Holy Bones, Holy Dust

Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 306
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  • Book Info
    Holy Bones, Holy Dust
    Book Description:

    Relics were everywhere in medieval society. Saintly morsels such as bones, hair, teeth, blood, milk, and clothes, and items like the Crown of Thorns, coveted by Louis IX of France, were thought to bring the believer closer to the saint, who might intercede with God on his or her behalf. In the first comprehensive history in English of the rise of relic cults, Charles Freeman takes readers on a vivid, fast-paced journey from Constantinople to the northern Isles of Scotland over the course of a millennium.

    InHoly Bones, Holy Dust, Freeman illustrates that the pervasiveness and variety of relics answered very specific needs of ordinary people across a darkened Europe under threat of political upheavals, disease, and hellfire. But relics were not only venerated-they were traded, collected, lost, stolen, duplicated, and destroyed. They were bargaining chips, good business and good propaganda, politically appropriated across Europe, and even used to wield military power. Freeman examines an expansive array of relics, showing how the mania for these objects deepens our understanding of the medieval world and why these relics continue to capture our imagination.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16659-0
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xii-xviii)
  5. Prologue: The Making of a Martyr
    (pp. 1-8)

    The first downward slice of the sword glanced off the archbishop’s skull and cut through to the shoulder bone, almost severing the arm of one of his attendants as the weapon fell. Two more slashing cuts on his head followed and the archbishop slumped dying to the ground. Then the top of his head was sliced off and finally the exposed brains were scraped out from the skull and scattered on the cathedral floor.

    The shockwaves of the outrage, committed on 29 December 1170, spread across Europe. For the man who had just been murdered by four knights sent from...

  6. CHAPTER ONE How the Christian Relic Emerged
    (pp. 9-14)

    Medieval Christianity had its distinctive qualities but it shared many of the features of the polytheistic religions that had been traditional to the Mediterranean for many centuries before Christ. The creation of an altar or shrine over the body of a ‘hero’ was a very ancient practice. Achilles had so honoured his beloved friend Patroclus before his own death in the Trojan War. Homer tells how:

    ‘In tears’ the mourners ‘gathered their gentle comrade’s white bones,

    All in a golden urn, sealed with a double fold of fat,

    And stowed the urn in his shelter, covered well

    With a light...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Incorruptible Flesh of the Martyrs
    (pp. 15-23)

    It was in the city of Milan, the Roman Mediolanum, northern Italy, in the 380s AD that Christian relics first became part of a dramatic display. Since the late third century, the vast Roman empire had been divided into separate territories, usually two, a Latin-speaking west and a Greek-speaking east, to make defence more manageable. Each had their own emperor, although the two often collaborated in fighting off threats. The western emperors were based in Milan rather than in Rome, which was too far south from the threatened northern borders.

    In the summer of AD 386, however, Milan was in...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Creating a Christian Landscape
    (pp. 24-28)

    ‘All we the faithful, worship the cross of Christ as his staff: his all-holy tomb as his throne and couch: the manger and Bethlehem, and the holy places where he lived as his house . . . we reverence Sion [Jerusalem] as his city; we embrace Nazareth as his country; we embrace the [river] Jordan as his divine bath’. So enthused Leontius of Byzantium, writing in the early seventh century, on the experience of pilgrimage to the Holy Land.¹

    The fourth century, after the granting of toleration to Christianity by the emperor Constantine in 313, brought the first explosion of...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Battle for Acceptance
    (pp. 29-36)

    This enthusiasm for relics was bound to arouse hostility and ridicule from non-Christians. A traditional pagan view had always been that a god who had to rely on the miraculous to show his power was degrading himself. The emperor Julian (r. 361–63), who had converted back to paganism from a Christian background, put it in hisAgainst the Galileans. ‘You Christians have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres, and yet in your scriptures it is nowhere said that you must grovel among tombs and pay them honour.’ He taunted the Christians for introducing a new form of...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE The View from Byzantium
    (pp. 37-47)

