The Relique (John Donne, c. 1593–1601 [1])

    When my grave is broke up againe

    Some second ghest to entertaine,

    (For graves have learn'd that woman-head

    To be to more than one a Bed)

    And he that digs it, spies

A bracelet of bright haire about the bone,

    Will he not let'us alone,

And thinke that there a loving couple lies, 

Who thought that this device might be some way

To make their soules, at the last busie day,

Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?


    If this fall in a time, or land,

    Where mis-devotion doth command,

    Then, he that digges us up, will bring

    Us, to the Bishop, and the King,

        To make us Reliques; then

Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I

    A something else thereby;

All women shall adore us, and some men;

And since at such time, miracles are sought,

I would have that age by this paper taught

What miracles we harmeless lovers wrought.


    First, we lov'd well and faithfully,

    Yet knew not what wee lov'd, nor why,

Difference of sex no more wee knew,

    Than our Guardian Angells doe;

        Comming and going, wee

Perchance might kisse, but not between those meales;

    Our hands ne'r toucht the seales,

Which nature, injur'd by late law, sets free:

These miracles wee did; but now alas,

All measure, and all language, I should passe,

Should I tell what a miracle shee was.


It might seem strange to begin a reflection on medieval relic culture by quoting a Reformation poet, especially one as vigorously Protestant as John Donne, but this was the first thing that sprang to mind when I began to write. Aside from being a great poem by a great poet that everyone should read, it's also a text that, through its gentle humour, reveals much about the emotional power invested in relics within medieval and early modern society, and is a fine introduction to this reflection on medieval belief and disbelief in relics. 

Donne's poem is told from the perspective of a man who hopes that he and his beloved will find each other on Judgement Day, aided by the mingling of their bones in a grave. [2] He speculates that it's also possible that they will be dug up well before the Apocalypse (graves were frequently reused in early modern Europe). If this occurs in an era characterised by 'mis-devotion', i.e. Catholic practices, it is likely that their bones will be mistaken for sacred relics—the 'bracelet of bright haire about the bone' speciously suggesting the famous golden hair of Mary Magdalen, entwined with the bones of some other, less important saint (a mere 'something else'). Their humble bones will be shown to the bishop and the king, the poet dreams, and will be especially adored by pious women. The humourous tone continues as the poet playfully explains that the real miracle of the lovers was not their divinity, but the near-unbelievable fact of their chastity with each other ('our hands ne'r toucht the seales').

Writing from a resolutely Reformation, Protestant perspective, Donne is both amused and annoyed by Catholic desire to believe in the veracity of sacred relics. Yet while he pokes fun at relics, the cultural currency of this spiritual materiality remains strong for him—the poet sees sacrality in (all) human remains, and believes bones capable of retaining echoes of the emotions experienced in life. In this last belief, at least, he is not so distant from the 'mis-devotions' of medieval Christianity. 

The devotional practice of honouring the remains of significant people was transplanted into early Christianity from Roman (pagan) religion, like many other key elements of the new monotheistic faith that spread throughout the Roman Empire by St Paul and his followers in the middle of the first century AD. [3] Roman families honoured a deceased individual through an elaborate funeral and burial ritual, and then by annually commemorating the dead person on their birthday and on special feast days such as Parentalia (or dies parentales—days of the ancestors—a nine-day festival beginning on 13 February, at the close of the Roman year). The commemoration included votive offerings of bread, wine and sacrificed animals, and included an element of placating (and even exorcising) any malevolent spirits associated with the family. Christianity adopted these practices for its first martyrs—those men and women killed for persisting in what was then an illegal faith—particularly the practice of commemorating the day of their death (in Latin, their dies natalis—'day of birth into everlasting life'). Thus, the powerful tradition of saints' feast days was born, such as 14 February for St Valentine, and 29 June for St Paul himself—a tradition still present beneath the surface in even the most secularised Western countries. 

