The Middle Ages are considered a dark period of history, a time of peasants, knights, and the Black Death. The Church played a large role in peoples’ lives by way of feast days, miracle plays, church attendance, and the display of relics. What are relics and how did they become such a large part of medieval culture?
Charles Freeman in Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe examines the long use and veneration of items from Biblical times and from those considered to be saints after that. A relic could be a body part from an individual that the Church or others considered to be holy. They could include the head of John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary’s dress or a piece of the True Cross. These objects began to be collected in the first centuries after Christ’s death. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, traveled to the Holy Land in search of the places where Jesus and the disciples walked and brought back the True Cross on which Jesus died. Other individuals joined the hunt for artifacts that belonged to Jesus, His mother, the disciples, and other saints from the early Christian era.
Many churches built shrines to house these precious treasures. People claimed special powers from items that had belonged to Jesus and other holy figures. Relics cured disease and a visit to them earned time out of Purgatory. Pilgrims traveled far and wide trying to visit as many as possible. Some rulers like Charlemagne and Louis IX of France acquired a vast collection of relics. Constantinople had a large collection that other nations felt free to loot. The Vatican, Chartres Cathedral, Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain are among some better known medieval shrines. Rome and Venice held the largest collections. Many legends and stories were written to spread the word about miracles attributed to a particular saint. Many bodies even gave off a sweet fragrance when moved to a new tomb.
In the Middle Ages, relics were big business as churches became wealthy from visitors to see decorated reliquaries. Artifacts became associated with a particular city and disputes arose over who owned what piece or item of a saint with theft of artifacts not uncommon. Some cities created their own saints that had a cult following before the Church attempted to shut them down.
During the Middle Ages, some scholars questioned the value and authenticity of the relics. This doubt became more widespread with the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers held that relics represented idolatry and destroyed many of them in their zeal for a new understanding of Christianity. However, at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed the veneration of relics and the practice continued. Relic worship represented a large portion of a believer’s faith during the Middle Ages as people sought help and comfort from daily hardship. They also felt the necessity of getting to heaven without spending as much time in Purgatory. These holy objects represented the faith for individuals during the days of medieval Europe and many still survive to this day.
This book demonstrated the high value that those of the Middle Ages placed on the veneration of relics and the power that people felt that had. It also reminded me of those who see images of the Virgin Mary or Jesus in the bark of a tree or a potato chip. This books provides a new perspective on life in medieval Europe for anyone wishing something outside of a traditional historical narrative.
About the Author
Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.