Sunday, April 23, 2006
Pilgrims and relics: 7th - 14th century AD
Pilgrims are the tourists of the Christian Middle Ages. Like tourism in modern times, pilgrimage is an important strand in the medieval economy. It needs careful nurturing. Even Rome, the centre of western Christianity, benefits from special offers to attract the tourists - such as the plenary indulgences available, from 1300, to Roman pilgrims in a jubilee year.
Lesser cities and towns need a compelling attraction to bring the pilgrims, and no draw can compete with that of an exceptional relic. Long a feature of other religions, such as Buddhism, holy relics become an obsession in medieval Christianity.
The most desirable relics are those connected with Jesus himself. The True Cross is so valuable as to provoke warfare between the Byzantine empire and the Persians. The exquisite Sainte Chapelle is built in Paris specifically to house the Crown of Thorns.
Physical remains of Christ incarnate would be irresistible, but the doctrine of the Resurrection makes any such fragment a theological impossibility. There is only one exception - the relic of the Circumcision.
The foreskin of Jesus, cut from his body during his first days on earth, is so desirable that as many as fifteen versions of it are on show to pilgrims in different medieval churches. [15 versions!! too funny]
Another famous example of the Holy Foreskin can be seen by medieval pilgrims at one of the great French pilgrimage centres, Chartres - where the relics also include the Holy Tunic supposedly worn by the Virgin Mary when giving birth to Jesus.
Such relics of the Holy Family are of necessity rare. The objects more often on display are sometimes highly imaginative (pilgrims to Canterbury can see some of the clay left over after God fashioned Adam).
Other highly imaginative relics include:
- a vial of the Virgin's milk; [by that time 1500 years old, but just as if it were fresh - a miracle! ;-) ]
- Christ's portrait painted by no hand;
- St. Thomas' finger which touched Christ's wounds;
- St. Peter's chains;
- the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul; [What?? I wonder what in the world these relic heads would have looked like like...]
- the laws which God gave to Moses.
From which we conclude there was no end to the cleverness of some salespeople in the middle ages...