Back in February, when I first curled up with the script of Incorruptible—the farce I’d just been cast in and recently performed in—I was struck by the author’s note: “This sort of thing really happened” (6). The “sort of thing” that playwright Michael Hollinger was referring to was the theft and sale of relics in the Middle Ages, not just the actual bones of saints, martyrs, and biblical figures but also random bones passed off as sacred.
It didn’t surprise me that such theft and fraud took place, but I’d never given much thought to medieval relics—or to the churches of the Middles Ages, for that matter. The thought of medieval monks stealing relics intrigued me though, and the more I turned the idea over in my mind, the more it made sense. If sacred bones were valuable centuries before the science of DNA extraction, then who could say that any given relics—from the Latin reliquiae, literally things left behind—weren’t the veritable bones of Saint Paul or Mary Magdalene?
My interest in the facts behind the farce along with my commitment to the practice of completing assignments with my students led me here. For their final paper of the semester, I asked my students to annotate sources, a minimum of three, on a subject of interest to them, and to introduce their bibliography with a short essay that addresses their interest in the subject. In other words: What drives your research? In my case, it’s “dem bones,” the relics of the Middle Ages (and the plastic versions that I’ve been circling on stage).
As I researched medieval relics, I was reminded over and over of lines from the play. I had always associated the medieval churches of Europe with cathedrals and palaces, but I learned from my research that in fact the “centers of religion and cultural life [in the Middle Ages] were not cathedrals or palaces but rather rural monasteries” (Geary 45). As I read those words, I recalled Brother Martin’s dismissal of the “second rate” convent in Bernay “run by a bunch of backwoods nuns” (16) and the words of my character, Agatha, Abbess of Bernay, echoing Martin with her dismissal of her brother’s monastery: “What’s in Priseaux, I said, but a second-rate monastery run by a bunch of backwoods monks?” (67).
Whether second-rate or backwoods, the monks of the rural monasteries at the heart of medieval life depended on the revenue generated by relics. And they “viewed theft as an appropriate means of relic acquisition” (Geary 108), rationalizing and justifying theft and fraud as Charles, the abbot, and Martin do when Felix reminds them that they didn’t renounce the world to become as corrupt as the merchant class, that they “are men of the noblest ideals” (36):
MARTIN. And if we fail in that mission, will it matter how noble we were? (To Charles). There’s a shoemaker’s family that won’t get supper tonight because of our high ideals. I turned away fourteen others today; is this the ideal of Christian charity?
CHARLES. Martin’s right. We’re on the precipice, Felix. The abyss opens at our feet. If, somehow, by . . . soiling our hands just a bit, we can make it to the other side, mightn’t that justify our compromise? (36-37)
The bibliography that follows includes three sources: Incorruptible, the play that prompted my research, Furta Sacra, a book-length study of relic theft in the central Middle Ages, and Holy Bones, Holy Dust, the first comprehensive history of relics in medieval Europe, which includes a chapter devoted to incorruptibles, the relics that give Hollinger’s play its name. An incorruptible, as Charles says, is “[a] saint so holy its body refuses to decay” (52).
If I were a historian, or an anthropologist, or a theologian, this work of mine might lead to an in-depth study of medieval relics. Since I’m none of those things, it’s unlikely that I’ll return to “dem bones” as a subject of writing or research. Still, it’s been a valuable journey, one that informed every trip back to Priseaux, as I stood onstage as Abbess Agatha, believing that I’d bought the bones of Saint Foy “out from under” my sibling rival (68).
Freeman, Charles. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 April 2016.
A history of relic veneration in medieval Europe, Holy Bones, Holy Dust chronicles the roles of saints’ cults and miraculous interventions from the fall of the Roman Empire to Reformation. Freeman traces the growth in the popularity of relics as they proliferated in various forms. The most sought after were intact bodies and body parts (severed head and limbs), and detritus (fingernails, blood, and hair). Some were placed in ornate reliquaries and processed through towns, drawing pilgrims seeking miracles and remission of sins.
Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton UP. Rev. ed. 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 4 April 2016.
To acquire the relics of saints, medieval monks ransacked tombs, greedy merchants raided churches, and relic-mongers dredged the Roman catacombs. Patrick Geary’s study of the medieval tradition of sacra furta (or holy theft) narratives, explores how hagiographers’ accounts of the thefts served to rationalize and justify them in a time, when as Geary observes, “the prosperity of a religious community was a fragile luxury” and “the acquisition of relics was a real necessity” (57).
Hollinger, Michael. Incorruptible. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2002. Print.
Set in thirteenth-century France, Hollinger’s farce centers on the financially-struggling monastery of Priseaux, whose patron saint hasn’t performed a miracle in a dozen years. After one of the young monks, Felix, returns from his travels to report that their own St. Foy has been sold to a rival convent in Bernay, the monks confront the one-eyed travelling minstrel who fits the description of the relic-monger. The minstrel, Jack, tells the monks that he did indeed sell bones to the convent, but they were not St. Foy—as he had told the abbess they were—but rather they were simply the bones of a pig farmer. Jack’s confession and subsequent observations about the potential value of fraudulent relics lead the monks of Priseaux to hatch their own money-making scheme.