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Treasures of heaven: saints and their relics  

10 August 2018

In a book extract, Eamon Duffy explores the medieval veneration of ‘miraculous materiality’


Reliquary busts depicting the companions of St Ursula, from 1520, are on display at the Cloisters Museum, New York

Reliquary busts depicting the companions of St Ursula, from 1520, are on display at the Cloisters Museum, New York

IN NOVEMBER 1231, Elizabeth of Thuringia, daughter of the King of Hungary and widow of Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, died in the city of Marburg, aged 24. Married before she was 15, Elizabeth bore three children to Louis before his death while on crusade in 1227, when she was just 20 years old.

Even during her affectionate mar­riage her piety had been charac­terised by midnight prayer vigils, lavish works of charity, and acts of penance, of a scale and intensity unheard of in a high-status, sexually active wife and mother. She now took a vow of celibacy, adopted the coarse grey habit of the newly formed Franciscan Third Order, and placed herself under the spiritual direction of the appalling Conrad of Marburg, a sadistic former inquisitor, who separated her from her children, replaced her personal maids with brutal warders, and subjected her to a penitential regime that included severe beatings and public humiliations.

Elizabeth survived Conrad’s abuse for only four years. But the humility and charity of the smiling princess, who dressed like a pauper and personally ministered to the destitute and diseased in a hospital built with her own money, spectacularly embodied the ideals of her admirer Francis of Assisi. Her contemporaries took note. Within hours of her death her coffin was besieged by crowds of eager suppliants in search of healing or blessing. Pilgrims tore strips from her clothes, or cut the hair, nails, and even the nipples from her body as relics, and miracles began. A papal commission, ironically headed by her guide and tormentor Conrad, investigated Elizabeth’s miracles and virtues in 1232. Pope Gregory IX formally canonised her three years later.

Elizabeth’s radiant personality and the pathos of her short life make her one of the most endearing saints of the Middle Ages, while the course of her canonisation highlights major shifts within the medieval cult of the saints. Her fame signalled the emergence of a new kind of female sanctity, active in the world rather than shut away in a cloister. . .

ISTOCKThe skull of St Mary Magdalene, kept in the crypt of St Mary Magdalene’s, Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, France, is said to have been transferred in the eighth century

BOTH the process of making saints . . . and the kinds of people who achieved sanctity were changing during the high Middle Ages. The veneration of saints in itself, however, was a phenomenon almost as old as Christianity. One of the earliest Christian documents outside the New Testament is an eyewitness account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, the aged bishop of Smyrna said to have known St John the Evangelist, and who was burned in the arena for his Christian faith around 155. Polycarp’s congregation later searched the pyre for his relics, gathering up “his bones — more precious to us than jewels, and finer than pure gold”. These they buried “in a spot suitable for the purpose” where they could gather annually to celebrate “the birthday of his martyrdom”.

In this narrative, the core elements of the cult of the saints — shrine, relics, and annual feast day — are all already in evidence. Most of the earliest saints were martyrs like Polycarp; for their witness to Christ by the shedding of their blood made them powerful intercessors on behalf of weaker or more timid Christians.

Those who had succumbed during persecution and offered sacrifice to the pagan gods flocked to the prisons to seek absolution and intercession from martyrs awaiting execution. The martyrs’ prayers were considered even more powerful after their death. With the easing of persecution, and the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, churches were built over the graves of the martyrs, and became magnets for pilgrims.

The martyr’s shrine and the remains of his shattered body were defiant affirmations of the central Christian belief that defeat in the cause of Christ was in fact a transcendent victory. The body brutalised by torture and death would shine one day in glory, as Christ’s risen body shone, and was already a channel of divine healing and consolation. Christians flocked to the graves of the martyrs, and treasured oil or water or cloth which had come into contact with their blood or bones.

These shrine churches outside the city walls posed a problem for bishops seeking to unite the local churches around their own authority. The burial sites where the martyr-saints were sought out as heavenly patrons or physicians threatened to become rival centres of religious power and influence. The great fourth-century biblical trans­lator St Jerome wrote, “The city itself is moving; the people flood past the half-ruined temples and run to the tombs of the martyrs.”

The prestige of these shrines was so great that it seemed to threaten the institutional authority of the Church and its bishops, but the problem was solved by moving the bodies of the martyrs under the cathedral altars. The charisma of the saint was thereby united to the power of the institution, the grave of the martyr identified with the tomb of Christ, relic and eucharist joined in a single overwhelming nexus of holiness.

CREATIVE COMMONSSt Elizabeth washing a sick man: a scene from the main altar of St Elisabeth’s Cathedral, Kassa in Slovakia, 15th century

This “translation” of a saint’s bones from grave to altar or shrine would remain the act constituting canonisation for almost a thousand years. And this public veneration of the saint’s dead body marks a momentous divergence from Roman paganism and from Christianity’s parent faith, Judaism, for both shunned the bodies of the dead as sources of pollution. By contrast, Christians looked to the ultimate resurrection of the whole person, body as well as soul, after death, not to mere survival of the spirit.

