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13.10.20, Freeman, Holy Bones, Holy Dust

13.10.20, Freeman, Holy Bones, Holy Dust

Charles Freeman writes in an energetic and engaging style. In Holy Bones, Holy Dust he uses the theme of relics to synthesize the history of the Christian Church from Constantine through the post- Reformation era. In his words, relics "play the role of consolidating a continuous narrative of the Christian past in material form" (267). His is a history that moves at a fast clip and is not a study for anyone beguiled by details or compelled by theoretical concepts about materiality, veneration, devotion, and the evolution of ideas in their social context. Freeman is a master of a certain kind of sweeping narrative history, most of it focused on the transition between the classical past and the medieval period; between a culture of rational debate and mass belief. [1] This is generally the impression he gives the reader in the book under review. Relics and the rituals and devotions associated with them, while part of the fabric of the institutional church, were also indicative of the power of irrational beliefs throughout the medieval period. Indeed, Freeman identifies "one of the major themes of [his] book [to be] an exploration of how the tribulations of life, combined with the very specific burden of dread laid by the medieval conception of the afterlife, drove the helpless masses into a world 'between heaven and earth', the only part of their lives they could fashion for themselves" (xiv).

One of his goals is to captivate his readers though a lively engagement with well known of objects of veneration (the body of Thomas of Canterbury, the Crown of Thorns, the bleeding host of Wilsnack). Another goal, it would seem, is to make the less familiar, familiar. He presents the collection, preservation, and veneration of holy bones, objects, and bits and pieces of garments, goods, sand and soil as a part of western Christian history that, while decidedly un- modern, is still part of the longer connected story of common culture and practice. Where Freeman is less convincing and I think less concerned is with the why behind the medieval practices of devotion: why did Christians feel compelled to preserve and collect objects like relics, and what did it mean to them in different contexts? This kind of history of ideas is not something that Freeman pursues and would only stutter his narrative flow. Thus, we are constantly pressed forward in time--at a pace that is hard to keep up with--through the council of Nicaea, to Fourth Lateran and on to Trent and asked to witness the power of relics as objects that worked miracles and in turn put off "traditions of rational enquiry" until the seventeenth century.

Freeman opens his study of relics and their veneration with the story of a familiar saint, Archbishop Thomas Becket, perhaps the most well- known martyr made during the Middle Ages. Nor does he mince words in capturing how that process worked. Freeman places his reader there in the sanctuary with poor Becket as "[t]he first downward slice of the sword glanced off the archbishop's skull and cut through to the shoulder bone, almost severing the arm of one of his attendants as the weapon fell...Then the top of his head was sliced off and finally the exposed brains were scraped out from the skull and scattered on the cathedral floor" (1). This has been an oft-imagined story, but Freeman redoubles this and brings to the fore the nature of Becket's most famous relics: his spilled blood and brains, which yielded dozens of documented miracles and cures. Becket is useful for not only did his body and blood provide the focal point of the cult at Canterbury, they provide a cogent example of what medieval relics or reliquiae were: "the physical remains or ashes of a dead human being" (7-8). But by the sixth century, as the author explains, relics also included a much greater array of objects: the foreskin of Christ, hair and milk of the Virgin, the bodies of the saints, Evangelists and Apostles, as well as things associated with them, including their clothes and objects--as was very common with Becket's cult--that had touched them, known as brandea, or secondary relics still charged with the power of the holy (8).

From the drama of Beckett, the author then turns to the beginning of the institutional church and the ways in which relics served to create a Christian landscape, and to Christianize the landscape in turn. Moving quickly through the history of the early church and leaning heavily on short quotes from Augustine, Jerome, Cassian and others, Freeman intertwines the political power that Christian emperors harnessed through the collection of relics, with the authority bishops and holy men derived from overseeing cults and chastising their own flesh in acts that seemed to be the performance of "living martyrdoms." The spread of relics--out from the depths of the Roman catacombs and cemeteries--into the countryside of the Empire and beyond its borders through the sacred translatio or translation of the saints' bones spread both the physical presence of the Christian church but also created a network of holy sites and shrines that all lead back to Rome in rite, ritual and recognition. Freeman sums up the expansion of such practices in the western empire in particular "as rooted in the growing insecurities of a disintegrating empire...Yet in the eastern part of the Mediterranean the empire survived, in new forms perhaps but as deeply attached to its Christian relics as was the west" (36). Such conclusions are so general as to offer no explanation of the phenomenon at all.

