Matriarch of the Carolingian familyMay 11 – Holy Merovingian

May 6 – Prince, priest, pioneer

May 4 – They believed in the religious exemption, but only at first

May 3 – Sword-bearer to the Emperor

May 2 – Two sisters of this medieval princess were also saints

April 30 – Crusader Pope

April 27 – Noble Model of Confidence

April 23 – The Original Knight in Shining Armor

April 23 – Noble Bohemian

April 21 – The Noble Saint who tamed William the Conqueror, abolished slavery in England, and founded Scholasticism; his prayer to Saint Mary Magdalene

April 19 – As pope, he led his army against the Normans

April 17 – The Cistercian Founder and Its Orders of Chivalry

April 17 – One of the many nobles who spread the Cluny reform

April 14 – She suffered for the moral corruption and decay of her time

April 13 – The Prince Who Defied His Family

April 9 – She persuaded her husband the Count to become a monk

April 5 – Soul on Fire

April 4 – Mother of the Templars

April 3 – Collected the Crusader tax because he was honest with the money of others

April 1 – Noble and Holy Constable

March 29 – “I have fought for God and king, and it is for them that I am going to die”

March 28 – Grandson of King Clovis

March 27 – Royal Simplicity

St. Louis IX in the exercise of justice

March 23 – Noble Missionary

March 22 – He fought with rosary in one hand and sword in the other

March 20 – Vendor of Learning

March 20 – St. Wulfram

March 20 – Homeless Noble Poet

March 19 – Jesus, Mary and Joseph Were Born of Royal Stock

March 17 – St. Patrick the Patrician

March 16 – Chancellor to Italy and Germany

March 15 – The Angels of the Battlefield call her foundress

March 14 – Patroness of Those Falsely Accused

March 13 – Money Cannot Provide Happiness

March 10 – Noble Scot

March 9 – This Nun Was Expert in War

March 9 – She Could Detect Diabolical Plots

March 6 – Prime Minister Bishop

March 6 – Of Kings and Princesses

March 2 – Warrior Bishop Prince

March 2 – This Princess Refused to Marry the Emperor

Permanent link to February 28 – She Married a Man to Change Him and It Worked February 28 – She Married a Man to Change Him and It Worked.

February 27 – Are You Hiding a Priest?

February 25 – Princess, Abbess, Miracle Worker

February 24 – Drink the Bitter Cup

February 24 – First Christian King Among the English

February 21 – He Fearlessly Denounced Homosexual Clergy

February 21 – Terror of the Wicked, Supporter of the Weak

February 21 – Shakespeare’s Martyr Muse

February 17 – Marvelous Apparition of Our Lady To Seven Young Nobles

February 14 – Renounced Earthly Nobility To Obtain Heavenly Nobility

February 13 – Mystic and Counselor to Future Popes

February 10 – God Gave Her What Her Brother Would Not

February 9 – Banished From the Court

February 7 – Liberal to Anti-liberal

February 3 – Half Fierce Pagan Princess, Half Gentle Christian Princess

February 3 – The Stuff of Which Saints Are Made

January 31 – The Glory of the Ladies

No Man Has Greater Love Than This

January 24 – Aristocrat Saint

January 24 – Ironmonger Was His Alias

January 19 – Saintly King

January 17 – She Opposed Her Father the Count

January 13 – Intrepid Reformer

January 13 – The Opponent of Bishop Lucifer

January 13 – The Count Who Converted the King

January 10 – Patient to the Penitent, Inflexible to the Impenitent

January 8 – Hapsburg Saint

Saint Joan of Arc: Enduring Power

January 6 – St. Joan of Arc was born on this day 600 years ago

January 3 – Noble “Archangel of Monks”

January 4 – Nobility in the United States

December 30 – Princess, Orphan, Foundress

December 30 – This Prince Preached Sanctity in Marriage and Chastity in Priesthood

December 29 – Viscount Stafford

December 29 – His Staff Did More Damage Than His Sword

December 27 – Fabiola, Splendor of the Gens Fabia

December 23 – The Knights of Aviz and Their Cistercian Founder

December 23 – He Always Held His Soul in His Hands

December 19 – Tumultuous Times Reveal Noble Souls

December 16 – The Most Important Woman of Her Century

December 16 – Whistleblower Saint

December 13 – Venerated From Time Immemorial

December 13 – The Grandmother of the Marquise de Sévigné

December 9 – The Banker Who Could Recite the Summa

December 6 – Martyr of the Muslims

December 1 – He Hid Priests in His Manorhouse

November 29 – His Grandfather Defeated Charles Martel in Battle

November 25 – She Defied the Emperor

November 22 – The Eternal Glory of the Caecilia Family

November 18 – He Started the Cluniac Reform

November 17 – This Queen Cared for the Sick and Suffering

November 11 – Patron of Veterans and Soldiers

November 10 – First Pope to Be Called “Great”

November 7 – He Went on Crusade to Atone for His Sins

November 4 – Fearless and Faithful, He Reformed the Church

November 3 – The patron of the hunt

November 1 – She judged Israel

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