Friday, November 17, 2006


The Arca Santa in the cathedral of Oviedo, Asturias, Spain.

I have been neck deep in charters for the past two weeks or so, typing entries into my database magna cum furia. I feel like I have been making progress, but my blogging has suffered. Oh well.

I have decided that a chapter or at least part of a chapter of my dissertation will be on forged charters. They are, content-wise, some of the most interesting documents I have studied. I will be presenting a paper at the Medieval Conference at Kalamazoo next May on one of them, but there are several that are just... just...

Especially one that purports to be a donation from King Alfonso VI to the cathedral church of Oviedo in 1075. It may be based on a real document that is now lost, but this charter is probably one of the many forgeries created under Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo in the early twelfth century. The best part of it is its long narrative telling how the Arca Santa (Holy Ark) was found and opened in the 1030's by then-Bishop Pontius. It emitted a light so brilliant that it blinded the bystanders. It was then re-opened in 1075 in the presence of the king, and there was a great treasure of relics (I did a quick translation from the original Latin). There were relics...

... of the Wood of the Lord, of the Blood of the Lord, of the bread of the Lord, that is, from his Last Supper, of the tomb of the Lord, of the holy earth where the Lord stood, of the dress of St Mary and of the milk of the same virgen and mother of the Lord, of the robe of the Lord that was divided up and of his shroud, relics of St Peter the apostle, St Thomas, Bartholomew the apostle, of the bones of the prophets, of saints Justus and Pastor, Adrian and Natalia, Mama, Julia, Verissimus and Maximus, Germanus, Baudulus, Pantaleon, Cyprian, Eulalia, Sebastian, Cucufatus, from the robe of St Sulpicius, St Agatha, Emeterius and Celedonius, St John the Baptist, St Romanus, St Stephen the Protomartyr, St Fructuosus, Augurius and Eulogius, St Victor, St Lawrence, saints Justa and Rufina, saints Severandus and Germanus, St Liberius, saints Maxima and Julia, Cosme and Damian, Sergius and Bacchus, St James the brother of the Lord, St Stephen the pope, St Christopher, St John the apostle, the robe of St Tirsus, St Julianus, St Felix, St Andrew, St Peter the excorcist, St Eugenia, St Martin, saints Facundus and Primitivus, St Vicent the levite, St Faustus, St John, St Paul the apostle, St Agnus, saints Relix, Simplicius, Faustinus and Beatrix, St Petronila, St Eulalia of Barcelona, of the ashes of saints Emilianus the deacon and Jerimiah the martyr, St Roger, St Servant of God the martyr, St Pomposa, Anania, Azaria and Misaele, St Sportelius and St Juliana, and many others the number of which only the knowledge of God can touch...

The Wood of the Lord is, of course, the cross. It is interesting how many relics of Jesus and Mary there are -- most relics are from a saint's body, but the bodies of Jesus and his mother are in heaven. So the relics are either contact relics -- clothes or other objects that have touched the holy bodies -- or things such as blood or milk that are produced by the body. Other relics of Christ get even stranger -- there was talk in the Middle Ages about relics of Jesus's baby teeth and even his foreskin.

Most of the relics are bones. This is quite a collection, although I wouldn't trust Pelayo too much. At any rate, many relics are just mere slivers, so maybe there were a lot of good slivers in the Arca Santa.

Our typical reaction as moderns to relics -- even as modern Christians -- is that they disturbing, morbid, even sick. Keeping body parts on display and venerating them! I suggest we open our minds. Medieval people were more honest with themselves about death and less separated from their own bodies than we are. We keep death at a distance, send our old off to homes, pursue youth with all our money and all our time. Good Cartesians that we are, we think of our bodies as something we live in, not as something we are. People in the Middle Ages knew death was as real and as present as life, and as natural. Their dead were close to them and memory of the dead was intensely important. Their bodies were part of their selves, bodies that would resurrect on the last day. A body part of a dead saint was an actual physical object you could touch that you knew would one day be in paradise. Having that relic in your church did not mean that you had the cast-off shell, the shuffled-off mortal coil of the saint, you actually had part of the saint him/herself with you, and he or she would protect you and stand by you.

Is it sick and morbid not to forget the dead, not to be amazed at the physical? Perhaps we can learn from attitudes that appear distasteful when we don't understand them.


Talmida said...

I do find relics a bit creepy, Liam, but not because of a fear of death or rejection of the body. Just the opposite! How would you like the resurrection of the body to be announced and discover that your parts were spread all over Christendom!

I note that now, even tho catholics may be cremated, their remains may not be sprinkled somewhere, they must be kept together and kept respectfully.

I realize that the medievals had a different way of looking at things -- I'm just not sure it was a better way.


crystal said...