The bones of these early saints, and indeed ordinary objects they had touched or clothes they had worn, became 'relics', from the Latin reliquiae—remains. The specialness, the holiness, and the power of these people was perceived to imbue their bones, and a mixture of respect, remembrance and reverence compelled the early Christians, like their pagan forebears and like many modern cultures, to treasure any physical reminders of a transient human life. 

Interestingly, the first saints were spontaneously created by the community—it wasn't until 1234 that the Pope claimed the sole right to make (and sometimes to unmake popularly acclaimed) saints. Early saints were ordinary people, loved, admired and missed by the community they left behind. Medieval saints were a far more organised, politicised and purposeful bunch, created to champion particular families, dynasties and virtues. More saints were created from royal dynasties and from mendicant orders (Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite etc) were created in the thirteenth century than from any other type of community, reflecting the importance of royal patronage and of these massively popular new religious orders to the continued relevance and power of the institutionalised Church. [4]

Sainthood is a shifting category—all saints are held up as worthy examples for their community, but what makes them worthy is culturally contingent and therefore subjective. One factor is stable, however: a saint is only ever a saint for others, necessarily being dead at the time of their commemoration. They were (are) created by and for their communities; usually saints have a historical basis, but sometimes they were probably entirely invented—like St Christopher, beloved of many travellers for his protective role. Many saints were both historically real and constructed, their historical life being manipulated posthumously, shaped by new pressures on and needs within the community. 

However, none of this means the creation of a saint was a consciously duplicitous exercise; rather, saints filled a void in a community and offered inspiration—they offered the example of a life worthy of emulation as well as adulation. In medieval Christianity, they also offered a special hotline to God—they were intercessors inhabiting a mysterious space between the human and the heavenly. One could strive to emulate them, and one could also rely on them to understand the human condition and bridge God's divine detachment from the world below. If saints were like a wireless connection to God, then their relics were the modems: saints come alive in death, and their relics were their most potent presence in the medieval world. 

The idea that relics were not only actual remains, but also anything touched by the holy person (or their remains!) goes right back to days of Christ. The New Testament makes mention of the healing powers contained in objects touched by Christ and his disciples, such as Matthew 14:34–36:

And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognised him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

But as with the saints that followed him, Christ's most powerful relics were created by his death: the cross he died on, the nails that crucified him, the crown thorns he wore. The first relic-hunter was the Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great who converted to Christianity (after a vision and a battle victory, naturally) and then announced tolerance for the religion throughout the Empire. [5] Helena was also a Christian, and in the years 326–328 AD she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—one of the first of its kind. [6] In Palestine, she actively sought out places and things associated with Christ, and is attributed with the foundation of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the church on the Mount of Olives (at the locations of Christ's birth and his ascension to heaven, respectively). At the site of Christ's tomb, near Calvary, Helena ordered an excavation that resulted in the discovery of the most precious relics of the True Cross (the cross on which Christ was crucified) and the nails used in his crucifixion, as described in the first recounting of this episode). [7]

Aha, you might think, then the credulity goes all the way back to the beginning of this weird obsession with bones! But in another early redaction of the episode (by St Ambrose [8]), Helena's excavators find not one but three crosses—presumably those used to crucify two thieves alongside Christ, as recounted in scripture. In St Ambrose's telling, Helena required solid proof of the veracity of the bits of wood and iron presented to her as holy relics, and needed a way to determine which was the 'real' cross, the one on which Christ died. Ambrose himself (d. 397), archbishop of Milan, was an enthusiastic relic-hunter and knew all about the importance of verified relics. After they proved their worth through a number of healing miracles, Ambrose installed the newly-excavated relics of Roman martyrs SS Gervasius and Protasius in a new basilica, helping to make Milan an important pilgrimage centre. The proof, as it were, was in the pudding—that is, true relics proved themselves through their miraculous healing powers. So Ambrose knew what he was writing about when he described the Empress Helena's special test for the three crosses. She procured a mortally ill woman (never in short supply, throughout most of recorded history) and had her touch each cross in turn. While the first two crosses produced no change in her ill health, the mere touch of the third healed her instantly, a bit like the effect of the Baby Bear's 'just right' porridge on Goldilocks.

