Holy Bones, Holy Dust

Nicholas Vincent reviews an admirable and entertaining new survey of medieval relics and contemplates their dramatic fall from grace

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Reviewed by: Nicholas Vincent
Author: Charles Freeman
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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The veneration of relics remains a defining feature of ‘medieval’ religion. Although traced by some commentators to pre-Christian attitudes towards shrines and the bodies of the heroic dead, the cult of relics nonetheless marked a significant break with both the Jewish and the Roman past.

From the fourth century onwards, the church permitted the bones of its martyrs to be displayed as the focus of claims that dead saints could still work miracles for the living.

The ritual division of saints’ bodies and the trafficking in their body parts (practices abhorred by the Jews and associated by pagan writers with necromancy and the conjuring of witches) flourished with the official sanction of the church. No altar could be consecrated without its relevant cache of holy bones, and as is well known, the trade in relics produced both scandal and absurdity.

Charles Freeman estimates that, by the 15th century, there were no less than five bodies and 18 arms, all of which were supposed to have belonged to St Mary Magdalene.

Rome possessed one of the half dozen or so purported relics of Christ’s foreskin. Nuns who embalmed the body of St Clare of Montefalco (died 1308) claimed to have found an image of the crucified Christ engraved on her heart.

Not to be outdone, the heart of St Margaret of Città di Castello (died 1320) was found to contain no less than three precious stones, each inscribed with images of Christ and his family. At Durham, the shrine of St Cuthbert was loaded down with offerings that included ostrich eggs, milk from the Virgin Mary, two griffins’ claws, and wood from a tree that had grown in the Garden of Eden.

By the early 16th century, sceptics were ready to laugh at such claims. The church’s most precious treasures were exposed, in the words of Bishop Shaxton of Salisbury, as “stinking boots, mucky combs, ragged rochets, rotten girdles (and) great bullocks’ horns”.

The blood relic of Hailes in Gloucester, advertised since the 13th century as blood shed by Christ at the crucifixion, was declared by the reformers of the 1530s to be fluid from a freshly slaughtered duck. Even the greatest of saints, such as Thomas Becket at Canterbury, found their relics tossed on the dust heap.

The present book is not the first treatment of this subject. Although evidently a sceptic, inclined to oversimplify the theological systems with which he deals, Freeman writes with admirable clarity and with a non-specialist audience in mind.

We must nonetheless beware assuming that everyone who accepted the cult of relics was stupid or naive. Nor was the cult of saints, as Freeman himself is sometimes tempted to suggest, merely a racket intended to extract offerings from the faithful. The saints encouraged real charity, and the medieval church itself deplored many of the practices Freeman describes, not least the offering of saints’ bones for sale.

Like customers scanning eBay for celebrity memorabilia, buyers of relics had to be careful as to what exactly they were bidding for. Much of the best history written in the medieval era, as well as some of the worst, was written to distinguish truth from fiction in such claims.

Like modern readers of celebrity magazines, those who sought out the saints or perused their legends, cannot be dismissed simply as dupes. Rather, they found in relics and the cult of the saints a means by which their own personal problems, identities and localities might be plugged into a supranational as well as a supernatural grid.

Churches or individuals remote from either Jerusalem or Rome could be endowed with something of the charisma of the holiest of persons and places.

The sudden dousing of such charisma in the freezing shower of Reformation, far from restoring sanity, produced unease and a lurching sense that the world stood on the edge of cataclysm. For a modern parallel, we might imagine a world in which Facebook and all TV screens were suddenly turned off, and celebrity magazines were banned from public sale.

To this extent, Freeman’s book is a timely reminder of the extent to which relics were once central to mankind’s sense of identity. Meanwhile, an exhibition of relics and the reliquaries which once housed them, about to open at the British Museum, will supply an opportunity to view these objects almost literally in the flesh. 

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Nick Vincent is author of A Brief History of Britain: 1066–1485 (Robinson, 2011)