    So enthused an eleventh-century traveller who had journeyed from Europe to Constantinople, the city that the emperor Constantine had founded on the ancient site of Byzantium.¹ Constantinople had been officially dedicated in ad 330 and the beginning of a distinct ‘Byzantine’ empire is often dated from this moment. As the Roman empire in the west crumbled under barbarian pressure, Constantinople emerged as the largest city in its surviving territories. Its attractions lay in its superb defensive position, a peninsula on the ‘European’ coastline overlooking the Bosporus and entrances to the Black Sea, and a fine harbour, the Golden Horn. Constantinople...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Bishops, Magic and Relics in the Post-Roman World
    (pp. 48-60)

    While the empire in the east successfully transformed itself and survived, in the west the Roman empire collapsed in the fifth century. There was a scramble by war leaders to carve up the abandoned territories. Most were heirs of the barbarian tribes that had gradually dislocated the provincial administration of the empire. Even though many of these had absorbed ‘Roman’ lifestyles, much of what can be called civilisation – urban life, trade, high levels of craftsmanship, literacy – vanished as living standards slumped, often to below those of pre-Roman Europe. Gregory the Great was so appalled by the devastation and...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN ‘A barbarous, fierce and unbelieving nation’
    (pp. 61-68)

    Gregory, Bishop of Tours, was also the most important historian of his times and he records its many upheavals and conflicts. HisHistory of the Franksbristles with narratives of civil wars between rival members of the Merovingian dynasties.¹ The emerging Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England were also racked with conflict. Relatively little is still known of Anglo-Saxon England. Even the process by which the newly arriving peoples, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, from what is now Germany and Denmark, reached and settled within the native English population is hotly disputed. Yet by the end of the seventh century a number of...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT The Great Consolidator
    (pp. 69-79)

    Charlemagne (742–814) is the first ‘great’ figure to emerge from the confusion of what has often been called the ‘Dark Ages’.¹ ‘Dark’ is appropriate partly because so little evidence survives and partly because what does survive suggests an age of profound insecurity with severely debased standards of living. The relics of saints were now pervasive in the Christian parts of Europe. Even when he was still a boy, such relics were important to Charlemagne. He often talked of how he had been present as a seven-year-old at thetranslatioof the body of Saint Germain, a sixth-century Bishop of...

  14. CHAPTER NINE Hope and Desperation in a Disordered World
    (pp. 80-88)

    The fragmentation that followed as Charlemagne’s empire disintegrated saw the end of relic cults as expressions of imperial patronage, but there was now an urgent need for their help in protecting vulnerable institutions in an age of disorder. It was as if they sprung back against the pressures of Charlemagne’s control and took on new roles. Once again we see the astonishing flexibility in the way in which cults could be manipulated to respond to new challenges. Paschasius Radbertus (785–865), the abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie (in northern France), provides some sense of this awakening. ‘Never before...

  15. CHAPTER TEN Cults and the Rise of Anti-Semitism
    (pp. 89-93)

    The outburst of ‘vengeance’ against Jews in 1009 was a stark reminder that they had long been vulnerable to Christian prejudice and hostility. As far back as the second century ad, the Jews had, collectively, been accused of the murder of Jesus, the Son of God, in effect deicide. By the fifth century they had been excluded from public life. Their close-knit communities made them easy to scapegoat and attack. In the 1090s there had been massacres of the Jewish populations of several European cities by passing crusaders. Guibert of Nogent records how, in Rouen, northern France, the crusaders ‘herded...

  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN Fervent Christian Pilgrims
    (pp. 94-107)

    The eleventh century was a period in which newly built churches and newly discovered saints were spreading across the landscape. Most Christians could now find all they needed – baptisms, daily Mass, marriage (solemnised in the church porch) and burial – within their local parish. However, while in this sense Christians were more firmly rooted in their local Christian community, other forces were encouraging them to leave. The growth of the European economies, the revival of sea routes and the development of new tracks across Europe saw the first long-distance pilgrimages for even humble Christians. The Latin termperegrinus, an...

  17. CHAPTER TWELVE ‘The eyes are fed with gold-bedecked reliquaries’
    (pp. 108-119)

    The arrival of pilgrims meant that many of the stopping places along the way to the major shrines prospered. The important issue now for any ambitious abbot, bishop, or local city commune was how to display the relics of their favoured saints. They went for impact. ‘The more grandly constructed a church is, the more likely it is to entice the dullest minds to prayer and to bend the most stubborn to supplication’, noted the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury. In the larger churches, the resting place of the bodies of saints had usually been in a crypt below the...