The outbreak of relics swept through Christian territories during the fourth century, spurred on by the example of Empress Helena and by the Church's rise to a position of great social and political power. It also meant more ancient martyrs were dug up—and thus it became even more important to verify these remains. Simply saying one had found the pinkie finger of St Prisca didn't mean much unless the relic could perform for the community. Miracles became the benchmark of a good relic. 

One of the most powerful saints of the medieval period was the martyr Thomas A'Beckett, the archbishop of Canterbury. He was famously murdered in 1170 at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral by four knights from the court of his good friend Henry II, who believed they were following the king's will: a dispute over the boundaries between royal and Church power caused Henry to mutter ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’, to which query the knights gave a swift and pragmatic answer. A spontaneous cult sprang up at Thomas's tomb within the cathedral, and in 1173 the Church recognised his importance to the community by formally canonising him. 

Thomas's cult caused Canterbury to blossom as a centre of pilgrimage in England (indeed one of the most important centres in all Europe), and his relics were known to be particularly efficacious when it came to miraculous cures. A reliquary [9] flask containing a mixture of the saint's blood and some holy water, now held in the collection of the British Museum, features the inscription Optimus egrorum medicus fit Thoma bonorum—'Thomas is the best doctor of the worthy sick'. [10] Indeed, this special mixture of Thomas's blood and holy water was so famous that it was known as St Thomas's Water or Canterbury Water, and described as ‘the universal medicine of the sick’. [11] It's significant that this potion included Thomas's blood, given his bloody death at end of a sword—the relic references the saint’s sacrificial death, and just as Christ's blood (in the form of wine) gives spiritual life to Christians at mass, so Thomas's blood gave physical healing to believers at his shrine. Hundreds of thousands of people came to drink this special potion, and to sit at the shrine, touching it and offering prayers, candles and votive figurines (usually of the afflicted body part) to the medically-minded saint. 

Two monks sat at his shrine within the cathedral recording the miracles that occurred, and the resulting compendium is the largest for any saint. Their accounts are graphic, detailed, human and very moving, particularly as not every visit result in a cure for the afflicted individual. Many pilgrims received their cure, like the deaf woman described in Chapter 14 who drank St Thomas's Water and prayed at his tomb and was quickly and completely cured of her ailment. [12] But if one reads on to Chapter 16, one finds the following sad tale:

... the holy father [Becket] came to a crippled boy who had gone seeking a favor from the martyr and had fallen asleep with his head resting on top of the tomb. ‘Why are you lying on me?’ he asked. ‘You will certainly not be healed. Go away. I'll do nothing for you.’ These words woke him up and he told us and his mother what he had heart with great sadness of heart. Convinced by the adamancy of the [saint's] words, he had himself taken elsewhere. Still, we urged him to press on with his prayers, and he agreed; but time passed and he did not regain his health... [13]

The boy apparently did everything expected of a pilgrim seeking a cure, so why did his prayers fail? No one at the shrine knew, and no one attempted to guess—it was an accepted aspect of relic culture that cures were unpredictable, and that relics (like their human originators) did not always act as one expected. The fact that not every person received a cure lends more believability to the whole culture of relics, to a post-Enlightenment reader: there's a complex interaction of faith, psychology and physiology involved in every healing miracle. This also suggests a nuanced culture around relics that is denied by the Reformation's caricature of credulous medieval Christians and their superstitious ways, a caricature that has ongoing influence over many people's perception of medieval Christianity today. How many times have you heard something foolish or barbaric described as 'medieval'?

