Seminar CLXXXVII: relics, angst and agency

Now that I’m back into reports from the academic year now expiring, rather than the one before, you could be forgiven for thinking that I spent last autumn ignoring everything that was going on in my new home institution in favour of disappearing to London every week. Not so, gentle reader, for Birmingham boasts a CEntre for the Study of the Middle Ages which, at that point at least, t was running a weekly seminar, and on 21st October 2013 Birmingham’s own Dr Simon Yarrow was speaking to it, with the title “Varieties of Christian Materiality: relics and saints’ cults in Anglo-Norman England”. And since Simon’s work was one of the things people lauded when I got this post, I made sure to be there.

Late twelfth-century depiction of the Last Supper as a Mass, with Jesus presumably handing out wafers of Himself, probably made at Corbie, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS 44, fo. 6v.

Late twelfth-century depiction of the Last Supper as a Mass, with Jesus presumably handing out wafers of Himself, probably made at Corbie, now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS 44, fo. 6v.

Simon’s paper was exploring one of the tensions inherent to Christianity, that between body and spirit, the material and non-material that is indissoluble from a religion that centres on its God becoming a man. Many a splinter from orthodoxy has tried to separate the two but for those who remain orthodox, the material world presents difficulties when objects are held to be holy in some way or other, something that can obviously extend to the bodies of the faithful and therefore reaches a particular point of extremity when one is faced with saints’ relics, physical items that are supposed to be connected to a non-physical soul now in Heaven. Again, the extreme position here is one of schism, a Calvinist rejection of the spirituality or power of such objects, but when you don’t go so far, what options are there?1

Reliquary showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reliquary showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By way of answer Simon took us through the positions of two twelfth-century writers, Guibert of Nogent in his De pignoribus sanctorum and Goscelin of St-Bertin’s Liber confortationis.2 Guibert has some scepticism about relics, all right, and stresses that the object that is most real in its holiness is the Eucharist, compared to which everything else in the physical world is rather one- dimensional and of course, may not be real, whereas with the Eucharist you always know it’s Christ. Goscelin was walking a rather more difficult line, in as much as he was writing spiritual fortification to an anchoress, a woman whom he had known before her enclosure; his approach, that she was herself now a living relic, an object made holy and put beyond life in the world by its ‘burial’, does not remove the clear sense of personal connection he felt to her and indeed missed. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a lot of the questions were about agency, a theme that Simon had briefly brought up at the beginning of the paper. A living object obviously still has some agency, even if within four close walls it’s somewhat constrained; she could not have written back, for example. Relics also raise this issue, however, as tokens of a holy presence whose whole point is that it retained power to cause action in the world.

Blocked entry to an anchoress's cell in the north wall of St James's Shere, Surrey

Blocked entry to an anchoress’s cell in the north wall of St James’s Shere, Surrey

As a result, Simon’s position that objects only act as wielded by persons seemed to me to butt against his initial and sharp observation that our sources only let us see the psychological effects of objects on our authors rather than any real action, or, rather, to form a circle with it. Perhaps it’s just that I have seen the clever people at In the Medieval Middle invoke Deleuze and Actor Network Theory by way of giving objects agency too many times not to wonder whether the position Simon took gives us a full picture of the way medieval people experienced the material world (and perhaps he would say that we can’t get one with the sources we have). Also it’s that when the agency of relics comes up I think of Charles West’s excellent paper about mystery relics at ninth-century Dijon that threw people to the floor with an invisible force no-one dared identify, a brilliant case because reported to us not as propaganda but as a request for help from the person trying to deal with it.3 Because this interests me, and because I wanted my new colleagues to know I could think, I may have made more of a nuisance of myself in questions than was entirely fair, since this wasn’t the particular point of the paper, but I still think it’s interesting to think about and Simon’s thoughts made it all the more imperative to join in.

1. Simon cited William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: a study in human nature (London 1902) here; it’s online, if you want to look.

2. Guibert’s work is translated in his Monodies and On the Relics of Saints. The Autobiography and a Manifesto of a French Monk from the Time of the Crusades, transl. Joseph Mcalhany & Jay Rubinstein (London 2011); Goscelin’s can be found as Liber Confortatorius: the Book of Encouragement and Consolation, transl. Monika Utter (Woodbridge 2004, repr. 2012).

3. See Charles West, “Unauthorised miracles in mid-ninth-century Dijon and the Carolingian church reforms” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2010), pp. 295-311.

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