Bodies as commodities: the medieval trade in Christian saints’ relics

by Elizabeth Wiedenheft (University of Nottingham)

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There has long been a tension in Christianity between economic concerns and providing a way to commune with the sacred. Nowhere was this more apparent in medieval Europe than with the bodies of holy persons (saints’ relics).

These bodies provided pilgrims with a focus, allowing them to direct their devotion to heaven by praying over the relics. But these bodies were not only sacred objects: they were also bought and sold for profit by enterprising merchants and monks who created vast trading networks throughout Western Europe to exchange them.

Because they were human bodies, relics held a special position in the medieval economy. Their value was based in part on their connection to the spirit that had once inhabited the body, or the personality of the saint. But because they were objects (and often highly mobile objects too), relics were commoditised by medieval society – traded, bought and sold for profit by the communities that held them.

This research seeks to improve our understanding of the exchange of Christian relics in France, Belgium and England in the period between 800 and 1200. It uses medieval hagiographies (accounts of saints’ lives) to show that saints’ bodies were moved frequently in medieval Europe.

Monks used existing trade routes and networks to move these relics. They also used merchant connections to maximise the speed of the acquisition, which consequently allowed them to promote their new relics quickly and efficiently. While they did not have a strict monetary value, relics did have value that was based on their usefulness in performing miracles and as a tool to acquire and manage the church’s property.

The research uses the exchange of relics as social tools in return for land and social power to illustrate their value to the Church. When a community acquired an extremely valuable set of relics (such as St Cuthbert in Durham, St Aethelthryth at Ely, St Edmund at Bury St Edmunds or St Thomas Becket at Canterbury), they promoted their new acquisition by touring the relics throughout the region, moving them into sumptuous reliquaries (highly decorated boxes or statues that held the relics) or tombs, and by inviting ecclesiastical and secular dignitaries to watch these movements.

Over time, the relics could become inextricably tied to the place that held them, rendering them useless outside of that society. If that happened, the relics became ‘inalienable’, or could not be traded or exchanged for other items because they could not effectively be valued by the other society.

This research, therefore, argues that relics are best understood as ‘inalienable commodities’, or economic objects that could be traded but which were only valuable in a specific location.

Looking at the economic status of relics in studies such as this gives us valuable insights into the rise of markets in the era before the modern industrial and consumer economy. The medieval economy was not entirely based on a monetary system of exchange, but it was diverse and the objects that circulated within that economy were conceived of by their contemporaries in a myriad of ways.

Research into the status of relics, how they were exchanged, and the economic benefits accrued through their acquisition can have some bearing on modern conceptions of the worth of the human body, as well as the tension between creating capital and promoting the sacred in modern Christianity.

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