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Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe [Hardcover]

Charles Freeman
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

22 Mar 2011
Relics were everywhere in medieval society. Saintly morsels such as bones, blood, milk, hair, teeth, and clothes, and items like the Crown of Thorns, coveted by Louis IX of France, were thought to bring the believer closer to the saint who might intercede with God on his or her behalf. In the first comprehensive history in English of the rise of relic cults, Charles Freeman takes readers on a vivid, fast-paced journey from Constantinople to the northern Isles of Scotland over the course of a millennium. In 'Holy Bones, Holy Dust', Freeman illustrates that the pervasiveness and variety of relics answered very specific needs of ordinary people across a darkened Europe under threat of political upheavals, disease, and hellfire. But relics were not only venerated - they were traded, collected, lost, stolen, duplicated and destroyed. They were bargaining chips, good business and good propaganda, politically appropriated across Europe, and even used to wield military power. Freeman examines an expansive array of relics, showing how the mania for these objects deepens our understanding of the medieval world and why these relics continue to capture our imagination.

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Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe + Finer than Gold: Saints and Relics in the Middle Ages + Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1st edn edition (22 Mar 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300125712
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300125719
  • Product Dimensions: 23.8 x 16.5 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 563,951 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'In 'Holy Bones, Holy Dust', Charles Freeman presents the massive history of relic veneration in a way that is at the same time comprehensive, compulsive and accessible. This is no mean achievement.' --Paul Fouracre, author of 'Frankland: The Franks and the World of Medieval Europe'

From the Back Cover

"Superbly put together and elegantly written book, the first proper history of the cult of relics...a marvellous study." -- Catholic Herald.

"[A] fascinating book...the cult of relics was the motive force of the great medieval passion for pilgrimages. -- Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph.

"...a nuanced, scholarly and richly entertaining introduction to the subject of medieval Christian relics. It is a treat.' - Jonathan Wright, The Tablet.

"In this work he examines the medieval enthusiasm for miracles...of crucial importance in trying to understand the medieval mind." -- Church of England Newspaper.

"...this remarkable, in many ways shocking, study places them at the very heart of medieval life." -- Michael Kerrigan, The Scotsman.

"Charles Freeman covers a huge sweep of history con brio in this book on the significance of Catholic relics." -- Simon Scott Plummer, Standpoint.

"Charles Freeman's new book is absorbing, wide-ranging and rigorous, while remaining constantly accessible.'" - John Cornwell, author of Newman's Unquiet Grave: the Reluctant Saint.

"Wonderfully written and inviting...[Holy Bones, Holy Dust is] a model for how history is to be written." -- Thomas McGonigle, ABC of Reading.

"Recommended to scholars who will appreciate this comprehensive history, as well as to buffs of medieval history." -- David Keymer, Library Journal.

"It's no easy feat to encapsulate these subjects [of medieval history], and yet Freeman...pulls it off with great authority and insight." -- Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times.

"Freeman's book is a timely reminder of the extent to which relics were once central to mankind's sense of identity." -- Nick Vincent, BBC History Magazine.

"Holy Bones, Holy Dust offers a readable and ambitious panoramic history of medieval society, politics and religion," -- E.L Levin, History Today.

Customer Reviews

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4.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Relics are an endless source of fascination, both to the faithful who revere them as holy objects and to those of no religious persuasion who are either drawn to them or repelled by them. Indeed this timely tome, published to coincide with the British Museum's exhibition of religious relics, demonstrates our continued fascination with the numinous, in this secular age.

Freeman offers us an overview of the history of relics from the early Christian period through to the European Reformation, charting both the cults with surround them and the way in which they were used for political purposes by rulers and invaders. However, this is, in many respects, its downfall. Rather than offering an analysis of the cult of relics, Freeman offers a narrative and political history of early and medieval Europe, placing relics at the heart of the medieval religious and political worlds. Often we are treated to stories of particular relics, their movements and how they were used by rulers and Popes in their quest for power. However, what we do not get is an analysis of what this means, both for the cult of relics or how their meaning (and use) changes over the 1,500 years between the death of Christ and the Reformation.

That is not to say, however, that the common man is ignored by Freeman. As with Eamon Duffy's bottom-up approach to the history of the Reformation (`The Stripping of the Altars' and `Voices of Meribath') which counters the magisterial, top down approach (e.g. MacCulloch's biography of Cranmer or Owen Chadwick's book on the Reformation), Freeman explores what relics mean for both the common man as for the ruler. Relics, are not after all simply a history of the powerful, but of how the common man interacts with relics (and as such, the numinous).
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fresh light on medieval history 31 Aug 2014
This book stands out for its originality, taking a perhaps under-appreciated aspect of medieval life, the cult of relics, and showing how central it was to Christendom for over a thousand years. Like all the best insights, the immense importance of relics to Europe in the period between antiquity and modernity seems obvious once pointed out, makes a lot of different things fall into place and and stimulates you to further thought.

Freeman does an excellent job of explaining the constantly changing, but always significant part played by relics in the religious, cultural, political and economic life of Europe from the late Roman Empire to the Counter-Reformation. The book is beautifully constructed in a series of short chapters, moving slowly forward in time, each focussing on a particular aspect of the cult of relics or a development in their use. It's entirely scholarly but very accessible.For my own part I would have liked more on the theology of relics, and perhaps more too on those who were sceptical. Also perhaps more on the Eastern Church and the way (as it seems to me) images took over from relics as a focus of devotion. But that perhaps is just to say the book left me wanting more, which is always a good sign.

I picked the book up on a whim but it has made me think about the history of Christianity, and of Europe, in a new way.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
The history of relics and their import to understanding the religious beliefs and faiths cannot be understated, not least as demonstrated by the recent exhibition "Treasures of Heaven" held at the British museum which shows the extraordinary reverence and belief that was instilled in these objects, be they supposed fragments of the True Cross, thorns from the Crown of Thorns, or the bones of various saints, some of who's high standing and veneration have been lost to us through the centuries. It might seem odd in the modern era to consider the enormous sums that were paid out in the Mediaeval age by important noble families, kings and dignitaries to own such objects, and upon ownership, the immense cost to house them, be it in a comparatively simple reliquary to the construction of buildings and shrines across Europe. Contemporary readers might not fully understand the appreciation and veneration that was afforded to these relics, however one just has to look at the furore that is caused by some contemporary Christians whenever suggestions are made that the Shroud of Turin might well not be what it pertains to be, and this might well provide some insight into the mindset of our ancestors five or more centuries ago.

Monarchs and princes were to amass enormous collections of these sacred relics, as testimony to their devotion and faith, as protection for their state and subjects, as demonstration to others of their personal wealth and prestige, but also as an important part of forging alliances and trading with other countries or city states.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read thoroughly compelling 6 Feb 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is Freeman at his best. Like his beloved Greeks he has an impressive synoptic view of knowledge. He is able to call upon the resources of sociology, politics and economics in his analysis of a subject matter that is usually dealt with in a narrow and dogmatic manner. He paints a fascinating picture of how relics developed their extraordinary power and played an important part in the economic development of whole cities and in the politics of the Church.

Freeman handles this history with an ease born of complete mastery of its subject matter. This book like others such as the Closing of the Western mind, AD381 and A New History of Early Christianity Freeman carefully dissects the historical record and reveals a picture of the time that is complex and nuanced. His account is, to quote Nietzsche 'human, all too human" and demythologizes an area that is prone to be addressed from a particular narrow perspective. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone wanting to read a fresh and very well informed account of this fascinating time.

Ric Sims
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