In honor of Easter, which many folks will be observing this weekend, I wanted to look a little more deeply at the role of relics in the Middle Ages. It’s no secret that medievals were a little mad for relics. They bought, sold, and traded them, used them as marriage or coronation gifts, and carried them as souvenirs of important visits or as talismans to maintain a close connection to a saint. Many people could not afford a “true” relic, of course, but they could have handkerchiefs or other bits of cloth, or an ampula of water from the holy destination–or even, from the water said to contain the blood of St. Thomas a Beckett. Naturally, the exchange of relics was theoretically against Church doctrine, but a gift could be given, for a certain financial consideration. . .
There are several orders of relics, from the actual flesh or bones of the saint, to things that they touched or used. The most important relics in the Catholic Church are those associated directly with the Holy Family: the girdle and tunic of the Virgin Mary (not to mention some drops of her milk, and her tears) are carefully preserved in cathedrals in Prato, Italy, and Chartres, France respectively, and there is even a church which claims to have her tomb.
But the central figure of the Christian narrative, Jesus Christ himself, presents a bit of a problem from the standp0int of the obsession with relics. Because, according to Christian doctrine, he rose bodily into heaven after his resurrection, you can’t have first-order relics. Well, save one. . .and that would be the holy foreskin (officially known as the Holy Prepuce). Possibly the world’s most embarrassing relic, but also the only bit of flesh from the Messiah to remain in the earthly realm. If you are curious about it, I highly recommend David Farley’s book, An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic, in Italy’s Oddest Town.
So the faithful are left with other kinds of relics. The Shroud of Turin is certainly notable, but didn’t arrive on the pilgrimage scene until the 14th century, and may have been a fabrication intended for that very purpose–pilgrimage was big business in the medieval period. Charlemagne claimed to have the lance which pierced the side of Christ, and it was said that whoever held the lance could not die. The crown of thorns can be visited in France, but of course some thorns have been broken off and distributed to other churches or monarchs.
We owe the presence of the earliest of these relics, the cross itself and the nails that pierced it, to the persistence of Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, who, after her son embraced Christianity, journeyed to the Holy Land in search of relics to display the new faith to the Roman Empire. All I can imagine is that the local guides saw her coming. . .over three hundred years had passed since the Crucifixion. Nevertheless, she found not only a substantial chunk of the True Cross, but also the plaque placed with it. The largest part of the cross now resides in the church at Rome that bears its name.
Nails are another matter. Were there three? or four? Different artists depict different numbers, and archaeological evidence suggests there may have been only two for the feet, while the arms were bound with rope instead. In any case, there certainly weren’t seventeen, in spite of medieval claims on behalf of various nails around Europe. There are currently thirty different places claiming to have parts of the nails (and 50+ hits on e-bay for “crucifixion nails”, though none claiming to be actual relics) Helena had the nails she brought home melted down and cast into new nails so they (and their holy power) could be more conveniently shared. One of them was made into a bridle for Constantine’s horse. Another became part of the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which may have been used to crown Charlemagne, among others.
It’s important to remember, in all of this apparent dealing of relics and bits of the saints, that what people truly wanted–then, as now–was the sense of holding close to something greater than themselves, drawing inspiration from those they perceived as holy.