A rag and a bone and a hank of holy hair

The first IHR seminar of this term was given by Julia Smith on ‘Rethinking relics in the medieval west: evidence and approaches c 700-c 1200′. Julia is always very interesting to listen to, and this was no exception, providing a new approach to saints’ cults, by asking in a fresh way, the simple question: ‘what are relics?’ What was different was that she was looking for an answer not from sources such as theological tracts or hagiographical accounts, but, as far as possible, from material culture. What kind of things were relics and what did they mean? The results were fascinating.

She started off with one of the rare occasions when we know what’s actually in a reliquary: the contents of the silver head of St Candidus, from the mid C12, kept at the Swiss monastery of St Maurice.


Among the things that were found when this was opened were stones, silk fabric, a couple of laurel leaves, bark, incense, scraps of metals, glass beads, a glass phial, and bits of human hair, teeth and bones. Some of the items had been wrapped in fabric, tied up with string and labelled, and the handwriting dated from c 700 to c 1150.

More indirect evidence from other sources suggests similar kinds of things were kept elsewhere. A collection of relics and labels from Chelles was found in 1983, for example, which again consisted of small relics which had been wrapped up and labelled, and there are one or two other examples. There are also a lot more surviving labels than relics – apparently, they could be kept even if the relics had disappeared in some way. We also have inventories of lost relics, and epigraphic evidence from inscriptions listing relics.

As well as saints’ relics, there were also various relics from the Holy Land, connecting to Biblical stories in complex ways. For example, relics included a stone from the river Jordan, and some of the blood of Abel. Another from the C11 was a piece from the tree under which the shepherds had seen the angel announcing Christ’s birth. All this, Julia suggested, showed the power urge to materialise Biblical stories, through what were often tiny, portable fragments.

There was an equal variety of forms for saints’ relics, and Julia argued that in the early Middle Ages there was no clear distinction between bodily and non-bodily relics (although Alan Thacker later disputed this for early Anglo-Saxon England). The relics tended to be fragments of a larger whole, easily detachable – Chelles had a piece from the beard of Boniface, and some dust from the body of Balthild. (I asked afterwards if the fragility, the capacity to disintegrate of these relics mattered, if there were conservation worries, but there didn’t seem to be).

Julia then started talking about the meaning of such relics. Labelling was crucial, but could also be vague. She cited a label saying: ‘Hic sunt reliquias nescimus quales’ (Here are some relics, but we don’t know what). What the labels almost never state is the religious significance of the objects, just their identity. She also pointed out that although some relics were accessible, placed in little silk bags in reliquaries that could be opened, others weren’t, but sealed away in unopenable reliquaries (like the one of Candidus’ head) or in altars. The exact location in an altar didn’t need to be known – there was still a sacralising effect.

One of the key things that Julia was stressing was how context-dependent and subjective the significance of relics were – one person’s relic wasn’t necessarily another, and the meaning resided largely in the time and place of the relic being acquired and deposited. There were attempts by the churches to have the monopoly of authenticating relics, but written proofs only multiplied from the twelfth century.
She also stressed that current or more recent relic collections, essentially church-based, were often the sedimentation of more personal relic collections – relics were inherited, or might come with the handing over of a private church. The church endeavoured to control relics, such as by the decree of the Council of Mainz 813 that saints’ bodies could not be translated without the permission of the princeps, a bishop or a council. By the time this got into Gratian’s canon law collection, in the twelfth century, the princeps was identified with the Pope. This was all part of what Julia saw as an increasing attempt by church authorities from the twelfth century onwards to develop a theology of relics and standard documentary practices. Before that, she sees, in contrast, very complex and erratic practices, intuitive rather than systematised.

My immediate response on hearing the talk was to think of souvenirs – of the meanings that ticket stubs, or photos of places that you can no longer completely remember still have meaning. Julia pointed out in discussion that the postmodern distinction of souvenirs and relics isn’t one that’s seen in this early evidence. Until around 800, when ‘reliquiae’ and ‘pignora’ come to dominate, there isn’t even a consistent vocabulary for what these things are called. And it’s the ‘thinginess’ of early medieval relics that I was most left with after the seminar (there was a brief reference in the discussion to literature which contrasts ‘things’ and ‘objects’). This isn’t a world with the neat theology of later Catholic thought, but it’s also not simply the blind worship of objects that Protestant criticism might take it as. It’s a more intriguing process of using almost arbitrary objects to create meaning, to anchor one’s thoughts in history, in special places. In that sense, at least, it sometimes doesn’t seem too far from the modern world after all.


5 thoughts on “A rag and a bone and a hank of holy hair

  1. Very fascinating. We worked with the Romanian Orthodox for a few years who were very big on relics and insisted that they were authentic because (a) they smelt sweet and/or (b) they had healing properties. They pulled very large crowds especially when they went ‘on tour’. It seemed to me to be a way of accessing the holy and taking one’s share of it. I used to see women wipe their hands over icons and then wipe that hand over their own heads and faces.

    It’s one of those ‘things’ that does not fit neatly into western theological categories, in my opinion – more to do with the numinous.


    • There’s a very old tradition that saints’ bodies don’t decay like normal ones: literally, ‘an odour of sanctity’. Nithard, writing in 842, talks about the translation of St Angilbert says: ‘his body, without the help of spices, was found to be incorrupt twenty-nine years after his death’.

      I found the numinous to be quite a difficult concept – maybe my religion doesn’t quite work like that. But then I think about going to historical sites to be on the spot where Paris was defended from the Vikings or the Romans built a temple, or even to see where a fictional event ‘took place’ (221B Baker Street), and then I realise that my sense of the numinous has just got displaced in peculiar ways.


  2. Seminars XL & XLI: two takes on really big changesOkay, it’s been a while since last post. I’m not going to apologise, this term has just been a lot higher-pressure than last one and many of you know what that’s like. I do regret it, but what profits it you to know that? So I’l…


  3. I’ve recently read two books that spend a fair amount of time on relics: Ann Marie Yasin’s Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean and Kim Bowes’ Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. Each of these covers a period earlier than that addressed by Dr. Smith but, while there is discussion of their role in the evolution of cults, the main concern for Churches was the establishment of the Church as a holy space, something which early Christianity actually steered clear of. For Bowes, who was examining private worship, relics and reliquaries were a way of defining a space as holy but, even more importantly (and related but not the same) as a separate space to mentally focus oneself preparatory to worship.

    I find the whole area of study absolutely fascinating.


    • Thanks for the mentions of these books. There’s some very good stuff on the Christianisation of time and space in late antiquity in R.A. Markus, The end of ancient Christianity (CUP, 1990), which also has one of the best chapter titles ever: ‘Augustine: a defence of Christian mediocrity’.

      I’m interested by the idea of relics as providing a mental focus, and wonder if that’s a particularly Eastern tradition (as with icons). Carolingian discussions of appropriate behaviour in church as opposed to the external world are much more focused on externals, such as not chatting during the services, or getting into brawls!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s