The body of Thomas A Becket had hardly struck the stones of Canterbury cathedral back in 1170 when the crowds set about it.
‘As he lay still on the pavement then, some daubed their eyes with blood, others who had brought little vessels made away with as much as they could, while others eagerly dipped in parts of their clothes they had cut off.’
(Quoted in Julia Smith – The Saints and Their Cults)
When Nikon, a preacher in the Morea – what is now known as the Peloponnese – knew he was dying, he summoned a large crowd to his deathbed. The moment he died, they attacked the corpse.
‘One hastened to carry away something from the squalid locks on the blessed man’s head, another something from the hairs in his beard, still another a patch from his old cloak and from his goatskin outer garments.’
(Benedict of Peterborough)
These crowds were seeking relics – parts of a saint’s belongings or body that still held his holy – or magical, depending on your point of view - power. This mediaeval obsession with the fingernails and hair, the blood and the clothes of saints may seem weird and distant, but has some echoes today. The original handwritten lyrics to Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone recently sold for $2 million. That’s a lot of money for some scribble on a piece of paper. Titanic artefacts appear at auction houses where they sell for large sums and, where once we might have asked for the touch of a saint, now we ask for an autograph or a selfie from a star.
A relic could be the focus of a community, even a national identity. The French army rode with the Oriflamme at its head – a holy banner dipped in the blood of St Denis. It signified two things – one that the army could not lose and also that no quarter would be given, no prisoners taken. The fact that the Oriflamme was lost and replaced several times in no way dented its myth, nor did the fact the French carrying it were defeated consistently while carrying it. The body of St Mark, stolen by Venetian merchants from Alexandria, was housed in a beautiful new church, and turned the city into a major site of pilgrimage, thereby providing a substantial boost to the local economy and increasing the city’s prestige.
Relics were so important to the Middle Ages that body theft was not unusual, nor was the division of saints into parts. People would come on a pilgrimage to visit an arm nearly as happily as they would a whole saint. When the arm of the first martyr St Stephen came to Constantinople the whole city turned out to greet it and commemorative works of art were commissioned to record the event.
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Reliquary and skull of Saint Ivo of Kermartin (St. Yves or St. Ives), (1253–1303) in Tréguier, Brittany, France - Creative Commons - Derepus Wikipedia
It’s well known that relics were thought to have magical powers. Before Becket’s body was cold, miracles were being attributed to him. One witness to the murder had dipped his shirt in Becket’s blood. He mixed it with water and washed his paralysed wife in it. She was cured immediately.
But in mediaeval society, relics played a more complex role than simple magical devices. They were part of the economy, trade in them varying from a street ‘pardoner’ selling phony teeth of St John to kings purchasing parts of the true cross for vast sums. Pilgrimages, where people travelled to the shrine of a saint (almost always endowed with a relic) from Canterbury to Compostella and beyond, were big business – from housing the pilgrims to selling them souvenirs, like the cockleshell badges of St James. A souvenir industry sprang up around Becket, offering keepsakes from the ordinary to the very expensive.
Some saints’ tombs were built with holes in the space under the body and sacred dust was scraped from below and mixed with water. This was then drunk!
Grapevine cross of Saint Nino of Georgia (Sioni Cathedral, Tbilisi, Georgia)-Paata Vardanashvili -wikipedia
Even though we can feel a tremor of the importance of relics to medieval society it is hard for us to imagine their true impact. The Middle Ages were steeped in religion, everything seen through its prism. The saints directly interceded in people’s lives and their relics were a way to bridge the gap between heaven and earth. Knights carried the teeth of saints inside the pommels of their swords, kings spent fortunes housing scraps of bones in splendid caskets and the sick and afflicted put their faith in the touch of a saint’s robe or a draft of water containing his or her blood to cure them.
They held a genuine power in the Middle Ages – economic and social – which was indivisible from their spiritual significance.
For further reading I recommend Holy Bones, Holy Dust by Charles Freeman. I used it extensively in my research for my novel, Son of the Morning.
Mark’s novel Son of The Morning, published by Gollancz, is out now. Go buy it!