Review of “Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics shaped the History of Medieval Europe” by Charles Freeman

The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire marked the end of state-sponsored polytheism, but the practice of honoring saints, in particular through the veneration of their relics, still amounted to a sort of polytheism. Charles Freeman writes that unless one gets within the mentality of medieval Christians, who believed in a variety of spiritual forces emanating from long dead saints’ body parts or clothing, “medieval religion does not make much sense.” This is not to say it makes much sense to post scientific revolution thinkers in any event.

Relics were immensely important to medieval life, but their role has been largely underestimated or even ignored by modern scholars. However, documents surviving from earlier than the 17th century are replete with accounts of miracles and the saints who allegedly performed them. Moreover, many cults continue from those days and some “sacred” objects are still venerated.

Freeman traces the perceived importance of relics to the writings of Augustine of Hippo (also known as “Saint Augustine”). Augustine himself did not write much about relics, but his theology was extremely pessimistic, positing that the vast majority of humans will suffer for eternity. Somewhat surprisingly, his texts became almost as authoritative as holy scripture, and for centuries later Catholic Church leaders followed him in reveling in the vileness of human nature. Freeman writes that Augustine’s “God was a much less rational and less stable deity than that conceived by the philosophers.” This God was, however, amenable to pressure from the likes of the Virgin Mary or the saints.

[Augustine was quite down on the subject of women: lust was filth, erections were sinful, and women were the cause of it all, given their putative weaker brains and lack of self-control. But fortunately for Mariologists, Augustine believed that the mother of Jesus “conceived as virgin, gave birth as virgin and stayed virgin forever.” This redeemed her in his eyes and exempted her from his blanket condemnation of other females.]

Saint Augustine of Hippo

Mary, and of course her son, were thought to be able to intercede with an otherwise vengeful God. But saints were usually the go-to intercessors of choice however, since they were “local” – somewhat like appealing to the government representative of one’s political district. The devout routinely erected shrines to holy men and women, often including an article of their clothing or a body part. Moreover, the relics were perceived to be effective, frequently being the “cause” of some miracle. Writing objectively about such matters is tricky for modern authors. Freeman observes:

. . . we are entering a world where there are thousands of accounts of undecayed bodies, resurrections of the dead, healings and the opportune deaths of those who have offended the dead saint or the monastery or church that he or she was protecting.”

Freeman does not express his disbelief in the stories that he passes on — he doesn’t have to. The modern reader just takes it all in with a grain (or in some cases a mountain) of salt.

Some churchmen in the late Middle Ages were skeptical of the efficacy of many of the relics, but the relics were such a good source of revenue that the clerics continued to encourage their veneration. To describe the 1300 years from Augustine to the Scientific Revolution as a time of credulity is a gross understatement. And whether the kings, princes, bishops, and abbots who promulgated relic veneration were delusional or charlatans did not matter. They found a laity predisposed to believe preposterous stories — anything to avoid the fires of hell or purgatory.

The foot reliquary of St James (To minimize theft, relics were stored and displayed in special containers called reliquaries.)

The financial incentives to manufacture false relics were just too much to resist. As a result, Europe was deluged with items purporting to be connected with Jesus, the apostles, or later saints. Even the Muslims in the Holy Land got in on the relic business after the First Crusade, claiming to have found traces of Jesus’s blood and the head of Adam, inter alia.

John Calvin, the influential French theologian during the Protestant Reformation who helped found the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism, also noted the plethora of false relics, excoriating the duplicitous practice in a famous treatise published in 1543 chronicling multiple sightings of a “unique” putative relic in several different places throughout Europe. He wrote that he saw so many pieces of the True Cross they would fill the hold of a cargo ship. Regarding all the pieces of the Crown of Thorns, Calvin suggests that the thorns must have sprouted…. And of the Virgin’s milk, he wryly 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.”

On the other hand, much good came of efforts to house this abundance of relics. For example, King Louis IX of France took out a loan to acquire a great many finds (including the proliferating Crown of Thorns), and then constructed the magnificent Sainte Chapelle in Paris to hold them. Other towns and cathedrals also owed their development or enrichment to the profits from pilgrims coming to see the relics.

Sainte Chapelle, located in the center of Paris – interior shot.

In sum, the community of the supernatural formed a very real part of the medieval world. For centuries, there was no questioning of the power of relics. Freeman was perhaps most struck by the intensity of worship at the shrines that were said to house the relics. In spite of the fact that man, being subject to original sin, was unworthy of salvation, it was hoped that God just might be inveigled into relenting. God, Freeman explains:

…was not an abstract, rational being. God and rational behavior do not go hand in hand in the Middle Ages — what could be more irrational than to forgive some sinners but not others on a purely arbitrary basis or let them off years of purgatory on the purchase of an indulgence — yet his irrationality meant that he might be cajoled by the intercession of the saints.”

Evaluation: This is a fascinating examination of the role of relics in early Christianity, augmented by a provocative analysis of the influence of early theologians such as Augustine. Freeman’s prose is accessible and lucid. Rather than giving us a dense treatise as some other authors might have done, he provides an entertaining and enlightening glimpse into medieval times in Europe.

Moreover, Freeman writes about fantastic events and quixotic beliefs with only the barest hint of skepticism, and is all the more effective for doing so. The history he relates reminds us of the importance of rational thought as an antidote to superstition. Or perhaps, the shelf life of all those relics just happened to expire at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution.

Maps and illustrations are included.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Yale University Press, 2011


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