1902 Encyclopedia > Relics


RELICS. Relics, in what may be called their merely human and historic aspect, appeal to many of the most obvious and most deeply seated principles of human nature —to that power of connexion with the past which has been justly called one of the divinest elements of our being, to the law of association, and to that love of something like ocular testimony which so notoriously affects the mind more forcibly than " the hearing of the ear." The Russian general Suwaroff, " albeit unused to the melting mood," is reported to have been deeply touched b}r the relics of departed greatness laid bare by the discovery of a palace in the Crimea which had been built by Mithradates. Many of those who were present at the opening of the tomb of Robert the Bruce at Dunfermline were quite unmanned at the sight of the skull that had toiled for Scotland's weal, and the arm that had struck down Sir Henry' de Bohun on the eve of the battle of Bannockburn ; and at the funeral of the duke of Wellington, in 1852, the pathetic part of the processional ceremonial was found to lie in the riderless charger, bearing relics of the deceased warrior. In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte, while making his preparations at Boulogne for the invasion of England, pro-fessed to have found a coin of Julius Caesar and a weapon which had belonged to one of the soldiers of William the Conqueror. Napoleon had a profound belief in the power of the imagination. It is needless to dwell upon his object in ostentatiously announcing these discoveries.

It is obvious, however, that, apart from designs such as that of Napoleon, pretended relics, sometimes associated with real sometimes with legendary events, would be sure to spring from human credulity, from love of the marvel-lous, and from hopes of gain. Perhaps all settled Govern-ments exhibit relics, such as regalia and the like, of which many are perfectly authentic, while some would not bear close examination. The same may be said of family treasures. We read of ancient Bomans exhibiting curiosities, such as fragments of the ship " Argo." Again, relics are apt to gather round a great name. The town of Lutterworth possessed an ancient chair and a piece of a cope. Each became, despite of want of evidence, and indeed against evidence, associated with the name of Wicklifie.

It would be strange indeed if religion (which, alike in its good features and in its abuses, penetrates more deeply than anything else into the human heart) were found to be dissociated from relics. Probably all the more widely spread creeds claim some such material links with the past. Let it suffice to mention here the Ka'ba at Mecca, and the tooth of Buddha exhibited in Ceylon.

We turn to the pre-Christian and Christian dispensations. The Old Testament contains allusions to relics too numerous to mention. We may refer to the language of the epistle to the Hebrews, which speaks of the holy of holies as containing the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant, wherein were the golden pot that had manna and Aaron's rod that budded and the tables of the covenant (Heb. ix. 4, 9; Exod. xxv. 10, 16; Num. xvii. 10). These were believed to have been lost at the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar. We also read of the sword of Goliath being preserved as something sacred (1 Sam. xxi. 9).

Certainly, however, in one respect, perhaps in two (though of seemingly opposite tendencies), Judaism stands in this matter distinguished from contemporary religions. Nowhere else should we read of a valued and most interest-ing relic being destroyed by a devout ruler because it was found to have been abused and to have led to idolatry, as was done to the brazen serpent by Hezekiah (2 Kings xviii. 4). But it may also be questioned whether the records of any other people contain an account of a miracle wrought by the relics of a deceased prophet. We may indeed read of a miracle wrought in heathendom for the defence of innocence unjustly accused, and we also find the possession of the bones of a departed hero made the condition of a successful war. But the second book of Kings relates the revival of a dead man by the bones of Elisha,—a narrative rendered the more remarkable by the fact that, as a rule, the contact with a corpse, a bone, or a grave made a man unclean for seven days (Num. xix. 11-22).

The New Testament does not relate any case precisely similar to that of Elisha. The remains of the protomartyr Stephen are simply committed to the tomb, with much lamentation by devout men (Acts viii. 2); and of the funeral of the first martyred apostle, James, we have no record. It is not, however, to be denied that the book of Acts tells of miracles of healing resembling that of her who was cured by the touch of our Lord's garment (Matt. ix. 20-22). Even the shadow of Peter, it is implied, may have healed the sick; and handkerchiefs or aprons which had been worn by Paul relieved not only the diseased but the possessed (Acts v. 15; xix. 12).

