>On relics, medieval and modern, sacred and secular

>Sorry for the silence, especially given that I’d promised to get back to blogging more regularly. Blame “LeechBlock,” a plug-in for Firefox. It lets you bar yourself from certain websites during times you set, and I set it to bar me from Blogger (among other things) from 9-5, M-F, to help me focus on my work. And I haven’t been getting up early enough to start the day with a post, and by the end of the day I need to get away from the computer because my back is killing me. I need to be at the computer during the day because I’m working on a editing project that is due very, very soon, but unfortunately, I tweaked my back a couple of weeks ago, so that sitting has been uncomfortable — so you can understand why I don’t want to do it for long.

Anywho, that has nothing to do with the subject of this post, which is all about relics, because this summer I got to see — and even hold (sort of) — my very first relics (one of them right here in Rust Belt State, no less!). Perhaps you find that surprising, given that I’m a medievalist and grew up Catholic, but I think there are some reasons for the belatedness of my encounters with relics. (And also, as the post title suggests, one of these “relics” is neither Catholic nor medieval. But I’ll get to that.) First of all, the Catholic subculture I grew up in — midwestern, suburban, largely well-off — was kind of trying to pass as WASP, I swear. I have another post in mind in which I might try to explain that more, but you’ll have to take that as a given now. At any rate, I don’t think I even *learned* about relics until I was studying medieval literature, or if I did, the Catholics who taught me scoffed at them. And though I’ve seen many, many reliquaries in museums, it’s not often that the relic is still in it (or if it is, it’s not visible). This especially true in the US and the UK, for obvious historical reasons.

I must have felt this lack on some unconscious level — how can I call myself a real medievalist if I haven’t seen a relic?! — and managed to turn this summer’s travels into “Dr. Virago and the Quest for Relics.” OK, that’s not *all* I was doing, but I did consciously seek out three encounters with relics, and then accidentally encountered another one in a museum closer to home. The last one, the one in the museum, was one of the few rare visible relics in a museum-owned reliquary; it’s the least exciting one, especially since it was the last of the relics I saw this summer, but I thought it was kind of serendipitous and funny that all this time I could have seen a relic in my own backyard. The overseas ones were the ones I actually sought out.

The first one was the hand bone of St. Etheldreda in St. Etheldreda’s church in Ely Place in London (just off of Holborn Circus and next to Charterhouse St). My quest to visit St. Etheldreda’s started when I purchased a book called Secret London (or was it Hidden London?? I don’t have it to hand now) on my first day in London this summer — to kill time at Waterstone’s on Malet St. while waiting for my room at College Hall to be available. Both St. Etheldreda’s and its neighbor, Ye Old Mitre pub, were in the book, and since they weren’t far from Malet St., I decided I wanted to pay a visit to each — the pub because it looked adorable and the church because, OMG!, a relic you can see! of a pretty cool Anglo-Saxon saint whose Life by Aelfric I’ve used in Old English and so know something about.

I went to the pub first with my friend Mark on a pub crawl that also featured the Princess Louise, the Cittie of York, and Blackfriars, all of which I recommend. But I’ll have to do a separate post on those, especially so I can post pictures of Blackfriars, which is an *extraordinary* Art Nouveau extravaganza, and of the Mitre, which really *was* freakin’ adorable (although its history is tied up with Reformation and the Bishops of Ely in kind of a nasty way — at least according to history of St. Etheldreda’s on their web site). And so when I was looking for something to do with my friend C. and we decided on another pub crawl, I talked her into starting at the Mitre, but only after we paid a visit to St. Etheldreda’s first.

St. Etheldreda’s was cool and fascinating not just because of the relic. Since the late 19th century, it’s been back in the hands of Catholic church, so there were stained glass windows and statues commemorating Catholic matyrs to the Reformation who were all associated with the church or its nearby neighborhood, including Carthusian monks from the monastery up the street on Charterhouse St. The Carthusians were commemorated in the stained glass window made in 1964, and scenes of their execution lined up with scenes of the Passion. Yeah, not subtle. But it’s pretty extraordinary to see such religious propaganda in England on the *Catholic* side of things. And while it must not have riled people up in 1964 in England, imagine such a thing being installed in Northern Ireland at the same time (or a decade later!). It’s weird to think about the history *and* the present of religious strife in England and its dominions and to look at that window in peace in a quiet church on a placid little street in London today. You can see the window itself, as well as the statues commemorating other martyrs, here.

