on 16 September 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