The horizon of relics and their translation expanded between the fifth and tenth centuries following the contours of the expanding borders of Christendom. While Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople remained powerful sources of relics, new local cults formed around local saints in northern Europe especially. This was an intensely imaginative period in the history of the church and Christian devotion. As Peter Brown and others have made clear, it was bishops who emerged as the scions of their heavenly and earthly communities. Moreover, "many dioceses gave special honor to their first bishop...[some of whom] were given a heritage that celebrated them as colleagues of the Apostles or Evangelists who had come to western Europe after the Crucifixion. So there was a loosely defined network of saintly figures who successfully meshed themselves into the Christian communities of the post-Roman world" (49). Freeman, following a familiar narrative, stresses that it was bishops who were the main arbiters of these cults and the major collectors of saints' relics for doing so both increased their authority and created the vital focus for building community.

Although not the same as relics of martyrs or bishops, the symbol of the Cross also became a centerpiece for Christian communities in medieval Europe. Fragments of the True Cross came to circulate across Europe and miracle stories retold how the sign of the cross, when executed by the right person, had the power to cure the ill and revive the dead. Freeman sees Charlemagne, whom he calls "the consolidator," as the major ruler able to quiet the cacophony of diverse beliefs and practices gaining momentum in local churches. The Carolingian interest in relics stemmed from a very clear sense of the political power behind such objects, a power that could be harnessed through collecting, gifting and organizing a vast array of holy fragments. The eighth century marks a new moment in the historical conception of relics and in an attempt to classify them based on origin and proximity to Christ as articulated, for example, in the organization of the altars of the monastery of St. Gall and the compilation of relic lists as at the cathedral of Sens and among other monastic and personal collections throughout the empire. Relics and their newly fashioned and elaborate reliquaries gained new prominence by the end of the tenth century, as Carolingian authority began to dissolve. The political use of relics--as gifts and possessions of social status-- gave way to their role as guaranteers of the peace and political order. In the absence of real political power the saints were called upon to bind oaths and reinforce stability, they were pressed into service publically at shrines, in processions, and at peace councils. In turn a new role also accrued to certain saints--namely the inner circle around Jesus including the Virgin Mary, the Apostles and Evangelists as the special petitioners of the Lord, who could interceded with Christ in a more personal manner. In turn, pilgrimage, which brought worshipers into physical proximity with the saint and hence with God, became a major preoccupation of the laity. The result of which was the profound growth of specific shrines, like that at Santiago de Compostela and Cologne, and the consolidated power of the clergy as a class who alone could control access to relics and arbitrate their sacred power.

After establishing the social and political use of relics, chapters ten through twenty trace their role, between ca. 1000 and ca. 1400, in influencing devotional practices, shaping doctrine, and as a key component of the intellectual life of the Church. Again, Freeman dips in and out of major ecclesiastical events and relates them to, or anchors them around the presence of relics. This section, however, has far less organizational coherence, ranging as it does from the rise of Anti-Semitism in the eleventh century, to the proliferation of pilgrimage between 1000 and 1300, the year of the first organized Jubilee in Rome, to the opulence of newly-adorned reliquaries. Freeman focuses on the idea of wealth and its reallocation around churches as centers of power. This provides a useful theme that ties together the flourishing of building associated with the gothic period, the Conquest of Constantinople in 1204 and the great influx of Greek relics "looted" by the crusaders, and the magnificent patronage of King Louis IX of France and his construction of the Sainte-Chapelle as a great new reliquary to house the Crown of Thorns, which he purchased in 1237. Freeman weaves through this additional reference to changes in conceptions of the resurrected body, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the increased role of the papacy in determining the official status of holy persons as saints. Relics and the miraculous are certainly related to these developments, but they are not the galvanizing points of the narrative and Freeman seems out of his depths and into issues that demand far more nuance than he can offer. Likewise, his discussion of the development of the parallel cults of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen falls short and culminates in the nearly meaningless conclusion that "The Virgin Mary and the penitent whore provide[d] for the profound needs of medieval women" (185).

