By Steven Russell
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Religious relics: a potential ticket to Heaven, a big boom for medieval tourism, and much more besides. Steven Russell meets a man who has studied this fascinating phenomenon
IMAGINE (perish the thought) the Archbishop of Canterbury coming to a violent end and a crowd rushing to bottle blood trickling from his fatal wounds – convinced it had powerful religious properties that would rub off on them. Unthinkable today, but it happened with Thomas Becket in 1170, when an attempt by four barons to take him captive degenerated into a vicious attack that killed him in the cathedral.
His “crime” had been to excommunicate three bishops who had anointed Henry II’s son – Thomas being in France at the time – and thus effectively invalidate the coronation. Such defiance proved the final straw in a deteriorating relationship between Henry and the archbishop, caused by a power struggle between Crown and Church.
The barons had apparently set out simply to arrest Thomas and take him to the young king as a prisoner, but it went badly wrong and the archbishop was cut down with several blows. Worse – and skip this sentence if you’re having your breakfast – the top of his head was then sliced off and the exposed brains scraped out and spread on the cathedral floor.
Crowds soon gathered, according to an account by Benedict of Peterborough: “As he lay still on the pavement then, some daubed their eyes with blood, others who had brought little vessels made away with as much as they could, while others eagerly dipped in parts of their clothes they had cut off; later no-one seemed happy with themselves unless they had taken something away, however insignificant, from this precious treasure.”
Reports of miracles followed swiftly. A witness to the murder who had dipped his shirt in the saint’s blood took it home to his paralysed wife. She asked that the blood be mixed with water and she be washed with it. Her paralysis was cured immediately, apparently.
Ampoules containing the diluted blood were soon circulating. “Innumerable sick” were cured, those reportedly on the point of death survived, and the blood was even said to have brought some folk back from the dead.
The shocking, gory and fantastical tale of Thomas Becket is told by Suffolk historian Charles Freeman in his new book to illustrate the importance of religious relics in medieval society.
They were everywhere, he says – saintly morsels such as bones, teeth, hair and clothing that could (the devout believed) bring them closer to a saint who might then put in a good word with God on their behalf and pave the way to Heaven.
It wasn’t just the physical remains of a dead saint that were believed to have potency. Brandea was a word for something that had simply touched a saint or been touched by him or her. “People would send cloth to Rome, which would be dangled over the tomb of Peter and sent back to them,” says Charles. For many people, it was enough.
Speaking of clothing, the murdered archbishop’s blood-soaked stole – a symbol of his office – and his outer garment were later given to some poor folk.
“Benedict condemns them for selling the relics on,” says Charles, “not for the act itself, but because they charged far too little for such precious objects. Relics were part of the medieval economy, with a monetary as well as a spiritual value.”
Charles’s book Holy Bones, Holy Dust is billed as the first comprehensive history in English of the rise of relic cults, covering a period from the 4th Century to the post-Reformation era.
“Relics were immensely important to medieval life, yet their role has consistently been underestimated or even, in some histories of the medieval church, virtually ignored,” he argues.
As well as being honoured, they were traded, collected, lost, stolen, duplicated and destroyed. They could be bargaining chips, wonderful for business, used for propaganda or in wielding military power.
His book looks at the ceremonies and rituals they spawned (such as pilgrimages) and some of the associated paraphernalia (ornate reliquaries: containers where relics are kept).
The passion for religious artefacts was universal. In the 1200s, Louis IX of France bought the Crown of Thorns – as worn by Jesus at the crucifixion . . . honest) from Venice: a snip at 135,000 livres. This represented more than 50% of the king’s annual budget. He built the Sainte-Chapelle chapel in Paris to display his prize and other top-notch relics.
Towards the end of the 15th Century, Frederick III of Saxony bought a thumb said to have been St Anne’s, mother of the Virgin Mary. Frederick reportedly put together a collection of about 19,000 religious items.
For the masses, unable to stretch to such sums, a nearby church would have its own saintly relic and shrine.
Charles – an agnostic, by the way – argues that most medieval people lived in “a community of the supernatural”. A variety of spiritual forces – “some favoured by the Church, others by local communities, others by local magnates or royalty” – held forth, sometimes in consensus and sometimes in opposition.
In this kind of world, a belief in saints – a sort of group of imaginary friends whose personalities, experiences and sufferings chimed with their own – gave people a kind of psychological balance to their lives.
Yes, the unscrupulous sometimes exploited the devout by selling bogus artefacts, but objects certainly fulfilled a need for much of the population.
Charles suggests the teachings of 4th and 5th Century theologian Augustine helped make people spiritually jumpy by saying that Adam’s original sin meant no-one deserved to escape the wrath of God.
“As an old man, Augustine preached that salvation was always unjustified but it might be granted, somewhat capriciously it seems, through the grace of God. His ideas brought a tragic quality to human existence . . .”
For centuries to come “Church leaders followed Augustine in revelling in the vileness of human nature, the certainty that most would be punished for the genes of original sin they could not avoid inheriting”.
One of the consequences of this view – that we were unworthy and could look forward only to eternal damnation, unless God saved us – was a growing belief in miracles, which quickly became linked to relics. Our saints, if we honoured them, might just intervene and help usher our souls into Heaven.