  18. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Looting the East
    (pp. 120-130)

    There were many traditions that told of relics brought back to western Europe over the centuries from the eastern Mediterranean. One of the most spectacular caches was discovered in a chest found in Oviedo in northern Spain. The chest was credited with an itinerary that had taken it from Jerusalem, after the Persian capture of the city in 614, port by port along the coast of north Africa, then to Toledo, the first Christian capital of Spain, before it reached its final resting place in a cave near Oviedo. Such was the awe in which it was held that it...

  19. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Louis IX and the Sainte-Chapelle
    (pp. 131-138)

    One of the most influential books of the Middle Ages, theGolden Legendcompiled in the 1260s by the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine, told the stories of the saints.¹ Jacobus came from a village near Genoa where he first joined his Order, and he served mostly in northern Italy, finally becoming the Archbishop of Genoa. TheGolden Legendwas not an original work – in fact, Jacobus was assiduous in detailing his sources of which a hundred are known, including the early Church Fathers – but he had the knack of not overloading his readers and of rewriting many of...

  20. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Sacred Flesh Between Death and Resurrection
    (pp. 139-145)

    ‘He was like a grain of wheat that falls to the ground and is picked up by the hands of believers, and dying rises again in a fertile stalk. He was the grape that in the press gives forth much juice. He was the spice that, ground in the mortar by the pestle, gives forth a wondrous odour. He was the mustard seed that increases in strength when it is ground.’¹ The description of the body of the charismatic Dominican preacher Peter of Verona comes from theGolden Legendof Jacobus de Voragine. Peter Martyr, as he came to be...

  21. CHAPTER SIXTEEN ‘Christ’s recruits . . . fight back’
    (pp. 146-155)

    ‘It is enough that we have lived up to now in the peace of the church. Now, indeed, the harvest, long dried-out, should be watered, fittingly with the blood of the saints, so that Christ’s fruit, weakened over length of years by old age, might return, moistened afresh, to its original beauty. We shall see the devil’s war break out in open field. Now is the time for Christ’s recruits to fight back.’¹ Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073–85) was taking the initiative in asserting papal supremacy against those who challenged it, here the emperor Henry IV whom Gregory was...

  22. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Protectors of il Popolo
    (pp. 156-168)

    The most vigorous assertion of relic cults in the public arena was to be found in the Italian city states. The wealthiest of these by far was Venice, whose revenues from her ruthless exploitation of Mediterranean trade gave her an income, in the middle of the fifteenth century, greater than the whole of England. For cities such as this, owning the relic of a prestigious saint was an end in itself, a mark of the city’s identity, not least against rival spiritual and political powers, including the established Church, and other cities.

    For Venice this saint was St Mark the...

  23. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN The Virgin Mary and the Penitent Whore
    (pp. 169-185)

    In the summer of 1113 a small group of clerics arrived at the little port of Wissant near the town of Calais.¹ Their leader, Boso, was accompanied by his nephew Robert, two canons from the cathedral of Laon in Picardy, and a number of other clergy. With them they had a precious feretory, a portable shrine, that carried the inscription: ‘May I be consecrated by the sponge, the Cross of the Lord, with the cloth of thy face, also by the hairs of your Virgin Mother.’ Inside, it was said, was part of the robe of the Virgin, the sponge...

  24. CHAPTER NINETEEN The Wondrous Blood of Christ
    (pp. 186-196)

    This ecstatic outpouring comes from the fourteenth-century Middle English textA Talking of the Love of God.¹ It was a reflection of a more emotionally intense form of Christianity that appears in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which brought veneration of the shedding of Christ’s blood to the forefront of the medieval consciousness. At the heart of the many blood cults that grew up across Europe, but above all in northern Germany, was the belief that Christ’s blood had been outpoured for the salvation of humankind. In fact, crucifixion was a largely bloodless form of death, although John’s Gospel had...

