A Quick Introduction to the Medieval Cult of Relics

The term “relics” (Latin: reliquiae; Greek: λείψανα) refers to objects “left behind” by a holy person (in the case of this thesis, a saint, but also Christ or the Virgin).[1] A relic can be a holy person’s physical remains or their personal belongings. Relics can also be items, known as brandeum, that have come into contact with the holy person’s body – as put vividly by Derek Krueger: “matter gained holiness through contact with other holy matter, like a sacred contagion.”[2] The first recorded act of relic veneration occurred in the mid second century following the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna.  Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339) records how Polycarp’s followers took “… up his bones, more valuable than precious stones and more tried than gold, we deposited them where it was proper they should be. There, also, as far as we can, the Lord will grant us to collect and celebrate the natal day of his martyrdom in joy and gladness…”[3] Christians collected the bones of the saints and relocated them to an accessible and ennobling burial space where the faithful could congregate. During the initial centuries of Christianity, the martyrs (and, as Vauchez rightly notes, the Virgin and the Apostles) were the only saints venerated by the Church, but after the Roman persecutions, other holy people were venerated.[4] What is now called the cult of relics quickly spread throughout the western Christian world and by the sixth century the burial sites of these holy people became the “centres of the ecclesiastical life of their region.”[5] By the ninth century, relics were required for the consecration of a church and the Council of Mainz decreed that the “feasts of the martyrs or confessors whose holy bodies rest in each parish” be observed throughout the western Church.[6] The believer was to observe the holy days of the saints, direct their attention to the shrines and relics of the saints, be dependent on the saints in times of illness or danger, and be aware that good or bad occurrences were the result of good or bad relations with the saints.[7]

The veneration of relics in the Middle Ages was based on the belief that the saint was present not only in Heaven but also in their remains on Earth. Paulinus of Nola (c.354-431) effectively expresses this dual existence in his Poems:

…those bones of the saint’s body are not choked with the dust of death, but endowed with a hidden seed of eternal life, so that from the tomb they breathe out the life-giving fragrance of his triumphant soul.[8]

The saint’s continued presence on Earth lay in the belief of the virtus ­– a “force” or “power” bestowed upon the saint by God as a reward for their goodness and suffering. The virtus enabled the saint to perform miracles, an ability that endured even after death.[9] Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386) explains the continuation of the virtus in the Catecheses:

Even in the absence of the soul there is a mysterious power in the body of the saints, because of the just soul which dwelt in it so many years and used its ministry.[10]

Despite relics often being in fragments and not the full body of a saint, the virtus was not diminished. As is stated in the Psalms: “He [God] keeps all his [the holy person’s] bones; not one of them is broken.”[11]

Because of their holiness on Earth, the saints enjoy intimacy with God in Heaven. The saints are, as Victricius of Rouen (330-407) calls them, “citizens of Heaven”[12] and as Brown explains: “Their intimacy with God was the sine qua non of their ability to intercede for and, so, to protect their fellow mortals.”[13] However, as Augustine of Hippo (354-430) explained to his congregation, the saints are not divine and as a result they are more accessible to human beings.[14] To the saints the Christian person could address their prayers. In a letter following the finding of the bodies of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, Ambrose of Milan (337-397) demonstrates this belief of the saint as intercessor and protector, explaining that the saints are given to communities by God to heal and protect and are “defenders” and “soldiers of Christ.”[15] Relics were able to perform miracles because, as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) explains, the Holy Spirit resides in and operates through their bodies and therefore “God Himself fittingly honours such relics by working miracles at their presence.”[16] Miracles authenticated relics and showed that the saint is close to God as well as the endurance of the virtus. As Gregory of Tours (c. 538-593/594) wrote about the martyr Patroclus: “By his many miracles he often shows that he is a friend of God.”[17] Medieval historian Patrick Geary discusses how important miracles were to a community:

Much more important to the communities which possessed the relics was their ability to bring the continual action of divine providence to a local level. The relics ensured special protection to the community, shielding its members from enemies both spiritual and temporal and assuring their community’s prosperity.[18]

The active power of the relics, demonstrated by miracles and called upon by praying for the saint’s intercession, cemented their importance and value to both individual beholders and the western Christian Church. Hagiographies, or vitae, and miracles stories further instilled the saint within a society,[19] as Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393-c. 457) attests: “…everyone knows the names of the martyrs, better than those of their most intimate friends.”[20]

