Monday, 11 July 2011

Beatified Bones

If you’ve read A Morbid Taste for Bones, Ellis Peter’s medieval murder-mystery, you will understand just how important holy relics were for any aspiring religious institution of the day, not just bones but skin, finger and toe nails, blood, hearts, anything associated with the saintly. And the trade wasn’t just in body parts. Bits of the true cross, the crown of thorns, the nails of the crucifixion, they were all there, right across the Christian world.

The thing is, you see, relics were big business; relics brought fame, fame brought pilgrims, pilgrims brought money. Where there is a demand there will always be a supply, with the suppliers not all that scrupulous or that bothered with authenticity. Saint Mary Magdalene must have been the oddest looking person who ever lived. She had eighteen arms. That’s not so bad, I suppose, because they had to be spread across five bodies!

It’s easy to smile with condescension from the sceptical heights of the present on the gullible enthusiasms of the past. But relics and the pursuit of relics was in so many ways the defining feature of medieval Christianity, both in the Catholic west and the Orthodox east. In Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe Charles Freeman does a first-class job of putting the whole thing in proper perspective, in a fashion that is both scholarly and entertaining.

The passion for body parts defined medieval Christianity, separating it from the classical past, where pagan writers associated it with necromancy and witchcraft, or from a Judaic tradition which found the practice wholly repugnant. But for the Christians of the Middle Ages, the high noon of faith, relics were far more than objects of morbid curiosity or simple veneration; they had power, the power of the living Christ and the saints; the power to heal, the power to work all sorts of miracles.

When I was nineteen I walked with a group of friends on the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James the Greater, son of Zebedee, were supposedly laid to rest in the early Middle Ages. We went as curious tourists but for the millions who came before us, those who trod this way in earlier centuries, a visit to the saint was a way of lessening the burden of sin, of decreasing the time one had to spend in purgatory.

It couldn’t go on, of course. As faith waned credulity waned also, not all that surprising when one considers that Rome boasted along with the heads of Peter and Paul some of the manna from heaven, five loaves and two fishes from the feeding of the five thousand – clearly well past their use by date – and the foreskin of Jesus, the only fleshy part he left on earth. Elsewhere one could find the breast milk of the Virgin Mary in such abundance that John Calvin, the reformer, observed “Had the Virgin been a wet-nurse her whole life, or a dairy, she could not have produced more than is shown as hers.”

A lot of it is dryly amusing, the obvious fraud which must have been obvious even at the time, but Freeman tells his story without condescension. Relics are no longer fashionable, not even in the Catholic Church, but its owing to them that we can still admire splendid reliquaries or, more important, the churches and cathedrals that were built to magnify them. These bones, as Freeman suggests, shaped the Gothic, grand reliquaries of light and space.

Freeman, as all good historians should, attempts to understand the past in its own terms. In Holy Bones, Holy Dust he explorers the way in which relics played a part in past identities, in the religious experience of ordinary people, that cross-section of humanity that Chaucer brought so vividly to life on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

Freeman’s book is an excellent reminder that relics were once central to human identity. Once, I wrote, but pause for a moment and think. Relics, the veneration of objects, might be said never to have gone away, merely to have degenerated into a secular form. Here we are in an age where people on EBay determinedly bid for an item associated with celebrities, living or dead, things that carry no promise or power whatsoever.

I can picture in my mind’s eye the pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, ready to set out for Canterbury. I bequeath on them the miracle of foresight, the ability to look into the modern age. See how they laugh at our credulity.


  1. There have always been entrepreneurs cashing in on superstitious beliefs, religious and otherwise. Then you have collectables as investments with the hopes the items will increase in value etc.

  2. "Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for. Every man has a house somewhere in the elaborate cosmos; his house waits for him waist deep in slow Norfolk rivers or sunning itself upon Sussex downs. Man has always been looking for that home which is the subject matter of this book. But in the bleak and blinding hail of skepticism to which he has been now so long subjected, he has begun for the first time to be chilled, not merely in his hopes, but in his desires. For the first time in history he begins really to doubt the object of his wanderings on the earth. He has always lost his way; but now he has lost his address."