  25. CHAPTER TWENTY Rescuers and Devils
    (pp. 197-205)

    In the fourteenth century relics became caught up in the shifting mentalities of a very troubled age. It was already a time when spirits were low. The fall of Acre, the last crusader toehold in the Holy Land in 1291, had spread gloom throughout Europe. Such an abject failure could only be seen as the judgement of God on a sinful Christian humanity. Lack of effective leadership did not help. For much of the century (1309–78) the papacy was in exile from Rome in Avignon, an enclave in southern France.¹ Even though the Avignon popes were relatively able and...

  26. CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE ‘Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands’
    (pp. 206-218)

    ‘The fifteenth century was the last century of mass pilgrimages. While the poor seem to have kept closer to home and rushed in crowds to local shrines at the news of a fresh miracle, other groups were treading the ancient routes. So it was with the cheery characters who assembled to walk to Canterbury in Geoffrey Chaucer’sCanterbury Tales. Chaucer, writing at the end of the fourteenth century, brilliantly catches the atmosphere of the burgeoning spring enthusing the pilgrims with the desire to seek new spiritual adventures. Several of them have already travelled far in their lives as knights, merchants,...

  27. CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO ‘dead images that . . . may not . . . help any man of any disease’
    (pp. 219-227)

    One of Chaucer’s exuberant band of pilgrims inThe Canterbury Talesis a pardoner. He carries a pillowcase of relics around with him that includes a veil of the Virgin and part of the sail of the boat from which Peter walked towards Jesus on the waves (Matthew 14:22–33). Among his collection is ‘a rubble of pigs’ bones’. He is adept at coaxing money out of credulous folk who will willingly pay to kiss the relics and believe that their sins are absolved. The pardoner pleads his case to his fellow pilgrims but is soon rebuffed by the Host,...

  28. CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE Protestantism and the New Iconoclasm
    (pp. 228-246)

    In 1516, while Martin Luther was still formulating the theology that would lead him to break so decisively with the Catholic Church, he delivered a series of sermons that condemned idolatry.¹ As one element of ‘idolatry’ he included the superstitions to be found at the shrines. He noted how Christians had made the saints their slaves and returned to polytheism. ‘It still causes us Christians no shame to share out the business of worldly things among the saints, as if they had now become servants and bonded labourers: things have nearly gone back to that morass of superstitions, such that...

  29. CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR Intimations of Reality
    (pp. 247-253)

    When an earthquake hit Venice in 1511, the Patriarch interpreted it as a sign from God in response to the increase of sodomy in the city. The Doge agreed with him. After all, the city’s prostitutes had been complaining that their own business was suffering as a consequence of this diversion in sexual behaviour. The diarist Marino Sanudo, who recorded the earthquake with his customary detachment, noted that all the ensuing days of fasting, procession and preaching that followed might have helped improve piety, ‘but as a remedy for earthquakes, which are a natural phenomenon, this was no good at...

  30. CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE Reasserting the Miraculous
    (pp. 254-265)

    So spoke the assembled bishops at the Council of Trent in December 1563. The Reformation had shaken the Catholic Church. Yet there was some vigour in its response. While the inquisitions conducted by medieval Dominican preachers against heretics had often been amateurish, the Roman Inquisition set up by Pope Paul III in 1542 was better equipped to define heresy and carry out formal trials. An Index of Prohibited Books, a massive compilation in its first edition of 1559 of the entire works of 550 authors, was in itself a sign of bureaucratic efficiency. A new order, the Jesuits, married the...

  31. CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX Within the Community of the Supernatural
    (pp. 266-270)

    In 1413 a skeleton was found in a lead sarcophagus in a graveyard in the city of Padua, home of one of Italy’s oldest universities and a centre of humanism. A scholar, Sicco Polenton, came out to see it and enthusiastically proclaimed that it was no other than the body of the Roman historian Livy.¹ At the news sightseers came flocking out of the city and students reverently took some of the teeth as a memorial.²

    For a monk that was watching this was no more than an act of idolatry. Whatever the merits of Livy as a historian, he...

  32. Notes
    (pp. 271-287)
  33. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 288-296)
  34. Index
    (pp. 297-306)