Holy relics shape Christian piety through the ages

It is rare that a book about medieval history can keep the attention of any apart from scholars or, perhaps, live-role-play gamers. But this is just such a book. Holy Bones, Holy Dust, the latest offering from award-winning author Charles Freeman, benefits from being both exceptionally well written and having a strangely attractive subject matter. It should, therefore, take its place alongside his earlier work, The Closing of the Western Mind (Yale, 2002) as a best seller.

Freeman tells the story of how relics - bodies, whether whole or segments thereof, bones, bits of cloth and wood - grew out of the relatively undocumented past of Christian piety to become one of the most important shaping factors of Western medieval religious and cultural life.

This is the point of the book. Relics were not simply items of religious devotion. Of course, they were channels for the piety of Christians from Scotland to Constantinople. They were deployed for typically religious reasons: to provide a connection to the “happenedness" of the events in the Gospel (pieces of the True Cross for example), to effect miracles in an age where medicine was more magic than science, to proffer a glimpse of the resurrection through the display of saints' bodies left miraculously uncorrupted because of the grace that continued to abide in them.

They were also used, however, for more worldly reasons: to effect business transactions, to raise the status of a ruler, city, church or monastic house, even to win wars.

Relics were lost, found and invented (John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene have, for example, multiple heads in various places around Europe). They were bought and sold - at first openly and then, when such transactions were officially prohibited, on a sort of religious black market. They were even smuggled and stolen. They were ranked in order of importance - saints were not all of equal value - based on the events associated with their life, their own piety and most of all the miracles effected after death. They were both amassed and scattered in ways that will startle many readers.

Throughout his telling, Freeman manages to make the world of relics (almost) accessible to modern readers, going a long way to explaining both the attraction they held for powerful and peasant alike, and the revulsion they eventually provoked during the Reformation.

It is the almost that deserves further comment. When I put the book down, I felt that I had left a world both very familiar and still irretrievably foreign. In part, this has to do with the subject matter. On the one hand, I resonated with the pastoral concerns that gave rise to relics - needs for a sense of connectedness to the events of the New Testament, for assurance of divine mercy in the face of a life in which suffering was the norm, and so on. Even the crass capitalism which undergirded the relic trade, in which obvious forgeries were stolen and sold for vast sums of money and prestige, made sense to this late-modern Western reader.

On the other, the ways in which bodies were treated - being dismembered for the sake of veneration - and the notion that divine grace adhered to them and could move from them to the pilgrim, whether to effect a physical cure, bring about favourable circumstances or even shorten one's stay in Purgatory, revealed a piety that so irredeemably remote, it was hard to see how it could share the name “Christian" with mine.

I think Freeman is similarly conflicted. At points, he marvels at the wonder and beauty that the relics produced - the great churches erected around them, the reliquaries in which they travelled, the great works of art in which they were depicted. He is clearly saddened that so much of this culture was lost in the iconoclasm of the Reformation, in which relics were not merely set aside for the sake of a purer faith, but in which they were destroyed and attempts were made to erase their memory utterly. At the same time, his sympathies are clearly with the Protestant of the 16th century. Some of pious practices surrounding relics were just so bizarre for him that he could not completely conceal his own disdain for them.

At points, Freeman's own conflict seemed to surpass mine and this is unfortunate. For it is the task of the historian to articulate the world he is opening in such a way that readers can enter into it with some degree of sympathy. For the most part, this is accomplished. Every few pages, however, an aside will be tossed into the work ridiculing this or that relic or practice that was, for me at least, jarring and unfortunate.

Most unfortunate, finally, because I think it rests in an assumption that is demonstrably untrue. In making a foreign world at points even more foreign, Freeman invites the reader to share his view that, for good and sometimes for ill, we have left the world of relics behind for good. I don't think so. Quite the contrary, in fact, seems to me to be the case. Relics are as ubiquitous as they ever were, though we don't call them relics anymore. In the modern cult of celebrity, where people die diving for home-run baseballs and grow small fortunes selling clothing stolen from rock stars on E-bay, we have not left relics behind. We just call them “memorabilia."

Human nature has not changed all that much from the medieval to the modern era. People still need a sense of connectedness to something larger than themselves and will go to perverse lengths to ground that sense. As a culture, we have given up the finger of Justin Martyr for the hair of Justin Bieber, but we are still hawking relics. This, it seems to me, is the point that Freeman ends up making almost in spite of himself.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at texasflood.ca.

About the author