The saints and their relics were ubiquitous in the medieval world and involved all members of society, as Stephen Wilson rightly notes: “medieval cults and pilgrimages … cut across classes, involving rich and poor, clergy and laity.”[21] Indeed, the importance of relics to medieval devotion cannot be underestimated, as Wilfrid Bonser correctly states: “the acquisition of relics and the pilgrimages to the shrines in which they were displayed were two of the major activities of the medieval Church.”[22]


[1] Derek Krueger, “The Religion of Relics in Late Antiquity and Byzantium,” in Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, ed. Martina Bagnoli et. al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 5.

[2] Derek Krueger, “The Religion of Relics in Late Antiquity and Byzantium,” in Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, ed. Martina Bagnoli et. al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 5.

[3] Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 4.15.43-44, trans. C. F. Cruse (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1998), 127.

[4] André Vauchez, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 13.

[5] Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 3.

[6] Concilium Moguntinense 36, quoted in Patrick J. Geary, Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (New York: Cornell University Press, 1994), 185.

[7] Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, 119.

[8] Paulinus of Nola, Poems 82.181, in The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola, trans. P. G. Walsh (New York: Newman Press, 1975), 120.

[9] André Vauchez, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 425.

[10] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses 18.16, in St. Cyril of Jerusalem Works Volume 2, trans. Leo P. McCauley and Anthony A. Stephenson, vol. 64 of Fathers of the Church, ed. Bernard M. Peebles (Baltimore: Catholic University of America Press, 1969), 129.

[11] Psalms 34:20, RSV.

[12] Victricius of Rouen, De laude sanctorum 6, in Gillian Clark, “Victricius of Rouen: Praising the Saints,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 7, no. 3 (1999): 382.

[13] Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 6.

[14] Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 273.9, in Sermons III/9 (306-340A): On the Saints, trans. Edmund Hill, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, ed. John E. Rotelle (New York: New York City Press, 1994), 21.

[15] Ambrose of Milan, Letter 22, in St. Ambrose Letters 1-91, trans. Mary Melchior Beyenka, vol. 26 of Fathers of the Church, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari (Baltimore: Catholic University of America Press, 1954), 379.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica III.25.6, in Summa theologica: Volume IV, Part III, First Section, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 2152.

[17] Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs 63, trans. Raymond van Dam (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1988), 87.

[18] Patrick J. Geary, Furta Sacra: Theft of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978), 33-34.

[19] See: Abou-El-Haj, Barbara. The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[20] Theodoret Curatio affectionum graecarum 8, quoted in Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, 8.

[21] Stephen Wilson, Saints and their Cults (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 38.

[22] Wilfrid Bonser, “The Cult of Relics in the Middle Ages,” Folklore 73, no. 4 (1962): 235.

Primary Sources

Ambrose of Milan. Letter 22. In St. Ambrose Letters 1-91, translated by Mary Melchior Beyenka. Vol.

26 of Fathers of the Church, edited by Roy Joseph Deferrari, 376-384. Baltimore: Catholic University of America Press, 1954.

Augustine of Hippo. De Civitate Dei. Translated by Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin Group, 1972.

________________. Sermons III/9 (306-340A): On the Saints. Translated by Edmund Hill. New York:

New York City Press, 1994.

Cyril of Jerusalem. Catecheses. In St. Cyril of Jerusalem Works Volume 2, translated by Leo P.

McCauley and Anthony A. Stephenson. Vol. 64 of Fathers of the Church, edited by Bernard M.

Peebles, 3-142. Baltimore: Catholic University of America Press, 1969.

Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. Translated by C. F. Cruse. Massachusetts:

Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1998.

Gregory of Tours. Glory of the Martyrs. Translated by Raymond van Dam. Liverpool: Liverpool

University Press, 1988.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologica: Volume I, Part I. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican

Province. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.

______________. Summa theologica: Volume IV, Part III, First Section. Translated by Fathers of the

English Dominican Province. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.

Victricius of Rouen. De laude sanctorum. In Gillian Clark. “Victricius of Rouen: Praising the Saints.

Journal of Early Christian Studies 7, no. 3 (1999): 365-399.

