Front Page Titles (by Subject) 13.: Christianity as a Martyr Religion - Judgments on History and Historians
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
13.: Christianity as a Martyr Religion - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Christianity as a Martyr Religion
Among all religions Christianity may be the one that has most vividly retained its own advance in its memory through the cult of its believers and martyrs. Buddhism venerates only relics of Buddha himself and has no specific memories of his individual propagators, because none of their performances are worthy of him anyway. On the other hand, Christianity, just as it takes seriously the salvation of the individual, also greatly apotheosizes its individual evangels and virtually transfers to their relics and graves a large part of its rituals and concept of God. Where none are demonstrable, they are postulated and expected to reveal themselves; this, to be sure, means a change to the second stage in which every place must have its relics and there arises competition for, and jealousy of, such possessions. This is the strongest localization of the sacred, comparable in its way to that in Greek mythology.
In contrast to this is the paucity of Islam’s shrines. In addition, these are not special places of grace, but only of remembrance. (But what about the graves of individual saintly marabouts, etc.?) Islam does not spread the efficacy of Allah over places and persons.
It was highly important for the veneration of the various Christian saints that one should know something about their legends. In Troyes, St. Patroclus has a small shrine, with only one cleric (he is later called lector). Loci enim homines parvum exhibebant martyri famulatum, pro eo quod historia passionis eius non haberetur in promptu; mos namque erat hominum rusticorum, ut Sanctos Dei, quorum agones relegunt, attentius venerentur. Quidam igitur de longinquo itinere veniens, libellum huius certaminis detulit, lectori, quem in ipso loco servire diximus, prodidit ad legendum. [For the men of that place showed little interest in the martyr because there was no account of his martyrdom available; for it was the custom of the countrymen to worship more devoutly those of God’s saints whose martyrdom they could read about. So a certain man who brought back from a far journey an account of the saint’s passion gave it to the cleric who, as we have said, served at that place, to read.] The latter, highly pleased, immediately copied it and brought it to his bishop, but was severely punished as though he had thought it up himself. Yet soon afterwards a Frankish gentleman went to Italy and brought home from there the very same legend.
There is a superiority of martyrs over the other saints; the expressions for martyrdom are passio, agon, certamen. Christianity subsists here essentially on those who died professing it. It becomes entirely a religion of martyrs, in complete contrast to the religions of antiquity which made no fuss about their believers and had only a mythical view of their original propagators. (Dionysus and others; nevertheless, with Dionysus it comes closest to persecution, profession of faith, and martyrdom.) The persecutions of the emperors bring it about that Christianity immediately and everywhere has “classical soil” under its feet. A case in point is the enormous ineffectiveness of Diocletian’s persecution in the face of a long-standing cult of martyrdom.
In reference to the “classical soil”: In Arles, a falsely accused woman is sentenced to be drowned in the Rhône with a stone around her neck. In the water she invokes the greatest local saint, who once swam in the Rhône during a persecution: “Sancte Genesi, gloriose martyr, qui has aquas natandi pulsu sanctificasti.” [“Saint Genesius, glorious martyr, who hast sanctified these waters by swimming in them.”] She is saved, of course.