To a great extent the homage paid to the tombs and the remains of patriot, sage, or bard was transferred, at an early period in the history of the Christian church, to those of its own heroes, more especially to those of martyrs. Such a result was natural, and almost inevitable. The intercession of the departed on behalf of the living was everywhere recognized, and that of martyrs naturally believed to be especially powerful. But it was further inferred from the instance of Elisha and from the passages of the book of Acts already cited that it might please the Almighty to repeat similar manifestations of miraculous power. Whether the fathers who maintain this view would have written so freely if they could have foreseen the abuses which were to arise may perhaps be doubted. But three or four features in the history of early Christen-dom conspired to spread the cultus of relics. These were the heathen persecutions, the rise of Gnosticism, the strong and exaggerated feeling about possession and witchcraft, —to which may probably be added the sense of a sort of education connected with visible and tangible links of connexion with the past.

The way in which these elements of the case would operate is tolerably obvious. If, as at Lyons and Vienne, pagan persecutors burnt the ashes of the martyrs, and threw them into the Bhone, exulting in the idea that they were disproving one of the most important articles of the Christian creed, the resurrection of the body, with still more fervid zeal would the faithful seize every opportunity of honouring those remains which their opponents sought to vilify. Then, again, the other great foe of early Christen-dom, the heresy of Gnosticism (often denounced as a more subtle and dangerous evil than the open hostility of heathendom), amidst all its varied forms was consistent in representing matter as something essentially evil. The counter teaching, implied in the central doctrine of the Christian faith, the mystery of the incarnation, and in tl sacraments, might seem to gain some aid from the verier, tion shown to what was regarded as another form c hallowed matter, the bodies of the saints or the matera instruments of Christ's passion. And, thirdly, the dread o possession found some alleviation in the check to satani( malice which relics were believed to effect.

It is also conceivable that the interest created by sucl memorials might have its share in that education of the earlier Middle Ages which was so powerfully assisted by pilgrimages and by biographies. Guizot, in a well-known chapter of his Civilisation en France has dwelt largely on the value of even the legends of this period. He main-tains that, in a world full of violence, disorder, and oppression, the legends of the saints found food for some of the most powerful instincts and invincible needs of the human mind—that exaggeration of details, or even failure-in material truth, did not prevent them from being a moral relief and a protest on behalf of many of the rights of man. Material memorials, or even supposed memorials, would certainly help to impress such stories upon the mind, as is the case with the facts and the legends of secular history. Leibnitz, among the large concessions in his Systema Theo-logicum to the Roman Catholic view of these questions, in some degree anticipates the language of Guizot concerning pious legends.

In any case, alike for good and for evil,—and it will be necessary to speak presently of the sadder aspects of the question,—relics from the 4th to the 16th century occupied a large space in the mind of Christendom. The word relics (reliquix, ______) became almost restricted, in theological language, to the bodies (or parts of the bodies) of saints, or, as has been intimated, to memorials of Christ's passion, or instruments which had been used in the torture and execution of martyrs. Inquiries con-nected with their genuineness are, as is well known to students of ecclesiastical history, conspicuous in the life of the mother of Constantine, St Helena, who claimed to have discovered the true cross on which our Lord suffered, and in the career of St Ambrose at Milan. Once at least a really glorious series of campaigns, those of the emperor Heraclius against the barbarian Avars and the Persians (622-628), is connected with a successful endeavour to regain the cross (see PERSIA, vol. xviii. pp. 614-615). It is remarkable that the Persians are reported to-have kept the cross in its case with the seals unbroken.