“The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church.” Translated by Henry R. Percival. Vol. 14 of

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff & Henry Wace.

Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans, 1979.

Secondary Sources

Abou-El-Haj, Barbara. The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Bonser, Wilfrid. “The Cult of Relics in the Middle Ages.” Folklore 73, no. 4 (1962): 234-256.

Brown, Peter. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Bynum, Caroline Walker and Gerson, Paula. “Body-Part Reliquaries and Body Parts in the Middle Ages.” Gesta 36, no. 1 (1997): 3-7.

Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Theft of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978.

____________. Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages. New York: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Krueger, Derek. “The Religion of Relics in Late Antiquity and Byzantium.” In Treasures of Heaven:

Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, edited by Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann, and James Robinson, 55-68. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Vauchez, André. Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages. Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Wilson, Stephen. Saints and their Cults. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Reference this post (Chicago): Veronica Fitzpatrick, “A Quick Introduction to the Medieval Cult of Relics.” Veronica Fitzpatrick (blog), April 29, 2016, http://veronicafitzpatrick.com/a-quick-introduction-to-the-medieval-cult-of-relics/

The 12th Century Translation Movement and Mathematics

The twelfth century is branded by some historians as a “renaissance” – that is, it was a period of intellectual growth and inquiry, harkening back to classical knowledge. Cathedral schools thrived and universities were established. A thirst for knowledge gripped European scholars, but they were not content with the limited resources the West had to offer, particularly in the field of mathematics. This spurred a great search for knowledge, known as the Latin translation movement. The greatest centre of translation was the Toledo School of Translators in Spain. The most eminent translators of the twelfth century include Adelard of Bath, Gerard of Cremona and Plato of Tivoli.

Although cathedral schools thrived and universities were being established[1], mathematical knowledge in the twelfth century had stagnated. In Europe, the extent of advanced mathematics available in Latin was Boethius’ short treatise on arithmetic, which was found to be impractical, and his missing book on geometry.[2] A lack of knowledge of Greek prevented the Western world from utilising other classical learning. The Arabs, however, were able to use it as they had conquered a large number of Greek-speaking lands.[3] Interestingly, mathematics became important to Muslims because as their empire spread it became increasingly difficult to determine the direction of the holy city of Mecca, which they are required to pray to five times a day. As a result, scholars began to study the position of the stars and this would inspire developments in astronomy and trigonometry.[4] The Arabs would establish a notable place of learning known as the ‘House of Wisdom’ in Baghdad where Greek science and philosophy were translated into Arabic. This Greek-Arabic translation movement was the forerunner to the Latin movement and “secured the scientific heritage of Greek science in fields like mathematics, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, physics, medicine, logic, and finally also philosophy, and it decisively contributed to establishing an autonomous scientific culture in the Arabic world, which continued and developed the Greek tradition.” [5] Among the first works involving sophisticated mathematics that were translated were the Almagest and Euclid’s Elements. These works translated in the Greek-Arabic translation movement would filter across the Islamic Empire, and when they reached Spain, would come into contact with Western Christians.

Spain became one of the greatest epicentres of knowledge in the twelfth century. With its amalgamation of cultures, it provided a “fertile soil” for intercultural exchange.[6] Toledo was the most important centre of learning in Spain as before the reconquista of 1085, the Islamic Caliphate had established a firm atmosphere of scientific learning. Although the Islamic elite would disappear, the books remained and in Toledo a school of translators was founded.[7] One of the most prominent Latin translators, Gerard of Cremona, would travel to Toledo in the search of Ptolemy’s Almagest and translated it into Latin in 1167. The Almagest is a significant work (indeed it translates into “the Great”) from the second century that explores the motion of the stars and planets through mathematics and astrology. As it has been noted, Western Europe was without any such treatises but it would now become available through Gerard’s translation, who would later been known as the dictus magister.[8] The work of Abu Kamil, the first Islamic mathematician to work with algebraic numbers higher than  X2, would also be preserved by the Toledo School, however the translator is unknown.[9]

