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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good narrative history, but lacks in-depth analysis, 29 Sep 2011
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).

My other complaint is that the chapters are far too short (typically 15-20 pages each), meaning that subjects such as the role of relics in medieval France or Venice are touched on only lightly, interspersed as they are with vignettes how a particular relic came into the hands of a Bishop/ King and how it was subsequently used.

This is not to say that this is a bad book, or bad history - far from it. Freeman does something which few academic historians (other than say Diarmaid MacCulloch or Eamon Duffy) seem able to do, that is produce a good, readable academic history on a particular topic, especially a religious topic. Too often such texts are either dumbed down, or unreadably dense, making for difficult reading, even for the informed layman. Rather Freeman treats his readers with respect and thus makes for an enjoyable and informative read!
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An insight into Medieval life, beliefs and faiths through relics., 16 Sep 2011
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. Enormous collections were amassed of these relics, and more relics were to become available owing to the great demand and price placed upon such objects, their availability became magnified during the Crusades after the taking of Byzantium and the Holy Land, with objects from both Old and New Testament surfacing and being sold to wealthy patrons. These objects ranged from the "routine" (items such the skull of Saint Peter, milk from the Virgin Mary's breast, fragments of the cross), to the obscure and extraordinary; wood from the tree in the Garden of Eden to the foreskin from Jesus' circumcision (!).

Despite the duplication and plentiful nature of these relics, this does not seem to have caused concern to those buying the objects nor the veneration thereof. It would be easy to dismiss so many of these "relics" as being fraudulent and fake, however this is not the approach taken in this book. Freeman respects the import and relevance which these objects would have made to the those who believed rather than disdaining and dismissing the beliefs behind them and their import to the lives of those who revered them. The relics themselves were not just venerated by the town or city where the item was housed, but the object was believed to be imbued with healing powers and would often be an important stopping point for pilgrims and visitors, seeking divine intervention in their lives through such relics. Eventually this outlook was to change; Protestant reformers and iconoclasts were to set about causing the destruction of many of these objects.

The book makes for an interesting, readable and approachable insight into the history of Europe during the Middle Ages, but also into the personalities and psychology of the individuals, from princes to the peasants, who lived in these times and the importance which religion and spirituality played in these people's lives. These were times where religious devotion and the certainty of a place in Heaven was vital for fear of ending up in the bowels of Hell and the fear of eternal damnation. It is important to remember that there were not as many "diversions" as there are in the modern era. Music was generally of a religious nature and was written to show humility and veneration for God. Art and painting was of a predominantly religious nature and would show religious scenes, saints, and/ or individuals devout in prayer. There were relatively few portraits, and the majority of art that survives tends to be of altarpieces or religious diptychs and triptychs. Even the Bible was not available in ready translation and even following the invention of the printing press most books were of books of hours or of a religious nature. All of this provides an important backdrop to the pious atmosphere that was prevalent in people's everyday lives.

My initial discovery of Freeman's writings was by chance, about 5 years ago, when I happened upon his fascinating work "The Closing of the Western Mind" - a book which Amazon had recommended I should read, based upon my other, previous purchases. Although I didn't agree entirely with all of Freeman's views contained within the book, I nonetheless enjoyed his approach and writing and was keen to seek out other books that he had written. Also subsequent to my initial purchase of Freeman's work, I have since purchased and read all his other books on subjects as diverse as the story behind the Horses in St Mark's Basilica in Venice, a history of Early Christianity and the decrees of Theodosius I against paganism in the fourth century AD. Based on the themes and subject matter, it might seem that these books are intended for sole consumption by scholars or academics, however this is not the case. What makes Freeman's writing so enjoyable is that, although it deals with scholarly and not with "mainstream" historical subject matter (with the possible exception of the story behind the Horses, which should be read by anyone who has been or plans on seeing the Horses at the Basilica in Venice), his books are approachable and accessible by readers on all levels of understanding, from the public to academics.

His latest book "Holy Bones, Holy Dust" is no exception to the rule. Freeman provides a clear, fascinating and most readable approach to facts and ideas in this book without making and resorting to extraordinary suggestions that have been made in recent times in regard to sites of religious import and pilgrimage. The most well known of these being, as mentioned previously, the Shroud of Turin. Other sites include Santiago di Compotela which some recent scholars (such as Henry Chadwick and Virginia Burras) to have been a centre for veneration of a charismatic leader named Priscillian, executed as a heretic , who's following has somehow transmuted into being a centre of worship for St James.

