Father, son and holy goat? The dark side of medieval relics

In medieval Europe, relics of dead martyrs were the ultimate must-have, venerated by princes and paupers alike. But where did they come from? Writing for BBC History Revealed, Emma J Wells delves into the black market for holy heirlooms...

The Crown of Thorns allegedly worn by Christ during the Passion. It was one of the prized possessions in Notre-Dame Cathedral until April 2019 – when it was rescued by the inferno that gutted the building. (Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In AD 869, the Great Heathen Army – the horde of Viking warriors that wreaked havoc across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England – returned to East Anglia once more. Edmund, King of the East Angles, rode to meet them. They clashed at Thetford, where Edmund was captured and, legend has it, given the chance to continue ruling as a Viking underking. Edmund refused, and so was tied to a tree, beaten and then murdered with a volley of arrows. His head was subsequently hacked off and tossed into a bramble brush.

Edmund was soon venerated as a saint, and his remains relocated to the nearby town of Beodricesworth (Bury St Edmunds). Such was his following that he was quickly recognised as the patron saint of England, a position held until he was replaced by St George on Edward III’s orders in the 14th century. But despite his veneration, his body was not to stay undisturbed.

In AD 869, the Great Heathen Army – the horde of Viking warriors that wreaked havoc across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England – returned to East Anglia once more. Edmund, King of the East Angles, rode to meet them. They clashed at Thetford, where Edmund was captured and, legend has it, given the chance to continue ruling as a Viking underking. Edmund refused, and so was tied to a tree, beaten and then murdered with a volley of arrows. His head was subsequently hacked off and tossed into a bramble brush.

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Edmund was soon venerated as a saint, and his remains relocated to the nearby town of Beodricesworth (Bury St Edmunds). Such was his following that he was quickly recognised as the patron saint of England, a position held until he was replaced by St George on Edward III’s orders in the 14th century. But despite his veneration, his body was not to stay undisturbed.

Edmund’s shrine in the abbey of Bury St Edmunds was destroyed in 1539, during the English Reformation, and his remains were presumed lost. Another legend, however, claims that the saint’s body was actually looted and taken to France in 1217, during the First Barons’ War. In either case, his remains next crop up in Toulouse, where a cult to Edmund arose after his apparent intercessions saved the town from a plague in the 17th century. Again, he was to be disturbed: in 1901, the Archbishop of Westminster asked that Edmund’s remains be returned, so that they might grace the high altar of the still-under-construction Westminster Cathedral.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edmund is considered one of the patron saints of torture victims. (Photo by RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edmund is considered one of the patron saints of torture victims. (Photo by RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)

Officials in Toulouse refused. The matter was referred to the highest authority – the Pope – who sided with the Archbishop. Edmund’s body alone was returned; his decapitated head remained in France. Yet following doubt over the authenticity of the relics sent back, his remains were left in the care of the Duke of Norfolk, and so still remain in the private chapel at Arundel Castle.

People pleasers

The medieval market for relics was big business – a huge industry with an infrastructure to match. From peasants to popes, all clamoured to see them – so much so that Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, ordered relic veneration to be an integral part of Frankish canon law, directing every altar to possess its own relics.

Deriving from the Latin ‘reliquum’, meaning ‘remainder’, the real value of these divine articles lay in their power to bridge heaven and earth. The bones or hair of martyrs, apostles and Christ were considered to have the greatest power, and were known as first-class relics.

Of the latter, the most iconic was the cross of Christ’s crucifixion. Second-class relics included garments or personal property, while third-class relics were objects that had been touched or located in the vicinity of a first- or second-class relic. Year upon year, faithful pilgrims travelled hundreds of miles, flocking to parish churches and cathedrals in droves to visit the most powerful relics, in the hope of healing power or a miracle. Even those relics considered fake could become ‘real’ if they later ‘performed’.

The pilgrimage trade had an enormous impact on local economies, leading towns to go to extreme lengths in pursuit of the best relics, with the most desirable – the ones that would subsequently attract the most visitors – being the most difficult to come by. Acquiring prime relics required much time and money, so competition between sacred sites drove many churches to extreme, even inexplicable, lengths.

Fragments of saints were trafficked around Europe, but far too often supply simply fell behind demand, resulting in an underground economy of trades, surreptitious purchases and even theft. Although high-ranking churchmen could technically place orders, churches often could not afford to pay the astronomical prices of the most prized choices. And so, they turned to a group of relic fixers.

Perhaps the most famous of these professional ‘merchants’ was a 9th-century Roman deacon named Deusdona, who lived near the basilica of St Peter in Chains. Aided by his brothers, Lunisus and Theodorus, he gained an unenviable notoriety for selling at least five saints to the Benedictine monastery at Fulda. But his most prominent acquisition was of saints Marcellinus and Peter (martyred during the early Roman Empire) for Einhard, a servant to both Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious, to endow a newly founded monastery at Mulinheim. Unknown to their customers, however, the brothers would typically acquire bones from one of Rome’s many abandoned catacombs and sell them on as holy relics.