Plato of Tivoli was an Italian mathematician who lived in Barcelona from 1116 to 1138. He is known for translating the Greek mathematician Theodosius’ Sphaerics which is a three volume work on spherical geometry that would be instrumental in furthering Euclidean geometry in the West.[10] Plato’s other significant translation was the Jewish mathematician Abraham bar Hiyya’s work Treatise on Measurement and Calculation, which Plato translated as Liber Embadorum in 1145. It includes the first complete solution of the quadratic equation  x2 – ax + b = 0 known in Europe. It greatly influenced the work of Fibonacci.[11]

All though he had no connection with the Toledo School of Translators, Adelard of Bath was another prominent Latin translator. Adelard was a nobleman and scholar whose desire for further knowledge in mathematics and natural philosophy led him to Syria in 1114. Here he acquired Arabic and decided to translate Euclid’s the Elements into Latin in order to make it available to the West. Euclid of Alexandria’s (325-265 BC) Elements is a treatise on mathematics and geometry that can be considered the most important textbook ever written.[12] Adelard’s translation of the Elements would greatly influence Western mathematics and remain the standard text until the sixteenth century.[13] He also translated a treatise on Indian arithmetic by the important Islamic mathematician Al-Khwarizmi. This would bring to the West not only Classical Greek mathematics, but Ancient Indian mathematics as well.[14]

The Latin translation movement, like the Greek-Arabic movement, would prevent much learning from being lost. For example, the decimal value system (which originated in India) could be found in the arithmetical work of Al-Khwarizmi, yet this Arabic original was lost and only preserved through a twelfth century Latin translation.[15] Euclid’s Elements would be the most essential mathematical tool in the centuries to come and his axioms would inspire Newton and Russell, amongst others.

The twelfth century was an epoch of mathematical fruition and its legacy would allow Europe to eventually dominate mathematical inquiry in the following centuries.


[1] Charles H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955), 6.

[2] James Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London: Icon Books Ltd., 2010), 66.

[3] Ibid, 21.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mohammed Abattouy, “Transmission as Transformation: The Translation Movements in the Medieval East and West in a Comparative Perspective,” Science in Context 14 (2001): 2.


[6] Mohammed Abattouy, “Transmission as Transformation: The Translation Movements in the Medieval East and West in a Comparative Perspective,” 12.

[7] Charles Burnett, “The Coherence of the Arabic­Latin Translation Program in Toledo in the Twelfth Century,” Science in Context 14 (2001): 250.

[8] Ibid. 252.

[9] Victor J. Katz, A History of Mathematics: An Introduction (London: Addison Wesley, 1998), 291.

[10] David E. Smith, History of Mathematics (New York: Dover Publishing Inc., 1951), 201.

[11] Ibid.

[12] James Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, 66.

[13] Michael Mahoney, “Mathematics,” in David C. Lindberg (ed), Science in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 153.

[14] Charles H. Haskins, “Adelard of Bath,” The English Historical Review 26, no. 103 (1911): 495.

[15] Mohammed Abattouy, “Transmission as Transformation: The Translation Movements in the Medieval East and West in a Comparative Perspective,” 10.


Abattouy, Mohammed. “Transmission as Transformation: The Translation Movements in the Medieval East and West in a Comparative Perspective.” Science in Context 14 (2001): 1-12.

Burnett, Charles. “The Coherence of the Arabic­Latin Translation Program in Toledo in the Twelfth Century.” Science in Context 14 (2001): 249-288.

Clagett, Marshall. “The Medieval Latin Translations from the Arabic of the Elements of Euclid, with Special Emphasis on the Versions of Adelard of Bath.” Isis 44 (1953): 16-42.

Hannam, James. God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. London: Icon Books Ltd., 2010.

Haskins, Charles H. “Adelard of Bath.” The English Historical Review 26, no. 103 (1911): 491-498.

Haskins, Charles H. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955.

Haskins, Charles H. and Putnam Lockwood, Dean. “The Sicilian Translators of the Twelfth Century and the First Latin Version of Ptolemy’s Almagest.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 21 (1910): 75-102.

Holmes, Urban T. “The Idea of a Twelfth Century Renaissance.” Speculum 26, no.4 (1951): 643-651.

Katz, Victor J., A History of Mathematics: An Introduction. London: Addison Wesley, 1998.

Lindberg, David C. Science in the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Smith, David E. History of Mathematics. New York: Dover Publishing Inc., 1951.