They saw in the bodies of the saints, sanctified in life by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a pledge of that future resurrection, and a source of power and blessing in this world. The saint was believed to be present in his or her relics, as Christ was present in the eucharist. To journey to a shrine, to touch the holy bones or the tomb in which they rested, to anoint withered limbs with oil from the lamps that burned before them, to drink water in which dust from the shrine had been dissolved — all this brought the devotee physically and concretely within the scope of the saint’s power and patronage. Brandea — pieces of cloth that had touched a saint’s bones — were believed to become heavier from the contact.

At first, saints were venerated only at their place of burial, and for centuries the Roman Church viewed with revulsion the Eastern custom of dismembering the saints so as to multiply their relics. When the Empress Constantina asked Pope Gregory the Great for the head of St Paul, he responded in June 594 with horror stories of workmen struck dead for accidentally disturbing the Apostle’s rest, and disapproving accounts of Greek monks as pious grave-robbers, and sent her instead filings from the chains of St Paul.

But escalating demand made the division of the bodies of the saints necessary, and the dismemberment which the saints had endured in their martyrdoms may have made it seem symbolically appropriate. The Fifth Council of Carthage required every altar to have relics “buried” within it, and as Christianity spread north and west, demand greatly exceeded supply.

In the churches of Carolingian Europe and Anglo-Saxon England, the relics of the martyrs of the early Roman Church were prized above all, symbols of Christian triumph over the still potent forces of paganism, and at the same time a coveted link to the glories of ancient Rome. One ninth-century Roman deacon, Deusdona, ran a lucrative international trade in holy bodies, ransacking the Roman catacombs for the bones of “saints”, and sending them by mule train north and west to the kings, bishops, and monas­teries eager to acquire them. And those unable to afford or procure a whole body had to settle for a skull, a rib, a finger bone.

So, by the early Middle Ages, fragments of bone, hair, teeth, or flesh, shrined in silver and gold, enamel and crystal, made the influence of the saints everywhere both visible and portable. The process could be gruesome. Head relics were considered especially powerful, and head reliquaries were particularly striking. Often such reliquaries took the form of realistic metal or wooden busts, which enclosed the relic completely. But Elizabeth of Thuringia’s head was separated from her body soon after her death, and displayed in a reliquary that exposed her skull to view. So that “the sight of it should not strike horror into the onlookers,” the custodians peeled away the decaying flesh, skin, and hair “with a little knife”, and the Emperor Frederick II himself donated a gold crown for the stripped and cleansed skull.

ALAMYPilgrims queue to kiss the feet of the mummified body of St Gerasimos, at a monastery on the Greek island of Kefalonia

Avidity for relics might take extreme forms. In 1190, Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, himself destined to be canonised one day as a saint, visited the abbey of Fécamp, in Normandy, to venerate the monastery’s greatest treasure: an arm bone of St Mary Magdalene. The relic was duly produced, sheathed in silk, but Hugh sliced open the wrapping, to see and kiss the bone. Then, to the mounting horror of the monks, he tried to break off a piece and, when that failed, gnawed at it, first with his incisor and then with his molar teeth, at last snapping off and pocketing two splinters. The monks complained that he had profaned the relic “like a dog”, but Hugh would have none of it. What he had done, he declared defiantly, had honoured the saint, and was no more a profanation than when Christians honour their Lord by receiving his body and blood in communion, as he himself had done that day.

St Hugh’s startling behaviour was no one-off aberration: when he venerated the fingers of St John the Baptist at Bellay he took away part of the purple cloth in which they were wrapped, and at Peterborough he sliced and took away a sinew from the incorrupt arm of St Oswald. This was more than a collector’s urge. Hugh’s hunger for relics (he accumulated more than 30) reflected a number of widely shared medieval convictions: the universal belief that the fragmented bodies of the saints were charged with holiness and power, worth journeying great distances to see; the prestige which ownership of such relics brought (the Burgundian Abbey of Vézelay was a rival claimant to Mary Magdalene’s relics); ambiguity over whether the power of the relic could be tapped through its appearance — concealed in this instance by its silken cover — or by brute physical contact with its sanctified matter; the comparison between the holiness of the relics of the saints, and the holiness of the body and blood of Christ in the Mass; and finally the lengths to which someone might go to secure even tiny fragments of the relic for their own church or community. . .

