presents Simon LeVay's new novel, The Donation of Constantine

A tale of intrigue, passion, and the struggle for control of medieval Europe

Bone fragment of St. Boniface in the hermit-church of Warfhuizen, Netherlands, located near the site of his martyrdom at Dokkum (click on image for larger view)


In Christian tradition, relics were the skeletal remains of venerated persons, or items associated with their life or death. The relics could be of martyrs, saints, popes, Jesus’ apostles, or of Jesus himself. Relics were thought to bring people spiritually close to the venerated person, and they therefore conferred a state of grace. In addition, relics were often believed to possess miraculous powers, such as the ability to cure or prevent diseases or to exorcize demons. Some relics, such as the bones of St. Peter, were so powerful that even items placed in brief contact with them, or dust collected near them, acquired the status of relics themselves.

Reliquary containing a mummified right hand, supposedly from St. Stephen of Hungary. (Basilica of St. Stephen, Budapest)

In itself, a relic didn’t usually look very special or holy: a fragment of bone, a nail, a piece of wood—these were very mundane items. Except for skeletons in sarcophagi, however, relics were housed in ornate containers, called reliquaries, which were often fashioned from precious metals and adorned with jewels. Although the relic itself might be quite ordinary in appearance (and only dimly visible through murky glass windows), the splendid reliquary strengthened faith in the relic’s authenticity and thus helped inspire veneration. An inscription (as with the Boniface relic shown above), or simple oral tradition, sufficed to document the relic’s origin.

To a present-day rationalist it may be difficult to understand how ordinary people believed in the authenticity of relics. Would anyone have thought to keep Jesus’ foreskin after his circumcision, for example, or to preserve it in a fashion that would resist decay for centuries? Was he really circumcised enough times to provide all the Holy Foreskins that graced cathedrals across Europe? And could any of these foreskins still be dripping blood more than a thousand years after their separation from Jesus’ penis, as was the case with the exemplar in Utrecht?

It was faith, of course, that permitted people to believe in relics, along with the absence of any rationalist tradition in the early Middle Ages. And relics themselves strengthened faith: although faith was “the evidence of things not seen,” it was fortified by visible reminders of the lives of Jesus and his early followers.

Since most relics were not what they claimed to be, someone must have manufactured them. In my novel, the relic-trader Omar is such a person: tired of traveling to the East to find authentic relics, he simply makes them in his little workshop in Transtiber and sells them to pilgrims. Relics were not supposed to be sold, but as a Moslem Omar wasn’t too concerned with Catholic proscriptions.

Some relics probably were authentic, especially those of medieval martyrs. Saint Boniface, for example, was martyred at Dochum in Friesia in the year 754—his death is one of the events in my novel. Boniface’s body was cut up and portions distributed widely across what is now Germany. Thus there’s no particular reason to doubt the authenticity of relics of St. Boniface that survive today, such as the bone fragment shown above.

Detail of Arma Christi reliquary containing tiny relics supposedly from numerous saints

According to church teachings, even a microscopic splinter of bone from a martyr had the same status and potency as the martyr’s entire skeleton. For that reason, some people and churches took a “stamp-collecting” approach to relics: they obtained minute pieces of bone from dozens of saints and martyrs and arranged them on panels with little labels. If one could devise a Geiger counter that was sensitive to the grace radiating from sacred relics, it would surely go crazy in the presence of such a collection.