The Medieval Relic Trade

Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe hosted a thriving trade in holy relics. But many of the relics, if not almost all of them, were fake.

The relics collected and worshipped by medieval Europeans ranged from the mundane to the truly bizarre. Bones or body parts of saints and martyrs were always in high demand. One church proudly displayed the brain of St. Peter until the relic was accidentally moved and revealed to be a piece of pumice stone.

Relics of Christ or the Virgin Mary were considered to be extremely valuable and included items such as the milk of the Virgin Mary, the teeth, hair, and blood of Christ, pieces of the Cross, and samples of the linen Christ was wrapped in as an infant. Numerous churches even claimed to possess Christ's foreskin, cut off during his circumcision. The Shroud of Turin, believed to be the funeral shroud in which Christ was buried, is perhaps the most famous medieval relic of all.

The biggest clue that the relics were fake was that there was often more than one... many more than one... of the same relic. The sixteenth-century protestant reformer John Calvin, who believed the veneration of relics to be a form of false worship, commented that if all the relics were brought together in one place "it would be made manifest that every Apostle has more than four bodies, and every Saint two or three."

The real value of relics lay in their ability to perform miracles. A relic that was an acknowledged fake could become 'real' if it performed a miracle. The European faithful regularly made pilgrimages over hundreds of miles to visit the most powerful relics. This pilgrimage traffic had an enormous impact on local economies, leading towns to go to extreme lengths to obtain the relics that would draw the most pilgrims.

Some of the lengths to which towns would go in their quest to obtain the most popular relics have been documented by Patrick Geary in his book Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. He notes that towns were usually reluctant to simply buy or trade relics. After all, why would anyone willingly sell or part with a miracle-performing relic? Presumably they would only do so it if it no longer possessed its powers, meaning that the relic was worthless. Instead, towns often stole the relics they desired, or surreptitiously bought them while publicly claiming to have stolen them. Relic thefts were highly organized affairs, and the successful thieves were treated as local heroes. Geary tells the story of the Italian town of Bari which in 1087 commissioned a team of thieves to obtain the remains of Saint Nicolas (known more popularly today as Santa Claus) from the Turkish town of Myra. The expedition was a success, and for decades Bari basked in the glory of being the town that owned the stolen bones of Santa Claus.
Links and References


  • Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Princeton University Press. c.1978.


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