In any case, says Charles, relics had long been part of the religious scene. When Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine to convert England to Christianity late in the 6th Century, he told him: Don’t destroy the pagan shrines; sprinkle them with holy water and put in relics. “So we know relics have been part of our Christian history virtually from day one.”
In a world where life was threatened by illness or political turbulence – and where a joyous afterlife was in some doubt – potent artefacts were a crutch and symbol of hope for ordinary folk.
The Reformation of the 16th Century – particularly Henry VIII’s anti-Rome brand – changed significantly the religious climate and practices in England, with attacks on the honouring of some saints, pilgrimages and shrines. Puritanism, with its dislike of ritual and ostentation, continued the job.
Despite his agnosticism, Charles laments the consequences. “We’ve forgotten our heritage,” he feels. Reformation wiped away the memory of the great feasts held to honour saints, and also helped us overlook the skills of craftsmanship associated with the building and maintenance of shrines and objects.
Towns in Italy, he says, haven’t suffered the same sense of loss. “They don’t venerate them (the saints) in the way they did in the Middle Ages, but they still have great processions. Imagine the same thing happening today in Bury St Edmunds!”
All this isn’t to say that the cult of relics enjoyed a smooth ride over many hundreds of years.
A feeling grew that superstition lay behind many practices and beliefs, while there was a recognition of the sharp commercial opportunism. People realised two places 400 miles apart could not possibly both have the head of John the Baptist, for example! Several owners also claimed to have the body of Mary Magdalene.
Other critics looked at the money being made by shrines and wondered aloud if it should not be going to the poor, or looked at scripture and asked if their relationship shouldn’t be directly with Christ, rather than via a saint.
Today, religious relics still exert a pull, though Charles says most devout Catholics wouldn’t expect miracles from spiritual objects in the way people might have done in the Middle Ages.
His book points to the long queues in Turin last summer to see the piece of cloth in which it’s claimed Jesus was buried, even though, he says, tests suggest the shroud was created between 1260 and 1390.
Charles also cites the phial of John Paul II’s blood going on show at his beatification last Sunday.
He acknowledges the positive sides to the tradition, however.
A long-time fan of Italy, he recalls going to the little Tuscan town of Barga, with its cathedral on a hill. “The cathedral had a very plain wooden statue of St Christopher, about 12th Century, and in some extraordinary way you can feel his presence coming down the hillside.
“Everybody knows this statue. It’s not a great work of art, very undramatic, and yet it’s got quite a haunting quality.
“If that were lost, if you’d had a reformation and they burnt it, something really important would have been lost to that community. Although I’m sceptical about all the miracles and whatever, I do have quite a genuinely good feeling about this protective way in which these cults work.”
n Holy Bones, Holy Dust is published by Yale University Press at £25
Lots to smile about
NOT surprisingly, Charles Freeman’s book is packed with tales about saints, alleged miracles and the lengths to which people would go.
There’s an account, for instance of how 9th Century Venetian merchants smuggled the body of St Mark the Evangelist out of Alexandria in a barrel, hidden under a layer of pork. Meanwhile, the folk of medieval Modena were grateful to their patron saint for shrouding the city in fog, making life difficult for an unwelcome Attila the Hun.
One of the author’s favourites concerns St Martin of Tours, in France. With the city vulnerable to Norman attack, Martin’s remains were moved to safer Auxerre and laid next to those of local saint Germanus.
But this brought a dilemma. If someone claimed a miracle had happened, how could they tell which saint was responsible?
Well, says Charles, clerics requisitioned a leper who was close to death and obliged him to spend the night sleeping between the saints. In the morning, the side of his body next to Martin was healed; the other remained diseased.
The next night, to make sure, he was made to sleep the other way round. In the morning, he was completely cured – thanks again, it seemed, to Martin.
Another tale that tickles him is about St Hugh of Lincoln, who went to the abbey of Fecamp in northern France. It claimed to have the arm of Mary Magdalene, wrapped in silk.
“He unwrapped it and bent down to kiss it, and suddenly took a bite out of it. You can imagine; the monks were absolutely beside themselves.
“When they protested, he said that if one could take the blood and body of Christ in one’s lips at the Eucharist, there could be no objection in doing the same with Mary Magdalene!”
CHARLES Freeman has firm Suffolk roots, his ancestors having moved from Norwich to Rickinghall in the 1650s and a branch later settling in Combs, near Stowmarket.
The building known more recently as the Cedars Hotel was the family home until the second half of the 1800s.Charles’s father stayed in the army after the war, stationed in Germany, and his mother bought a house at Buxhall, where Charles grew up.
It was a lovely old-fashioned house, “though we never seemed to have any money and it was as cold as anything!”
Charles was passionate about history. He spent school holidays helping on archaeological digs run by Ipswich Museum, including a Roman villa at Stonham Aspal.
Heeding advice that there was no money in history as a career he instead read law at Cambridge.
After graduation he spent a year teaching in the Sudan – the only European for miles.
Charles has a master’s degree in African history and politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
He became a full-time teacher and has a further master’s degree in applied research in education from the UEA. In 1978 Charles was appointed head of history at St Clare’s, Oxford.
Charles moved back to Suffolk after his father died and the house became too big for his mother. Today he lives near Framlingham with second wife Lydia. Between them they have seven children.