Tag Archives: Medieval

Where have all the Relics Gone?

20 Feb

I feel like these days, relics (and relic worship) get a bad rap. Relics were an important part of medieval religion and served a variety of perfectly legitimate and reasonable roles. For one, they literally brought Christianity, as an abstract concept, down to earth. Saints were, first and foremost, people who walked and talked, lived and breathed; basically, they were people too. Everybody needs a role model, and saints were (for the most part) pretty decent folks who seemed like fine role models. Saint Simeon Stylites (c.390-425), for instance, was a Syrian holy man who was influential in settling local disputes and well-known for his acts of piety (and a really good track record with the Big Guy).


Also, as his name suggests, he is also famous for sitting atop a column for 37 years in the middle of a desert. (It may have been a desert, but they built a very snazzy monastery around Simeon and his pillar to accommodate visitors/followers/pilgrims/etc.)


As challenging as the logistics of living on top of a column sound to most of us, Simeon was actually a popular role model. There’s actually a whole category of “Stylite saints” who demonstrated their piety, humility, and faith (among other top-notch character traits) by sitting on top of columns. In fact, there’s a Saint Simeon the Younger (521-597), who seems to have been encouraged by his mother (Martha) from his childhood to lead an ascetic life. She may or may not have been involved in the construction of his first column (he moved around several times over the course of his life). She’s what I like to think of as one of the earliest examples of a stage mother. (Saint mother?) Fun fact: she’s venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church- take that as you will. What I was going for with this story is that saints seem like nice enough folks, and in life serve a variety of purposes. (Although, lets be honest, martyrdom is a rough way to go- Jerome (3rd century) got grilled on a gridiron by the Romans and Catherine of Alexandria (282-305) was tortured on the “breaking wheel”.)

Even after death (yes, I’m getting to the relics part), saints continue to serve a social/political/cultural role in their communities. By “communities”, I mean towns, cities, and villages, as well as religious communities, like monasteries. For instance, especially in the 9th-12th centuries, saints were seen as the patrons of the communities where they’re relics were interred. From a legal standpoint, if there was a monastery that owned/held lands with serfs, those serfs could technically be servants of the patron saint who relics resided in that monastery (the monks acted as holy accountants in that case, I suppose). Thus, when the local peasants/serfs/whatnots had grievances, they could take themselves to the reliquaries and address their issues directly to the saint (in addition to other courses of action). Additionally, religious communities that held relics could use them to redress their own grievances, as in the case of the “humiliation of the saints”, a ceremony in which the canons or monks could take their relics down from their usual spots and place them before the altar, possibly covered with thorns, as an act of humility. This was usually done in order to pressure someone (like a local lord who was holding out on something) to give in to the demands of the religious community.

For instance, when the Count of Anjou, Fulk Nerra (more on him in another post), came crashing through the church of Saint Martin at Tours in 996/997, damaging some of the buildings and mightily perturbing the canons of the church (canons are kind of like monks, but not). In retaliation, they performed the humiliation of the saints’ relics and refused to allow people from the castle into the church for services (since monks and canons aren’t allowed to do excommunications, this was as coercive as they could get). Eventually, Fulk Nerra gave in and humbly apologized. I this way, relics (saints) played an important part in how different groups (peasants, monks, canons, noblepeople) negotiated with each other in the Middle Ages. Relics were the earthly representations of the saints, who were themselves intermediaries between humanity and Christ.

Head reliquary of St. Eustace, 13th century, British Museum.

Relics abounded in the Middle Ages. They were taken and translated (many out of Rome to places north), created (new saints are being made all the time!), traded and gifted all over Europe and the Middle East (let’s not forget the Byzantines, who are responsible for some truly fantastic reliquaries). Even later, various members of the Catholic ruling aristocracy in early modern Europe loved gifting each other relics. At one point, the noted relic-collector Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) was asked by a secretary if he wanted to include a gift of one of his relics (he had thousands) with a missive to one of his powerful Hapsburg relatives. Philip’s reply was something along the lines of  “sure, choose anything, most of them are probably fakes anyways.” (That, from one of the 16th century’s most high-profile Catholics.)

Turning away from history for a moment, I recently visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which had a small number of reliquaries on display. Just sitting there, without any explanation of reliquaries or relics themselves, and no mention at all of the specific relic that presumably resided within at some point. Being me, I was brimming with irritating questions (thanks to Matt and Richie for keeping it cool when I suggested we spend 5 hours at the museum and insisted on seeing everything): where is the relic? Was it in the collection, but not on display? Why would someone separate the relic (surely a delicate item, religious considerations notwithstanding) from its protective reliquary? When did they get separated? What has happened to relics these days?

Ivory Arm Relic, 15th century, French. Boston MFA. This was the relic that prompted the questions.

