17.10.26, Räsänen,et a., eds., Relics, Identity, and Memory in Medieval Europe

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Nils Holger Petersen

The Medieval Review Räsänen, Marika, Gritje Hartmann, and Early Jeffrey Richards, eds. Relics, Identity, and Memory in Medieval Europe . Europa Sacra, 21. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. xii, 359. ISBN: 978-2-503-55502-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Nils Holger Petersen
nhp@teol.ku.dk

This edited volume consists of ten contributions and an introduction written by the first editor. It is divided into four parts: 1. Perspectives on Relic Cults. 2. Narratives and Power. 3. Bishop Saints and Identity. 4. Multiple Memories of St Thomas Aquinas's Body.

The first part consists of only one article, "Holy Corpses and the Cult of Relics" (13-28) by one of the great scholars of medieval saints' cults, Arnold Angenendt. It stands as a broad historical introduction to the medieval cult of relics beginning in Christian Antiquity. Among other things, Angenendt emphasizes the correspondence between relics and altars as saints' graves in medieval churches, pointing out how these "were not only the site of miracles, but a source of authority" as demonstrated not least by the grave of St Peter in Rome (19). Briefly mentioning the reformations of the sixteenth century with Protestant critique of relics and of praying to saints (while saints were accepted as exemplary Christians), and the continuation of the cults of saints in the Catholic Church, Angenendt also touches upon the role of the Enlightenment (including the French Revolution). Finally, he brings in the perspective of secular 'shrines' and 'relics' in modern cultures. Angenendt's article provides a general introductory background for the remaining (major) part of the volume, which is of a completely different character.

The nine articles of the three last parts focus on specific historical cults and materials, entering for the most part into highly specialized historical circumstances. The title of the volume, Relics, Identity, and Memory in Medieval Europe, led me to expect discussions of a broader nature about the function of relics within medieval identity formation and cultural memory. The individual contributions do contribute to such general questions. Many of the articles, however, do so in a narrow context with little attempt to theorize or generalize in order to bring a broader historical perspective to bear on the materials under discussion.

This is not necessarily a criticism, but rather a characterization of the volume. All contributions are indeed well-researched and well-documented and bring interesting materials to the attention of the reader, materials obviously relevant to the title of the book. Given the very different historical circumstances addressed in the volume it would have been difficult to give a less general title. Still, it is not obvious why these contributions were brought together in one volume, except that in some way or other they all deal with relics and their functions in medieval Europe.

Part 2 consists of four articles, three of which deal with the Early Middle Ages, mainly the ninth century. Jesse Keskiaho's "Dreams and the Discoveries of Relics in the Early Middle Ages: Observations on Narrative Models and the Effects of Authorial Context" (31-51; partly reprinting another recent publication) discusses narratives relating dreams leading to the discovery of relics. Keskiaho focuses on the fifth-century Revelatio Sancti Stephani as well as a few ninth-century texts including Einhard's Translatio SS. Marcellini et Petri. He argues convincingly that the different rhetorical strategies employed in these narratives depend on whether or not the text was written for intellectual readers, aware of the necessity of prudence with dreams (which might have other than divine origins), or intended for a general audience not so conscious about such precautions.

The following article by Gritje Hartmann focuses on ninth-century Rome: "Paschal I and Saint Cecilia: the Story of the Translation of her Relics in the Liber Pontificalis" (53-90; including an overview of the editorial status of a report attributed to Paschal I on the discovery and translation of Cecilia's relics as an appendix). It translates a German language article published in 2007, analyzing the mentioned report as well as the vita of Pope Paschal I (817-824) in the Liber Pontificalis in order to contribute to the understanding of the early translations of relics from the Roman catacombs to churches within and outside the walls of Rome.

In the third article in Part 2, Martina Caroli's "A Woman's Body for the Empire's Salvation: The Translatio of Queen Bathild's Body and the Crisis of the Year 833" (91-113), the author discusses the Translatio sanctae Baltechildis suggesting that it was already written soon after the events it reports (it has normally been dated to the mid-ninth century). Caroli connects Emperor Louis the Pious' interest in Queen Bathild and his demand of her translation to the emperor's contemporary political crisis, believing the translation to have been a (futile) attempt at avoiding the rebellion, which actually happened a few months later (still in 833). While the argument is speculative, mainly hinging on individual words in the narrative, which emphasize the emperor's haste and the joy connected to the event, the construction is intriguing and I am convinced that such a use of relics was quite possible at this time.

