While writing the sequel to my medieval novel Wolf’s Head I had to do a little research on religious relics. Bernard Cornwell’s latest book, 1356, used a sword as such a holy artifact, but I was interested in something a little smaller.
I was surprised at the bizarre things people used to venerate in the middle-ages.
We live in a (mostly) less superstitious time, where religion (rightly or wrongly) affects our daily lives a lot less than it did back in 1322 when my novel is set. Back then of course, villages and their inhabitants were much more isolated than they are nowadays. So if your local church had one of St Peter’s fingers, there was a good chance you wouldn’t know about the dozens of other churches in Europe claiming the same thing!
John the Baptist apparently had at least five different heads scattered about the place.
There were thorns from Christ’s crown, hairs from his beard, various saint’s body parts, some of the table on which the Last Supper was eaten, even some of the clay Adam was made from!
That sort of thing was interesting enough, but some of the relics were even weirder.
The Virgin Mary’s breast milk? This appeared around the world in both liquid and dried powder form.
What about Jesus’ foreskin? One medieval nun, Agnes Blannbekin, claimed to have EATEN this holy prepuce in visions. I don’t even want to get into the issues a modern reader might have with that…
The logistical nightmare of acquiring and storing items like that don’t seem to have bothered pilgrims, who flocked to see them, always paying handsomely for the privilege.
The middle-ages were a hard, grim time for the common people though – it’s perhaps understandable that they wouldn’t question the appearance of a seemingly impossible/ridiculous relic in their local church.
Hell, for all I know, the people knew these things were fakes but simply DIDN’T CARE. Maybe we’re not giving them enough credit. I’m a guitar player – I own a cheaper copy of a very expensive brand of guitar. I know it’s not the real thing, but it’s a fine instrument and it’s given me a lot of pleasure over the years, which is all that matters to me. Perhaps those thick medieval yokels weren’t as stupid as we assume, and they viewed the more outlandish relics with the same “who cares if it’s real or not, if it’s making people happy?” kind of attitude I have towards my guitars.
Anyway, for the purposes of my novel I settled on one of the tiny relics – maybe even smaller than the infant Christ’s many alleged foreskins..!
You’ll have to read the book to find out what it is though…
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