Relic Cults: Why Dead Saints Were So Important in the Middle Ages
The practice of preserving and enshrining the remains of saints and heroes, or other items associated with their life or death, has been ongoing for thousands of years dating back well into the pre-Christian era in Europe. These remains are known as relics or “holy relics” and were an important part of Christian worship throughout the Middle Ages, playing a pivotal role in the cults of Christian saints.
Relics, particularly those of important saints or those associated with Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, came to be so highly valued that by the height of the medieval period a black market of sorts existed for the trade of stolen bones, reliquaries and other items purported to be associated with various saints. And an entire tourism industry developed from the countless pilgrims who journeyed to visit the shrines containing relics of their revered saints.
But why were these relics so highly valued? What made these physical remains and so-called “contact relics” of such importance to worshippers? How did this ancient practice turn into a medieval phenomenon that has continued to the present day?
Holy relics in the Church of San Pedro, in Ayerbe, Spain, where each “arm” contains a relic bone of a saint. (Pepe Bescós / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Saints’ Holy Relics: Reliquaries of Bones and Body Parts
The term “relic” encompasses almost any artifact of historical significance, but when using it in relation to the remains of a saint it has a more specific meaning. The relic of a saint refers to their bodily remains, and some churches were fortunate enough to possess the entirety of their saint’s bodily remains while others were only in possession of one or more pieces. For example, St Catherine of Siena’s remains are spread across three separate churches, her head and thumb are enshrined at Siena, her foot and three fingers lie in a church in Venice, and the rest of her body is buried in Rome.
- The Macabre, Bejeweled Skeletons of the Catacomb Saints
- Religious Artifacts found alongside Bones in Attic may be Relics of a Saint
Bodily remains were often entombed in a prominent place within the church, either in a fully enclosed tomb or displayed where worshippers could view them. Pieces such as St Catherine’s head, would usually be displayed in ornate casings known as reliquaries, which could also be used to contain “contact” relics.
Contact relics were items that had come into contact with the saint during their life or death, such as the Shroud of Turin which was supposedly the death shroud of Jesus Christ, or the three veils of the Virgin Mary given to Emperor Charlemagne.
Visitors to churches who had made pilgrimage to see the relics would be allowed to approach the tomb containing the saint’s remains and touch the reliquaries surrounding it. Sometimes the saint’s tomb would have small hand-holes carved out of the stone so that worshippers could put their hand inside to touch the remains. And some remains were encased in elaborately designed sarcophagi that contained a crawl-space underneath the place where the bones rested, which were intended for pilgrims to climb into and pray in.
Relic from the shrine of Saint Boniface of Dokkum in the hermit-church of Warfhuizen in the Netherlands. The bone fragment in middle is from Saint Boniface; little folded papers on the left and right contain bone fragments of Saint Benedict of Nursia and Bernard of Clairvaux, respectively. (Broederhugo / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Holy Radiation: The Closer to the Relic The Better For Prayers
These may seem like bizarre practices, but to a medieval person it was considered entirely normal to stroke the bones of a long-dead saint whilst praying to them to ask for their help. The best way to understand why people did this is to understand the concept of “holy radiation.” Most pilgrims journeyed to visit these saints for a particular purpose, most often to seek the help of the saint for healing.
Particular saints were known to “specialize” in some types of healing miracles, for example St Lawrence, who was martyred by being burned alive on a gridiron, became known for healing miracles associated with back pain, and the blood of St Thomas Becket was known to be particularly effective for healing blindness, deafness, and leprosy.
It was understood in the medieval period that the saints resided in Heaven at the left hand of God (Jesus being the right hand) and that if one prayed next to the earthly remains of that saint it would enact a sort of divine communications network whereby the saint would receive the prayers and pass them along to God, asking for His help. The belief was that the closer you were to the physical remains of that saint, the stronger the “holy radiation” would be, thus making your prayers more effective and the saint more likely to intercede on your behalf.
The concept of “holy radiation” is what makes Christian relic worship different from that of other religion because the saints were worshipped more for their closeness to God and their ability to communicate with Him, rather than for their personal merits alone.