Relics did cure many people, however, and naturally, this led to competition between religious establishments to possess the most impressive relics and miracles. This competition created its own industry: medieval people were no less enterprising than us, when it came to recognising a good commercial opportunity. That relics had a commercial dimension does not imply that they themselves were always commercialised or corrupted in the process, or that they were used cynically and with no serious belief in their power. The example of Laon, in northern France, is instructive in this regard. Local abbot Guibert of Nogent recorded a dramatic episode in his memoires: in April 1112, the commune of Laon rebelled against its bishop and executed him, also burning down the cathedral in the process. [14] In order to raise money for the rebuilding of the cathedral, the monks decided that 'following the customary way... of making money' they would make tours of surrounding towns with the relics in their possession. [15] The relics were a mixed bunch: along with 'some box of undistinguished memory', they also had 'a splendid little reliquary which contained parts of the robe of the Virgin Mother and of the sponge lifted to the lips of the Savior and of his Cross. Whether it contained some of the hair of Our Lady, I do not know', writes Guibert. 'It was made of gold and gems, and verses written on it in gold told of the wonders within'. [16] It's fascinating that Guibert suspects the Virgin's hair might be there too—this suggests a regular grouping of relics that were frequently kept together. 

Visually, the splendid little reliquary of Laon might have looked something like a marvellous example held in our own National Gallery of Victoria: a reliquary made in Limoges (west-central France) around the year 1200 (Figure 1). [17] It's made of wood, with enamel and gilt-copper inlay featuring an image of Christ in Majesty, flanked by two saints, with Saints Peter and Paul below and angels on each side. The spiked decoration along the top ridge of the casket is reminiscent of a crown, and the whole structure is intended to suggest a miniature church.. Matthew Martin, Curator of Decorative Arts at the NGV, has noted that the rather generic quality of the decorative scheme of this casket suggests it was the product of a workshop that churned out such objects with regularity, allowing their customers to personalise the reliquary through its contents, rather than its decoration. [18] Sadly, like many reliquaries in fine art collections, this casket is now empty, stripped of the relics that once gave it meaning and purpose in a community. It's an art object now, but once it was like the casket of the monks of Laon—loved and revered. The monks took their casket around France and even over the Channel to England, effecting cures and receiving payment from grateful, devout Christians everywhere they went—what you might call a 'win-win' situation. 

Figure 1: France, Limoges.  Reliquary casket , c1200. Enamel ( champlevé ) on copper, gilt-copper, wood. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 1936, catalogue number 3650-D3. The casket measures 24.2 (h) × 22.3 (w) × 11.3 (d) cm. Image kindly provided by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Figure 1: France, Limoges. Reliquary casket, c1200. Enamel (champlevé) on copper, gilt-copper, wood. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 1936, catalogue number 3650-D3. The casket measures 24.2 (h) × 22.3 (w) × 11.3 (d) cm. Image kindly provided by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Their journey is not without incident, however. In one English town, a man standing outside the church where the French monks are visiting convinces a buddy to go drinking with him. Neither has any money, but our man has an idea: ‘I am thinking about those clerics... who by their lying and their tricks get so much money out of silly people. I will certainly manage in some way or other to get out of them the expense of my entertainment’. [19] The man goes into the church and up to the platform where the relics are displayed. '[P]retending that he wished to show his reverence for them by kissing them, he put his mouth against them with his lips open and sucked up some coins that had been offered...' [20] It's a smooth move, and the evening that follows is predictably bibulous. But the man is troubled, despite himself. Though he tells his friend he took the money from 'those cheats in the church', the friend's warning ('you have done something bad... since you took it from the saints') is ringing in his ears as he rides home. Stopping in some woods, he makes a noose and hangs himself from a tree, echoing the death of Judas, who also valued silver coins over God. Though the ending provided for this bold fellow is standard (all those who defy the Church meet a bad ending, in medieval texts) his story is surely included in Guibert's memoires because it was representative of a reality—some in the community were sceptical of relics and the monks who controlled them, and not without reason.