Reference this post (Chicago): Veronica Fitzpatrick, “The 12th Century Translation Movement and Mathematics,” Veronica Fitzpatrick (blog), March 27, 2016, http://veronicafitzpatrick.com/the-12th-century-translation-movement-and-mathematics/

Image: An illustration from the medieval translation of Euclid’s “Elements” c. 1310 © British Library Digital Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

On Microhistory and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s “Montaillou”

To extract meaning from the historical record is, more often than not, the historian’s chief goal. The means of doing so, however, have varied from time to time. Microhistory is one expression of historical methodology that evolved in the 1970s and strives to represent the individual relationships within a community by shrinking the scale of observation. This, microhistorians argue, allows us to discover aspects that would otherwise remain unknown if research were done using a more standardised method. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s 1978 work Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French village, 1294-1324 is an example of microhistorical research as it is an exhaustive investigation into the way of life of the residents of the medieval town of Montaillou. Microhistory is a useful way of looking at history. This assertion can be shown by presenting how the methodology itself operates and how it is utilised by Ladurie, the connection to the past that microhistory offers and its appeal to the public through its readability. Naturally, the method can be faulted, but it can be concluded that “what is gained… offsets such deficiencies.”[1]

Microhistory offers a recording of history that departs from the more widely used macrohistoric methods such as using quantitative data and historical demography. Instead it is an intensive study on the individual, a community or a particular event and moves away from making formal institutions a focal point. It is through this reduction of scale that a new history emerges and attempts to encompass the social and cultural ways of the subject. One criticism, discussed by Muir in his introduction to the influential work Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe, is how the unit of study can very easily fall into triviality. He asks: “how can historians concerned with trifles avoid producing trivial history?”[2] If, as Sahlins states in his review of Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe, each case is treated as “at once extraordinary and normative”[3] how does the historian select what to include in their history and avoid it lapsing into frivolity? This can be difficult as microhistory provides no criteria as to processes of selectivity and significance.[4] Ladurie, however, evades this through his clearly defined areas of investigation that all contribute meaningfully to the study. He separates the book into two parts: “the ecology of Montaillou” and “an archaeology of Montaillou,” and within each part is a number of delegated themes, such as “death in Montaillou” or “marriage and love.” As a result a sort of historical itinerary is developed – we travel through Montaillou with an idea of what to expect from each chapter, learning about a particular facet of existence in Montaillou that cannot stray into triviality as it is woven into the whole.

This new strand of history turned its attention to those forgotten in history as historians could generally not shed their “enthusiasm for a history shaped by grand general structures and forces.”[5] Microhistory attempts to bring the “lost people of Europe” into history – those on the social periphery – with micohistorians tending to focus on the outliers of society rather than looking for the average individual who would normally be found as a statistic if applying quantitative research methods. As a result, it can be immediately seen how this methodology would be effective in relaying Ladurie’s study of the village of Montaillou, as Muir mentions  “rebels, heretics, and criminals are the most likely candidates… to leave sufficient traces to become the subject of microhistories, their behaviour is, by definition, exceptional.”[6] This “exceptional” behaviour, such as the following of a heretical sect, has resulted in the wealth of material available as subjects would often come under the scrutiny of authorities who would in turn leave details on such behaviours. For Ladurie, his reconstruction of the village of Montaillou in the years 1294 to 1324 is derived solely from the register of Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers and inquisitor who sought out heretics, questioned them and had their confession recorded. Of the 114 supposed heretics that came before his court, 25 were residents of Montaillou. Fournier’s thorough inquisition has laid bare all aspects of peasant living: social relations, the treatment of wives and children, literacy and education, concepts of time and space, fate, magic, religion and myths. The register of Fournier would be edited and published by J. Duvernoy in three volumes in 1965 and is viewed as one of the most important documents of social and religious history from mediaeval times. While this is a very comprehensive source, it can be seen through Ladurie’s Montaillou that the reliance on one source has its drawbacks as there is no way to cross-reference, for example misinterpretation of the Latin, and instances can be distorted and used to support the argument of the author. Herlihy chides the “carelessness”[7] inherent in Ladurie’s work – the departures from the original Latin of the register are often manipulated for dramatic effect – for example “at the time when the heretics were in this land” appears as “at the time when the heretics dominated Montaillou.”[8] Herlihy also mentions the witness Raymond Vayssèire who Ladurie writes as saying that all the houses in Montaillou, except two or three, were infected by heresy as the parish priest read the book of heresy to the people. Herlihy then points to the actual instance in the register that the priest in fact still administered the rites of Catholicism and there is no mention of him reading heretical texts to the people.[9] It must be noted, however, that manipulation of sources can occur no matter the methodology used.

