Tag Archives: relics

Seminar CCV: tracking the head of John the Baptist

I proffer my usual apologies for the intermittent service here at the moment. I had hoped that the holidays would give time for blog catch-up but I am between even more places than usual this Christmas and have also been contriving to get about 1,500 words a day of book written and an article finished off and ready to submit, and I’m loath to mess with the magic… Nonetheless, tonight I have some time and so I can tell you about going to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on 14th May 2014 to hear Dr Georges Kazan speak to the title, “The Head of St John the Baptist: Byzantium and the Circulation of Relics in the Early Middle Ages”.

View from the west of the church of Sv. Ioan Prodrom, Sveti Ivan, Bulgaria

View from the west of the church of Sv. Ioan Prodrom, Sveti Ivan, Bulgaria. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov

This was an unusual paper, not least because the speaker confessed himself out of his area of expertise almost immediately and then turned out to know an awful lot. Dr Kazan’s expertise is archæological, and specifically he knows a lot about reliquary types and designs, especially in the Byzantine world. But reliquaries are what they are only because they contain things connected with saints, and that gets you into the world of hagiography, that most tricky and unreliable of genres. Plucking up his courage after getting involved in the Bulgarian find of relics that were immediately hailed as John the Baptist’s at Sveti Ivan near Sozopol in 2010, as reported sceptically here indeed, Dr Kazan had tried using the texts to tell him what relics of St John the Baptist were around in the early Middle Ages and where, and had been pretty exhaustive in breadth about it.

Supposed relic of the skull of St John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Supposed relic of the skull of St John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

The first thing that surprised me about this catalogue is that it was surprisingly unambitious till about 800. Despite John’s fame, his head was not claimed by anyone until the end of the fourth century, although then there were two, in Alexandria and in Constantinople. Other places claimed to have unspecified relics of his and it is possible to guess that these might in fact have been coming from Constantinople, not least because the Sveti Ivan relics were in a reliquary of a type that was exported from there in some numbers. In about 800 a third head came to light, however, and by 814 a fourth one (claimed to be the same one) was in Rome, and after that it begins to get silly: there are, to Dr Kazan’s knowledge, thirty-six claimed heads of John the Baptist currently preserved in whole or in part, and a hundred and thirty-seven relics of him in general, with sixty-seven other cases now lost. All this is exactly why I was sceptical about the Sozopol claim, though I didn’t know the numbers. Interestingly, however, that has been radio-carboned and DNA-tested and comes out (at least the human bones in the casket, which were accompanied by lots more including animal bones 500 years older) as bone from a Middle Eastern male alive in the first century A. D., so at the very least it was a suitably-old body the makers piled in there…

The supposed relics of St John the Baptist as discovered at Sveti Ivan, in the sarcophagus that contained them

Not that there was very much of him… The relics as discovered, in the sarcophagus. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov.

That was the second thing that surprised me, and the third was that, with excruciating effort, it was more or less possible for Dr Kazan to construct a story that more or less reconciled all the different snippets of hagiography up till 800.1 In that construction, that of the chronicler Rufinus of Aquileia, the body of St John was first reported at Sebaste in Palestine, when with that of the prophet Elisha it was attacked by pagans during Emperor Julian’s persecutions in 361. It was gathered up and brought to Jerusalem for safety, then to Alexandria, then back to Jerusalem in 362, by which time the body had been divided; it was then established in a martyrium in Alexandria (again!) in 395. On the other hand, in the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, monks who had found the head in the mid-fourth century were reported to be venerating it in Cilicia during the reign of the Emperor Valens; Valens ordered them brought to Constantinople but the mules pulling the cart would go no further than Cosilaos, where a new cult was set up and whence Emperor Theodosius I removed the relics in 391, taking them to Constantinople where they were established in a church at the Hebdomon.2 The thing that makes this all just about possible is the first story’s insistence that there were two bodies at Sebaste and that they were burnt and broken up; after that, how to know which head was which? Both groups could have believed they had the right one. Of course, then there come the heads of 800, one supposedly located in the ruins of Herod the Great’s palace by yet more monks and stolen off to Emesa by parties unknown, who sealed it into an urn that became the property of an Arian healer, who hid it in a cave when his quackery was revealed and he was run out of the town. The cave got used by hermits, who eventually turned up the urn in 453, and passed it on to a monastery back in Emesa in 753. This was the head that was claimed to be at Rome in 800 but was unfortunately also still attested at Emesa in 814, so by then things have got silly but before 800 the details we have that are not fantastic are not in themselves clearly contradictory.

Supposed relic of part of the head of John the Baptist in the Residenz, Münich

Supposed relic of part of the head of John the Baptist in the Residenz, Münich. By LarryB55 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the fact that that is possible does not mean that any of it is true, and the fantastic details do present a problem or two here, ones that may be more apparent to the textual scholar than the archæologist. In the first place, the deposition of the bodies at Sebaste is hard to take in Rufinus’s terms because we have very little sign otherwise of persecution under Julian, rather than just cutting funding. In the second place, of course, it is completely unclear how many of these details could possibly have been known by the people who would have to have hold the story; in the case of the Emesa head most of that is frankly impossible (and this Dr Kazan freely acknowledged). To do any more one would need to know a lot more about the manuscript situation of each of the texts (Rufinus, at least, not being preserved in any version earlier than the seventh century, surely affecting what his redactors knew to be ‘true’ about such matters, and you already know what I think about Sozomen’s critical faculty) but Dr Kazan had not gone any further than the nineteenth-century editions, so there that matter had to rest. At this rate, to accept any of the details as any more than a fortunate stab in the dark by an inventive hagiographer is pretty much unjustifiable, so the body part maths doesn’t really get us very far, and what we are left with is more or less where Dr Kazan had started, the Sozopol sarcophagus and its siblings.