They were not alone in the relic trade. In AD 828, two Venetian merchants questioned the appropriateness of the body of St Mark remaining in the then Muslim-occupied city of Alexandria. After stealing it, they cloaked the body in joints of pork to deter Muslims from searching their ship. Other notorious merchants included Deusdona’s direct competitor, Felix, who was often recorded as selling the same relics and saints as his rival. Both men openly admitted to stealing said relics but were protected by their clerical customers, who aided their escape from the pursuing monastic communities from which the relics had been purloined.

St Anthony of Padua perished from oedema in 1231, and when exhumed in 1263 in order to be reburied in a grand new basilica, his body was found to have decomposed, except, curiously, for his tongue. (Image by Alamy)
St Anthony of Padua perished from oedema in 1231, and when exhumed in 1263 in order to be reburied in a grand new basilica, his body was found to have decomposed, except, curiously, for his tongue. (Image by Alamy)

Double dealing

Robbery was not the only practice through which relics might abound. Relics were easily transported, largely untraceable and difficult to verify as authentic unless they proved themselves through miracles. Canny merchants could sell the same relic twice over – or more – if they were talented or duplicitous enough.

The traffic in bones of saints and other so-called holy antiques became so prevalent that churches overflowed with bogus relics. Although the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 ordained that relics should not be sold or put on exhibition in order to prevent prelates from deceiving pilgrims through false tales and documents “as has commonly happened in many places on account of the desire for profit”, the problem persisted.

The biggest clue that a relic was fake came when several sites laid claim to the same one. Countless pieces of wood were purported to be shards of the True Cross, and no fewer than 29 places claimed to house the associated nails. Although it is commonly believed that there were three nails, the earliest crucifixes show Christ’s feet separated, so perhaps there were four. Apocrypha claims St Helena had a further 12 made from the original four nails, which may go some way to explain why many still on display today are not complete.

There is a caveat: when human remains were accidentally discovered near a church or catacombs, they were often promoted as the body of a martyr. The same applied to objects and hence, in some cases, there was little evidence of deliberate fraud or manipulation. This may explain the instances  where the venerated crucifixion nails that found themselves in the presence of originals came to be honoured as the original itself. The custom of making facsimiles – which continues to this day in the form of replicas or souvenirs, such as St John the Baptist’s head at Amiens Cathedral or the replica of the Turin Shroud owned by the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia – may account for the many counterfeit relics that swarmed many great medieval churches.

As the monks of Glastonbury Abbey struggled to acquire funds to rebuild their church in the late 12th century (and to compete with Westminster Abbey), they just happened to stumble upon the skeletons of King Arthur and Guinevere in a tree trunk. They relocated the grave into the grounds of the Abbey’s new church, and the site subsequently thrived. As a consequence, nearby Wells Cathedral was deserted by the throngs of pilgrims who now flocked to the new prized relics on display at Glastonbury.

Warring claims

This is not to say that quarrelling parties who laid claim to the same ‘authentic’ relic could not be held accountable or seek help in their justification, whichever the case may be. By scouring records and thus establishing the alleged true history and indisputable verification of the relic including all associated cures and miracles, warring claims could be put to rest by the offices of the Holy See – the government of the Catholic Church. Peddlers of suspicious relics could be subjected to submersion of the offending relic in boiling water in order to test veracity – an authentic relic would protect its bearer from harm. A rather more elementary example comes from Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) who, when asked which of three churches possessed the real foreskin of Christ, asserted, “Rather than attempt rash answers to such questions, it is better that they be left entirely to God.”

Nevertheless, papal records held multiple accounts of the same saints, so the risk for many merchants and touters was so minimal and rewards so high that it was often too tempting to turn most requests away. It thus becomes easy to understand the multiplicity and extravagance of the entries in the relic inventories across Europe.

The calamitous fraud or greed in the relic trade that ensued throughout the Middle Ages derived from the acute rivalry between religious institutions, and the desire to be known as the keepers of an extraordinarily miraculous relic. Even the Pardoner in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was a peddler of phoney relics – the veil of the Virgin Mary actually being an old pillow case and his bag of old pig bones passed off as ancient saints – through which he fleeced the gullible. But it was only a century or two later that the cult of the saints and its associated economy and materialism suffered a major public relations scandal at the hands of German theologian, Martin Luther, who orated: “What lies there are about relics! … how does it happen that eighteen apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only twelve?”. Elsewhere, Protestant reformer John Calvin claimed that if brought together under one roof “it would be made manifest that every Apostle has more than four bodies, and every Saint two or three”.

The ruin of relic culture

Beginning in the 1520s, Europe saw perhaps the biggest change to fundamental religious belief – a movement marked at its heart by an attack on devotion to the saints.

