The power of saints relics in the Middle Ages


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Relics that I photographed in Arles, France

For the Knights Templar – saints’ relics were very important.  And the ordinary people had a great deal of faith in the leg bone or skull of a dead holy person.  Various stories circulated at the time about the power of these relics.

Two beggars had the misfortune to get a little too close to the relics of Saint Martin.  They were desperate not to be healed as nobody would ever give them money again.  And they certainly didn’t want to do an honest day’s work.  But the sweep of the crowd edging forward to touch the body of the saint caught them up and before they knew it, their blindness was cured.  The chronicler says the two men were hugely pissed off by this – rather like the character unwillingly healed in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’.

One story that shows how everybody was a sucker for a good relic in the Middle Ages was the claim by monks at the abbey of Saint Jean in Aquitaine, south west France, that they had discovered the head of John the Baptist.  This would have come as something of a surprise to a church in far off Antioch – modern Turkey – where they quite sure that the head of John the Baptist had been sitting above their altar for centuries.

But nothing was to stop the French monks who were a bit hazy on the small details of where and how they’d found this head so far from where it had been chopped off a thousand years before.   Needless to say plenty of French peasants began claiming that their ailments were cured by the head in their midst.  And as relics seem to need the company of other relics, John the Baptist was soon joined by the remains of Saint Eparchius.

Saint Eparchius had died in the sixth century and his good deeds in life had centered on rescuing condemned criminals.  Bit soft on crime you could say.  One man hung at the gallows was brought back to life by the saint whose head now joined John the Baptist.  The sky burned with fire when the two relics were put together.

Another relic that showed off its power was that of Saint Junianus whose bits and pieces were being transported in a sack by some monks and one night they stopped off at a village to sleep.  After they left, the villagers erected a wicker fence around the place where the relics had been set down.  Later that very day, an angry bull charged in to the fence and died instantly.

Bishop Gregory of Tours, who was writing in the very early medieval period after the fall of the Roman Empire, was sure that Saint Martin – mentioned above – had cured him of all sorts of things.  One was a massive attack of dysentery that left him vomiting and on the toilet constantly.  His physician couldn’t cure him but lo and behold, some dust taken from Saint Martin’s tomb and mixed in to an elixir, did the trick.

Touching Saint Martin’s tomb also sorted out Gregory’s recurring headaches, removed a fishbone from his throat, cured what sounds like chickenpox or shingles and when his tongue swelled up, he took to licking part of the tomb.  Yuck!

Most incredibly to Gregory, a woman who had been beaten up and rendered speechless by a ghost (I’m not making this up!) recovered her speech and was able to tell Gregory all about what had happened after she visited Martin’s tomb.  I’m hoping she didn’t have to lick it as well.

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