The competition for relics did result in a booming trade of fake relics throughout Europe, especially relics relating to Christ and the Virgin. As Protestant reformer John Calvin noted, there were an impossibly large number of some relics in circulation: if they were all gathered in one place, he wryly observed, 'it would be made manifest that every Apostle has more than four bodies, and every Saint two or three'. [21] A modern echo of this is found in an episode of Blackadder, wherein the unfortunate title character becomes the new Archbishop of Canterbury against his will. His enterprising manservant Baldrick sees a profitable angle to the unwelcome assignment, as they can sell relics: along with the usual bits of saints, he suggests new products like pipe racks and coffee tables, ostensibly the results of Christ's carpenter days. [22] This satire touches on a real sore point in history: clearly, fake relics discredited Catholic practice as a whole during the Reformation.

Over time, there were changes to the style of reliquaries that were, in part, a response to such fakery and its associated scepticism. From enclosed casket-style reliquaries, where one could never actually see the relic, there evolved a new preference for reliquaries that had windows of rock crystal, allowing the relics to be viewed by worshippers. One such reliquary, which also bucks the trend and has kept its relics, is another in the NGV's collection—a diptych attributed to Pietro Teutonico, a German Franciscan friar artist resident in Assisi, produced around 1320 (Figure 2). [23] It's made of glass, wood and bone, and is decorated with enamel and gold inlay, highlighted with red, green and black paint. Unlike the casket reliquary, it is believed to have been made for a specific client (and it features the coat of arms of the Scalini family of Florence). This fascinating item has tiny fragments of around 47 saints plus three relics of Christ—his blood, his tunic and a piece of his cross. The relics of the female saints are arranged around the scene of the Nativity, while the male saints and Christ are arranged around the image of the Crucifixion—his and hers relics, as it were. [24]

Figure 2:  Nativity and Crucifixion, reliquary diptych , c. 1320, attributed to Pietro Teutonico, Assisi, Umbria, Italy. Glass ( verre églomisé ), wood, (bone). Measurements: 20.3 × 24.4 × 1.8 cm (open). Catalogue Number 3651-D3. Image kindly provided by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 1936.

Figure 2: Nativity and Crucifixion, reliquary diptych, c. 1320, attributed to Pietro Teutonico, Assisi, Umbria, Italy. Glass (verre églomisé), wood, (bone). Measurements: 20.3 × 24.4 × 1.8 cm (open). Catalogue Number 3651-D3. Image kindly provided by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 1936.

The visibility of these relics is significant: seeing is believing. As time went on, reliquaries became even more transparent, as yet another example from the NGV shows (Figure 3): this 17th–century Venetian reliquary jar leaves nothing to the imagination. [25] It is not coincidental that is example post-dates the Reformation; men like John Donne would never have believed in a relic thus displayed, but the transparency of the material used reflects a the truth with which Catholics endowed their precious relics, and a desire to show sceptics that there was nothing to hide.

One of the most famous descriptions of the creation of a relic relates to St Polycarp, a martyr of the early Christian Church in Smyrna (modern-day Turkey) in 156 AD. Polycarp, believed to be a disciple of St John the Apostle, dies for his faith, as described in an anonymous circular letter known as The Martyrdom of St Polycarp, c. 160 AD (the earliest account of a martyrdom outside the New Testament). [26] After Polycarp's death and burning, his fellow Christians rescued his bones, which they regarded 'as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold'. The bones were deposited 'in a fitting place', to allow for annual commemoration of Polycarp's sacrifice. [27] This fitting place, and all reliquaries that followed its example, were made of precious gems and metals that echoed the precious cargo within. The financial and spiritual investment made by medieval Christians in their relics speaks to the truth of these objects within certain communities at certain times. Medieval people were not fools, and they were aware that unscrupulous people did peddle fraudulent relics: this merely increased the necessity to verify real relics via miracles, and to see them with one's own eyes. Today, one need not believe in the saints in order to believe in the significance that relics had in medieval society: they played an important intercessory role between people and their god, and they reflected ideals of each community back to itself, inspiring and healing those who needed encouragement. John Donne also understood this most human need for succour. He expressed it instead through the prism of human love, and after all, who hasn't experienced a glimmer of the sacred in the eyes of a beloved, or longed for the physical presence of one long gone?

