The writing of sacred biography was only one part of the literary world of saints. Saints, hagiographers, and their audiences all knew that they were participating in a culture that transcended individuals to embrace the faithful collectively. That was the point of talking, as many did, about the Holy Church in the singular and talking about the collected fate of people on Judgement Day. For saints, it was crucial that at some level they had achieved their status because they had reached widely recognized standards, be they for virgins, anchorites, martyrs, or any other holy person. The power of the saint was also collective as they stood together as the elect of God, and indeed would form a particular group of the elect on Judgement Day. While the creation of a saint was often a local process, it was one which usually rested on near- universal standards built up from the exchange of stories, texts, and ideas over a long period of time and, sometimes, across great distances. This raises important issues: how was knowledge about saints organized and how was it circulated?
Some of the central issues are laid out, conveniently, in a letter from Pope Gregory I to Bishop Eulogius of Alexandria written in around 598 (Letters, bk. 8, no. 28). We only have Gregory's part of the exchange, in which he states that Eulogius had requested “the deeds of the martyrs [gesta martyrum] which Eusebius of Caesarea of blessed memory had collected in the time of Constantine.” The request surprised Gregory as he had never heard of the gesta martryum collected in this way, not by Eusebius, not in the papal archive, and not in the libraries of the city of Rome, “except for a certain few collected in a volume of a single manuscript.” The only complete collection on the martyrs Gregory possessed, he noted, was in another book in which they were listed in liturgical order so they could be celebrated at Mass, but without any information on how they suffered; this kind of book, however, Gregory presumed Eulogius already possessed. We will return to the full implications of Gregory's letter a few times in this chapter. For now, it is necessary simply to bear in mind the possible modes of information exchange implied: through letters, through collections, through individual texts, through calendars (or, better, martyrologies), and through the liturgy.