Erik Von Norden joins The Freelance History Writer with an article on the economics of medieval relics. Erik is a practicing attorney living in the north woods of Vermont, USA. The likely release date is September 1, 2015 for his book titled: “Theory of Irony: How Jesus Led to Moon Golf” (Amazon.com). One can always read a chapter, leave a comment or create a blogroll link on his blog [one word] theoryofirony.com.
It is hard to exaggerate how far commerce among Western European nations dropped off in the centuries after the Western Roman Empire disintegrated, but I’ll try. To get my point, consider the very real role that religious relic economics played in medieval trade – “reliconomics,” if you will. These religious relics in every sense equaled liquid assets and a big part of any land’s gross national product would be stored in them. Churches invested heavily in diversified relic portfolios or maybe in one truly high-profile item to lure pilgrims and their donations of wealth. Kings did likewise, to project legitimacy and power in the course their bloody affairs. And as any modern city would boast a world class art museum, no self-respecting medieval town would exist without a gallery of international relics.
The village idiot might call these things mere trinkets, but not so the educated few – for most all of the items of veneration, it turns out sadly, were just plain forgeries. Nominally, a prominent relic catalogue might feature Jesus’ shoe, Mary’s hair or Brigid’s jawbone. In reality, these items would likely be scraps of common cloth, hair or bone haggled over at bazaars in Constantinople and moved up north along the major pilgrimage routes. Rome, being no different, had a vested interest in the practice of periodically making all-too-amazing discoveries of Saints’ bodies. Which, of course, were chopped up and sold piecemeal to the rich and powerful in exchange for instant grace from the Almighty’s representatives on Earth. One Church in Constantinople claimed ownership of the head – yes, the head – of St. John the Baptist, while another in Angeli proudly displayed the very same, uh, artifact. That no record exists of John being two-headed did not seem to have been problematic to either congregation. Which paled in comparison to the three distinct houses of worship who each professed to have the authentic bones of St. Dunstan. Who was St. Dunstan? I do not know. Did it matter? Apparently not.
Whole cities actually rose and flourished around religious relics, their annual fairs set to coincide with relic parades. A key ingredient to northern France’s economy, as one example, was the great fair which had begun as a parade of the relics of St. Denis and Notre Dame. These tokens became crucial to the Church for religious masses, to the judicial system for swearing oaths and to medical practice for supernatural curative powers. And to kings and warriors – the military – to guarantee success in combat. Famously, even William the Conqueror had waited for a relic necklace from the Pope – divine endorsement – before galloping and rattling off towards the momentous Battle of Hastings. One-half knight, and one-half witchdoctor.
Reliconomics also inspired the medieval version of jet-setting. At the time, international travel stemmed chiefly from pilgrimages to important relic shrines and as tourist destinations went, Rome was a Mecca (well, you get the point). The Vatican, since the time of Pope Damasus, had encouraged visits to the bodies of long-dead martyrs in its catacombs. Popes also set up hostels for pilgrims, as did the pilgrims’ respective home nations, and we still have copies of seventh-century guidebooks to prove it.
Then as now, a black market operated to parallel every legal one and religious relics were no exception. German artisans made counterfeit relics, Italian traveling salesmen peddled them and the Frankish nobility bought them. Some monks at Corbeil (France) swindled the Bishop of Bayeux – who had paid for St. Exupery’s remains, but received a peasant’s body. Various parts of the much-moved St. Brigid were ‘miraculously discovered’ at Downpatrick (Ireland).
Things got so bad by 761 that the Pope issued a decree lambasting robbers who were desecrating Rome’s graveyards and carrying corpses off like war booty. Which proved an honor among thieves by the day’s standard, for at least they had insisted upon Roman bones. And this skullduggery (pardon the pun) was not limited to petty criminals. The greatest Viking of them all, King Canute, himself a repeat offender, once ran half-naked from a bath to join his henchmen in raiding a canonized corpse from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. None other than the Empress Matilda herself gave to Reading Abbey (England) a macabre relic – the hand of St. James – which she had filched from the German Imperial Chapel, which had somehow acquired the said appendage from the Emperor in Constantinople, who in turn must have purloined it directly or indirectly from James’ Estate.
And Popes throughout the ages were ever-miraculously conjuring up the locations of graves of various Saints – Ambrose, Cecilia, Alexander and Justin just to name a few – in exchange of course, for prestige, jewels or both. So there you have it. An ingenious form of trade, “reliconomics”, was invented to fill in the gap after the decline in commerce once the Western Roman Empire fell.