Rise and shrine: The east end of Walsingham's Augustinian priory
Charles Freeman covers a huge sweep of history con brio in this book on the significance of Catholic relics. He begins in late 4th-century Milan, with the bishop St Ambrose unearthing the remains of two Roman martyrs for his new basilica, and ends in the 16th century with the Counter Reformation's riposte to the Protestant reformers. He sees the one as the first instance of Christian relics being used for dramatic display, in this case to bolster the bishop's case against the teenage Western Emperor, Valentinian II. The other ensured that the age-old reverence for the miracle-working power of saintly relics remains in place today.
Freeman's approach to his subject is largely political. He argues that the key to understanding the medieval mind is its terror of eternal damnation, a state influenced, in particular, by the pessimistic late writings of St Augustine. "It was this pervasive dread of suffering that accounts for so much of the emotional intensity driving supplicants to the shrines," he writes.
Those fears could be manipulated to boost the prestige of kings, prelates and city states alike. Louis IX might be building the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris to house his collection of relics of the Passion, but Henry III could go one better by transporting a reliquary of Christ's blood, given him by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, to Westminster Abbey. Cathedrals and churches vied for relics to attract more pilgrims and thus greater revenues. And Venice went as far as stealing, or claiming to have stolen, the body of St Mark from Alexandria.
The basis of this holy trade was the Catholic belief in the Communion of Saints taken to extremes of credulity. Martyrs' body parts multiplied. The French city of Soissons alone had the head of St Stephen, the finger of St Thomas, part of the head of St Mark, the forearm of St John the Baptist, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, a bit of the towel with which Jesus had dried his disciples' feet at the Last Supper, and the Virgin's girdle. There were even records of the tooth and foreskin of Christ and of the Virgin's milk.
Belief in such relics was often ridiculed, even within the Catholic Church. St Bernadino of Siena asked: "Do you think that the Virgin Mary was a cow, that she would give away her milk in this way?" Following his visit to the Marian shrine of Walsingham, Norfolk in 1512, Erasmus was equally scathing: "He has left us so much of his Blood upon earth; she so much Milk, as it is scarcely credible should have belonged to a single mother with one child, even if the infant had taken none of it! They make the same remarks of Our Lord's cross, which is shown privately and publicly in so many places, that, if the fragments were brought together, they would suffice to freight a merchantship."