The Relic Business.


Thomas of Aquino and the Relics.

Thomas Aquinas (or Thomas of Aquino) (ca 1225-1274), probably the most important church father of the middle ages, had a huge influence on Christianity both in his own lifetime and later.

He was himself influenced by the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, and tried to combine these philosophies with the gospels and the church's dogmas. Thomas was the son of a count in the city of Aquino in Italy, but parted early with his family, and became a Dominican monk in 1243. He is described as a sluggish, fat character, without much sense of humor. He worked for some time at the University of Paris.

On his way to a synode (church council) in Lyon in 1274, the famous church father Thomas fell ill, and had to stop at a monastery in Fossanuova. This was possibly not among his best ideas. This was in the middle of medieval times, when the popularity and sales of holy relics was booming in Europe. The churches and monasteries competed of having the most famous and best relics. Having good relics meant getting droves of pilgrims, and pilgrims generated revenue. The trading with objects associated with holy persons was in its heyday, and the highest priced items were remains of holy persons themselves.
As the most esteemed church father of his day, Thomas Aquinas “value” would be considerable, if wasn't it for him still being alive.

The Monasteries in Italy had often a shaky economy, and the friars in the Fossanuova monastery may have seen a pale and sick Thomas Aquinas staggering through their gate, as a gift from above. There has been suspicions of maybe the dried herring he was served was poisoned. Whatever the cause, Thomas health deteriorated very quickly after arriving in the monastery. And short after, he took his last breath, ca 50 years old. The body was probably not even cold before the monks cut off the head of the famous church father, and boiled his fat body for hours to get rid of the flesh, and to collect and preserve his bones. (Roughtvedt 1996). The pious brothers did not immediately capitalize on the project, since Thomas Aquinas was not canonized as a saint until fifty years later. Maybe they got a good price for the bones then, who knows.

Big Business
Selling and buying holy relics was big business, and thus the authenticity of the objects was often quite dubious. Pig bones could easily pass as the bones of some holy saint. As mentioned above, having holy relics gave churches and monasteries income in the form of money or gifts from visiting pilgrims. Different saints were believed to have different magic powers, and pilgrims were paying for the miraculous healings and services of the local church's resident saint/relic.

A lot of the holy saints were based on fiction and myths, and therefore no real bones could be obtained. But since all human skeletons usually look the same, some other random bones could easy pose for any particular saint. Bones were dug up from cemeteries and collected in crypts, and passed on as the remains of different saints and religious celebrities.

Pious Forgeries
Early on most relics was the human remains of the supposed holy persons themselves. But with the relic business booming, new areas opened up, and now also objects associated to holy persons, or mentioned in the Bible became relics. So now suddenly splinters from the cross, thorns from the crown of thorns, nails from the cross, the lance used to stab Jesus, emerged on the marked. Objects supposedly owned by disciples and other biblical figures, were now suddenly “found” over a 1000 years later. Planks from Noah’s ark, and even charred twigs from the burning bush suddenly emerged on the relic marked. One of the really hot items was splinters of the holy cross. So many splinters of the holy cross were in circulation, and together you could probably build a small wooden village from them. Liters of the virgin Mary's breastmilk, and even the foreskin of Jesus himself was sold and bought. At one point one discovered that there were not less than six instances of Jesus' circumcised foreskin, all claimed to be the real thing. Then a cardinal put his foot down, and declared that only three of them could be genuine, because of the trinity(!) (Roughtvedt 1996).

We know of 14 different examples of Jesus' foreskin relics, and only in France there are approximately 500 of the Baby Jesus baby teeth. (Deschner 1987 s.54). He must have been quite a sight when he smiled... The “discovery” of Jesus' foreskin even formed a strange catholic “foreskin-cult”, were the holy foreskin was revered and praised. This cult was for some reason very popular amongst nuns. Holy feathers (!) and even eggs (!!) from the Holy Spirit are still kept as relics several places. In the castle church in Wittenberg no less than 5500 relics were kept in 1510 AD, and the archbishop of Mainz had a private collection of 9000 holy relics!!

Bone fragments, arms, fingers, heads, feet and whole corpses of supposed saints or holy persons, were bought and sold, and distributed to churches all around catholic Europe. Often, the remains of one saint could emerge as several different relics, all claiming to be the real deal. For example, of nineteen examined “saints” relics, still kept in different churches and monasteries, there are 121 heads, 136 bodies and numerous different body parts of these nineteen saints! In the Cathedral in Cologne they kept the skull of St. Johns the Baptist – as a twelve year old! From St. John the Baptist we know of ca 60 fingers and at least tree heads. (Deschner 1990 s.293).

The holy relic trade also brought about an extensive thieving and plundering of relics. A practice the church largely accepted. For example was the remains of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) stolen from the church in Myra (Asia minor/Turkey), in the 1089, by pious delegation from the city of Bari. St. Nicholas remains were brought to the city of Bari, where they built their own church to house the stolen remains. (Roughtvedt 1996).

Buying holy relics was expensive, but without relics, your local church and village didn’t get much income from passing pilgrims. There was no guarantee, and often the investment was not worth the price, especially if the holy saint turned out to be a sack of pig bones. Most of the relics were of course fake forgeries, since the majority of the catholic saints never actually had existed in the first place. Anonymous corpses and body parts passed as famous saints, and earned unscrupulous graverobbers good money.

Of the more unlucky buyers were two anonymous monks sent to Rome to acquire their local monastery their very own saint. In Rome they stated their mission, and lo and behold, they soon got lucky and were offered to buy the remains of the holy St. Sebastian himself. After some negotiations and haggling, something the two monks obviously didn’t excel in, they ended up paying a very stiff price for the holy cadaver.

Well back at home after a probably arduous long journey dragging a stinking corpse, they discovered that they were kind of swindled. The corpse was not of the holy St. Sebastian at all, but of a roman emperor. They decided to pretend as nothing had changed, and started an ostentatious celebration, with the corpse ceremonially placed on the high altar. It now became obvious that the process of preserving the corpse was not very well done, and on an especially hot summer day, the whole cadaver suddenly exploded with a loud bang during the High Mass. (Ibid. s.42-43).

Selling and buying holy relics was big business, and thus the authenticity of the objects was often quite dubious. Pig bones could easily pass as the bones of some holy saint.