Reliquary box which contained supposed relics of St John the Baptist, found at Sveti Ivan

The reliquary with its lid on. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov.

By Dr Kazan’s account, pressed from him in questions by Charlotte Roueché, Alan Thacker and Caroline Goodson, these kinds of reliquaries were made in Asia Minor half-finished and finished wherever they were needed, but the best finishing was done in Constantinople. They often contained metal caskets, although both the stone shells and the caskets are found separately. They were not necessarily reliquaries, but were almost always put to funerary purposes and so make sense for that use. It would seem that Constantinople had quite the trade in these things going on, so that by the fifteenth century relics with a Constantinopolitan provenance were considered automatically suspect. Nonetheless, it was and had been for a long time one of the kinds of status Constantinople had to offer people. The trouble was, I think these were things that Dr Kazan had known already before starting research for this paper. It was delivered sincerely and contained a great deal of interesting information, but very little of it was information on which a historian could put any weight, and sadly that is a state of the record which further finds are unlikely to fix.3


1. Happily for me given the state of my notes, Dr Kazan seems to have had most of these references worked up for a conference he organised in the Sozopol finds in Oxford in 2011, which I completely missed but whose papers are now online. I get most of the textual references following from Dr Kazan’s own “The Head of St John the Baptist—the early evidence”, and the site details and a number of the images in this post from Rossina Kostova, Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Tom Higham, “Relics of the Baptist: Scientific research planned for the finds excavated in Sozopol, Bulgaria in 2010 (Radiocarbon Dating, DNA testing)”.

2. Rufinus of Aquileia, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. Theodor Mommsen in Eusebius, Werke, ed. Eduard Schwartz (Leipzig 1903-1909), II: Die Kirchengeschichte – die lateinische Übersetzung des Rufinus, II.28; an earlier translation is here. Other later historians also report this, and are listed in Kazan, “John the Baptist”, p. 2, but all seem to be working from Rufinus. Sozomen, who worked explicitly to correct Rufinus, is edited in Sozomène, Histoire ecclésiastique, ed. J. Bidez, trans. André-Jean Festugière & rev. Bernard Grillet (Paris 1983-96), and in older English online here, VII.21.

3. Kostova, Popkonstantinov & Higham, “Relics of the Baptist”, cites as publication of the excavation K. Popkonstantinov et al., ‘Srednovekoven manastir “Sv. Ioan Prodrom” na ostrov ”Sv. Ivan”, Sozopol’ in Arheologičeski otkritija i razkopki za 2009 godina (Sofia 2010), pp. 595-599.

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.

Seminar CLXV: getting at the saints in medieval England

Juxtaposed thirteenth- and nineteenth-century stained-glass depictions of pilgrims at the shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury, from the cathedral there

Juxtaposed thirteenth- and nineteenth-century stained-glass depictions of pilgrims at the shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury, from the cathedral there; image from Wikimedia Commons

It’s not that there are no seminars about medieval matters in Oxford that don’t focus on England, you understand, and it’s not even that more specific seminars like the After Rome seminar or the Late Roman and Byzantine seminars draw away non-English content, it’s just that for some reason during Spring 2013 I seem only to have made it to English-focused papers. The next of these was at the Medieval History Seminar on 10th February 2013, and it was Anne Bailey of Harris Manchester College presenting with the title, “Reconsidering ‘The Medieval Experience at the Shrine’ in High-Medieval England”. This is out of my area of interest, you might think, and so it is to an extent, but it did two things I always appreciate, these being firstly to try and set out a sound basis for imagining medieval lives and actions in the kind of depth in which we can actually immerse ourselves, the real choreography of action in the medieval world, and secondly to use the ability to count to attack badly-founded generalisations that have nonetheless stood unchallenged for years. Since Miss Bailey had provided a sterling example of one of these at the start of her number-filled handout, I’ll quote it so as to identify the target:

“A modern visitor, magically transported to the darkened crypt of this ancient church, would probably be astonished, if not repelled, by the sight of wretched cripples writhing on the floor at Becket’s simple tomb, by the screams of fettered madmen straining at their bonds and the low moans of lepers and the blind, and by the characteristic odour of the Middle Ages, the stench of poverty and disease. The pious would pray nosily in the dancing shadows of the crypt or offer their hard-won pennies and home-made candles. An uncouth youth gesticulates wildly as he tries to explain his miraculous cure to the monk in charge of the tomb; he knows no Latin, no French, and his English dialect is scarcely comprehensible to the guardian-monk….”1

This is indubitably imaginative, but is its imagination well-founded? The fact that at the end of the paragraph of my notes in which this trope is introduced I find the mystic sigils, “O RLY!” will give you an early idea where Miss Bailey was going. In particular she was interested in testing the idea that people could actually get so close to saints’ tombs, and that contact with the relics was as important as it is usually taken to be. So, in order to test this she did the numbers: having painstakingly explained the differing contexts and backgrounds of the cults concerned, she counted up the miracles recorded for St Modwenna of Burton, St James’s Hand at Reading, St Aldhelm at Malmesbury, St John of Beverley, St Æbbe of Coldingham, St Swithun of Winchester, St Ivo of Ramsey, St Æthelthryth of Ely, St Anselm of Canterbury, St Gilbert of Sempringham and St William of Norwich.2 This is a pretty good range and has two particular assets worth mentioning: firstly, we have here both saints whose relics were in raised shrines and saints whose relics were in tombs, inaccessible in the ground, which ought to make a difference but (spoiler) doesn’t, and secondly it does not include St Thomas á Becket, the largest outlier, always safer.

