18.09.10 Räsänen, Thomas Aquinas's Relics as Focus for Conflict and Cult in the Late Middle Ages

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Franklin T. Harkins

The Medieval Review 18.09.10

Räsänen, Marika. Thomas Aquinas's Relics as Focus for Conflict and Cult in the Late Middle Ages. Crossing Boundaries: Turku Medieval and Early Modern Studies . Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. pp. 308. ISBN: 978-90-8964-873-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Franklin T. Harkins
Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

Most scholars of Thomas Aquinas are aware of the basic details of the saint's immediate afterlife as related by his early biographer, William of Tocco. Shortly after Thomas's death on 7 March 1274 at the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova, John of Ferentino, subprior of the community, was cured of blindness after prostrating himself on the corpse of the deceased Dominican. Because other miracles began to occur shortly thereafter, the Cistercians at Fossanova feared that the thaumaturgic remains of Thomas, to which they had exclusive access, would be stolen by his Dominican confreres or others. Thus, they exhumed the corpse from its resting place, cut off the head, and hid it in a corner of the chapel. The Cistercians reasoned that even if the saint's body were taken from them, his head and its supernatural power would be theirs. [1] This engaging monograph, which began as a doctoral dissertation in Cultural History at the University of Turku, extends this story of how St. Thomas's body failed to find rest and peace at Fossanova.

Marika Räsänen offers a fresh, detailed study of the subsequent medieval history of the various cults of the relics of Aquinas in southern Italy. Indeed, her central thesis is that as a result of the "interaction" between St. Thomas's relics and various communities and individuals--namely the Cistercians at Fossanova, Dominicans, members of Thomas's extended family, and the laity generally--"a variety of Thomas Aquinas's relic cults flourished in several places of Southern Italy at the same time" (14). The sources that Räsänen analyzes in an effort to illumine these cults and the conflicts between the different communities that aspired to possess the saint's relics include the records of Thomas's canonization inquiries at Naples in 1319 and at Fossanova in 1321 (from the Cistercian and lay perspectives), the lives of the saint (which were composed principally in Dominican scriptoria and so reflect the Dominican perspective), liturgical texts (composed for and used on the feast day of St. Thomas by both Cistercians and Dominicans), descriptions of the translations of the relics, and histories of the Order of Preachers. Additionally, one of the most significant Cistercian sources, of which Räsänen makes effective use, is the monastery of Fossanova itself, particularly its Gothic church housing the tomb and a notable image of St. Thomas. On the wall above the tomb is a fresco depicting St. Thomas holding a monstrance in one hand and a book in the other, an uncommon image in medieval iconography of Aquinas (Illustration 6, p. 91). Noting the importance among the Cistercians both of Aquinas's writings on the Eucharist and of his imitatio Christi in the Bernardine spirit, Räsänen concludes her insightful analysis of the image of St. Thomas with the monstrance thus: "As Thomas was materially present in the presbytery, in the vicinity of the high altar, the monks [at Fossanova] were able to perceive Thomas together with the Eucharist and understand the true presence of Christ through him" (96).

As such words suggest, the wider purpose of Räsänen's investigation, beyond offering a fuller picture of Aquinas's relic cults, is to provide "a reappraisal of the significance of tangible and material experience in the Late Middle Ages" (14). In her Conclusion, Räsänen affirms that in the Middle Ages the tangibility of relics and the sepulchre made a particular saint "more real" and the development of intimacy between the saint and a specific community of devotees "easier than it would have been with purely abstract concepts of sainthood" (262). To any reader familiar with Catholicism in either its medieval or modern manifestation, such a claim will seem self-evident, not requiring the sort of historical demonstration that Räsänen attempts. Such a reader might wonder whether "purely abstract concepts of sainthood" existed in medieval western Christianity and, if so, how and toward what end. Medieval Christianity was a thoroughly, indeed ineluctably, materially-mediated religion, as Räsänen powerfully shows in her analysis of Aquinas's relic cults. But when she extrapolates to more general conclusions regarding the significance of the material presence of saints in late-medieval culture, Räsänen herself seems somewhat surprised. When she maintains that "the need for a material presence of the saints--through their relics if possible--was a part of the late medieval (and Early Modern) reality" (265), some readers may wonder whether Räsänen is intimating that this need is not characteristic of modern (and post-modern) Christianity. Such a suggestion would doubtless be true of many modern modes of Christianity, but certainly not all.