In the seven short chapters that follow Freeman presses his argument that the fourteenth century marked a "new phase in the process by which the clergy isolate themselves from the laity" (196) and that prepared the way for the Reformation. These chapters oscillate between narratives of critique--which detail Luther's screed against relics and England's stripping away of such profane objects--and consolation- -the platitudes offered by the Catholic clergy to hold on to and recuperate the status of their venerated bones. Behind all of this, of course, lurked profound theological questions. Doubt, for example, is a underlying issue that could unite both critique and response, yet we are not afforded that kind of analysis, but rather, swept along by statements like this on Luther's approach to source criticism: "One might hope that in an age when breath was returning to learning through the humanists, he would attack all forms of superstition and thus open the way for a more rational approach to religious belief" (229). But are such hopes really the province of the historian? I should think not. For Freeman, the coming of reason by the seventeenth century was a liberation: "The assault on the miraculous was perhaps inevitable as societies, and the individuals within them, took control of their own destinies. Any mentality that relies on miracles to heal or protect can hardly confront the challenges of life with much change of success" (253). And here is what is most disappointing about Freeman's study, he simply does not take his subject matter--people who created, venerated and thought through and with relics--seriously at all. His topic affords him, as the work of Caroline Walker Bynum, Hans Belting, Jeffrey Hamburger, Cynthia Hahn, Holger Klein, Rachel Koppmans, and Julia Smith, to list only a few, have taught us, an enormous opportunity to think about how and why medieval people used material objects to access and enhance their systems of devotion and belief. [2] Relics and material culture were immensely useful in making sense of extremely complex intellectual questions and cognitive concepts like transubstantiation, the Divine presence, free will and salvation, doubt and communal consent, among many other ideas.

Certainly Holy Bones, Holy Dust is an easy and at times enjoyable read, but it also misses many opportunities to think with medieval people on their own terms and with their own materials. At the start of the book, Freeman suggests rightly that "unless one gets within this mentality--one in which a variety of spiritual forces, some favored by the Church, others by local communities, others by local magnates or royalty, worked together sometimes in consensus and sometimes in opposition--medieval religion does not make sense" (xiii). And yet, his notion that the medieval devotion to relics and their role in the past "was, in effect, a polytheism that endured long after the traditional pagan gods of the Mediterranean had been expelled...[and] was centered on an extraordinary variety of objects that were treated as sacred," (xiii) sadly obscures so much that was innovative and challenging about the variety of relics and the depth of the miraculous in the medieval period. Moreover, in this moment as scholars are refining what the material means as a category of analysis, some readers may be disappointed that Freeman does not take up any theory in his study. Writing popular narratives is no easy task and it is one that most in academia shy away from even though it is immensely important for recasting outmoded ideas and offering new interpretations. And Freeman will have many readers, especially among undergraduates who will turn to this book for its catchy title and limpid style. Thankfully, the wealth of additional scholarship on this and related topics means that we are well equipped to push them beyond Freeman's pallid argument.



1. Freeman's other recent books include: The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World (New York: Penguin, 1999); The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (New York: Vintage, 2002); Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); AD 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State (London: Pimlico, 2008); and A New History of Early Christianity (new Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

2. See most recently from Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (New York: Zone, 2011), although she has published widely on this and related topics; Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) and An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium and Body (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011); Jeffrey Hamburger, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany, (New York: Zone, 1998); Cynthia Hahn, Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400-ca. 1204 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012); Holger Klein, Byzanz, der Westen und das 'wahre' Kreuz: Die Geschichte einer Reliquie und ihrer künstlerischen Fassung in Byzanz und im Abendland, (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2004); Rachel Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); and Julia M. H. Smith, "'Emending Evil Ways and Praising God's Omnipotence': Einhard and the Uses of Roman Martyrs," in Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing, ed. Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton, (Studies in comparative history) (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2003), pp. 189-223; and "Portable Christianity: Relics in the Medieval West (c. 700-1200)," 2010 Raleigh Lecture on History, Proceedings of the British Academy, 181 (2012): 143- 167. See also the wonderful catalogue with accompanying essays, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, ed. Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann, and James Robinson (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010).