BMCR 2020.12.04

Relics, shrines, and pilgrimages: sanctity in Europe from late antiquity

, Relics, shrines, and pilgrimages: sanctity in Europe from late antiquity. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. x, 273. ISBN 9780367188672. $124.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Relics, shrines, and pilgrimages brings together a wide range of European scholarship on pilgrimages to relics from a range of disciplines, including archaeology, history of art, and history. Most contributions focus on the medieval period, but some begin in late antiquity and others are decidedly modern. The chronological range reinforces the editor’s goal of taking seriously the veneration of relics by people across time and space. Rather than seeing relics as something “medieval” and therefore apart from contemporary experience, the contributions to this volume acknowledge the real religious value relics had and continue to have for worshippers, though it has changed over time and in response to particular historical circumstances. This approach is most apparent in Stella Rock’s essay on relics in Soviet Russia and the two essays contained in Part Four, “Relics and Science”. In the latter essays, contemporary relic veneration is an important consideration for what types of scientific analysis can be performed on relics that are still in the possession of churches.

The volume’s real strength lies in its rendering accessible an array of European scholarship on relics and pilgrimage in short articles in English. Anglophone scholars gain an introduction to different research trajectories, which they can then follow through the notes to more thorough research in other languages. For the most part, individual contributions provide more description and narrative than historical analysis. The exceptions are the essays by Amalia Galdi and Alexandra Walsham. Galdi’s contribution, “Furta sacra in southern Italy in the Middle Ages,” analyzes the political consequences of relic thefts and translations and argues that changes southern Italian relic thefts in the later middle ages reflected the changing political situation. In “Mobile martyrs and forgotten shrines: The translation and domestication of relics in post-Reformation England,” Walsham examines the cult of English martyrs from Thomas Becket to Catholics who were martyred in the Reformation in order to demonstrate that Catholic relic veneration moved from public shrines into private homes where relics “served simultaneously to sacralize it [the home] and to transform it into a site of political resistance” (Chapter 10).

The volume opens with a brief introduction by the editor, Antón Pazos, in which he outlines the approach and aims of the volume. Pazos would like to move away from the approach traditionally favored by historians that focused on the value relics had for reinforcing power structures and instead prefers to prioritize the religious roles of relics and pilgrimage sites in the lives of worshippers. Not every contribution avoids discussing power entirely (see the essays by Yarrow, Bozoky, and Galdi), but the aim is a success in that all contributors respect the religious veneration of historical actors and do not try to reduce it to questions of power.

The other important aim of the volume is specifically to analyze relics in conjunction with pilgrimages, that is, “relics that are venerated, that are ‘living’, so to speak, or have been ‘resuscitated’, like those that were rediscovered in the 19thcentury” and how these relics “summon” pilgrims to the place where they are venerated (Introduction). This theme is most apparent in Part One, the largest section, on the relics of Saint James, or Santiago.

Following the introduction is a framing essay by Philippe George, author of Reliques: le quatrième pouvoir (2013), who outlines typologies and methodologies for studying relics as historical objects. This essay is thorough in its description but lacks the clarity and cohesion desirable in an article positioned to frame the rest of the articles inside a volume. Despite that, George’s description of typologies of archaeology and art history, hagiography, and chronology are interesting and his international survey of scholarship on relics is a useful introduction to the field.

Chapter two begins Part One of the three parts of the “body” of the volume. This part, titled “The Relics of Saint James in Europe,” is the longest of the four parts, and, comprising five essays, makes up more than a third of the volume. These essays deal in different ways with relics of Saint James the Greater, whose tomb was discovered in Compostela, and pilgrimages to his relics at Compostela and other sites in France, England, and en route to Compostela from the middle ages through the nineteenth century. These essays share the theme of geography, which could be developed in different ways. Pazos, who is also the author of one of the essays in this section, mentions in the introduction that Saint James is a “non-material relic” because his remains had been lost for so long; in these essays, geography and place function as a relic in the absence of material remains.