The enshrining of relics in precious materials was fundamental to the whole cult — ivory, silver, gold, coloured enamel, precious and semi-precious stones, even cameos and intaglios from pagan Rome, or rock-crystal perfume bottles from the Islamic East. To the outward eye, relics might seem no more than the dust and residue of corruption and passibility, gruesome fragments of tortured flesh and broken bone. In God’s eye, however, and eventually, at the last day, in the eyes of all humanity, the reality was and would be otherwise. Relics were the seeds of transcendence, trophies and tokens of the imperishable glory in store for all whom Christ had redeemed. As the Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, though flesh might fade and “mortal trash Fall to the residuary worm”, on judgement day “In a flash, at a trumpet crash I am all at once what Christ is, since he is what I am, and This jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, match­wood, immortal diamond, Is immortal diamond. . .”

ALAMYAltarpiece of SS Abdon and Sennen, 1460, by Jaume Huguet (c.1415-1492): a detail depicting the move of the relics of the saints. From the side altar of Sant Pere de Terrassa, Catalonia, Spain

Such relics might be little more than a speck of dust or a single hair, and, as Julian Luxford has observed, “The name as written in a list must often have been larger than the relic it stood for.” Yet to the medieval believer these were the real treasures, each tiny fragment a guarantee of the invisible presence of the saint from whose body it had been taken. The collection was more than a souvenir or a metaphor. It was a quasi-sacramental embodiment of the company of heavenly protectors, who would be revealed in their glory at the end of time. . .

If the saints could command the veneration of their devotees, those devotees in turn could demand results. Saints who failed to deliver might have their images or reliquaries “humiliated” by being placed on the ground, or shrouded in sackcloth, or have access to their shrines blocked with nettles or thorns until prayer was answered. Ecclesiastical authorities protested against such superstition, and the second Council of Lyon banned all such practices in 1274, but in vain.

A saint might even be punished because he was working too many miracles. When the holy monk Stephen of Thiers died in 1124, in the isolated monastery of Grandmont, in the Auvergne, the flood of pilgrims to his tomb disturbed the devotions of the monks. Miracles multiplied, as did the crowds, till at last the abbot berated Stephen at the tomb: “We believe you are a saint without their proof. Please stop. . . If you don’t, I’m warning you, we’ll take your bones out of this place and throw them in the river.”

Modern historians, like the Protestant reformers, have found this aspect of the cult of the saints deeply problematic. Robert Bartlett, in an otherwise invaluable recent survey of the cult of the saints, argued that Christianity in its origins “was a radical revivalist cult” that rejected temple, cult, priesthood, sacrifice, and other attributes of organised religions.

The acceptance of all of these into third- and fourth-century Christianity represented the loss of its radical distinctiveness from other religions — “A priest of Baal or of Isis or of Yahweh would certainly have recognised what kind of thing the Christianity of the late fourth century was.” Bartlett includes among these alien elements even the notion of a holy place, the root of pilgrimage, which was later absorbed by Christianity as it became estab­lished.

But these are highly contestable claims. It is, for example, hard to see how a religious movement so deeply indebted to the Psalms for its prayers and liturgies could be intrinsically hostile to the notion of the holiness of Jerusalem, and hence of sacred places more generally. At the same time, the central Christian doctrine of incarnation might be argued to entail of necessity the celebration of the material and not just the spiritual world, including the bodies of the saints.

And that emphasis on miraculous materiality, welcome or unwelcome, is fundamental to understanding the veneration of the saints. Since the 16th century, and partly in reaction to Protestant criticism, the Catholic Church has tended to locate the significance of the saints mainly in their value as exemplars. Evidence of “heroic virtue”, rather than the power to heal or help, is the dominant consideration in modern canonisations. But, for most of Christian history, the emphasis has lain the other way. Three-quarters of the witnesses in canonisation processes in the 13th and 14th centuries were there to give evidence about the miracles wrought by the saint rather than the holiness of their lives, and that proportion climbed to 90 per cent by the end of the 15th century.

This was no new development. The classic early saints’ lives, such as Athanasius’s life of St Anthony, Sulpicius Severus’s life of St Martin of Tours, or Gregory the Great’s life of St Benedict, are catalogues of wonders to which no ordinary Christian could ever aspire — visions, prophecies, healings, the exorcism of demons, the raising of the dead. These early lives do indeed celebrate the saints” virtues, but in the form of monastic asceticism, spectacular fasting, and the renunciation of marriage and family — a call to heroism, not a pattern of living for average Christian men and women.

In a similar way, the “Acts” of the early Christian martyrs were chronicles of heroic endurance in the face of horrifying sufferings. What mattered about the saints was not their ordinariness, but the transcendent spiritual prowess that was the source of their ability to protect and heal, and which, after death, inhered in their physical remains.

This is an edited extract from Royal Books and Holy Bones: Essays in medieval Christianity by Eamon Duffy, published by Bloomsbury at £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50).

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