The Hand of St James as once culted at Reading, back there briefly in 2012

The Hand of St James as once culted at Reading, back there briefly in 2012

In total, anyway, this gives one 173 stories, and Miss Bailey discovered that of those 173, as far as the hagiographers allow us to tell a mere 18 actually happened in proximity to the relics. 10 of those occurred on feast days when the relics were being processed, and several of the others involved someone who had obtained special permission to be near the shrine. Only in 1 case of the 173 did someone actually touch the reliquary, this being Aldhelm’s as it happened, and even then the outside of the reliquary is as close as they got. Furthermore, a number of the miracles are recorded at places where the saints weren’t: in both Æbbe’s and Ivo’s case there was a secondary site, evidently manned and even set up to receive visitors, at the place where the saints’ relics were found, and that place retained its attraction even once the body was taken elsewhere.

Kirkhill, St Abb's Head, Scotland, site of the <i>Urbs coludi</i> where StÆbbe's relics were supposedly found in 1118

Kirkhill, St Abb’s Head, Scotland, site of the Urbs coludi where St Æbbe’s relics were supposedly found in 1118, photo shamelessly borrowed from Tim Clarkson’s excellent post at Senchus about her cult. Not much to see now!

That last aspect opens up the question, much debated in discussion, of how far these centres were aimed at actually attracting pilgrims, something which we often assume but which was, for Miss Bailey at least, hard to see in these texts except in the ever-distorting case of Becket. It’s obviously not that people didn’t want to visit the saints; the way that they evidently went where they were allowed to, the invention shrines already mentioned, and that some attempt was made to provide hospitality there shows that there was both demand and supply, but for the most part the supply seems to have been fairly grudging: the monks and canons here were more interested in keeping pilgrims away from the shrines so that they could get on with their actual work of worship than in flogging them tokens and rolling in the sick and crippled so as to advertise their curing saint’s powers. This, arguably, would change, and it may even have been the runaway success of Becket’s cult that changed it. The fact that Catholic affective piety is now very strongly focused on contact with the bodies of the saints, as we saw in England when John Henry Newman was beatified a few years ago or as any visitor to a Greek or Italian shrine (like St Catherine’s in Siena for example) would see full force, and arguably has been since the sixteenth century, should not lead us to thinking that it was ever thus, and Miss Bailey would put the change after the period she was looking at.

Plan of the crypt of Hexham Abbey, with detail of reused Roman inscriptions in it

Plan of the crypt of Hexham Abbey, with detail of reused Roman inscription in it

At the time this made me think only one thing, which was that perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if a good number of miracles happened on saints’ feast days, simply because there would then have been more people at the church both to witness and to be the beneficiary of miracles. I’m less sure now than I was then that this matters very much: Miss Bailey’s point that this was when the saints might be brought out is surely more significant. What it now makes me think, though, is that we see in the St Gall Plan and in the archæological work done at Hexham Abbey, the latter implying similar cases in the Continental houses where Hexham’s founder St Wilfrid had trained, set-ups in which access to the crypt spaces was carefully channelled either from outside the actual church building or, at the imaginary version of St Gall, from outside the monks’ part of the church, into and out of the space occupied by the tomb.3 (The canonical plan of the Hexham crypt above notes one of the routes into the crypt as the pilgrims’ one and the other as the monks’ but the notes on the St Gall Plan make me think that a one-way system is more likely; at both St Gall and Hexham, after all, there was also access from the presbytery directly above.) That suggests to me an intention to supply the access to the relics that Bede, certainly, and perhaps Continental hagiographers too, make it clear that worshippers wanted, again without disturbing the usual monastic round too much. In that case we might have a change before Miss Bailey’s period too, and it would be interesting to pin down when. My guess would be the tenth century, but of course it would, wouldn’t it?4


1. Ronald Finucane, Miracles and Pilgrims: popular beliefs in medieval England (London 1977), pp. 9-10; the other target here was the more recent work evoked in the title, Ben Nilsson, “The Medieval Experience at the Shrine” in Jennie Stopford (ed.), Pilgrimage Explored (Woodbridge 1999), pp. 95-122.

2. The handout gives full edition details but that would be a long footnote even for me, as well as esentially publishing Miss Bailey’s references for her. I can provide details if people are interested, but it may settle some people’s minds to know that this total included both William Ketell’s collection of miracles of St John and another anonymous one and divided up the count for St William between his three shrines.

