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Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages [Hardcover]

Patrick J. Geary
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

21 May 1978

To obtain sacred relics, medieval monks plundered tombs, avaricious merchants raided churches, and relic-mongers scoured the Roman catacombs. In a revised edition of Furta Sacra, Patrick Geary considers the social and cultural context for these acts, asking how the relics were perceived and why the thefts met with the approval of medieval Christians.



Product details

  • Hardcover: 241 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Revised edition (21 May 1978)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691052611
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691052618
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,290,434 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"[This] is a superb book, original and immaculate in scholarship, elegant in style and though."--R. I. Moore, Times Higher Education Supplement

"A shrewd, interesting, and helpful study."--C. N. L. Brooke, History

"Geary is at his best in unraveling the tangled accounts of individual thefts to suggest the reasons for their occurrence and in describing the central role of saints and their relics in this age. His exposition of the medieval view that saints resided with and participated actively in the affairs of the communities possessing their relics is essential to understanding the function of saints in this society and the desire of communities to steal or, as he argues, to 'kidnap' them."--John M. McCulloh, American Historical Review

"This is a fascinating study of a medieval way of thinking which in certain circumstances countenanced thefts of sacred relics from tombs, churches, and Roman catacombs. . . . Furta Sacra is a truly impressive history shedding much light on a difficult dimension of popular Christian piety in another age."--Michael Connors, Church History

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THE SUBJECT of this is not, as one might expect from the title, relics, but rather people. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Hugely interesting and entertaining read 6 Jan 2013
By Olivia
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A wonderful book! Knocks popular history books into a cocked hat. So many interesting cultural and theological angles, and very well written. Thoroughly enjoyable, highly recommend. Will never look at a relic in the same way again!!
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A luminous interpretation of an obscure phenomena 9 July 2000
By Clara R. Arechiga - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
A martyr's body is stolen by an army of monks; the story of the search of Saint Mark's the Evangelist corpse all over Europe, comissioned by different kings and prelates; the undeniable prestige that Italian relics had all over the Continent; the flux of money that a dead saint brought to a shrine, and how the survival of monasteries depended on their relics; the trade of the relic monger, like Felix, the Frankish monk that sold the bodies of Saint Severus, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Cecilia, Saint Emerita and Saint Eugenia, among others!!These fascinating and bizarre medieval phenomena, known as translatio ( always done with divine help or botched by supernatural dissent) are carefully studied by Geary in this brilliant study. How is it possible that a theft could be applauded by a whole community? That the body of Saint Magdalene had a cult in France? That kings collected relics like the art collectors of today? Explaining the context of these beliefs, it becomes clear that these strange behaviours are not that far from some of the conducts our societies hold dear. Miracles, mysteries, daring thefts, prestige, all are analyzed by Geary. Compassion, wit and first of all a clear understanding of the medieval mind, makes this book a wonderful, entertaining and not at all morbid read.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Before You Buy St. Nicholas' Thigh-Bone, Read This Book 30 Nov 2004
By Lee Freeman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"Furta Sacra" is a scholarly, yet easy to read, well-written and documented book on the peculiarly medieval phenomenon of relic thefts.

Maintaining that in medieval hagiography a successful theft of a relic indicated that a stolen saint actually WANTED to be "translated" elsewhere, Dr. Geary, citing dozens of actual medieval theft cases, examines how and why relics were stolen. The reasons range from abbeys and cathedrals, and even cities and towns, attempting to one-up each other with the impressive relics they could boast(and hence increase not only their prestige, but also their coffers from donations by pilgrims), to the desire to keep such sacred Christian objects out of the hands of non-Christians. Geary also examines the lucrative market in such relics.

All in all a wonderful and informative read. Cadfael fans should find this book particularly interesting, as the incident in the first book of the translation of St. Winifred's relics to Shrewsbury actually occurred as depicted by Peters. Now fans of the series can find out how the theology and politics behind such a translation actually worked.

Before you buy St. Nicholas' thigh-bone, just remember. . . it could be stolen!

Pax vobiscum.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but probably not for the uninitiated 8 Jun 2007
By A. Berke - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I enjoyed this book in part because the stories of relic thefts, and the lives of the stolen Saints, sometimes seemed too improbable to be true, and yet one cannot deny the obvious impact those same stories had (whether true or not seems irrelevant to their legacy) on the communities that obtained them. I found is rather funny that monks would invent theft stories to imbue a Saints remains (obtained legally) with more pizazz, in the hopes of drawing more pilgrims and donors. I also laughed during the descriptions of the miraculous second body that often accompanied disputed claims to a Saint, who often, it seemed, was unknown to the world until calling out to a wandering monk or two.

I make light of several of the stories, but the book was fascinating, and Geary does a good job of putting the cult of relics and their thefts in cultural and historical perspective, which when seen with that eye, are perfectly normal and important to the spiritual and communal development of the time period. In context, the book and its stories become even more meaningful as we look at how certain things influence us. There is no denying the power relics had then (and now), but through 21st Century eyes, sometimes it's hard to believe.

This book is short, well written, but probably not for the casual reader. It is full of phrases in latin, is written for an intellectual audience, and assumes some familiarity with place and time. I really liked it despite likely being outside the target audience.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Social and Cultural Context of the Relic Trade 4 Mar 2010
By Ashley Brasier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Patrick Geary's "Furta Sacra" situates the furtive relic translations in their social and cultural context in order to enrich a modern understanding of relics. In the Middle Ages, relics were acquired to provide protection and to give communities a sense of identity in a politically fragmented Europe. Furthermore, they contributed to the local economy by attracting patronage and pilgrimage. Geary notes that relics are a "human phenomenon" and recounts stories of theft in order to highlight the medieval mindset.

Professional thieves like Deusdona stole the relics in order to supply the demand in communities across France, Germany, and Italy. Demand was especially high under the Carolingian Empire, as all altars were required to contain relics, and pilgrims were encouraged to journey to the tombs of saints. As communities acquired new relics, they crafted narratives about the theft and acquisition in order to accentuate the value of the relic, and to assert ownership of the relic. The furta sacra deviate from reality as they were shaped to "make acceptable the presence of a saint's body in a remote monastery with which he never had any connection" (13). Like the liturgy, these accounts tended toward "schematization and stylization" (13). Nevertheless, they expose the calculated way in which value and legitimacy were accorded to relics by their communities. Relics had to be legitimized in order to uphold the community's reputation and to inspire religious devotion among its citizens.

When studying the past, we must remember to go beyond the written text in order to explore the social and cultural persuasions of its authors and community. Geary writes, "... medieval religious culture is a mosaic and can be understood not simply by examining each particle of stone or glass, but by observing the whole system in which these pieces are used" (17).
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars things you didn't know you didn't know 30 Jun 2004
By Linda Pagliuco - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Furta Sacra is a well-researched, respectfully written "expose" of the relic trade as it was conducted during the Middle Ages. When, 9 or 10 years back, I came across the Brother Cadfael story about the theft of the bones of St. Winifred in Wales, I didn't realize how commonplace this sort of chicanery and piracy actually was. Patrick Geary presents a readable, informative account of hagiography, the engineering of miracles, cults of the saints, financial considerations, and most intriguing, the travels, adventures, and translations of the corpses and body parts of many of Europe's best known holy personages.
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