In England, the mid 1530s saw Henry VIII attack pilgrimage, relics, reliquaries, shrines, and the veneration of images (by and large). To believe that they had any kind of implanted sacredness was equivalent to heathen idolatry. In turn, the shrines, tombs and reliquaries of saints were smashed open and the remains thrown into charnel houses, with the more valuable materials melted down or transformed into ‘secular’ artefacts; statues were decimated or burned; wall and rood paintings were defaced or covered with whitewash then overwritten with the only sanctioned ‘relic’: the Word of God.

The priests at the shrines were branded liars committing fraud and robbery. And now the replication of relics was proof of their absurdity. In 1543, Genevan reformer John Calvin even declared that they merely amounted to “heaps of foolish trifles”.

Many extravagant and unusual relics and reliquaries found their way into private collections as the centuries drew on, though the trade in unsanctioned relics vastly waned come the early 19th century, once the Enlightenment had passed. Still, the Catholic Church continued the requirement for all altars to house relics until as late as 1969.

Icon or con?

These are among the most famous medieval relics in the world, but are they real?

THE TURIN SHROUD

Is this the true burial shroud of Christ or 650-year-old fake news? Regardless, the 14-foot linen cloth bearing an image of a crucified man first surfaced in 1354 – apparently depicting Christ himself. Radiocarbon dating places the cloth in the medieval period, but scientific tests suggest the pattern of the bloodstains may indicate a forgery. The Vatican itself refuses to take an official position on the shroud’s authenticity.

 

ST CATHERINE’S HEAD

Preserved in the Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico, Siena, the mummified head of St Catherine of Siena is housed behind a locked, gilded grate. One of Italy’s two patron saints, St Catherine, known for her incredible religious visions, died in Rome in 1380 at the age of 33, shortly after suffering a major stroke.

When the people of Siena requested her body for burial, the request was denied. A group of her followers decided to undertake the clandestine task of arranging for her head to be removed and returned to Siena. When the body snatchers were apprehended, it is said that guards found only rose petals inside their bag. It was only when”the head was delivered back to Siena that the rose petals magically morphed back into Catherine’s head.”

 

THE HOLY FORESKIN

Jesus’s circumcision is said to have taken place eight days after his birth, which raises the question of what became of his foreskin? As perhaps the most valuable and holy relic, since it was an actual part of Christ’s body, several figures and churches claimed its possession. Its first mention came when Charlemagne presented it as a gift to Pope Leo III (the emperor allegedly received it from a Byzantine empress). Soon, rival claimants began to spring-up across Europe. All told, at least 31 churches in Europe asserted to house the Holy Foreskin sometime during the Middle Ages. The most notorious was kept in the town of Calcata, near Rome, until it disappeared in 1983.

 

ST ROSALIA’S BONES

In the Sicilian region of Italy, a teenage girl left home to become a hermit and devote her life to Christ. She passed away in c1160, in the cave she had chosen as her home on Mount Pellegrino, and there her bones had remained. That was until a plague struck Palermo in 1624. Residents began claiming to see visions of Rosalia, and for the plague to be ended, the apparition apparently instructed that her bones were to be recovered. This was indeed accomplished and the bones were then paraded through the streets. The plague ebbed, and for this Rosalia was venerated as the patron saint of Palermo and her former abode thus turned into a site of devotion. Two centuries later, British geologist William Buckland visited Rosalia’s shrine. He examined the relics but found something amiss: he determined them to be “nonhuman” – in fact, they belonged to a goat.

 

ST ANTHONY’S TONGUE

St Anthony of Padua perished from oedema in 1231, and when exhumed in 1263 in order to be reburied in a grand new basilica, his body was found to have decomposed, except, curiously, for his tongue. After death, the tongue is one of the parts of the body that should decay first. That precisely this part of the saint’s body should be one of the best preserved was taken as a miraculous sign of his speaking and teaching about the word of God.

In 1981, St Anthony’s body was exhumed again and scientists discovered that the cartilaginous tissue supporting the vocal cords, along with other organic material connected with his vocal apparatus, was still remarkably preserved.

 

THE HAND OF MARGARET CLITHEROW

Alleged to have illegally hidden Jesuit priests in her home in York’s Shambles, Margaret Clitherow was put to death on 25 March 1586 by ‘peine forte et dure’ at the Toll Booth on Ouse Bridge. There she was laid, a door placed over her and stone weights piled on top. Margaret’s body was buried at midnight in an obscure corner of the city so that no one would find it. Six weeks later, a group of Catholics eventually located the site and, after embalming the body, they reburied her. The location of the burial place was so closely guarded that it is now lost, but Margaret may have been interred in the crypt of the small chapel of St Saviour, Stydd in Lancashire. One of her hands – detached before her final burial – is now one of the most precious treasures of the Bar Convent in York.

Emma J Wells is an ecclesiastical and architectural historian specialising in the late medieval/early modern English parish church/cathedral and the cult of saints. She is also a broadcaster and the author of numerous books including Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles (Robert Hale, 2016).

Emma will be joining us at our Medieval Life and Death events to talk about religion and faith in the Middle Ages

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 To find out more, visit www.emmajwells.com or follow Emma on Twitter @Emma_J_Wells