The Sisterhood of the Traveling Relics: The Escapades of Four Medieval Relics

This was originally posted on an old blog of mine in June 2019. I have moved it to The Mediaeval Monk as it fits here better.

 

What exactly is a relic? According to Wikipedia (as they have the clearest explanation) a relic “usually consists of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or venerated person preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial.”

 

Royal MS 18 D II f.148r pilgrims on road to canterbury from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes
Pilgrims on the Road to Canterbury from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes | Royal MS 18 D II f.148r | Source: The British Library

 

During the Middle Ages, having a relic of a saint was a pretty big deal. It would bring your abbey/monastery prestige, holiness, and of course, lots of money. Pilgrims would come so they could get favors from the saint and see some miracles. Offerings were left and the place they relic was at collected that money. So naturally, when you have a culture surrounding relics, shenanigans ensue. And some of these shenanigans are WILD.

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One such shenanigan happened in Bonneval Abbey in France. Bonneval Abbey was home to Saint Florentius’ relics. Then in the 11th century, there was a big famine. Thanks to that famine, the monks had to start selling stuff for food. Gradually, they sold all of their stuff off. Well, almost all of it. The monks eventually had to sell Saint Florentius. But they didn’t sell all of Saint Florentius. They sold everything except his head. So the guy who bought it, Aelfsige, brought a headless corpse back to Peterborough Abbey.

Honestly, I would have loved to see how they decided how much of poor old Saint Florentius they were going to sell. How do you barter for the majority of a body? It wasn’t until I learned about this, did I realize how silly the concept of buying everything but the head is. People will want skulls of things, but what happens to the rest of the body?

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Another funny thing concerning people buying parts of saints’ bodies happened to Saint Bartholomew. During a famine in Italy, the Bishop of Benevento kept Saint Bartholomew’s arm precisely to make money. The bishop traveled around Italy and France with the arm, getting gifts. The bishop eventually went to England because the country was pretty wealthy at the time and the queen, Queen Emma, had no problem giving money to the church. But then the bishop realized that he hadn’t gotten enough money on his travels.

So he asked Queen Emma if she wanted to buy Saint Bartholomew’s arm. Queen Emma was like, sure, but is it real? Then the bishop was like, yeah, of course, it’s real and swore an oath. Queen Emma bought the arm.

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We can’t talk about relic shenanigans without mentioning the duplicates. Because of Viking raids, people were naturally a bit on edge concerning their monastery’s relics getting destroyed or stolen or something equally unfortunate. So people started lying about where the relics were and who had them and replacing what people thought were relics with random bodies. For example, a Danish king (or just a bunch of Vikings, the book wasn’t clear) stole Saint Albans and took him back to Odense. But a sacrist allegedly stole him back. That’s why three different places claim to have the body of Saint Albans.

Saint Albans’ relics aren’t special in this matter. Two different places claim to have Saint Benedict. There are more stories like these, but these are the two I read about in the book I have.

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Our last story for today is that of Saint Faith. She died in the 3rd century but in the 5th century, a basilica was built for her at Agen. Then in the 9th century, her body was stolen and taken to Conques, which according to Google maps is about 111 miles away from Agen. And because Saint Faith was now at Conques, people started visiting the town. Also, apparently, if you asked the monks at Conques who lived there, they would mention Saint Faith, as if she were still alive. Also, when people who admired her or her relics traveled, people would set aside land to make a new home for her. The little places were as far away as London as there was a parish built there for her.

 

 

Source:

Brook, Rosalind, and Christopher Brook. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages: Western Europe 1000-1300. Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.