Closeup of a reliquary in the cloisters of the Basilica of Our Lady in Maastricht, Netherlands. The objects from the church's treasury are shown here in preparation of the veneration of the relics in the church, which is part of the Heiligdomsvaart ("relics pilgrimage") celebrations, a religious and historic event that takes place once in seven years and dates back to the Middle Ages. This 19th-century reliquary contains a smaller 14th-century reliquary with the girdle of the Virgin Mary. (Kleon3 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
On Earth, As It Is In Heaven
Relics were an important representation of the connection between the earthly and the divine, they transformed the horror of death into a symbol of hope by representing eternal life in Heaven. They were a point of physical contact with the divine that allowed everyday people the spiritual experience of communing with God that was usually reserved only for those who had been ordained into the religious orders.
Saints were an important medium by which lay-people could participate in religion, because their relics remained on Earth after their souls ascended to Heaven which allowed them to remain active on both planes.
Relic worship was pivotal in popularizing Christianity within the general population throughout Europe in the Middle Ages because it allowed for a more individualized, independent practice of “lived” religion. Going on pilgrimage to visit the shrine of a saint brought worshippers in close personal contact with the objects of their faith, and it was common practice for churches to sell small relics as souvenirs for pilgrims to use for worship once they had returned home.
The authenticity of these souvenirs is dubious, for example the vials of Becket’s Blood sold to pilgrims at Canterbury supposedly contained a drop of St Thomas Becket’s blood mixed with Holy Water to be used for healing but given the high volume of these “relics” that were sold it’s more likely they were just vials of Holy Water and did not contain the saint’s blood.
Before the explosion of popularity in relic worship and pilgrimage that occurred in the High Middle Ages, Christian worship relied on those who had been educated by religious institutions to understand and interpret the Bible and other religious texts and then convey their knowledge to the uneducated public through sermons and other interactions with the church. Relic cults brought Christian worship down to a more personal, intimate level and democratized religion by allowing more freedom of interpretation in how individuals chose to practice their faith.
The first-class relic of Blessed Maria Gabriella OCSO, born as Maria Sagheddu (17 March 1914 – 23 April 1939). She was an Italian Roman Catholic nun and a professed member of the Trappists. She was beatified (a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church of a deceased person's entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name) in Rome in 1983. (ExorcisioTe / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Holy Relics As A Physical Representation of History
Relics also held significance beyond the spiritual, as a physical representation of history. As most lay people could not read or write in medieval Europe, association with buildings and artifacts such as relics was an important way of preserving and transmitting memory. Relics symbolized the connection between a place and its history, acting as a reminder of the narratives that defined the identity of the place.
Sometimes the association between the two was represented literally as well as symbolically, such as the shrine of St Edmund at the church of Bury-St-Edmunds, which was surrounded by artworks depicting scenes from the texts written about his life and his death at the hands of the Danes.
Possession of relics was a vital part of how medieval churches associated themselves with their own history and authenticate their traditions and claims over land. Places were often given names associated with legends and narratives originating from that area as a way to implant local history upon the landscape.
For example, Bury-St-Edmunds was previously known as Beodricesworth, but when the body of St Edmund was buried there in the 10th century the town became known as Bury-St-Edmunds for obvious reasons. The monastery at Bury claimed to possess the entire bodily remains of St Edmund, which bestowed the saint’s protection upon them and the town, and it also meant that the saint “resided” there, so any pilgrim wishing to pray to St Edmund would be drawn there as the point of strongest contact with his earthly presence.
Creating strong connections with a saint through their earthly remains could have other benefits for a church as well, such as gaining the support of a royal or noble who favored that saint or drawing tourism to the area if the saint was popular with pilgrims. The benefits of possessing relics were so enticing that sometimes an institution would resort to stealing or otherwise dishonestly acquiring relics.
The story of St Dustan of Canterbury is one of the most famous examples of alleged relic theft, although it was proven to be false some 200 years later when Dunstan’s tomb at Canterbury was opened and found to contain his bones.
