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Holy Relics |
The curious power of saintly relics

Holy Relics is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 30, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Christians cherished them, traded in them, stole them, and believed fervently in a phenomenon that is as old as Elijah and young as a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair

Holy Relics - The curious power of saintly relics

Holy Relics - The curious power of saintly relics
A relic said to be part of the skull of St. John the Baptist (right) is contained in a gold case, studded with gems (left). The exquisite casing, originating in a Bulgarian workshop, suggests that it may have been a gift, possibly to the Byzantine court. They are now in the custody of the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.

So it was, as they were burying a man, that suddenly they spied a band of raiders; and they put the man in the tomb of Elisha; and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet. (2 Kings 13:21)

Then he took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, and said, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” And when he also had struck the water, it was divided this way and that way, and Elisha crossed over. (2 Kings 2:14)

Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of his garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped. (Luke 8:43—44)

And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them. (Acts 5:15)

Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them. (Acts 19:11—12)

As the above indicates, the idea that the remains, or the apparel, or even the shadow of a person whose holiness is unquestioned, should carry with it a power over nature did not begin with medieval Christianity. It makes its appearance in both the Old and New Testaments. That it should appear prominently therefore in times of great human need, danger and suffering is hardly surprising.

Such times were the early medieval ones where Viking raids, plague, war, famine and physical injury were the common experience of many communities and of most lives. The respect paid to relics–the bones or belongings of holy men and women–soared chronically.

Thus, the new abbey, dramatically founded by England’s King Henry I at Reading in 1121, became one of the wealthiest and most famous monasteries of the age, due in no small part to its impressive collection of two hundred and forty-two most remarkable relics, most of them of dubious validity. They included a shoe ostensibly belonging to Jesus Christ, his swaddling clothes, blood and water from his side, bread crumbs from the feeding of the five thousand and from the Last Supper, strands of the Blessed Virgin’s hair, the rods of Moses and Aaron and–far from least–the complete mummified left hand of St. James, stolen from Charlemagne’s imperial chapel at Aachen.

The cures and marvels attributed to Reading’s miraculous array in the twelfth century attracted pilgrims by the thousands, from humble serf to noble lord. Those with means were lodged in some comfort and wined and dined in style, thus encouraging grateful donations to the abbey. Indeed, the passionate interest in holy relics, and their possession and veneration, became a central feature of economic life in Christendom, as well as a respected aspect of faith.

Saintly relics were generally believed to be a practical defense against physical suffering and the constant and malignant activities of the devil. Any promise sworn on holy relics was elevated to the status of a super-oath–with the very fires of hell waiting for those who would break such a sacred commitment. Relics were also carried into battle as an encouragement of divine support, a holy talisman of victory. Charlemagne famously campaigned with a holy spear said to be the very weapon plunged into Christ’s side on Calvary. At the Battle of Hastings, William of Normandy wore around his neck a string of holy relics provided by the pope.

Relics were regarded as more valuable than gold, silver or precious gems–which were lavishly used in creating settings for these holy objects. “A huge proportion of society’s liquid assets were tied up in relics and their precious settings,” writes Paul Johnson in A History of Christianity. “Kings amassed collections as big as those of major churches, to enhance their prestige and authority. They took their best relics with them wherever they went, thus ensuring they were always within the ambit of spiritual power.”

Not surprisingly, competition for ownership of saintly relics could be intense, sometimes pitting entire communities against each other. The chronicler Gregory of Tours describes what occurred at the death of St. Martin. Representatives from the towns of Tours and Poitiers (about twenty miles apart) both claimed the body, with neither side willing to back down. The standoff continued for many hours, until the exhausted men of Poitiers fell asleep. “When therefore they of Tours saw them sleeping, they laid hold of the mortal remains of this most holy body,” says Gregory. “While some cast it forth from the window, others caught it outside; then the whole band floated down the River Vienne into the current of the Loire–and steered to Tours with loud praises and abundant psalmody.”

Theft of relics was commonplace, and openly acknowledged by high officials of both church and state. Some even indulged in this larcenous business themselves. Alfred, canon of Durham in northeast England, was a regular pilgrim to the monastery at Jarrow, to pray at the tomb of the Venerable Bede, for example–but only until he was successful in stealing Bede’s remains and placing them beside the already potent bones of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. More squeamish kings, bishops and abbots could employ professionals to do the dirty work.

Nevertheless, the extraordinary value that Christians attached to them testified to the faith they placed in a power somehow centered in them. Many Christians still preserve, and would guard with their lives, holy relics. Just because an object is very ancient and disappears into the mists of ancient history, they would say, does not mean it couldn’t be exactly what it claims to be. Until recently, it was required to have relics in the altar stone of all Roman Catholic churches. Eastern churches place them in the altar or in the antimension, the silk or linen cloth that confers the bishop’s authority to conduct the Divine Liturgy.

“People fervently believed,” writes Johnson, that “relics radiated a kind of energy, rather like a nuclear pile, and were correspondingly dangerous as well as useful. Important relics were approached with terror, and frequently revenged themselves on the profane and the skeptical. They conveyed a sense of supernatural power–constantly humming through the world–that could be switched on through access to the right liturgical and sacramental channels.”

Such “fervent belief,” observes the twentieth-century Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, is usually attributed to the education that people of the medieval era received, and the gullible environment in which they lived. This is said to account for their belief in miracles. But if that were so, says Lewis, it would also follow that the kind of education we receive today and the skeptical environment in which we live must account for our reluctance to believe in miracles. Medieval man expected them and was perhaps favored with them. Modern man does not expect them and is not favored with them.

In certain ways, however, modern man very definitely believes in “relics.” What in the early twenty-first century might a lock of the singer Elvis Presley’s hair command on the current “relics” market, one wonders. Even the clothing or habitat of a person can continue to suggest his presence–for better or for worse. Take the scene from the movie version of Neil Simons’s play, The Odd Couple, in which Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) has been ousted from the house by his thoroughly fed-up wife, who now phones him. “It’s your wife,” says his friend Oscar Maddox (Walter Matthau). “Tell her I don’t want to talk to her. Tell her I’ve suffered, too, you know. Here, gimme the phone.”

Oscar: “She doesn’t want to talk to you.”

Felix: “She doesn’t!! Then why’s she calling?”

Oscar: “She wants you to come and get your things. She’s having the room repainted.”

More poignantly, we hear the prophecy of the British poet Rupert Brooke on the way to the First World War Gallipoli campaign. He believes his body carries with it the presence of his country.

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England.

(from “The Soldier”)

Brooke died of an insect bite before the landing and was buried on an Aegean island.

This is the end of the Holy Relics category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 30, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Holy Relics from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at