Thus far relics have been regarded as evidencing two-marks of a very powerful element of life, namely, the capacity of evoking enthusiasm and of influencing even bystanders or opponents. But it is time to turn to the more painful features of their history in connexion with Christian thought and practice. It must not be supposed that the recognition of such phases is by any means a purely Protestant sentiment, although it is no doubt a pro-minent feature in the Beformation of the 16th century. Thus, for example, one of the most credulous biographies of a saint of the 4th century, that of St Martin by Sulpicius Severus, mentions (chap, viii.) an instance where the supernatural insight of Martin was exerted in the way of repression of such homage. The country people were exhibiting veneration at the tomb of a supposed saint, but it was revealed to the bishop of Tours that it was that of a robber executed for his crimes. St Augustine, in his severe and satiric tractate against certain unworthy monks who made their profession a mere cloak for idleness, clearly insinuates the sale of questionable relics as one of their faults. "Alii membra martyrum, si tamen martyrum, venditant." The traffic in relics became part of the recognized commerce of Christendom and was countenanced by sovereigns of undoubted excellence. Thus Athelstan was a great donor of relics to the monastery at Exeter. A list occupying more than three columns is given in the Leofric missal. It includes fragments of the candle which the angel of the Lord lit in the tomb of Christ, of the burning bush whence Jehovah spoke to Moses, and of one of the stones which slew the protomartyr Stephen. Edward the Confessor and Louis IX. of France may be named among the saintly patrons of a commerce which they at least considered meritorious.

The mention of this last name involves a reference to an event which, above all others of the Middle Ages, spread, fostered, and ultimately injured the veneration of relics. The crusades created a profound excitement in this matter. Pilgrims had already thought it a default to return from Palestine without some such evidence that they had actually visited the Holy Land. Eelics, at first probably bought and sold in good faith, became multi-plied ; and rival possessions of most sacred memorials (as, for instance, the crown of thorns, exhibited both by the abbey of St Denys and by St Louis) were by no means uncommon. Even the crime of theft seems to have been condoned when a relic was in question, and mutilation of a saint's body to have been hardly thought irreverent. To swear by these relics became the most binding of oaths, as will be remembered by those who have read the life of King Eobert II. of France, and the ruse practised on Harold by William, duke of Normandy. Marauding campaigns between monastery and monastery were by no means uncommon; but these sink into insignificance compared with the spoliation exercised by the crusaders from the West wTho captured and sacked Constantinople in 1203-4. The shameful behaviour of the conquering army is admitted by the Latins themselves; but the condemna-tion freely uttered against licence, brutality, and profane irreverence seems generally (though not quite universally) hushed when the spoliation concerns treasure in the way of relics. The fact of their abundance shows an agree-ment on this point, amidst their differences, between the Latin and Greek Churches ; but Constantinople must have been greatly impoverished by the immense supply of relics " that were scattered by this revolution over the churches of Europe."