As Christiansen emotively says: “in microhistory the reader feels that he is coming directly to the people of the past, closer than it is otherwise possible in other historical studies.”[10] Szijártó asks if “this fascination with detail really give more to the reader than traditional social history?”[11] In Ladurie’s Montaillou, all aspects of peasant life are evoked sensitively and curiously and dealt with in such a way we can relate to these people who are long dead. Ladurie himself said that “historians must write well, entertain their readers, and move them, as do artists, to feelings of delight, wonder and dread,”[12] in no other discipline of historical methodology would a historian have such artistic license and be able to conjure up such images of days gone as Ladurie does in Montaillou. His work educes essences of medieval existence – the spirituality (whether it be heretical or accepted), the reliance on the land, the rituals and superstitions and the other parts which have remained unchanged such as love, sex and disagreements – “social and cultural history unite in the micro-processes of everyday life.”[13] This creates a relationship between the reader and the work as personalities are allowed to be established and personal stories are recounted. Indeed, Szijártó likens microhistory to the plays of classical Greece with its culmination of place, time and action.[14] Indeed Ladurie’s Montaillou has the elements of any drama – the many sexual conquests of the priest Pierre Clergue, the endogamic marriages and concubinages, the love affairs of Béatrice de Planissoles – resulting in the work being highly appealing and accessible to the modern reader. Ladurie’s engrossing recollections of sex and relationships within Montaillou dominates the second part of book and is the reason why, Herlihy states, that the book became such a commercial success. This “frank and extended treatment of sex”[15] is undoubtedly used as a narrative tool by Ladurie in order to draw in the reader which therefore begs the question: does Ladure write chiefly to excite? Stone alerts us to the fact that narratives found in the historical record will draw historians toward the sensational and result in them being fascinated by stories of sex and violence.[16] Herlihy makes mention of cases in which Ladurie happily ignores the fact that parts of the register are not concerned with the upper Ariège. The story of Arnaud de Verniolles is an explicit account of the friar’s homosexual acts that takes place in Parmiers and Toulouse which are outside the boundaries of the chosen area of investigation and as a result goes against the very essence of microhistory.[17] While such retellings of the more human aspects of history will colour the text and make history more alluring to the common reader, Szijártó insists that the historian is at fault for concentrating their efforts on appealing to the general public and that “to try to write strikingly is just a means to bring history to the readers.”[18] For it must be remembered that this is the writing of history, not mere fiction. Montaillou’s treatment of sex is undeniably a captivating saga and while it may be reproached for placing more weight on entertaining the reader, rather than adhering to precise methodology, surely the fact that the general public is being brought an accessible history that they can learn from, whilst be entertained, cannot be too harshly reprimanded?

It can be shown through Ladurie’s Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French village that microhistory is a viable way of extracting meaning from the historical record – its resurrection of the long dead individual through the writing of lives that would otherwise be forgotten is at once educating and humanising. While microhistory may have some inherent problems, as Muir delightfully says about: “when you understand why nature’s complexity can only be unravelled this way, why individuality matters so crucially, then you are in a position to understand what the sciences of history are all about.”[19]


[1] Peter Sahlins, “Review: Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 4 (1993): 769.

[2] E. Muir, “Introduction: Observing Trifles,” in Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe, eds. E. Muir and G. Ruggiero (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), xiii.

[3] Sahlins, “Review: Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe,” 769.

[4] Muir, “Introduction: Observing Trifles,” xiii.

[5] Ernst Breisach, On the Future of History: The Postmodernist Challenge and Its Aftermath (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 148.

[6] E. Muir, “Introduction: Observing Trifles,” xiv.

[7] David Herlihy, “Review: Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324,” Social History 4, no. 3 (1979): 518.

[8] Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324, trans. Barbara Bray (London: Penguin Group, 1990), 141.