But back to the relic. The guide book said it was kept in the sacristy and if we asked nicely, we’d be able to see it. So, we asked nicely. And the man (lay caretaker?? he wasn’t a priest) who we asked cheerfully marched up to the altar and the sacristy, opened the decorated coffin the relic is kept in (which I actually didn’t see from my vantage, but you can see it here), brought over the reliquary, and *handed* it to us! OMG! I’m *touching* a relic — weird! (To this day I keep thinking I could have turned to C. and said, “Run!” and we could have disappeared forever with the relic of St. Etheldreda. Not that either of us would have *really* done that, but it amuses me to think it.) And actually, we weren’t really touching the relic itself — just the surprisingly heavy reliquary, which was hand-shaped and had a little window through which you could see the bone. The web site says it’s an “incorrupt” part of her hand, but it looked like a bone to us. And it had a bright red spot painted on it — anyone know what that’s about?

So that was my first relic, and being the kind of person fascinated with the macabre, I was fascinated with it, even though, in retrospect, it wasn’t all that exciting. No, there was a *much* more exciting set of relics awaiting me at the Basilica San Domenico in Siena, Italy: the finger and *head* of St. Catherine of Siena. I have C. to thank for this, too, because she saw them first and told me I had to see them because they totally topped St. Etheldreda. And boy, was she right!

You can’t take pictures of St. Catherine’s head, and my measly camera wouldn’t have been able to handle it anyway, because you can’t get very close — the chapel is roped off. (You can get much closer to the finger — at which I stared for a considerable time — but again, no pictures.) But luckily, there are images out there on the web that I can borrow. OK, prepare yourself to be a little grossed out.

Are you ready? It’s pretty grotesque, so I thought I’d warn you before you scroll down.
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Here it comes, St. Catherine’s head:


Now *that’s* an incorrupt relic! (OK, it’s partially corrupted, but it qualifies for incorrupt status.) Weird, huh? I was kind of creeped out and utterly fascinated at the same time. It was like rubbernecking at an accident. Standing and contemplating all of this, I had one of these moments where I thought, alternately, “What kind of weird freak-show religion did I grow up in?????” and also “Wait, *am* I Catholic? This is totally weird and alienating to me.” It was one thing to hold a reliquary with a bone in it and think, “Hm, interesting!” and another to look at this and be kind of dumbfounded, as I was.

But you know what? It’s not just medieval Christians and modern Catholics who preserve and display the dead among the living…and that brings me to the modern, secular “relic” I also paid a little “pilgrimage” to, back in London, and this was also thanks to that quirky guide book and my residence in Bloomsbury in a UCL dorm this summer. Have you guessed yet what modern, secular relic I visited?

That’s right, Jeremy Bentham! Here’s good old JB, with his wax head, this time in pictures I took myself:


And lest you think Jeremy’s presentation is much more decorous than Catherine’s, let me remind you that underneath those clothes stuffed with straw is JB’s skeleton. And those are his clothes and accouterments. And once upon a time, JB’s preserved head was also on display — between his feet! — as you can see in this picture from the nearby display [WARNING! Another grotesque human head coming!]:



(Sorry about the blurriness — because of the glass case, I couldn’t use flash. But perhaps some of you are grateful you can’t see that mummified head clearly!)

Bentham called this little display, which he arranged himself before his death in his will, his “auto-icon,” so he had to be thinking of the religious valences of the word “icon.” And sure, given that it’s Bentham the Utilitarian we’re talking about, he was probably *playing* with that notion and had no intention of being actually venerated. But still, the little display that University College London has erected around him — not to mention the UCL Bentham Project as a whole — isn’t all that different in its curatorship and its tone of appreciation from the display of Catherine’s head and the San Domenico web site. The Dominicans and UCL may be fans of, respectively, Catherine and Jeremy for different reasons, and Bentham’s fans don’t expect him to intercede in the spiritual realm for the them, but they’re fans nevertheless.

The other thing that unites Catherine and Jeremy — besides the division of their heads from their bodies! — is that both heads have been the object of theft. Catherine’s head was originally secretly brought to Siena from Rome, where the rest of her body lies, and it’s now under such tight lock and key because of subsequent attempts to steal it. And JB’s head is no longer on display because of an infamous theft of it by King’s College London students in the 1970s. What is it about mummified heads that make people want to steal them?!?!

And I think underlying both the religious relics and the secular one are our complicated relations to death and (im)mortality. The two heads, especially, seem to want to keep the memory of and admiration for these two figure alive, to show the ways they conquered death, whether spiritually or intellectually, but they also announce our universal mortality, and in that way serve also as memento mori. Catherine and Jeremy likely had very different attitudes towards the meaning of that mortality, but they couldn’t escape it, and they each seemed consciously attentive towards that — Catherine refusing to eat anything but the Eucharist at the end of her life and JB writing his will with instructions about his “auto-icon.”