The importance that these relics made to the Mediaeval Christian might not be fully understood in present times, but a bold attempt has been made here. Attitudes have changed. Atheism is no longer a cardinal sin, and having ideas that defy the orthodox beliefs of the Bible, such as evolution, are no longer punishable by death or condemnation as heresy by the majority of individuals in today's society.

Freeman makes clear in his book is that these objects, real or otherwise, was that they defined an important difference to the practice of worship by eary and Medieval Christians to other faiths and even contemporary Christian worship. At the time, these objects were liable to be dismissed by opponents to the Christian faith as being either tantamount to either the promoting ideas of sorcery and necromancy, or were considered by adherents of Judaism as being repellent and unsavoury.

This great faith generated by and instilled in these objects and remains of long dead individuals, central to the teachings and providing a restored belief was indeed unique to the Christians of this era spanning centuries. Non-Christians would have looked upon such piety for such objects with curiosity or contempt. For the most part it might be argued that relics are no longer central to many Christians and their faith, however as Freeman convincingly argues, without them, there would not have been the building programme of so many grand churches and cathedrals in the Gothic period, testament to the high status afforded to these objects. One simply has to visit a cathedral to see the relevance that devotion to God by the patron and builders of the cathedral, and the devotion by the congregration attending the building. Even without faith and belief, it is still difficult to visit a Medieval cathedral without a sense of the miraculous or awe, if not for religious reasons but for the workmanship behind it's construction.

Relics might seem out of fashion and vogue in this day and age, but it is interesting to see the high prices people will pay for objects owned by, or photographs, movie props, etc "touched" by a celebrity. These objects still inspire awe and enthusiasm, yet contain none of the supposed powers once believed to be contained within a fragment of bone or hair or cloth all those centuries ago
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5.0 out of 5 stars A fine overview of a fascinating and neglected aspect of medieval history, 6 Dec 2013
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Although not primarily based on original research I found this book a stimulating account of the role of saints' relics in medieval Europe.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read thoroughly compelling, 6 Feb 2013
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This review is from: Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe (Paperback)
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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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Competent, Masterful, Stylish, 26 Mar 2011
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A competent, masterful, stylish meander through the Medieval world of relics. Not just beautifully crafted, but also hugely informative (being neither biased against nor hostile to religious sentiments - a rare achievement in the climate of 'new atheism'). Freeman has delved deep into his subject and engaged both critically and sympathetically with original sources. His volume is deserving of five stars. A must read.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book that has been widely welcomed, 1 Aug 2011
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I enter reviews of my own books with reluctance. For two months my publisher, Yale University Press, has been trying to enter the enclosed reviews under Editorial Reviews. Every attempt has failed and it seems impossible to contact a person at Amazon. Yale have agreed to my suggestion that I should use my reviewer status to enter them myself. I will withdraw this 'review' as soon as they appear under Editorial Reviews. I am pleased to have received good reviews from both the Christian and secular press as well as prominent medievialsts such as Jonathan Sumption. Even so I give myself 'four stars' on the grounds that every book I write can always be better than it is! Charles Freeman.

"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 (Seven)

"...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

"It is rare that a book about medieval history can keep the attention of any apart from scholars or, perhaps, live-role-play gamers. Holy Bones benefits from being both exceptionally well written and having a strangely attractive subject matter." Tim Perry, Christianweek.

"Shrewd and readable . . . a serious attempt to understand a phenomenon that was common to every country, class and educational level in Christian Europe over a millennium and a half." Jonathan Sumption, Literary Review.

"The first general history of relics in English . . . Freeman is an excellent narrator . . . he loves to tell a good tale . . . . an enjoyable and informative book." Andrew Butterfield, The New Republic.

"The strength of this book is its compelling sense of storytelling. The book organizes and delivers an overview of the rich work produced by scholars in the last twenty years. Celebrated scholars such as Peter Brown, Caroline Bynum, Eamon Duffy, Patrick Geary, Miri Rubin, André Vauchez, and many others are allowed to "speak" through the author. In chapters where the scholarship is particularly rich and focused--such as those on Byzantine relics and the Crusades, those on the rise of Gothic architecture, on the issues of the resurrected body, or the history of papal canonization --Freeman's ability to write exciting narrative sweeps one along. Generally there are big themes--politics, religion, conflict, and resolution--but there also are many telling anecdotes and a sense of the personal and the touchingly human." Cynthia Hahn, The Catholic Historical Review, April, 2012.
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