[9] David Herlihy, “Review: Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324,” 518.

[10] Palle Ove Christiansen, Kultur og historie: Bidrag til den etnologiske debat (København: Studiebøger, 1995), 9.

[11] István Szijártó, “Four Arguments for Microhistory,” Rethinking History 6, no. 2 (2002): 210.

[12] Quoted in: Herlihy, “Review,” 519.

[13] John Brewer, “Microhistory and the Histories of Everyday Life,” Cultural and Social History 7, no. 1 (2010): 97.

[14] Szijártó, “Four Arguments for Microhistory,” 209.

[15] Herlihy, “Review,” 518.

[16] Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present Revisited (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), 95.

[17] Herlihy, “Review,” 519.

[18] Szijártó, “Four Arguments for Microhistory,” 211.

[19] Muir, “Introduction: Observing Trifles,” viii.


Breisach, Ernst. On the Future of History: The Postmodernist Challenge and Its Aftermath. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Brewer, John. “Microhistory and the Histories of Everyday Life.” Cultural and Social History 7, no. 1 (2010): 87–109.

Christiansen, Palle Ove. Kultur og historie: Bidrag til den etnologiske debat. København: Studiebøger, 1995.

Herlihy, David. “Review: Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324.” Social History 4, no. 3 (1979): 517-520.

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy. Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: Penguin Group, 1990.

Muir, E. and Ruggiero, G. Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Sahlins, Peter.“Review: Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 4 (1993): 768-769.

Stone, Lawrence. The Past and the Present Revisited. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.

Szijártó, István.“Four Arguments for Microhistory.” Rethinking History 6, no. 2 (2002): 209-215.


Reference this post (Chicago): Veronica Fitzpatrick, “On Microhistory and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s ‘Montaillou.’” Veronica Fitzpatrick (blog), March 27, 2016, http://veronicafitzpatrick.com/on-microhistory-and-emmanuel-le-roy-laduries-montaillou/

Visual Analysis of a 14th Century Reliquary Pendant


Photo: The British Museum

Reliquary Pendant of the Holy Thorn


Paris, France

Two ovoid halves of amethystine crystal encased in gold make the exterior of this devotional pendant. While the exterior is beautiful enough, the true beauty is within. The pendant opens up to reveal three richly enamelled leaves, with scenes divided into two registers by a golden band. The scenes relay episodes of the life of Christ: the Nativity, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Presentation in the Temple, the Flight into Egypt, the Virgin and Child enthroned, the Crucifixion, and the Descent from the Cross. Each scene is opulently coloured and finely detailed. The technique of enamelling was one that began to be used in the early 14th century – each scene is enamelled using a technique known as basse-taille, in which shallow wells are cut for the enamel, which is then laid in such thin sheets that it is translucent and the metal shines through, differing from the more common champlevé technique where the enamel is opaque.

Naturally such a magnificent item would be possessed only by the nobility or monarchy. The lower register on one of the leaves depicts a barefooted king kneeling with his queen, praying to the Virgin and Child. Conservators at the British Museum speculate that the humble royal couple is Philip VI of France who reigned from 1328 to 1350 with his wife Jeanne de Bourgogne due to the enamelling which was in the fashion of Parisian metalworkers in the early 14th century.[1] Their appearance may hold the key to the pendant’s patronage and ownership. It is not unsurprising that the wealthy would possess such a trinket of devotion, and to more importantly, commission such a piece. Such an action would show humility before God, and more crucially, also instil an image of humility to be carried on through inheritors of the item, thus securing a favourable legacy for the commissioner. Note the Virgin’s gaze meeting the king’s, and the humble positioning of the couple at the Virgin’s feet. However, the pendant is more than an opulent devotional item, it also conceals one of the Middle Ages’ most celebrated relics – that of the Holy Thorn from Christ’s Crown of Thorns which He wore during His Crucifixion.

Interestingly, one side of the central leaf of the item is not enamelled but instead contains a miniature painted on vellum of the Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds. While it is now faded, when freshly painted it would have had the brilliant colour of the enamels. The purpose of this miniature is to conceal a relic compartment which is divided into seven with a central compartment reserved for the relic of the Holy Thorn, which is still in place with a small golden crown placed above it. It is interesting to note that the Thorn faces images of the crucifixion. This is a powerful juxtaposition that would have heightened contemplation.