The next two centuries saw no diminution of such zeal, and there grew up, it can hardly be doubted, an increase of lower motives and of fraud. By the time of the Beformation the condition of matters was such as in many respects to offer a mark for all assailants of the existing state of things, and a practical admission on the part of those in authority that it was to a large extent simply indefensible. Erasmus, on this as on so many other kindred subjects, is found leading the van of satirists. One of his Colloquia, entitled Peregrinatio Religionis Ergo, contains within some thirty pages a mass of sarcasm against the abuses of the age. The discharge of vows through an agent, the localism of particular favours, the earthly (and sometimes evil) character of the petitions offered to saints and specially to the Virgin Mother, the strange character of the relics, one of the most common and abundant being the "caeleste lac beatse Virginis," the enormous amount of wealth lying idle at the shrine Cjf St Thomas á Becket—these and similar topics are treated in this author's caustic and elegant Latinity. The Colloquia were published in 1522, and from this date a mass of similar literature in the vernacular tongue of various countries, of a coarser kind and more adapted to the popular taste, seems to have been circulated freely throughout Europe.
The reaction against the homage paid to relics was immense. A practice which has not only been extensively abused, but which appears from its very nature to involve a fatal facility of abuse, can never stand quite where it did after such an exposure as that to which reference has been made. Yet it seems doubtful whether the Beformers in all cases intended to do more than check the prominent abuses connected with relics. Those who claimed Holy Scripture as the sole authority could not deny that it might please the Almighty to convey blessings through the instrumentality of such material things, as in the cases already referred to in the second book of Kings and the Acts of the Apostles. Even Luther seems rather to denounce mistakes concerning particular relics than the respect paid to recognized ones. In like manner the English Church, while using severe and contemptuous language in the Homilies with reference to such practices as those satirized by Erasmus, has preserved in its calendar, among minor festivals, the days respect-ively chosen by the earlier mediaeval church for the discovery of the cross by St Helena (May 3rd) and its recovery by Heraclius (September 14th). Mosheim and other learned foreign Brotestants also speak gently on such themes. Thus the devout Lutheran Neander, while mentioning in his Church History some cases of deliberate fraud, and holding that the superstition concerning saints and relics bordered nearly on paganism, is yet unable to approve of the extreme reaction which in some quarters arose out of it.

As regards the Church of Rome, although in theory the events of the 16th century may have left its teaching untouched, yet it can hardly be questioned but that this is one of the many departments of religious life in which that great commotion, as De Maistre calls it, has in his words, even among Roman Catholics, opere une revolution tres sensible. The council of Trent, which must be regarded as, from its own point of view, a reforming council, treated the subject of relics in its twenty-fifth session, held in December 1563. It expressed its earnest desire for the removal of abuses, for the abolition of unworthy gain in the veneration of relics, and of revelry on occasion of their visitation. It forbade the acceptance by any church of new relics, without the approbation of the bishop, given after consultation with theologians and other devout men, and referred grave and difficult questions concerning the extirpation of abuses to the judgment of local councils, of metropolitans, and ulti-mately to the Boman see itself.

By these steps a great change has been effected. We hear nothing more of the sale of relics (which had indeed been forbidden by the fourth Lateran council in 1215), of theft or of war in connexion with them. Some of those most strange memorials to which a passing allusion has been made above have seemingly disappeared from history. And, although leading writers of the Boman obedience in France and Italy do not often make concessions, the Freiburg Encyclopaedia admits the non-authenticity of numbers of relics brought home from the crusades and from the conquest of Constantinople; and Addis and Arnold (Roman Catholic Dictionary, 1884) say that "abuses no doubt have occurred in all ages with regard to relics." No shock less great than that caused by the Reformation would probably have effected so much as has been done.

Still, however, the Church of Rome stands alone, we believe, in considering the possession of relics an indis-pensable condition of the performance of the highest acts of public Christian worship. Every altar used for the celebration of mass must, according to Boman Catholic rule, contain some authorized relics. These are inserted into a cavity prepared for their reception, called "the tomb," by the bishop of the diocese, and sealed up with the epis-copal seal. A collect in the Ordo Missx assumes their presence, and makes reference to the saints whose relics are thus preserved.

Authorities.—Many of the leading authorities have already been named. To these may be added on the Roman Catholic side Perrone, Prazleetiones Theologies,, vol. ii. "De Cultu Sanctorum," cap. iv. (ed. Paris, 1863), and Martigny, Dictionnaire des Antiquités Chretiennes (s. v. " Reliques"). On the other side the followers of Calvin (on this as on so many other topics) are usually more fiercely anti.Roman than those of Luther. Among Anglican divines those who have published treatises on the Thirty-nine Articles are necessarily brought across the subject. The work of the bishop of Winchester (Dr Harold Browne) will here be found the fullest and most able as well as the most candid and temperate. Compare also Bp. Pearson, Minor Works, vol. ii. (J. G. C.)

The above article was written by: Rev. J. G. Cazenove, D.D.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries