In "Rag and Bone," author Peter Manseau is on the hunt for human remains, but not just any, and not in a "CSI" way. These are the sacred relics of saints and prophets and the fascinating stories and myths that accompany them. Manseau travels the world to explore how corporeal remnants such as toes, ribs, teeth and hair came to be venerated objects of religious devotion -- and sources of violent religious conflict when they have been bitterly fought over.
Manseau notes that he is moved not "merely by questions of their authenticity, but also simply by the fact of them, the fleshy actuality of what they are." He's awe-struck that, however dubious their provenance, these holy artifacts -- "often frankly repulsive" -- are not just a "what" but a "who." They are, literally, matters of life and death.
"Rag and Bone" begins with a 13th century "blackened and shriveled" tongue (allegedly that of St. Anthony), displayed on the altar of an Italian basilica, where a thousand devout tourists line up daily to kneel and pray before it. (Objects of worship can be secular too; Manseau mentions a museum in Georgia where fans can view "Possibly Elvis's Toenail.")
The whiskers of Muhammad, the jumping heart of a recently dead Tibetan lama, the apocryphal scorched rib of Joan of Arc and the even more putative prepuce of (apologies in advance) Jesus are among the relics with "macabre magnetism" explored by the author. He also delves into the history of plundering, which has played "as much a part of the tradition of relics as veneration has."