    G.K. Chesterton.

  3. Martin Sheen is in a recent movie about that Camino pilgrimage. One of his sons directed it and said that Martin made the shooting much longer than planned by stopping to socialise with people all along the way. Was it a tough walk for you? It's supposed to be gruelling.

    On relics: All great frauds have a kernel of truth, no matter how small. Allowing Jesus to be a real historical figure; if he was crucified, there must have been a cross, nails and perhaps a crown of thorns, a lance, a robe. Someone somewhere may have some or a part of these things. This infinitesimal speck of probability kept and keeps the reliquarian business going, even today. Among the mighty warehouses-full of timber, thornstems, iron spikes etc. the real thing may be immersed among fakes. Never to be recognised by mortal eyes, of course, but known unto God (maybe). "Mighty Caesar may stop a bunghole" and that dibber a Palestinian is using to plant his melon seeds may be the head of the Sacred Lance. (May they be luscious melons and may the bugs not afflict them.)

  4. Mary Magdalene is clearly a pseudonym for Durga/Kali.

  5. Anthony, that's perfectly true.

  6. Nobby, that's a super passage. Chesterton had a real talent for words.

  7. No, not really, Retarius. Sorry, I’m being slightly disingenuous. We only walked the more interesting parts, doing no more than about twenty miles a day. I was part of a group off six. We hired a minivan, taking turns to drive, meeting the rest of the group at prearranged rendezvous. In all it took just over three weeks, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago. It’s the subject of one of my early blogs here – “I was a Pilgrim, yes, I was” – posted on 17 May, 2009.

    Miracles work best when they are unannounced. May the melons flourish. :-)

  8. @ Retarius: The Lance of Longinus ( Spear of Destiny ) has an interesting history.

  9. It is, isn't it Ana. Have you read 'Orthodoxy'?

  10. Religion is the invention of Man.

  11. Thanks for the great review, Ana. Relics were such a vital part of medieval life and yet are so little talked about in the standard histories -even those of the Church. Miracles became a taboo subject for many years because everyone was falling over themselves to argue that the Middle Ages was not an age of superstition.I just prefer to sidestep the question and talk of people living their daily lives 'between heaven and earth'.
    One of the key points I want to make is that the cult of a saint was often a way of keeping oneself apart from the institutional church- especially in the Italian city-states- even today in parts of Italy the local saint takes precedence and the Church has endless compromises to make.e.g. with the followers of Padre Pio- to keep its own authority! Such a fascinating subject and yet i felt that I barely scratched the surface of it! Off to see the British Museum exhibition of reliquaries tomorrow!
    Best wishes, Charles Freeman.

  12. Nobby, I have not. I've still to get to grips with Chesterton properly. Earlier this year I bought the Selected Works of G. K. Chesterton - quite a tome – and The Wit and Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton. The stare at me balefully from my bookcase!

  13. Charles, I’m delighted to see you here and congratulate you personally on such a first class piece of work. It was a pleasure to read and a pleasure to review.

  14. Well,Ana, I am pleased to have found you, especially to know that the reputation of Trollope is passing on to the next generation!
    You will find other things I have written on Goodreads- there is a hilarious debate with one Tim over my The Closing of the Western Mind who can't even read the books he reviews.
    Alas, its heads down on the new edition of my Egypt, Greece and Rome so not so much other reading as I would like. I will keep up with your reviews to see what I SHOULD be reading, All best, Charles.

  15. Pity. I would be most interested to read your opinion on 'Orthodoxy', Ana.

  16. Charles, I'm going to add your other publications to my ever growing 'to read' list! I'll pop along to your Goodreads page a little later.

  17. Nobby, I'll read it as soon as I can, perhaps take it on holiday with me to Peru. :-)

  18. Chaucer's Pardoner certainly comes to mind:

    He hadde a croys of latoun ful of stones,
    And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.
    But with thise relikes, whan that he fond
    A povre persoun dwellyng upon lond,
    Upon a day he gat hym moore moneye
    Than that the person gat in monthes tweye;
    And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,
    He made the persoun and the peple his apes.