3. On the St Gall Plan the masterwork is Walter Horn, Ernest Born & Wolfgang Braunfels (edd.), The Plan of St. Gall: A Study of the Architecture and Economy and Life in a Paradigmatic Carolingian Monastery (Berkeley 1979), 3 vols, though one might start with the smaller Lorna Price, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief: An Overview Based on the Work by Walter Horn and Ernest Born (Berkeley 1982) or of course the excellent website already linked. For Hexham see Eric Cambridge & A. Williams, “Hexham Abbey: a review of recent work and its implications” in Archaeologia Aeliana 5th series Vol. 23 (Newcastle 1995), pp. 51-138. The reading of the St Gall Plan here, I should confess, I’m pulling largely from a Kalamazoo paper by Lynda Coon (reported on here) and reflected in her book, Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West (Philadelphia 2011), which is not to say that I would necessarily accept everything she says there about the deeper meanings of the way space is laid out in the Plan. I don’t know anyone else who has put so much work into working out the traffic flows through the imaginary church, though.

4. I think of course of the Benedictine reform movement of the tenth century that would seek, among other goals, to exclude the laity more thoroughly from pure monastic practice: see Catherine Cubitt, ‘The Tenth-Century Benedictine Reform in England’ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 6 (Oxford 1997), pp. 77–94, or Julia Barrow, “The Ideology of the Tenth-Century English Benedictine ‘Reform'” in Patricia Skinner (ed.), Challenging the Boundaries of Medieval History: the legacy of Timothy Reuter, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 22 (Turnhout 2009), pp. 141-154.

Treasures of Heaven as seen from earth

Term in Oxford started early this year, and as a consequence is now over. (If you work anywhere else in higher education, I’m sorry to dangle that in front of you.) This term has been energising but also frantic, and I’ve not been coping well with the to-do lists outside of teaching because various bits of my family have needed a lot of attention in the background, as well my general disorganisation. To stay afloat in my seven to eight hours contact time a week across six different courses, it does rather seem as if I had to sacrifice blogging, and indeed social e-mail. Well, I’m now sort of caught up on sleep and so I’m going to try and get some posts up. I have loads part-written, so hopefully this isn’t a vain promise, because after all I have a heck of a backlog. And first in it, chronologically, is the fact that I went to see the British Museum’s exhibition about saints’ relics in the Middle Ages, Treasures of Heaven on the 8th October last year, narrowly before it closed, and I wanted to say a few things about it.

Cover of the catalogue of the British Museum's exhibition Treasures of Heaven

Cover of the catalogue of the exhibition, showing the reliquary of an unknown female saint who became the face of the exhibition, and whose actual picture is firmly copyrighted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she now once more resides

I thought this was a very good exhibition, actually—and I suppose I should mention that one of my best friends helped set it up, so I may be biased, but they had no control over what went in or how it was displayed—but not everyone I’ve spoken has agreed. There’s no question that explaining the cult of relics, or even the cult of saints more broadly, to a modern secular audience is problematic; the beatification of Cardinal Henry Newman a few years ago put this in front of the journalists and it’s still true. This is an affair mainly of belief, of ideas and notions that are largely intangible – an identifiable person in Heaven with whom the believer has some basis to feel a connection, and whom they can therefore use or conceive of as a conduit to Heaven that has special personal relevance and personal effectiveness.1 I can say that, but if you don’t believe in Heaven or worry about your salvation, then it’s still not going to be easy to take on board. Some people I’ve spoken to don’t seem to think that the British Museum tried hard enough to get the ideas across. My immediate reaction to that, as an ex-museum person, is to bluster about how hard it is to represent ideas with objects, but actually, for a start that’s exactly what these objects were for, and secondly, on reflection, I think the BM did a pretty darn good job of it, actually (and my museums experience has not always inclined me to speak kindly of the BM, so it costs me something to admit this).

A Roman votive plaque on show at the Musée du Louvre

A Roman votive plaque on show at the Musée du Louvre; not so many of the actual objects from the BM exhibition are online, and this one actually makes my point better as it's not Christian. It's also from Wikimedia Commons. The guy had problems with his eyes and a foot, it seems.

Reliquary of the Holy Thorn of Jean, Duc de Berry

Reliquary of the Holy Thorn of Jean, Duc de Berry, from Wikimedia Commons; click through for a British Museum video presentation of it

So they started with burial customs in the Roman world, and included as well as the ornamental sarcophagi that help give some idea of an Antique afterlife to the viewer, some votive plaques that open up the idea of communicating with it. Now after that, I will admit, it all went maps for a bit and I’m not sure the average viewer will have understood why they were important; I suppose that the idea was quite literally to put Christianity on the map and thus explain how ideas born in the Middle East came to be of such relevance in the areas that the exhibition largely featured, which were substantially Germany and the Low Countries although many other places too. But the context was set quite early, and after that it became much more of an art-historical progress than a religious-historical progress. I thought this was fair enough, because most of the objects were amazingly beautiful, and the mere fact that people had put that much effort and feeling into creating treasure houses for tiny bits of dead people was itself pretty religious, and there were changes in the way people worshipped revealed in the way the relics were housed, displayed and set up for use, not least because the objects displayed deliberately overlapped the Reformation and printing, and the captioning brought those out.