Perhaps this Thorn came from the Crown of Thorns of Louis IX who built Saint-Chappelle in 1248 to house the relic which he had bought in 1238 from the Latin Emperor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Baldwin II. Louis detached many thorns from the band and gave them as gifts, a practice which continued under successor kings.[2]

Setting aside the item’s obviously myriad political links, its importance to the individual is a vital concept in understanding its very existence and function. Firstly, its crafting

indicates the beauty of the holy within. The care for the detail, the richness of the colour, the value (and beauty) of the gold and amethyst, all contribute in reflecting the mystical magnificence of the relic. Using Plato’s teachings on beauty, it can be seen that the reliquary participates in illuminating the ideal of beauty itself – the physical materials may be a lower manifestation of the ideal, but it helps move one toward understanding the supreme beauty, in this case the Thorn which brings us closer to Christ.[3] Yet the most desired use for such a relic is merely having it close to the person. Proximity to the holy seems to be one of the greatest aims of many a mediaeval person. The praesentia – the physical presence of the holy, whether in the midst of a community or in the possession of an individual was the “greatest blessing that a… Christian could enjoy.”[4] Brown tells the story of a noblewoman, who at the shrine of St. Stephen, beat her body against the grille then pushed her head inside, laying it on the relics and weeping. This is a profound example of the overwhelming ecstasy of the proximity of the holy. Having this pendant at one’s breast would have been both a comfort and an indescribable joy as a relic brings, as Gregory of Nyssa states, “eye, mouth, ear, all the senses into play” and “those who behold them embrace, as it were, the living body in full flower.”[5] These feelings would have been magnified as this pendant possessed an object that touched the Christ. One can envisage the owner participating frequently with the pendant – when opened it would transform from a mere decorative item into a miniature pamphlet of the holy life of Christ. As it hung upside down at the neck, it would have had to been brought up to the face in order to look at. One can only imagine the joy the believer would feel at looking upon such richly coloured scenes then turning the leaves to reveal one of the most prized relics of mediaeval Christendom that was placed on the very head of the central figure of their spiritual universe. The awe would have been magnificent.

[1] Reliquary Pendant of the Holy Thorn, accessed 24 September 2013http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/r/reliquary_pendant,_holy_thorn.aspx

[2] Reliquary Pendant of the Holy Thorn, accessed 24 September 2013http://www.mcah.columbia.edu/treasuresofheaven/relics/Reliquary-Pendant-for-the-Holy-Thorn.php

[3] Richard Harries, Art and the Beauty of God, (London: Continuum, 1993), 31.

[4] Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 88.

[5] Ibid, 11.

Reference this post (Chicago): Veronica Fitzpatrick, “Visual Analysis of a 14th Century Reliquary Pendant.” Veronica Fitzpatrick (blog), March 6, 2016, http://veronicafitzpatrick.com/visual-analysis-of-a-14th-century-reliquary-pendant/

Mariology Conference: “The Madonna della Misericordia – An Image for the 14th, 15th and 21st Centuries”

Yesterday I had the pleasure to present my second ever conference paper at “Mary at the Beginning of Third Millennium” – a conference on Mariology convened in honour of the tenth anniversary of the University of Notre Dame, Sydney. The conference featured a compelling array of papers on the Marian tradition in the fields of theology and philosophy… plus this novice’s historical contribution. The abstracts for the papers can be found here.

My paper was entitled “The Madonna della Misericordia – An Image for the 14th, 15th and 21st Centuries” and fortunately for my ego the turn out was great (it was a Saturday after all).

In summation, I looked at the image of the Madonna della Misericordia – an image popular in the post-plague art of the Italian peninsula – which depicts the Virgin Mary as a protector and intercessor for human beings, an image that perhaps would have inspired hope and devotion to those affected by the ravages of the Black Death. Despite the Madonna della Misericordia being an image for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, I opened it up to discussion whether the image and its concept is relevant to the twenty-first century, in light of current discussions on the Virgin given by St. John Paul II and Pope Francis I. The paper, in its unembellished form and with images and a bibliography, can been downloaded here.

The answer was an unanimous “yes” with many attendees resonating with the themes of intercession and maternal love present in this image of the Virgin.