Figure 3 (opposite):  Reliquary jar , 17th century, from Venice, Italy. Glass with applied decoration. Measurements: 23.5 × 8.6 cm diameter (overall). Catalogue number 90.a-b-D1R. Image kindly provided by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, 1871.

Figure 3 (opposite): Reliquary jar, 17th century, from Venice, Italy. Glass with applied decoration. Measurements: 23.5 × 8.6 cm diameter (overall). Catalogue number 90.a-b-D1R. Image kindly provided by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, 1871.

Dr Anna Welch works on the History of the Book Collection at the State Library Victoria. Find her on Instagram @bibliovita.

  1. Taken from the Penguin Poets edition, edited by John Hayward, London 1972, p. 64–65.
  2. Indeed, it may be a coded Petrarchan tribute to a Mrs Magdalen Herbert, a member of the English nobility and patron of Donne's (though there is no evidence of a romance between them).
  3. A Roman citizen, from Tarsus in modern-day Turkey
  4. For a sociological discussion of medieval sainthood, see Michael Goodich, 'The politics of canonization in the thirteenth century: lay and mendicant saints' in Saints and their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History, ed. Stephen Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 169–188.
  5. In the Edict of Milan, 313 AD.
  6. It was followed by that of Roman Christian woman Egeria, whose account of her soon journey in the 380s is a key text for scholars of the early Christianity.
  7. Eusebius' History of the Church, c. 326, has been published in English many times. The University of Pennsylvania offers a free online edition.
  8. In On the death of Theodosius, c. 395. The writings of St Ambrose are widely available in English in print and online. Archive.org offers a free online edition of this and other texts he wrote.
  9. The container for a relic.
  10. The flask dates from 1170–1200. British Museum, catalogue no. 1921,0216.62. You can view detailed images of this object online through the British Museum's website.
  11. The Miracles of St Thomas Becket, Chapter 14, 1170s, translated by John Shinners and published in John Shinners (ed.), Medieval Popular Religion 1000–1500: A Reader, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), p. 168.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., p. 169.
  14. Guibert's account is published (in redacted form) in John Shinner (ed.), Medieval Popular Religion, op.cit., pp. 158–63.
  15. Ibid., p. 158.
  16. Ibid. 
  17. Catalogue number 3650–D3 in the International Decorative Arts collection. 
  18. Matthew Martin, 'Relics of Another Age: Art History, the ‘Decorative Arts’ and the Museum', 2010, available on the National Gallery of Victoria's website.
  19. Guibert of Nogent, Medieval Popular Religion, p. 162.
  20. Ibid.
  21. John Calvin, 'General Refutation of Rome as an Admonition, Showing the Advantages which Christendom might gain by an Inventory of Relics', 1543, in Tracts relating to the Reformation by John Calvin (Edinburgh, Edinburgh Printing Company, 1844, republished Eugene, Oregon, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002), p. 293. 
  22. See Blackadder, Episode 3, 'The Archbishop', of Series 1 of (BBC, first broadcast 1983).
  23. Catalogue number 3651–D3, also in the International Decorative Arts collection. 
  24. See a chapter by Dr Hugh Hudson for more details about the making and use of this reliquary: Hugh Hudson, 'From Assisi to Melbourne: Friar Pietro Teutonico's Nativity; Crucifixion Reliquary Diptych in the National Gallery of Victoria', in Constant J. Mews and Claire Renkin (eds.), Interpreting Francis and Clare of Assisi: From the Middle Ages to the Present (Melbourne: Broughton, 2010), pp. 242–54.
  25. Catalogue number 90.a–b–D1R, also in the International Decorative Arts collection. 
  26. Click here for a free online version at the New Advent website.
  27. Chapter 18, ibid. 

Next: I'd rather sink -- than call Roy for help by Chris Lassig

Would you like to download this as a cute little A5 booklet? It's FREE! Go to our shop to download. Materiality: FAKE, Part IX.