April showers and religious relics

the catataxic relicI am just back from a trip to Zimbabwe, exchanging the bold blue African sky for London’s grey misery. This April has been the wettest in the UK since records began with 152 different parts of the country currently on flood alert. Ironically, there is still a hosepipe ban in force, because the six preceding months saw an extreme drought. The Environment Agency says that groundwater levels will only be properly replenished by large and consistent amounts of steady rain for two months. Welcome to our British Spring!

This is not a new story. In fact, it is a very old one that goes right back to the birth of English literature. Eng.Lit. starts, as every skuleboy kno, with Geofrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And that starts with the General Prologue. And the general Prologue starts like this:


Whan that April, with his shoures soote,
            The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…
…So priketh hem Nature in hir corages
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Which can be roughly translated into modern English as “ When April’s sweet showers pierce the drought of March, Nature stirs people up and makes them long to go on pilgrimages”. Strangely enough, I spent this Sunday on a pilgrimage of sorts: a country stroll with my brother near the Pilgrim’s Way in Kent. Our topic of discussion was the macguffin at the heart of his latest Robin Hood book and also the spiritual magnet for all pilgrims: we were talking about religious relics.

A relic is a holy object, often a part of the body of a saint that has been preserved in order to be venerated. The word comes from the Latin reliquiae meaning “something left behind” (as in relinquish).  Relics became big business in Christendom in the 7th century. After 747 AD, all new churches had to have a relic before they could be consecrated. This was the period when most of Northern Europe was being converted to Christianity so demand for relics was huge and, as a result, the prices for the rarest ones was astronomical. In 1237, Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople sold the Crown of Thorns to King Louis IX of France for 13,134 gold pieces (maybe $ 3.6 bn in today’s money). Such high prices meant that the trade in relics was very lucrative, and it proved to be a goldmine for fakers and forgers. In the 11th century there were at least three “heads of John The Baptist”  in circulation. Calvin famously remarked that there were enough pieces of the “True Cross” in medieval churches to build a substantial ship.

With so many fakes around, how could you prove the authenticity of your relic? The best solution for establishing provenance, although seemingly at odds with Christ’s teachings, was to steal one from somewhere else. Many of Europe’s most famous pilgrimage sites proudly displayed their stolen relics. The justification went like this: if the saint allowed his relic to be stolen without punishing the thieves and it continued to produce miracles then clearly he was happy with the relic in its new home. Many of these relics can still be seen today in the churches around Rome. This eccentric list of ecclesiastic treasures includes the Virgin Mary’s belt (Prato Cathedral), Christ’s holy foreskin in Calcata (went missing in 1983),  the “doubting finger” of St Thomas (Santa Croce), 25 sets of medieval papal innards (Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio), the Head of St John the Apostle (San Silvestro) and the Holy Umbilical Chord (San Gionanni in Laterno).

The more unusual and unique your relic, the more pilgrims you could attract. In this pre-scientific era, there were no rational explanations for events in the physical realm.  Disease, the motion of the planets and fertility were all phenomena that occurred at the whim of an omnipotent God. It was a world in which mythical beasts were real and the fundamental building blocks of the material world were not chemical elements but spiritual humours. The physical world was a confusing, dangerous and irrational place governed by supernatural forces beyond human ken. The relic was a bridge that crossed this divide: a portal linking the corporal and spiritual worlds. In other words, it was a catataxic gateway. A relic possessed virtus, a mystic potency emanating from that sacred object that had the power to change things. By touching the object, wishes could come true, miracles could happen, good fortune could be granted and health restored. No wonder pilgrims travelled such distances for a chance to touch one. It was the very essence of the divine.

Relics are not just confined to the Christian world. The most important Islamic relics are known as the Sacred Trusts: six hundred items kept in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. These include the hand of John the Baptist, the sword of Ali, the hair of Muhammad, the staff of Moses, the turban of Joseph, the sword of David and the pot of Abraham. These objects are so sacred that they can only be seen during Ramadan and the Qur’an must be continuously recited over them for all eternity.

Even atheist societies have their relics. Communist dictators are often preserved upon death: Lenin, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung and Georgi Dimitrov (Bulgaria) were all embalmed when they died and put on public display in purpose built mausolea. Zhisui Li’s (Mao’s doctor) describes in his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao the problems of embalming Mao’s corpse in macabre detail. The body was injected with 22 litres of formaldehyde and became enormously bloated – like the Michelin Man. After two full days of desperate massaging, the corpse became more recognisable but his clothes still had to be slit up the back in order to fit. I saw his body in the 1980s in its helium filled crystal casket in the Memorial Hall of Tiananmen Square. The corpse was a curious orange colour (think Essex girl fake tan) and, according to rumour, it has now been replaced with a far more lifelike waxwork dummy.

A relic is a potent symbol of catataxis; of crossover and confusion between two levels. On the first (physical) level, the idea of worshiping an ancient finger bone is either ridiculous or grotesque. To view a relic as simply a physical object is to make a mistake in categorisation. On the second (spiritual) level, venerating a relic makes perfect sense. The bone is a physical manifestation of something far greater which has the demonstrable ability to produce miracles (for believers). It is the fusion of the two levels in a single object that gives the relic its totemic power. That is catataxis.

2 Replies to “April showers and religious relics”

  1. This is excellent. Not only is is beautifully composed but it is a very clear piece on relics. I am writing a thesis which reflects on my medieval novel. I look at realism and romance and wonder can I use a line or two from this. St Benedict’s finger bone enters my story as do ‘middle practices’. If I do I shall credit it of course. Thank you for posting. The relic exhibition at The British Museum was superb.

  2. Thank you, Carol, for your kind words. Glad you liked it. Feel free to use it in your thesis.

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