It’s not that I had no problems with the exhibition at all, obviously, this is me. I would have liked a few more instances of relics that weren’t body parts or bits of the True Cross, but instead things like dust and stones from the Holy Land, and so forth. There were some of these, but they were easily missed, especially as there was a number of containers for such things on display from which the actual relics had long been removed. Of course, such objects were kept bagged and even if displayed the viewer wouldn’t be able to see what they were, so I can see why not, but they were, it seems, by far the commonest sort of relic, so I thought that could have been further up front.2 There were also some issues with actual display I had. In particular I kept finding myself crouching at the edges of cases, because the lighting from above seemed to work best if one viewed the objects from below – that presumably can’t have been the intent. I know how hard this is to do, of course, especially when one’s objects are so damn shiny, but also not least when there are fabrics and perishables involved that you mustn’t subject to bright light. All the same, I expect the BM to get these things right, and I personally felt that these were only nearly right. Is the answer perhaps small lights at the corners of the cases, sometimes?

Relic shroud of St Amandus from Salzburg Cathedral

Relic shroud of St Amandus from Salzburg Cathedral; this was on display, but the image is borrowed from Columbia University, whose zoomable version is linked through. The actual fabric, unlike St Amand, is Middle Eastern

The other thing that niggled was the persistent recurrence of the phrase, “It was thought…” to explain the beliefs behind the pieces. This became especially tricky as we approached the Reformation but it also made absolutely everyone implied by the phrase as credulous as each other. Now, when students try and tell me, Terry Jones style, that medieval Christianity was basically a massive scam dream up by the Church to feather its own nest by encouraging fearful donations, those students do not fare well, but nonetheless, saints’ cults were huge earners sometimes, and people involved in them did do things to maximise their cults’ popularity and saleability.3 And if you read, for example, Chaucer, you can find people mocking this, well before Calvin’s bit about there being enough fragments of the True Cross in Europe to build a warship. Not everyone, even if Christian, reckoned all this stuff to be genuine. So, sometimes I’d have been happier to see, “It was claimed that…” or even “Some claimed that…” in these labels, just to put a bit of an edge on this `Age of Faith’ interpretation. But, mainly, I thought this exhibition was an amazing treasure house, and one that (unlike some others) it was just about possible to tour in one go. Also, the exhibition catalogue, which I caught on half price (and so can you), is absolutely gorgeous, and even if it does contain another piece on saints’ cults by Arnold Angenendt—which I’m sure many people think is a good thing—there is lots of interesting writing alongside the amazing objects.4 So I’ll finish this with a selection of some of the objects I was most struck by (where images of them are legitimately available on the open web, at least).

Bell shrine of St Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel

Bell shrine of St Conall Cael, Abbot of Inishkeel, fifteenth-century shrine round a seventh-to-eighth-century bell; again, from Columbia Art Museum's Treasures of Heaven pages

Chapel of St MacDara, St MacDara's Island

Chapel of St MacDara, St MacDara's Island

I liked this one so much not because it is individually special, though it is, but because the label in the case with it stuck it next to the church I’ve shown it with here, in the same kind of juxtaposition, and the similarity of form did more than words could have done to put the intentional echoes actually before one and in a quite literally founded way. I would have been well pleased with coming up with that idea.

Reliquary shrine of St Gondulph

Reliquary shrine of St Gondulph, image at Columbia University

Reliquary shrine of St Monulph

Reliquary shrine of St Monulph, likewise from Columbia University, full zoomable version linked through

These, which are twelfth-century reliquaries of two bishops of Maastricht, I just loved because, as the catalogue says, each of the dead bishops is, “twisting energetically as if ready to leap from his tomb”.5 As the resurrected Saved would presumably be pleased to do! Full of personality, these.

Man of Sorrows reliquary cabinet from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome

Man of Sorrows reliquary cabinet from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, here from Columbia University and therefore again linked through to a zoomable version which is totally worth the time you'll spend goggling at it

And this because it has so many things going on: papal sponsorship, robbing of Byzantium (because the icon—which is a mosaic!—is Byzantine but the case is Italian from decades later), non-physical relics (not that you can tell, as I admitted above) and immense artistry for a fairly small audience. If this was shared, it was shared among a very select group of people. The best of this exhibition for me was, thus, a way to step harmlessly into the private devotions of a great many people to whom these objects were more than just treasure.


1. The entry text for this whole phenomenon is undoubtedly Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity (London 1981), which is one of those books that decides students on an academic career, so brilliant is it.

2. I make that assertion based largely on a couple of papers I’ve seen Julia Smith give about such objects, but as yet I think the only part of that research that’s published is “Rulers and Relics c.750-c.950: Treasure on Earth, Treasure in Heaven” in Andrew Walsham (ed.), Relics and Remains, Past and Present Supplement 5 (Oxford 2010), pp. 73-96, so what this means is that I might have got this fact wrong as I can’t look it up where I think I got it yet.

3. For that sort of shenanigan, your book of reference should be Patrick Geary’s Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca 1994), which is kind of a bumper resource for weird-seeming medieval customs involving dead people.

4. To give it its full citation, Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann & James Robinson (edd.), Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion on medieval Europe (London 2011), including Arnold Angenendt, “Relics and their Veneration”, pp. 19-28, which I will up and admit might be excellent as I haven’t yet read it.

5. Martina Bagnoli, “Reliquary of St. Gondulph” and “Reliquary of St. Monulph”, ibid. p. 177. They abbreviate “St.” thus throughout, even though it’s not a suspension so shouldn’t carry the stop. Is this a concession to American usage?

