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/

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