With the fourth article in Part 2, the volume enters into a different time. Martin Bauch's contribution, "The Relics of Roman Churches in Nicolò Signorili's Descriptio Urbis Romae," edits the list of relics in Signorili's mentioned text for the first time (122-182; including also a relic index). Bauch gives an introduction (115-121), in which he argues that while Signorili's Descriptio was written between 1417 and 1427 (119), parts of the relic list are based on earlier documents provided to Signorili by priests from the various churches. Altogether, in Bauch's view, the list goes back to the 1370s. According to the introduction, Part 2 is about "meticulous source criticism and close reading of the texts" (5). Thematically, however, little unites them, and chronologically, only the first three fit together.

Part 3 consists of two articles. The first of these, Ana Marinković's "Civic Cults of Local Reformist Bishops in Medieval Dalmatia: Success and Failure" (187-223) is a comparative account of three local cults of Eastern Adriatic bishops of the high Middle Ages. Marinković analyzes their cults during the Middle Ages (and beyond) as far as (written and archeological) documentation exists. Civic aspects of the cult of Bishop Gaudence of Osor (first half of the eleventh century) only occur in the late fourteenth century, and he was only translated into the new cathedral of the city a century later (197-199). The cult of Bishop John of Trogir (c. 1062-after 1111), on the other hand, was civic from the outset (201). The cult of Bishop Rainer of Split (1175-1180) can only be documented liturgically from the sixteenth century, but his cult "appears in the sphere of popular devotion; from the second quarter of the fifteenth century, Rainer regularly appears in the last wills of the Spalatine citizens [...]" (p. 211-212). Marinković shows how different local chronological circumstances were crucial for the differences in the development of the three cults which shared important elements from the outset (e.g. reformist efforts and Benedictine relations) while the "'careers' of their cults differed considerably" (189). She points to general civic aspects common for them all making them comparable not least to Italian urban cults, but different from for instance Northern European contexts as exemplified in the second article of Part 3.

Tuomas Heikkilä, in his "Tracing the Heavenly Pater patriae of Medieval Finland: the Relics of St Henry of Uppsala" (225-254), gives a broad and lively account of the history of the cult of Bishop Henry of Uppsala who together with the Swedish saint King Eric has been credited with the Christianization of Finland in the twelfth century. The martyred Henry was translated to the new cathedral of Turku in 1300 from his first cult place at Nousiainen. Unlike King Eric whose historicity is beyond doubt, St Henry's "character may have had a historical core, but his figure is essentially a result of a determined building of a Christian role model and figurehead [...]" (226). Heikkilä's account focuses on the complex distribution of the relics of St Henry, mainly in Finland (however, in surprisingly few places) and in Sweden. Heikkilä points to the importance of St Henry's relics in Finland through the Lutheran reformation and up to the present day. The Lutheran "cathedral chapter and the diocesan administration of Turku use nowadays at least three different variants of the medieval finger relic in their documents and web pages" (249). Heikkilä rightly points to the Lutheran reformers' acceptance of the existence of saints. However, that they "aimed at cutting down excessively enthusiastic veneration of their cults and their relics" (245) is understated.

Part 4 of the volume shows a unity far beyond the preceding parts. All three articles concern the cult of Thomas Aquinas. The first contribution among them is Constant J. Mews' article "The Historia translationis sacri corporis Thome Aquinatis of Raymundus Hugonis: An Eyewitness Account and its Significance" (257–284). Raymundus was secretary for Elias, Master of the Dominican Order since 1367, a main agent in the complex process by which the Dominicans in 1368-1369 achieved to get the body of Thomas Aquinas to their mother house at Toulouse. At that point, it had been kept for almost a century at the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova (south of Rome) where Thomas died in 1274. Thomas' right arm, however, was received in Paris by King Charles V. The dramatic story of the translation involved numerous difficulties to get hold of the body and to convince the pope of its legitimacy. The mentioned account, which Raymundus wrote on behalf of Elias, exists in what seems to be an early draft which Mews argues is "an eyewitness account of events prior to its subsequent correction" (265).