Excellentissima et merito famosissima historica II

RM Monogramme

Back again in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre atop Blue Boar Court in Trinity College, Cambridge, I really regretted the no-caffeine resolve when I just about got to the second day of Rosamond McKitterick’s birthday celebration conference on time. Trinity is a very odd mix of styles internally, and really I think it would be fair to call it an odd mix of styles generally. It is full of odd little contradictions to its general ambience and attitude, and some of them are architectural. But anyway. We were safe away from the street, in fact from pretty much everything, so we settled into our seats and listened to the tributary scholarship.

Opening page of the St Petersburg manuscript of Bedes Historia Ecclesiastica

Opening page of the St Petersburg manuscript of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica

Session 3. History and Memory

  • Paul Hilliard, “Bede’s Use of History”. A nice clear summation of how Bede’s programme to incorporate the Anglo-Saxons into a universal history of Salvation actually operated, logically.
  • Linda Dohmen, “History and Memory: Angilberga and the court of Louis II”. A close study of the public profile of the wife of the third Holy Roman Emperor, one of the most powerful women of the early Middle Ages, who by the twelfth century, in certain chronicles, a figure of feminine evil, Jezebel-style (and where have we heard that before?). Linda presented some extra material that showed that this discourse was not completely fictional, and found the roots in eighth-century politics that had been twisted into romance, which make it hard to discern whether the stories would have been heard as romance or as history.
  • Rob Meens, “The Rise and Fall of the Carolingians. Regino of Prüm and his conception of the Carolingian Empire”. A useful presentation of one of the Carolingian period’s gloomiest but most informative chroniclers, arguing that Regino saw the Carolingians’ fall as being brought about by their mismanagement of the proper restraint of sex and violence in due deference to Rome that had brought them to power.
  • In questions Matthew Innes made the excellent point that one of the things that the chroniclers dealing with the Vikings do is emphasise the way things have gone topsy-turvy by putting the Vikings in the narrative places of the king; instead of royal itineraries and victories you get pagan ones, and the whole world seems shaken out of joint as a result. I wonder how deliberate this would have to be but it’s very sharply observed. I wish, for various reasons, I could catch up with Matthew more often, he has a point like this for almost every discussion.

Psalter of St-Denis, also known as the Psalter of Charles the Bald, Paris BN Lat. 1152, fo 6v.

Psalter of St-Denis, also known as the Psalter of Charles the Bald, Paris BN Lat. 1152, fo 6v.

Session 4. Res italica karolina

  • Richard Pollard, “Carolingian Connexions: Reichenau and Nonantola. A new manuscript fragment of Hatto’s Visio wettini“. Seriously complex manuscript stuff trying to work out how the two different versions of this rather odd and surprisingly contemporary text about Charlemagne in Purgatory actually relate to each other, and in the process thickening the links we already knew between these two Carolingian mega-monasteries.
  • Clemens Gantner, “The Lombard Recension of the Liber pontificalis Life of Stephen II”. Posited that a part of the LP‘s assembly of papal biographies might have been sanitised of its ethnic abuse and general anti-Lombard rhetoric for the eighth-century political situation in which Lombard support started to seem desirable to the popes, again demonstrated by painstaking manuscript work. This one met with sceptical questions but Clemens was equal to them with the evidence.
  • Frances Parton, “Louis the Pious, Lothar and Gregory IV: why was the Pope at the Field of Lies?” By means of a very thorough run-through of the texts, Frances showed that there is considerable uncertainty about Pope Gregory IV’s purpose in coming from Rome to assist Emperor Louis the Pious’s sons in deposing their father, and concluded that while Gregory had seen an opportunity to restore the papal status as arbiter of the Frankish monarchy Lothar had had much smaller ideas for him and kept him from having any such rôle. This also met some tough questions, almost as many of which were answered by Charles West as were asked, if not the other way about, but one thing that was made clear to us all is that Nithard, and possibly other writers of the time, were definitely thinking of the papal approval of Pippin III’s kingship in 751 when they wrote up the doings of 833.

Then there was a really quite nice lunch, and then back to battle/s!

Sarcophagus and crypt of St-Bénigne de Dijon

Sarcophagus and crypt of St-Bénigne de Dijon

Session 5. Trouble and Trouble-Makers

  • Charles West, “Possessing Power. Unauthorised miracles and Dijon, c. 842″. Keen observers may recognise this title—I certainly lost no time in taxing Charles about it because I’m nice like that—but this was actually a markedly different paper, albeit about the same miraculous episode, largely because Charles had now been able to consult the manuscript that sources it and found it to be probably contemporary and rather out of place in its binding; though a later cover appeared to have been made for it out of a redundant notarial instrument, the actual libellus that tells of the strange events at Dijon in 842 may well be the very one that Bishop Theobald of Langres received from Archbishop Amilo of Lyons and therefore presumably travelled as a letter between the two. The other new emphasis was on the parish structures which Amilo apparently thought, even in 842, should be absorbing these people’s religious energy and piety, rather than crazy cult sites with politically-charged ownership issues. For one small text there’s a huge amount of potential here, I envy Charles the find.
  • James Palmer, “Apocalypticism, Computus and the Crisis of 809″. A series of well-aimed kicks at the idea that there was a widespread belief in the years leading up to 800 that that was going to be year 6000 anno mundi and therefore the end of everything, largely as expressed by Richard Landes. James’s position basically is that there is no conspiracy but there are a lot of people really interested in time and how you reckon it. In making this stand, however, he also dismantled in passing a number of the pro-millennial arguments which was a joy to hear. The significance of 809 is that in that year computistical experts were consulted by Charlemagne and his ecclesiastics on the age of the world, according to a council record, but that came on the back of two years’ famine and a defeat by the Slavs so the date may not have been the big issue. I think we all finished this paper remaining comfortably convinced that 800 was a Carolingian high point, not a year everyone spent waiting for the sky to fall on their heads.
  • These darn summaries are getting longer as I warm up. Let’s see if I can keep this under control.