Relatedly, Räsänen's historical study would have benefited much from an interdisciplinary approach that included medieval theology and devotional piety. She might have made explicit use of the traditional doctrine of the communion of saints and its concomitant vocabulary, for example, as an analytical tool. Throughout the book, Räsänen speaks of the "interaction" between the Cistercians, Dominicans, and laity, on the one hand, and the relics of St. Thomas, on the other hand. "Interaction" is a neutral term and, as such, less useful in communicating the rich, contextual significance of the cultic practices as experienced by late-medieval Christians than devotional and theological terms such as "veneration" and "communion." The reality of the communio sanctorum, which all medieval participants in St. Thomas's cult would have understood experientially, entails the communion among holy people (sancti) in holy things (sancta), such as the eucharistic body and blood of Christ and the material remains of Christians in whom the Holy Spirit is believed to have dwelt especially. Thus, when Räsänen notes that the basis of the "interaction" between medieval devotees and saintly relics was "the idea of the concrete presence of the saint in his or her relics, which gave the latter their significance" (10), she would have done well to explain why theologically saints are significant and worthy of veneration. St. Thomas himself teaches in the Summa theologiae: "But it is obvious that we ought to venerate the saints of God as members of Christ, children and friends of God, and our intercessors. And so we ought to venerate whichever of their relics with an honor befitting their memory, and especially their bodies, which were a temple of the Holy Spirit and organs of the Holy Spirit living and working in them and [which] are going to be configured to the body of Christ through the glory of the resurrection" (IIIa q. 25 a. 6 co.).

A significant critique that Räsänen levels against modern scholarship is that it has largely neglected consideration of Thomas Aquinas as a saint "until the awakening of interest in his remains in the last decade" (14). As Räsänen suggests, philosophical and theological studies of Aquinas certainly have tended to conceive of and categorize him in modern terms (263 n. 3). Räsänen maintains that even earlier scholars who concerned themselves with medieval saints and sanctity, such as André Vauchez and Jean-Claude Schmitt, proclaimed Thomas as "the scholar saint" without situating his cult within the wider devotional culture (263). Whereas Räsänen aims to use the evidence of Aquinas's cults as a lens through which to explore the significance of saintly bodies in late-medieval religious culture generally, she too sometimes seems to fall prey to the same scholarly tendency she criticizes. Consider, for example, Räsänen's opening words in the Introduction: "This book is about the dust of one of the most famous medieval philosophers." She proceeds to note that shortly after his death Aquinas's dust was considered a holy relic, not simply the corporeal remains of "a philosopher." And then: "Today, however, Thomas's saintly status is largely forgotten"(9). Räsänen appears to give too much credence to what has been the modern majority view of Aquinas, namely that he was first and foremost a philosopher with "an impressive international academic career" (13). But Aquinas did not intend or understand himself as an academic philosopher, nor did his contemporaries understand him as such. He was a Dominican friar and a master of theology (magister in sacra pagina) whose teaching and writing were directed principally toward the intellectual and pastoral formation of his confreres, which formation was ordered to the mission of the Order of Preachers and of the Catholic Church. Today Thomas's saintly status may indeed be largely forgotten in the academic guild, which has attended insufficiently to the task of understanding Aquinas from an integrated, interdisciplinary perspective. Thus, an authentic historical picture of the late-medieval history of Aquinas's relics requires, inter alia, a robust understanding of the theology, spirituality, and materiality of the cult of the saints.

Finally, the book could have been more carefully and thoroughly edited, as it manifests a number of unfortunate errors in spelling and grammar and other infelicities of writing. For example, Räsänen describes Toulouse as the city of Urban V's education and "academic carrier" (for "academic career"; 13), and elsewhere notes that there exists an "extensive literacy" (for "extensive literature") on local saints in the Middle Ages (17 n. 35). At times these mechanical and stylistic missteps are so pronounced that the reader may have difficulty discerning the author's intended meaning. In n. 50 on p. 22, for example, one finds the following phrase: "On problems of the provenience presented in the catalogue of the library of Sir Thomas Phillipps in regard to the manuscripts ex-Fossanova...".

In spite of these deficiencies, Räsänen's book is an illuminating study that a wide range of scholars and students of Aquinas's life and afterlife, and of medieval saints and sanctity more broadly, will surely find both informative and interesting.



1. See the Introduction to Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Ralph McInerny (London: Penguin Books, 1998), p. ix.

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