Near the end of "The Leopard," Giuseppe di Lampedusa's 1958 novel about the crumbling Sicilian aristocracy, a priest visits three spinsters to assess the holy relics in the family's private family chapel. The priest determines that, out of all the various bits of bone and other strange objects, some are authentic and should be kept. The rest are thrown away.
If author Charles Freeman had been along on that visit, he would have insisted, "Don't throw anything away! Keep everything!"
Why? According to"Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe" (Yale University: 306 pp., $35), all relics — authentic and otherwise — provide an intriguing perspective on thought in the Middle Ages and the way the remains of the dead turned from something repulsive into objects of adoration. Relics were special hotlines to Heaven.
Over the centuries, the practice of revering relics has been good fodder for opponents of Christianity — and especially of the Catholic Church. How could somebody cherish decaying corpses? Gross! Idolatrous!
Still, the practice continues today, with the faithful visiting shrines around the world or else keeping small relics — non-morbid ones (one assumes) — in their own homes: It might be a crucifix embedded with a grain of sand from Jerusalem, for example, or a medallion containing a bit of cloth that has touched the tomb of Saint Anthony of Padua.
These pale, however, next to the relics in the medieval stories in Freeman's book. There's a potency in those saints' body parts that you'd think was reserved for the Ebola virus or an exposed rod of plutonium. When a saint's bones are brought near, a pot of lantern oil bubbles over, demons and illnesses flee people's bodies. A sweet smell of incense or flowers fills the air, a tangible sign that the miraculous has just occurred.
Such stories didn't happen overnight. The relic cult, as Freeman describes it, was a gradual evolution, begun in the darkest days of the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. Martyrdom wasn't just horrifying, it was debasing: Spectators watched and cheered as victims were stripped, tortured and burned to death or devoured by animals. Early Christians saw a link between this suffering and Christ's on the cross — torture and death became a holy, purifying experience. No pain, no heavenly gain.
And what about the martyr's body?
It too was transformed and sanctified — a point argued by theological heavyweights St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom. "Whatever the reality of the decaying bones and nauseous flesh…" Freeman explains, relics were treated as "symbols of faith and the miracles they effected."
As Freeman delves into practices across Europe, he demonstrates great ease in synthesizing — and keeping accessible — many various strains of religious thought.
The same is true of his treatment of the histories of the Crusades, the rise of the Byzantine Empire, the Italian city-states, the challenge of Protestantism that called for new emphasis on Christianity's "body of sacred texts" and not "the glamour of relic cults." It's no easy feat to encapsulate these subjects, and yet Freeman — the author of "The Closing of the Western Mind" — pulls it off with great authority and insight. He takes us to various shrines and shows how they became big business — a medieval version of a tourist attraction.
Big business, and also political tools: Martyrs' bodies were used like pawns, carted back and forth across Europe by kings, bishops and even private entrepreneurs. The emergence of reliquaries — elaborate, bejeweled, gorgeously designed containers (the book provides ample illustrations of these) — enabled relics to be portable: They traveled not as part of political power games but as part of austere pilgrimages.
Some of the best parts of "Holy Bones, Holy Dust" are the small, evocative details of medieval practices — did you know that Charlemagne wore a necklace supposedly containing splinters of Christ's cross and hair from his Blessed Mother Mary? Or that a procession at Cluny included an icon of Mary and a vial of what was said to be her mother's milk? How about that sick people mixed splinters from holy crosses in water and drank it like medicine?
The desperation behind these acts is moving, truly moving. It is very human. Anyone who's ever received bad news about a loved one in an intensive care unit will surely understand the fear that makes you willing to do anything to help them recover. (You want me to drink a cupful of splinters? No problem.) Aside from the essential humanity in these practices, though, Freeman suggests something else deeply unsettling to any believer. Relic cults are a clear sign that the God of Christianity must not be loving, but angry and irrational. If he were loving, why would human beings resort to such methods to get his attention?