Medieval Tomb Raider: When the Middles Ages were The Wild West for relic theft

The Middle Ages was the wild west for relic theft. Carrying off saints’ bits was so common in the Middle Ages that they called it “furta sacra” (holy theft).

The elaborately dressed skeleton of St Valentine can be found in a Cistercian nunnery in Bavaria called Waldassen Abbey. (Photo by Toby de Silva).

Relic Theft

Relics MADE the town and brought in pilgrims – and their money.

Avid collectors of relics didn’t ask too much questions. When a relic hunter, Felix, stole the remains of a saint from a monastery in Ravena, the buyer (an Archbishop) provided a get-away horse.

As they ran low on merchandise, relic dealers often sold the bones of a saint many times over – and not just by dividing it up. Hence the expert’s quip: Some saints have 28 legs”.  In the case of Saint Ursula, one mis-translation and her and “11 virgin-martyr” ladies-in-waiting became “11,000 virgins.” 11,000 virgins made a much better story than 11, and now, according to church records, there are 30 tons of bones displayed all over the world belonging to them.

One church proudly displayed the brain of St. Peter until the relic was accidentally moved and revealed to be a piece of pumice stone.

Nearly 100 accounts of relic theft exist dating from the reign of Charles the Great to the Age of the Crusades. Relics were often burgled by other churches and monasteries.  Far from being ashamed, nuns and meticulously recorded these “liberations” in artwork, manuscripts, and hagiographies (biographies).

The relics had powers, after all —if they didn’t want to be stolen, they wouldn’t allow it.

A typical excuse was used to justify the theft of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter : they were neglected in Rome. It was better that they were “acquired”  to give them the respect and veneration that holy saints deserved.

Reasons to loot saints’ bodies included:

To establish new religious foundations

To outdo rival churches

To channel popular devotion

To focus on a particular saint

To compensate for loss of revenue

To provide protection during political turmoil

The Church canon of  401 demanded that each church altar had to have a relic. A new twist (from 794) was that the relic and any new saints had to be officially recognized by the church. While the church was trying to put a dampener on new saints popping up daily, this caused relics to become scarce luxury commodities.

Ironically, the story of a theft attached to a relic actually increased its value. In fact, having a relic that was stolen became such a popular social tradition that Vézelay falsely claimed their relic was stolen.

Legend has it that when Venetian merchants stole the body of Saint Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria at night, they hid the remains in a cargo box. When Islamic customs officials asked what was in the box, the Venetian merchants wittily responded that they were carrying pork products. The Alexandrians believed them and let the Christians go.

In 1087, The Italian town of Bari commissioned a team of thieves to obtain the remains of Saint Nicolas (that’s Santa Claus to us) from the Turkish town of Myra. The thieves of Santa Claus became famous locally, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day.

Being alive was no protection. The remains of Simon Stylites and Francis of Assisi were eagerly sought after before they were even dead.  There was a real danger of someone murdering an aging holy man in order to acquire his remains, or stealing his body as soon as he was dead.

Here’s an example of a more typical relic theft: A monk named Balgerus is impressed by the relics of Saint Lewinna in an isolated monastery.  He enters the monastery late and night and attempts to take the relic. At first thwarted by the miraculous resistance of the saint, he wins her over by prayer. She agrees to accompany him, and he “liberates” her off to his nearby ship.

Tomb Raider

Deusdona was a famous tomb raider and relic dealer.

A ninth century church deacon or clerk, he may have lived (conveniently for relic theft) near the Basilica of St Peter in Chains.

He made an excellent living stripping relics from the catacombs of Rome, through which he guided clients as well as tourists.

Another notorious relic monger is Felix who’s been recorded selling some of the exact saints as Deusdona.

In Winter, Deusdona and his associates raided relics from one of the Roman cemeteries. They focused on a different area of the city each year, probably to avoid trouble.

If buyers couldn’t come to Rome, Deusdona went to them, with a few grisly samples- arms, cheek bones, toes – and a list of what was available. (A kind of catalogue of bones.) He also did the rounds of Monastic fairs, and has been compared to a contemporary art dealer travelling to Art Basel, FIAC, or Frieze. He even timed his travels to coincide with important saint’s feast days at their customers’ monasteries.

Deusdona supplied the bodies of the saints Peter, Marcellinus and Hermes to Einhard, who was a major relic-collector in the court of Charlemagne. For a monk named Theotmar, he sourced saints Alexander, Sebastian, Fabian, Urban, Felicissimus, Felicity, Emmerentina and others.

Michael Spring has written a very entertaining (fictional) novel based on the life of Deusdona. In “Sacred Bones”, he’s portrayed as a kind of lovable rogue :

 

“Abbots and emperors, with their insatiable lust for relics and their blind, superstitious faith in bones and sacred dust, bought virtually everything I offered them: Matthew’s earlobe, John’s kneecap, Mary’s nose…. It didn’t hurt that I was a Roman citizen in the employ of the Church. It gave me a competitive edge.”

 

And if the bones Deusdona passes off as the brittle finger of Saint Ursula is actually the tail joint of a catacomb rodent, what really matters is the buyer’s faith that the holy remains will bless his church.

If you enjoyed this, you might try St. Guinefort, the strangest Medieval Saint.

 

Sources/Links:

Skulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and Accumulations

By Christine Quigley

Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages – Revised Edition

By Patrick J. Geary

Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages

By Patrick J. Geary

BONES OF CONTENTION:
THE JUSTIFICATIONS FOR RELIC THEFTS IN THE MIDDLE AGES

by Gina Kathleen Burke

The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective

edited by Arjun Appadurai

The Business of Bones: Relic Trafficking in the Middle Ages

by D. Manns in Atlas Obscura

Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.