For another relic, I mostly have the story: in the case of the head relic of St. Eustace, above, the British Museum holds both the relic and the reliquary separately. They were together (the skull of the saint being inside the silver gilt and wooden reliquary) until a 20th century conservation effort separated the two. (Sometimes, I imagine that the life of a conservationist gets weird. Separating heads from metal cases after 800 years falls under the weird job tasks category.) Now, only the reliquary is displayed, while the skull is kept off display. In 2011, the British Museum had a special exhibition of objects of personal devotion (“Treasures of Heaven“), which featured a wide range of reliquaries, large and small, from a varieties of times and locations. I distinctly remember several of these reliquaries (mostly the type with the window, or the box type with the slide-off front) had their relics open for viewing. As I recall, some of these reliquaries had been loaned to the British Museum from religious institutions, including from the Vatican collections (it was a very special exhibition). Maybe that’s what makes the difference? Perhaps secular institutions treat their relics differently (preferencing artistic value over the religious significance of keep relic and reliquary as one) than religious institutions? Then again, many churches have replaced reliquaries and/or changed the way of displaying relics in the early modern and modern period (the Reformation, among other things, was rough on relics). Still, I’m left wondering (per the title of this post), where have all the relics gone? Have they been destroyed? Are they sitting around mouldering in private collections after having been snapped up by 18th century gentry on the Grand Tour? Statistically, what percent are still displayed at churches/for the purposes of devotion?


If you’re looking for some great reading on Simeon Stylites, you can’t go wrong with Peter Brown. If you’re looking for an article, try:

Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity”, Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 61, 1971, pp. 80-101.

If you’re interested in relics and various practices involving relics, including the ritual of Humiliation of the Saints, there’s a lot of great literature out there. I would recommend:

Patrick Geary, Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Charming 12th Century Nuns

14 Sep

There’s this widespread misconception that Medieval people are boring. Add to that the idea that monks and nuns are boring (especially Medieval monks and nuns). If you currently hold this belief, I am going to have to swat you with my proverbial gloves and insist on a duel. Or maybe just fisticuffs, as I’ve never really been fond of getting up before dawn.

Medieval people are fun, especially monks and nuns (seriously, if you were cooped up all day, everyday for the better part of your life, you’d have to find ways to entertain yourself, wouldn’t you?). Evidence of this can be seen in various marginalia in manuscripts- there are the ever-amusing “I’m cold” or “this seat is very uncomfortable”, all the way to the more raucous sketches of steaming piles of poo and “I miss women”-style commentary.

In s similar vein (“nuns are fun”), I recently ran across a poem, written by a nun from Auxerre on a roll meant to honor the recently deceased Abbess of the Holy Trinity in Caen. The Abbess was no less than the daughter of William the Conqueror, Matilda, who died in 1113. Amongst the somber and respectful messages that I’m sure were written on the roll came this lively bit of poetry from a nun:

All Abbesses deserve to die

Who order subject nuns to lie

In dire distress and lonely bed

Only for giving love its head.

I speak who know, for I’ve been fed,

For loving, long on stony bread.

Charming. And this was on the Medieval equivalent of a public sympathy card. I don’t want to get into too much speculation, but I would guess that this particular nun had some problems with the strictness with the rule (or with authority, or just with “visitors”). I’ll just let you think on that.

(Poem was borrowed from Southern, R. W. The Making of the Middle Ages. London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1953. 24.)

What do the Great Depression and Pieter Bruegel the Elder Have in Common?

12 Aug

Funny how things are sometimes. For instance, yesterday I was listening to the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and up came the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, which is a song first recorded in 1928 by Harry McClintock. In case you’re not familiar with either soundtracks or Depression-Era folk music, the song is essentially about a hobo’s paradise, full of plentiful food, alcohol, and other goods (streams of lemonade, licorice trees, a whiskey lake). On a whim, I ran a quick google on the song, to find out when it was written (e.i. whether it was actually from the time period that the movie was set in, or made up in the 2000s for the sake of the film). Turns out, it is originally to the time period. BUT, my dear friend Wikipedia also informs me that the “hobo’s paradise” described in the song, ostensibly describing a feeling particular to the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, actually has a connection to the Middle Ages. And there’s nothing I like more than a connection to the Middle Ages.

Turns out that the idea of a hobo’s paradise has been around for a long time, centuries even. In Medieval Europe (and following periods), the concept is called Cockaigne. Essentially it’s a lazy man’s paradise, where there’s tons of food and luxury goods and no one ever has to work.

In a fun bit of linguistic-ness, the name Cockaigne (which is the Middle-English iteration) is also recorded as the Latin Cucaniensis, or better yet, the modern English “Cuckoo-land”. German writings have it as Schlaraffenland, which, after much internet searching, I believe is not connected to monkeys/apes (der Affe/die Äffin). My favorite versions of the name are the Swedish Lubberland (“lubber” referring to a fat, lazy man) and the Dutch Luilekkerland, which Wikipedia translates as “lazy, luscious land”. Excellent!

Medieval folks (and, I’ll admit, Renaissance folks) really enjoy their utopias. Cockaigne worked itself into a lot of poems, books, and works of art. There are some particularly memorable Northern Renaissance paintings, such as this one by Pieter Bruegel the Elder:


Das Schlaraffenland, 1567. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, oil on wood panel. München, Alte Pinakothek.