  • Elina Screen, “Adalhard the Seneschal: troublemaker?” As one of the really important nobles of the time of the war between Louis the Pious’s sons, Adalhard has been seen as a kind of destabilising kingmaker figure. Here Elina argued the opposite, that as a kind of ‘shuttle diplomat’ he was frequently one of the few forces holding the fragile confederacy of brother monarchs together, largely because he had so very much to lose if it broke. She rightly pointed out in the course of this that an awful lot of the terminology we use to describe the politics of the mid-ninth century is straight from the Cold War: summit meetings, shuttle diplomats, and so on. I’m not sure what that does for our perspectives, because it does look like that in the sources…

At this point, what should have been the closing remarks were shunted forwards to allow the relevant speaker to make a plane connection, so we were next treated to:

  • Mayke de Jong, “Rosamond McKitterick and the Frankish Church”.
  • This was more of a personal tribute than an academic one, but one of the things Mayke noted is that in a climate of scepticism Rosamond’s early work always took religion seriously and that this is a great strength. And this is true, but more widely, one of Rosamond’s greatest strengths of character is that she takes people, generally, seriously. The fact that one of the most notable professors with whom I’ve ever had contact listens to my ideas and thoughts as if they might be interesting and insightful has helped me wrestle down the imposter syndrome more often than I can tell you, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one. This is one thing I didn’t manage to say in my personal thanks to her so I’ll put it here.

By now people were already gently and quietly making their farewells. People had come from Scotland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA and Israel, as well as many points of England, and there were planes and trains necessary to catch. Pity, because the last session was just as interesting as any of the others.

Roman tuba or military trumpet

Roman tuba or military trumpet

Session 6. Taxes, Trumpets and Texts

  • David Pratt, “Taxation and Origins of the Manor in England”. While this paper was not an exception to the statement I just made, because Dr Pratt’s erudition is considerable, I have friends who are a lot more sceptical about the solidity of the terms that litter Anglo-Saxon economic history for the sorts of land that were recognised in law than this, and there was also a somewhat apocalyptic rôle for knight service which didn’t seem to have heard Nicholas Brooks’s new evidence about the date of its introduction. So I’ll forebear from further comment except to say that really, the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminars are worth attending if you can, but almost all the Cambridge people only go if they’re speaking. I think exposure to Sally Harvey’s and Professor Brooks’s papers would have made this one a different shape.
  • Jesse Billett, “Theuto’s Trumpet: the cantor in the Carolingian Renaissance”. A very unusual paper, as papers on chant usually are, not least because they are usually given by people who aren’t afraid to actually sing their subject, Dr Billett being no exception. Here he focused on one particular mention of a cantor with a trumpet in Ermold the Black‘s In honorem Hludowici and concluded that the usage was probably metaphorical, associating the poem’s military victories, which both mention real trumpets, with the spiritual one of the baptism of the Danish royal Harald Klak in 826.
  • Matthew Innes, “The Carolingians and the Archival World: charters and their preservation in the ninth-century Mâconnais—and beyond”. I actually can’t say too much about this one because it was a Lay Archives paper, and I have caused trouble before by talking too much about the Lay Archives project. You can see from his title that my work overlaps with Matthew’s here and this is something that I think we would have wished to avoid, had better communication been possible. Suffice to say that half the paper was stuff I knew nothing about and was fascinating, and of the remaining fifty per cent half is not yet agreed between us… But Matthew’s stuff is as I say always fascinating so wherever this one actually comes out it will be worth the read. (The papers should be printed; but I believe this one may be spoken for already.)

Final questions were fewer, largely because there weren’t many people left to ask them. The closing remarks were given by Walter Pohl, who made the excellent point that while the gathering had been advertised as a Festschrift, that obviously didn’t make a lot of sense to a German-speaker and he proposed instead calling it a Schriftfest, which we all thought worked a lot better. He also emphasised that the sort of open comparison of perspectives in friendship that we’d been able to do these two days was the best way to advance scholarship, and replete with that assurance, we all went our separate ways. I’m very glad to have been able to be part of all this. As long as I’m still in Cambridge it’s nice to be able to join in sometimes, and this was very good to join in with.

Excellentissima et merito famosissima historica I

At last the truth can be revealed. Why was I writing a paper about nuns all of a sudden? Why hadn’t it been in the sidebar as my next due paper? What was all the foreshadowing in that earlier post about? Now it can be told.