Part Two, “Furta sacra,” contains three essays on thefts of relics from the middle ages into the nineteenth century. Each approaches the subject from a different approach: Bokozy outlines a typology of medieval relic thefts; Galdi analyzes change in relic thefts over time in southern Italy, and Hardering presents an art-historical analysis of a thirteenth-century shrine containing relics of the Three Magi. The two essays in Part Three, “The Resilience of Relics and Shrines,” focusing on post-Reformation and modern changes to relic veneration, work together with Part Two to highlight the value of relics as they were used by worshippers in different contexts. These contributions demonstrate, as George outlined in the first chapter, that the authenticity of relics is not the most important question, and that falsified or falsely authenticated relics could be much more interesting for thinking through practices of relic veneration.

The final part, “Relics and Science,” features two articles whose authors have made use of hard scientific analysis in addition to more traditional archaeological, textual, and historical methods. Kazan and Higham offer an overview of the research into surviving relics of the true cross currently being undertaken by the Oxford Relics Research Cluster. The authors outline the necessity of studying the historical and material context, morphology of the relics, species of wood, and analysis of the surface of the wood alongside each other to ask historical questions about the use (and perhaps discoveries) of the particular relics being studied. Scientific analysis can both date the material as well as identify types of wood and other materials such as oils that were used on the surfaces of the wood. The authors of both essays in Part Four acknowledge the need to collaborate with churches and to make use of non-invasive techniques that will preserve the relics intact for veneration.

The volume concludes with an index, which is extensive but not as useful as it could be. For instance, only one reference is listed for “contact relic,” but contact relics are discussed multiple times across several essays; and there is no entry for “flesh” at all. But, having indexed an edited volume myself, I am sympathetic to the difficulties inherent in attempting to make a general index for a collection of essays as different in scope and subject as these, and do not fault the editor for the index. I cannot comment on the physical book because, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I did not receive it in time to write this review. I am grateful for the existence of the ebook housed on VitalSource, which is largely easy to use, but I wish it had page numbers. Black and white images accompanying some of the material culture essays are clear and easy to view in the ebook.

Overall, the volume is a good introduction to European research on pilgrimage and relics, and the different disciplinary approaches made by each contribution should be of interest to people working in archaeology, history, and religious studies. Some contributions are more useful than others for the study of relic veneration in late antiquity. The project as a whole is important to think with, however: we scholars of late antique Christianity often need a reminder that much of the material we scrutinize still holds religious value for people today, as it had for figures of the past, and this book is that reminder.

Authors and titles

Introduction: relics, holiness, and devotion, Antón M. Pazos
1 Relics as historical objects: overview, methods, and prospects, Philippe George

PART 1: The relics of St James in Europe
2 Relics and pilgrimages of St James the Greater in France, Adeline Rucquoi
3 Keeping the Angevin peace: the hand of St James in England, Simon Yarrow
4 Roncesvalles as a reliquary on the way to Santiago, José Andrés-Gallego, Mercedes Unzu, María Peréx, Carlos Zuza, Nicolás Zuazúa, and María García-Barberena
5 Visiting the Apostle Santiago: pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in the 16th to 19th centuries, Ofelia Rey Casteao
6 The course and consequences of the reinventio of the relics of St James in 1879, Antón M. Pazos

PART 2: Furta sacra
7 The theft of relics in the Middle Ages: arguments, typology, and legitimacy, Edina Bozoky
8 Furta sacra in southern Italy in the Middle Ages, Amalia Galdi
9 The Three Magi: places of worship in Cologne Cathedral, Klaus Hardering

PART 3: The resilience of relics and shrines
10 Mobile martyrs and forgotten shrines: the translation and domestication of relics in post-reformation England, Alexandra Walsham
11 The life of dry bones: pilgrimage to relic shrines in Soviet Russia, Stella Rock

PART 4: Relics and science
12 The relics of the True Cross: an interdisciplinary approach, Georges Kazan and Thomas Higham
13 The relics of St John in the monastery on the island of Sveti Ivan near Sozopol, Bulgaria: archaeological and scientific research, Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Rossina Kostova