Or, for people who like things who prefer things a little more Medieval, Cockaigne ends up as a topic for discussion in the Kildare poems, which date to the mid-14th century. Manuscript lovers and paleography buffs, feast your eyes:

The Land of Cockaigne, MS Harley 913, ff. 3r-6v. London, British Library.

As in the tough times in the early 20th century, the Land of Cockaigne was a popular topic among peasants and poor folks. Of course, back then, although the land of plenty was alluring, it was also a scary idea for the regular people (temptation being what it is, and all). So while it was nice to think that there was a magical bountiful place out there, it was also seen as tempting people to sloth and laziness and generally encouraging them not to be good, hardworking, God-fearing people. And that was definitely bad. I love a good moral conundrum.

The moral of this story is that Cockaigne is cool- cool enough that people have been talking about it for centuries! Cool enough that people sing about it, write about it, and paint it- now and then. In addition to the Middle Ages and moral conundrums, I also love me some artistic continuity. Now, if you’re ever sitting around playing six degrees of artistic separation (is that a real thing? It ought to be a real thing. I’m adding it to my list of party games), you will be able to instantly connect Pieter Bruegel the Elder and hobos in the 1920s, or Harry McClintock and Irish-dialect Middle English verse!

Really Unfortunately Named Person of the Day: Æthelred the Unready

5 Oct

Poor Æthelred- he is unfortunately named for two reasons. First, that whole letter A and E together thing is really hard to do (I may or may not have to copy/paste it in every time I type his name). The letter thingy is common among early kings of England (it also freaks out all automatic spellcheckers, just saying). What kind of nickname do you give someone named Æthelred? “Reddy”? But then you’d be forced to call him Reddy the Unready, which would be weird.

The second unfortunate part of his name is pretty clear: who really wants to be reminded constantly that they’re unready? Especially when you’re the King of England? If I was the king and people were always calling me unready, there would be a lot of beheadings. Also, “unready”? Was Æthelred some sort of high-maintainence diva who was always running late?

Well, that isn’t exactly how he got the name “unready”. That is a slightly more complicated story beginning at the end of the 10th century. Æthelred was the second son of King Edgar of England. He was, however, the first son of Ælfthryth, Queen of England (told you the A-E letter combo was popular. Also, how do you pronounce that name?). Æthelred’s illegitimate older brother (Edward) took the throne after much contention following Edgar’s death. Not long after Edward took the throne, he suffered a “mysterious” death while visiting the castle of Queen Ælfthryth. With Edward out of the way, Æthelred took the throne in 978 at the age of 10 (you can see at this point why he might seem “unready”).

Throughout his reign, Æthelred had a lot of problems with Danish Viking raiders. He even fled to Normandy in 1013, relinquishing the throne (ninny). Luckily for him, he got the throne back after the Sweyn (the Danish guy who took the English throne) died only a year later.

Linguists, being the spoilsports (or cool, awesome people, whatever) that they are, decided that this translation of Old English is wrong, and that all of the historical record is wrong. According to them, our homeboy Æthelred isn’t “unready”, he is “without noble council”. Lame. I think that in this case, we should ignore the linguists and go with what he is called historically: Æthelred the Unready

Unfortunately Named Person of the Day: Ivar the Boneless

20 Sep

Back in the good old days (i.e. the Middle Ages), last names had not yet been invented. Instead, people just went around being called their first name and then some piece of information that was relevant to them. For example: Louis the Fat…because he was fat (real person, I swear) or Thomas, John’s Son (precursor to the modern Johnson). Of course, you didn’t really get to pick your name, or else there would have been tons of Hildebrand the Awesomes or Guibert the Incredibles running around everywhere. As a result, some of history’s characters have ended up being named really unfortunate things. Today’s person is the 9th century Viking warrior Ivar the Boneless.

I var the Boneless was a fairly notable Viking leader an warrior- he ran successful raids/attack on England in the 860s/870s and led the Great Heathen Army (I assume they didn’t name themselves either) alongside his brothers, Hubbe and Halfdene (also excellently named people).

Ah, but why is Ivar Boneless? Good question! The answer is: no one is really sure. There are, however, some main theories:
1) He was very flexible, which led the brilliant people of the middle ages to guess that he had no bones.
2) He had brittle bone disease. This was proposed by a person with brittle bone disease. It is unlikely, given the record of his battle/combat, especially accounts of him as a berserker that he could have had such a crippling condition.
3) He had some impotence issues. This is actually the most likely theory, at least for the name. It didn’t necessarily have to be true to have been something his warriors called him. There is a long tradition of calling your war leader impotent: Roman soldiers returning to the city victorious after battle used to yell out bawdy things about thier leader.
4) He was carried on a shield by his men after victorious battle, which made him look like he didn’t have legs. Which probably freaked people out and spawned the story. In this situation, boneless = legless, which is a pretty linguistically sound jump to make.