RM Monogramme

Very recently Professor Rosamond McKitterick had a significant birthday and, seeing this coming from some way off, various of her students had had the idea of a birthday conference. This, and its title which forms the subject header, was largely the brainchild of Richard Pollard, who also designed the monogram you see above and generally did the bulk of the donkey-work while the rest of us who were in one way or another participating kept quiet, tried not to tell ask anyone for help that wouldn’t be able to do similarly and, in the case of David McKitterick, her husband, made sure she kept the relevant weekend free without explaining why. And duly at 14:00 on September 12th she was escorted into Trinity College in Cambridge and found a gathering of about forty of her fellows, erstwhile and current students there basically to say thanks. As the person in that gathering with, I think, the longest hair other than Rosamond herself, and possibly one or two of the younger women, I feel myself uniquely qualified to say, “there was a whole lot of love in that room, man”. She’s had an awful lot of students and a lot of them have gone on to be important themselves. Some of us still hoping, also. But, well, it’s a conference. With due discretion and all that, obviously I’m still gonna blog it, if only to list the names…

Rosamond McKitterick, Professor of Medieval History and Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

Rosamond McKitterick, Professor of Medieval History and Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

The folder I have my notes stashed in has the monogram on the front. It contains a short biography of Rosamond, the programme, a map and contact details (all very well to hand out on arrival, but surely only useful before! this is my only criticism of the organisation) and a full or as-near-full-as-possible bibliography of Rosamond’s work, which registers (deep breath) six monographs, another co-written, six volumes of essays that she edited, another that she co-edited, and two volumes of collected papers, and eighty-two articles and chapters (not including stuff in the volumes she edited), one alone of which was co-written. If you don’t know Rosamond’s work, this may give you an idea that she is an important scholar in quantity as well as quality. Then, on the specially-printed notepaper (why yes, they did get some funding since you ask…), we have notes on the following papers.

    Keynote Address

  • Janet Nelson, “New Approaches to Carolingian Reform, or 1969, 1971, 1977 and All That”. The keynote address, which placed Rosamond in the context of her teaching by Walter Ullmann, something that Jinty also went through, and drawing the roots of Rosamond’s first work into the many branches it now has, full of shared remembrance and intriguing background that could have been supplied by no-one else.

    Session 1. The Reformatio monastica karolina

  • Marios Costambeys, “Paul the Deacon, Rome and the Carolingian Reforms”. Argued that Paul the Deacon‘s conception of Rome deliberately ignores its Christian and recent Imperial heritage, referring to it in terms of its earliest history to place both its history and the new Frankish rule in inarguable and uncontested Antiquity.
  • Rutger Kramer, “The Cloister in the Rye: Saint-Seine and the early years of Benedict of Aniane”. More or less as title except that that was the only terrible pun involved, a critical reading of the Vita Benedicti Anianensis pondering whether Benedict was in fact at first one of Carloman’s party not Charlemagne’s and how far his initial monastic conversion might have been a political retreat, then moving into questions of how his initial drive for asceticism apparently transformed to a desire for uniformity ‘that we can believe in’.
  • Sven Meeder, “Unity and Uniformity in the Carolingian Reform Efforts”. Argued that the Carolingian ideal of unity should not be mistaken for uniformity and that it was always ready to accept a good deal of diversity to which its own efforts only added. Arguable, but probably not with the Oxford English Dictionary definitions used; Susan Reynolds would have been unable to stay quiet in questions had she been there.
  • Some critical questions here especially for the latter two papers, and perhaps most notable among them James Palmer asking if, in fact, Carolingian reform could ever have succeeded adequately for its proponents or whether a perception of failure was built in. Sven responded, I think wisely, that the ultimate aim was to make the kingdom favoured by God and so the proof would be seen in events. It’s an interesting cycle of paranoia that this kind of drive might have set up, however. I think we see something similar with Æthelred the Unready‘s vain attempts to prescribe extra piety when the Danes just keep coming in his autumn years.

condal128

    Session 2. Reform from without, reforms to without

  • Benedict Coffin, “The Carolingian Reformation in the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Churches”. Drawing out even more similarities between Carolingian and English reform movements as well as a few crucial differences, not least that in England it was primarily Benedictine not royal.
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”. You basically saw a chunk of this paper already, and I had to leave a lot of detail out, but it went OK and did everything I hoped for. Completely overwhelmed however by…
  • Julia M. H. Smith, “Wrapped, Tied and Labelled: importing Jerusalem, recycling Rome in the early Middle Ages”, exploring the contents of the altar in the Sancta Sanctorum in the Lateran in Rome, which transpires to have been installed by Leo III and to have contained, in 1906 when it was last opened, a mind-boggling assortment of Holy Land soil, branches, twigs, etc. from significant places there, as well as martyr relics probably from the other patriarchal sees, replacing Rome’s pagan history with a new one imported from Jerusalem and elsewhere. The illustrations were fascinating and it was a really interesting paper.
Behind those grilles is the box installed by Leo III

Behind those grilles is the box installed by Leo III

The evening was rounded off, well, for me at least, with a pre-dinner paper given by Yitzhak Hen. I won’t attempt to describe that here except to say that what I’ve written about his work here before may have failed to take his sense of humour into account. Then, there was a wine reception and a dinner, but I, with my usual mismatch of engagements, ran into London for one of the best gigs I’ve been to for a long time. But I was back the next day, aching of neck and back and short of sleep, and I will describe that later.