It was claimed in William of Malmesbury’s Antiquities of Glastonbury that when the monastery at Canterbury had been sacked by Vikings in the year 1011, four monks from Glastonbury went to retrieve the relics of Canterbury’s patron saint, Dunstan, at the behest of the king who was visiting Glastonbury at the time. The remains of St Dunstan were then hidden in Glastonbury’s church, identified only by a ring on the finger bearing the saint’s insignia.
This reliquary at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, USA includes 1st-degree relics from the Apostles James the Greater, Matthew the Evangelist, Philip, Simon the Zealot, and Thomas the Twin. (John Stephen Dwyer / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Relics as Instruments of Politics
In the same way that a church or a town could connect themselves with their history through relics, so could monarchs use relics to represent their authority. In the early-to-mid medieval period, many kings had extensive personal collections of relics which acted as a symbol of the ruler’s personal piety and prestige while simultaneously demonstrating their connection to the history of the land they ruled over, as well as manifesting a particular saint’s protection and patronage.
- The Blood of Saint Januarius and The Miracle of Liquefaction
- Tip-off leads Dublin Police to the Stolen Holy Heart of St Laurence
Relics from these collections could be used as gifts - monarchs would often gift relics to various churches as a sign of favor or to win their political support - and they could also be used as part of diplomatic exchanges: in the 10th century King Athelstan of England met with Count Adelolf of Boulogne, ambassador to Hugh the Great, the King was gifted with the sword of Constantine containing a nail from Christ’s crucifixion in the pommel, as well as a piece of the True Cross, a portion of the Crown of Thorns, and the spear the pierced Christ’s side on the cross.
Relics could serve more sinister purposes as gifts too, representing political dominance over another ruler’s territory. There are many instances of relics being plundered from churches during raids throughout the medieval era, but relics could also be given as a token of submission like the Crown of King Arthur. Although not technically a saint, Arthur’s relics were nonetheless imbued with the same significance and when King Edward I defeated the Welsh king Llewellyn II in 1283, he was gifted the Crown of Arthur as a token of his victory.
The other important role relics fulfilled in medieval politics was more in line with their significance as spiritual objects. As relics were considered to be a point of contact with the divine, they were often used to “preside over” governmental processes and other important political affairs, symbolizing the ultimate authority recognized by all medieval people: God. The presence of God, through the holy relics of His saints, validated judgements or oaths made by earthly rulers.
In 876, King Alfred the Great requested his Danish enemies swear an oath to him on relics he held in his hand, and the famous Bayeux Tapestry depicts the defeated Harold Godwineson swearing an oath of fealty to William the Conqueror on top of an altar whilst holding a reliquary. There is evidence that relics may even have been used to solemnify the coronation ceremony of English kings in the pre-Norman period.
Relics were such an important part of so many aspects of medieval religious, political, and cultural life that they became ingrained in Christian European society. Relic culture continues to play an important role in the lives of modern-day Christians across Europe, despite efforts to suppress the practice of relic worship during the Reformation in the 16th century.
Pilgrims today continue to visit shrines such as the burial place of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, or the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which houses several relics from the crucifixion of Jesus. The spiritual and cultural significance of these relics has been woven into the fabric of Western Christian societies and is not likely to itself become a “relic” of the past anytime soon.
Top image: The holy relics and reliquary of Saint Ivo of Kermartin (St. Yves or St. Ives; 1253–1303 AD) in Tréguier, Brittany, France. Source: Derepus / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Meagan Dickerson
Bentley, James. 1985. Restless Bones: the story of relics. Constable.
Pinner, Rebecca. 2015 The Cult of St Edmond in Medieval East Anglia. Boydell Press.
Rollason, D. W. 1986. “Relic-cults as an instrument of royal policy c. 900—c. 1050.” Anglo-Saxon England 15
Yarrow, Simon. 2014. "Miracles, Belief and Christian Materiality: Relic’ing in Twelfth- Century Miracle Narratives." In Contextualizing Miracles in the Christian West 1100-1500: New Historical Approaches, ed. Matthew M. Mesley and Louise E. Wilson. The Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature.