Shrines of British Saints

Posted by: Richenda at Monday February 25, 2008 in

Having finished Fishers Landing (that book shaped up really well, btw.… very excited about it!) I am now getting back to my pet historyfish project which consists of transcribing lovely, lovely old books. So…

drum roll please

English Monastic Life is finished!!!! It took much longer to transcribe it than I hoped, but done is done and all the chapters plus the index are now up on the site.

That’s right, I sharing my strange love of monastics and old books with the whole world.

But wait, there’s more.

another drum roll please

I get to move on to the next book! I’ve decided to do Charles Wall’s Shrines of British Saints because the book is just chock full of illustrations. Also, people really have absolutely no clue these days just how important the “cult” of saints was in the medieval landscape and throughout Europe. I could try to touch on the magnitude here, but I would fail.

People now sometimes refer to it as a “cult” because of the fervent degree of worship and the lengths to which it went—pushing well into extremes from our prospective today. Having a saint (or a bit of one) at your place was a big deal if you wanted to be an important Abbey or Priory. Or if you wanted to make a living selling amulets and religious charms to the local folk.

The result was a gruesome kind of thievery ( furta sacra ), with outright body snatching, and body snapping-off (like fingers and arms). The bits of a saint’s corpse you managed to get could make you rich, as people flocked to see it. (Sort of like a Virgin Mary Pretzel today on e-bay.) Way back when, I think there were even two churches that claimed to have the “holy foreskin” from when Jesus was circumcised. From today’s perspective, as my daughter would say, “that’s just wrong.”

(Less gruesome things were also saved, like thorns from the crown of thorns, splinters of the “true cross” and bits of saints’ clothing, shoes, last meals….that sort of thing.)

These bits were then placed into beautiful holders like chests or purses, or used as the center of an entire work of art, incorporating glass, jewels, bronze, silver, gold…. These were called reliquaries. In England, many of these reliquaries, some of them magnificent, were destroyed during the reformation.

Here’s an example, from Chapter One , not sure to whom this foot was purported to belong, but I think I remember that among St. Thomas of Canterbury’s relics there was a kissable shoe.

Anyway!! Snapped-off fingers and feet aside, relics and reliquaries were an amazing expression of religious feeling in the middle ages. Though at their worst the it may seem like cadaveristic charlatanism designed to enrich the owner (seller) at the expense of the vulnerable and the ignorant.

(I should mention—just in case people want to guffaw or ridicule—that the west’s ‘worship’ of the dead body is not an invention of the Catholic church and that science did the same thing with their exibits and museums.)

Anyway, as concerns the cult of saints, at their best they were an expression of people’s deepest inner desire to connect intimately and bodily with goodness and divinity on earth, and as a result, and lead better lives.

As such, I am very much looking forward to getting this book up on these pages!!

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