Fast-paced, well-researched book explains mysterious topic of relics


“Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe” by Charles Freeman. Yale University Press (New Haven, Conn., 2011). 270 pp., $35.

Catholic News Service

In the medieval world, the promise of heaven often seemed all too elusive, while hell’s imagined torments loomed large. No wonder believers venerated small physical links to the saints — bits of bone and blood, teeth, hair, clothes and even drops of the Virgin Mary’s milk. They thought that such relics would connect them to these holy men and women, who then might intercede on their behalf with God.

In “Holy Bones, Holy Dust,” Charles Freeman, a specialist in ancient history who has written several other books on early Christianity, takes us on an absorbing and insightful journey tracing the rise of relic cults. For a millennium, from Constantinople to the Scottish Islands, relics appeared in a variety of forms and were avidly collected, treasured not solely for their spiritual powers, but also as bargaining chips in business, politics and military affairs.

The Christian relic emerged in part out of commemorative traditions that were common to ancient Mediterranean peoples. For instance, the practice of creating an altar or shrine above the interred body of a hero originated in ancient times, Freeman writes. Thus Achilles honored his dear friend Patroclus (before he himself died in the Trojan War). Neither was the concept of making a commemorative pilgrimage to holy sites exclusive to early Christians, as witness ancient pilgrimages to the sacred oracle at Delphi.

But Christianity added its own distinctive embellishments to such traditions. Dead saints and martyrs were thought to have incorruptible flesh; when unearthed, they might appear to be whole in body and exude a distinctive, sweet fragrance. And they could perform miracles, a sure sign of their sanctity.

An early example was the Anglo-Saxon Queen Aethelthryth (Etheldreda), who died in 679 of a cancer that had disfigured her jaw. Sixteen years later, her body was found to be preserved and “recomposed in a healed form.” Miracles ensued, such as the expulsion of demons from the possessed after they came into contact with the linen cloths that had wrapped her body.

A classic later example is St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82). Freeman notes that at the saint’s deathbed, “Indeed the nuns attending her later reported visions, of Christ and a multitude of angels at the foot of her bed, or a brilliant flash of light, as she died. A barren fruit tree outside the window suddenly filled with blossom even though it was winter. In another of her convents, articles she had once touched began emitting a sweet fragrance.”

And just like that of medieval saints, Teresa’s body at death was seemingly transformed. Her face became smooth and wrinkle-free and her skin as white as alabaster, with flesh as soft and pliable as that of a small child. And when her body was disinterred some nine months after death, it “was still uncorrupted and such a strong smell of sanctity came from it that some were overwhelmed by it,” Freeman writes.

Could such incorruptibility noted in this and many other cases stem from possible anointing of the body with spices (as was done with the body of Jesus)? Freeman finds some “fragmentary evidence” that such honoring of the body may have also helped to preserve it. “But,” he writes, “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. There was a readiness to interpret events in a certain way, set what was not strictly there or believe that an illness had genuinely been cured. We are in the realms of faith, impossible perhaps to define with any certainty, in which observations are slanted to maintain the fiction of these bodies’ spiritual and physical wholeness. We are between heaven and earth.”

And so we are, with Freeman’s fast-paced, well-researched account as our guide. The journey is captivating and educational. Yes, the relic cults sometimes got out of hand; as John Calvin’s famous critique observes, “With regard to the milk (of Mary), there is not perhaps a town, a convent or nunnery where it is not shown in large or small quantities. Indeed, had the Virgin been a wet nurse her whole life, or a dairy, she could not have produced more than is shown as hers in various parts.” The ostentatious gold and bejeweled reliquaries (to hold and display saints’ remains) also aroused the ire of Protestant (and some Catholic) critics.

Ultimately, as Freeman demonstrates, relics were very important to ordinary men and women who lived in a Europe threatened by political unrest, disease and the ever-present notion of eternal hellfire. The relic cults formed a kind of “landscape, a language and a set of beliefs that were common to all.” From the humble parish church to the imposing cathedrals and sacred sites of pilgrimage, they gave a welcome cohesion to the supernatural world.

Today relics still have a role, albeit more restrained. For anyone curious about their long history, “Holy Bones, Holy Dust” is essential reading.

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Roberts directs the journalism program at the University at Albany, SUNY, and has written “Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker” and other books.