The same complex story is approached in a different way in the second article, Marika Räsänen's "The Memory of St Thomas Aquinas in Orvieto" (285-317). The long travel of the body of Thomas Aquinas to Toulouse required numerous stops. One of these seems to have been in Orvieto, where Thomas had been a lector at the Dominican convent from 1261 to 1265. According to later sources (of the fourteenth century), it was during this stay that Thomas had written the (new) office for the Feast of Corpus Christi at the request of the pope. Räsänen discusses Thomas' authorship of the Corpus Christi liturgy (disputed by some, but accepted by many scholars). She argues that in Orvieto the memory of Thomas was especially connected to the Corpus Christi liturgy, something underlined also by a so-called dramatic lauda from Orvieto. This sung play (the music of these dramatic lauda have not been preserved, however) relates among other things how the pope asks Thomas to write the liturgy for Corpus Christi and how, upon Thomas' prayer, it becomes approved by Christ (295-296). Räsänen connects a miracle about a bleeding host in Bolsena and its corporal linen, which was brought to Orvieto as a relic, with the Corpus Christi liturgy and a particular manuscript from Orvieto (now in the Vatican Library) containing texts commemorating Thomas. She argues that this manuscript, traditionally dated to c. 1400, must have been written shortly after the body of Thomas stayed in Orvieto (where there was no relic of Thomas), exercising "an ersatz function for a relic. The manuscript was a textual commemoration of Thomas and his body, bound as a book. It represented a tangible object, ready for cultic veneration" (311). The idea is intriguing, and I can follow Räsänen a long way. I would have wished to have a discussion of the manuscript as a physical object (more than the very basic information given in n. 43 on p. 299). I wonder if a putative intention for the manuscript to be used as an object for cultic veneration might not presumably be reflected in some way in the appearance of the manuscript? Räsänen does not reflect on this, but refers in general to Éric Palazzo's notion of livre-corps.

The third and last article in this part (and in the volume as a whole) concerns the same story, this time from a point of view of political theology. Earl Jeffrey Richards in his "Ceremonies of Power: The Arrival of Thomas Aquinas's Relics in Toulouse and Paris in the Context of the Hundred Years War" (319-352) considers the route of the escort of the body of Thomas. He discusses the significant visits along the way, and not least those present at the two important ceremonies in Toulouse and in Paris when Thomas' body and his right arm were received. The significance of Thomas' relics for the French king are brought out convincingly, not least by comparison with the politico-theological importance of the relic of the crown of thorns, which Louis IX had received and for which he had built the Sainte-Chapelle more than a century earlier. As this had enhanced the holiness of France and the king, so Richards argues that such a "political theology was the motor behind the translation of the relics of the Angelic Doctor from Italy to France" (321). All this is seen in the context of a France on its way to regain lost territory in the war with England. An equally important context concerns the papacy which at this time contemplated moving back to Rome (from Avignon), a discourse explicitly addressed in a treatise Somnium viridarii/Le songe du vergier (1376) by Évrard de Trémaugon where it is argued that the pope "should better reside in France than in Rome" (322). In this very well-written and well-argued article a broad perspective of the detailed analytical work which I have missed especially in the second part of the volume certainly stands out! This is so, altogether, in the combined treatments of the translation(s) of Thomas Aquinas.

Altogether, the volume contains much that is interesting. As a book, it is not particularly well-composed, and the introduction does little to bring it together. Today's constant pressures for publishing often make conference arrangers feel they have to publish a volume whether or not there is a basis for a coherent volume. I do not know whether this volume has come about in such a way, but it appears as if it had. On the other hand, the volume contains excellent scholarly work. However, some articles written by non-native speakers, especially (but not only) in Part 2 would have profited from a (better) language revision. Generally, Latin quotations are given with English translations, but in a few cases this was seemingly forgotten (see p. 18 and p. 66).

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