Cool! liebfraumilch :-)

I like relics - now we're so dualistic about the body. I have the ashes of my three cats who died last year in little boxes. Maybe that's morbid, but it makes me feel not so lonely for them.

About forgeries - have you ever dropped by Stephen Carlson's blog? He wrote a book about the secret gospel of Mark, exposing it as a forgery ... interesting subject.

Liam said...

Talmida -
Certainly not better, but different. I just think we shouldn't reject the whole idea out of hands. Devotion to relics should be challenging.

The idea of one's body being spread over a distance was one that mediveal thinkers were concerned about. I can recommend an excellenet book on it: Caroline Walker Bynum's "The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity."

Crystal -- I don't think that's morbid in the least bit. Thanks for the link, I will have to check it out.

cowboyangel said...

Milk of the Virgin Mary?!?!? (Es la leche!) One wonders how it was stored in the Arca Santa in order to prevent spoilage.

Do you know where the Arca Santa was discovered? I'm assuming in Spain somewhere. And where is it now? Oviedo? Oh, wait, the Nazis stole it, didn't they? I bet Indiana Jones didn't think to check in Spain.

Relics are strange things to consider. Fascinating. But creepy. I still think it's weird - but makes a certain kind of Spanish Fascist sense - that Franco supposedly kept the arm of Santa Teresa in his office. Where do you think her arm is now? At the Partido Popular headquarters?

I think of fans trying to rip pieces of clothing or hair from rock stars. Same prinicpal, isn't it?

Out of curiosity, I checked E-Bay for relics, thinking maybe Teresa's arm would be available. There were over 100 items for sale. Most are actually relics twice removed - i.e. a piece of cloth or something else that touched a relic. There is, however, part of the True Cross selling for $501.00 from someone in Italy and Glastonbury Holy Thorn Saint Joseph of Arimathea relics coming out of Sycamore, South Carolina. "GLASTONBURY HOLY THORN............ EACH WOODEN BOX IS HANDSTAINED AND WILL MAKE A LOVELY CHRISTMAS GIFT - IT IS SOMETHING INCREDIBLY RARE - FOR ANY SPECIAL OCCASION." Bids start at $9.95.

Unfortunately, for the serious relic hunter, E-Bay has a "Human Parts and Remains" policy (see E-Bay Help Index, the link right after HTML: Special Tags for Stores.) "Examples of prohibited items include, but are not limited to:

Of course, this means we also can't pool together and buy the ear of Evander Holyfield that Mike Tyson chewed off. But life's not always fair.

Liam said...

The milk (if it was there, if Pelayo wasn't lying -- an immense if) was probably in a vial, much like the blood of St Gennaro, which I saw liquified in Naples. I have to check again to see where they found it.

I don't know where St Teresa's arm is, but we've both seen her finger in Avila.

I don't need a sliver of the True Cross, I already have one (click "slivers" on the post).

I think trying to get a piece of a rock star's clothes, or an athlete's jersey does respond to something that also activates the desire to have relics -- you get it as well from an autograph. It's the feeling that someone's charisma lingers on in something they have touched. I bet the most sincere materialist would frame an original letter of an adored thinker and even touch it for luck, though he or she would never admit it.

Relics, however, have a bit more theology behind them.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Boy, that collection doesn't leave many relics to other churches. :)

The most interesting one I've seen was the skull of St. Boniface in Fulda, complete with swordcuts, and the bible he held up to protect himself, also with swordcuts.

The first time we visited, we were pre-school kids and my brother said he'd never again visit that scary cathedral (in den grausligen Dom geh' ich nicht wieder) but a few years later he had no problems with cloven skulls. :)

crystal said...

Another interesting relic is the head of John the Baptist ... according to the Orthodox Church, it's appeared and been found a few times ... the relic, in whole or in part, is claimed by several churches, among them Amiens, Nemours, St-Jean d'Angeli (France), S. Silvestro in Capite (Rome).

Liam said...

Wow, I heard you could see the Bible, but I didn't know about the skull. I must get to that grausligen Dom myself.

I believe, though I'm not sure, that the head of John the Baptist was one of the relics stolen when the crusaders took Constantinople in 1204. Apparently more than one crusader took credit for it...

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

This is a good and very important post. Our modern sensibilities are certainly put off by relics - I think of my poor Fray Juan de la Cruz - an arm in Madrid, two legs and an arm in the monastary in Ubeda, and the head and torso in Segovia - but as you pointed out in a great turn of phrase, the people of that time were more honest about death and less separated from their bodies than Cartesians like us.

Rather than a soul trapped inside a body, Aquinas taught that the soul is the form of the body, and that we should not think of the soul and the body as two separate things. He thought disembodied souls would exist until Christ's second coming and the general resurrection, and that finally we will exist as embodied souls. In fact, that view is actually more biblical than most popular accounts we hear today.