And it’s probably my own obsessions with/fears of death that has me so simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by these relics.

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13 thoughts on “>On relics, medieval and modern, sacred and secular

  1. >Fun post. I can only speculate about furta sacra of heads.BTW, in Siena the ALK, my wife, suggested that if you put a euro a Catherine's mouth that the jaw would chatter and go nomnomnomnom. Try it!ALSO, in re your back hurting. Have you tried writing standing up? I propped my external monitor up on a couple of milkcrates, and, well, a picture is probably easier: here. I don't have back problems, but I do have 'falling asleep while I write' problems. This certainly helps, something similar might help your back?

  2. >In the village of Stow Bardolph, in Norfolk, there is a chapel where members of the Hare family are buried, and a young, unmarried Hare daughter from the 18th C asked to have an effigy preserved with her wearing her favorite dress. You can still open this cabinet and see the effigy and the dress… very very strange.I was completely weirded out by the parts of St. Anthony you could see in Padua.

  3. >Bardiac — How? Say more!Susan — I'm glad I'm not the only one weirded out. And the more you tell me about weird things to see in Norfolk, the more I realize I have to spend more time there!Karl — that picture is *hilarious*! But it makes the former Angelena in me *very* nervous.

  4. >You missed the bit out about how King's students apparently played football down the Strand with Jeremy Benthams head and his body may or may not be wheeled into UCL council meetings. Mascotry has a long tradition between the various London colleges, UCL stole King's mascot Reggie the Lion and castrated him (he is a metal lion, and now kept in a glass box)! The Black Friar is amazing, especially for the quotes around the walls.

  5. >So, here goes the short and dirty. Metaphors are ways of talking about something (let's call it X) without saying X, or in its absence. (Think about how language works as a sign to represent but not the thing itself.)Metonymy and Synechdoche are special sorts of metaphor.Relics are ways of memorializing or recalling an absent being (or thing). If Jesus were actually hanging around with someone, s/he wouldn't need any replacement. So, in a way, relics are special sorts of metaphor, replacing the absent being.Relics are either a part of the absent thing (the foreskin of Jesus, for example), a sort of synechdoche. Or they're something closely associated with the thing (the shroud of Turin, for example), a metonymy. It also works for Elvis relics (a lock of hair or a shoe; I suppose it gets more difficult if there's a sweat drenched towel…).

  6. >Interesting! When I first learned about relics as a little kid in church school, the bit of knowledge that every altar stone had to have one livened up a lot of dull times at mass. Finger bone? Wrist bone? Which saint? You could speculate endlessly about this, if you had imagination and a lot of time.

  7. >I don't know whether that's actually true, come to think of it: the nuns may have made it up to keep us entertained, though I kind of doubt it. (They weren't the fun-loving type.)

  8. >Bardiac — that's awesome!Undine — I've never heard that before, although I kind of wish I had because I would have entertained myself in the same way. At any rate, since I grew up in a church that built a new church while I was at the parish school, I don't think such a story would fly under those circumstances. We would have been breaking into the construction site daily! 🙂 Anyway, if the nuns didn't make it up, maybe they sincerely believed a myth they'd been told?

  9. >Relics are cool to be precisely BECAUSE they creep me out a bit. A couple years back, in getting a Tylenol out of my mother's purse, I notice for the first time a very small golden round little container with a tiny window in the back, in the little bag where she keeps spare pills. "What's that?""Oh, it's a bit of St. John Neumann's leg bone," she said."WHAT????"Apparently, when he was canonized, they removed one leg bone and broke it into tiny splinters and gave them to people who came. My Granddad went, since, after all, the first saint in Philadelphia struck him as a big deal. He got one for my mom and one for my aunt. Being a thoroughly modern Catholic, it never occurred to my mother to pray to St. John Neumann, just to carry around a sliver of his leg bone in her purse. A medieval would think that a shocking waste of a relic. So much for religious continuity in the Catholic church.Also, I think more recent altars may not always have first-degree relics in them (i.e. the bit of a person's body)–my understanding was that the rule got relaxed. The (supposedly) biggest collection of Catholic relics outside Rome is actually in Pittsburgh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Anthony%27s_Chapel_(Pittsburgh,_Pennsylvania)Sadly, I don't even work on relics.I work on saints' lives. And apparently have an unusual mother as a random bonus.

  10. Pingback: Seminar CLXV: getting at the saints in medieval England | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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