Book review of Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe by Charles Freeman and Walsingham: Pilgrims and Pilgrimage by Michael Rear
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.”
All this makes for entertaining reading, and helps one to understand the zeal of the Protestant iconoclasts. However, it is not the whole picture. Freeman writes in his preface of getting within the mind of the Middle Ages. He succeeds in so far as fears of Hell and sometimes desperate recourse to relics are concerned. But Christianity is a religion of love revealed by an incarnate God whose earthly life was a supreme example of sacrifice. A loving, personal relationship with the divine infused the mind of the medieval Christian as well as fear and political calculation. And this would tend to negate Freeman’s assertion that religion in pre-Reformation Europe was polytheistic. Saints were regarded as efficacious intercessors with God, not replacements for him.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, veneration of Mary, as the sharer in Christ’s sufferings, became more prominent, particularly in England. A replica of the house in Nazareth where the Annunciation had taken place was built in Walsingham in 1061. This year is thus the 950th anniversary of what became the greatest Marian shrine in this country and is so again today.
To mark the occasion, Michael Rear, who lived and worked in the village for nearly 20 years as both an Anglican and a Catholic priest, has written Walsingham: Pilgrims and Pilgrimage, an engaging, handsomely-illustrated book for the general reader. He draws on the findings of modern archaeology which suggest that Mary’s house in Nazareth, abutting a grotto, would have had the rectangular shape of the Holy Houses in both Walsingham and Loreto in Italy. He traces the royal patronage of the shrine, from Henry III to Henry VIII, the latter having visited Walsingham two or three times and paid for the glazing of the windows of the chapel which surrounded the Holy House. The same monarch would in 1538 have the shrine and the great Augustinian priory destroyed and the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham smashed.
The revival of pilgrimage to this remote Norfolk village is a remarkable story. It has its origins in the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism. As a girl, Charlotte Pearson Boyd had dedicated herself to restoring ruined shrines. She acquired Malling Abbey in Kent in 1883 and the Slipper Chapel in Houghton St Giles, the last station on the pilgrim’s way to Walsingham, in 1896, by which time she had become a Roman Catholic. However, opposition from the Bishop of Northampton prevented her from turning it into a shrine before her death in 1906.
The task of restoring Walsingham as a pilgrimage centre fell to Fr Alfred Hope Patten, the vicar, who in 1931 opened a new Holy House in the village, which forms the core of the Anglican shrine today. Doubtless stimulated by this development, the Roman Catholic church declared the Slipper Chapel to be its national shrine in 1934.
Today it is estimated that well over 100,000 pilgrims visit Walsingham each year. A centre of ecumenism, the village has Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and a Methodist chapel. Richeldis de Faverches, the lady of the manor who was granted a vision of the Holy House 950 years ago, has been vindicated.