History of Relics

The following is a shorter version of the Wikipedia entry for "relics":

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A relic is an object, especially a piece of the body or a personal item of someone of religious significance, carefully preserved with an air of veneration as a tangible memorial. Relics are an important aspect of Buddhism, some denominations of Christianity, Hinduism, shamanism, and many other personal belief systems.

The word relic comes from the Latin reliquiae ('remains'). A reliquary is a shrine that houses one or more relics.

 

History of Christian relics:

One of the earliest sources cited to support the efficacy of relics is found in 2 Kings 13:20-21: Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.

These verses are cited to claim that the Holy Spirit's indwelling also affects the physical body, that God can do miracles through the bodies of His servants, or both. Also cited is the veneration of Polycarp's relics recorded in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written 150–160 AD). With regards to relics that are objects, an often cited passage is Acts 19:11–12, which says that Paul's handkerchiefs were imbued by God with healing power.

Many tales of miracles and other marvels were attributed to relics beginning in the early centuries of the church; many of these became especially popular during the Middle Ages. These tales are collected in books of hagiography such as the Golden Legend or the works of Caesar of Heisterbach. These miracle tales made relics much sought after during the Middle Ages.

There are also many relics attributed to Jesus, perhaps most famously the Shroud of Turin, which is claimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus, although this is disputed. Pieces of the True Cross were one of the most highly sought after such relics; many churches claimed to possess a piece of it, so many that John Calvin famously remarked that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship from[1], although a study in 1870[2] found that put together the claimed relics weighed less than 1.7kg (0.04m³). The abbey church of Coulombs in France, among several others, claims to possess the relic of Jesus' circumcision — the Holy Prepuce.

 

Romano-Christian daemons and the "virtue" of relics:

In his introduction to Gregory of Tours, Ernest Brehaut analyzed the Romano-Christian concepts that gave relics such a powerful draw (see link). He distinguished Gregory's constant usage of "sanctus" and "virtus", the first with its familiar meaning of "sacred" or "holy", and the second: "the mystic potency emanating from the person or thing that is sacred."

These words have in themselves no ethical meaning and no humane implications whatever. They are the keywords of a religious technique and their content is wholly supernatural. In a practical way the second word [virtus] is the more important. It describes the uncanny, mysterious power emanating from the supernatural and affecting the natural. The manifestation of this power may be thought of as a contact between the natural and the supernatural in which the former, being an inferior reality, of course yielded. These points of contact and yielding are the miracles we continually hear of. The quality of sacredness and the mystic potency belong to spirits, in varying degrees to the faithful, and to inanimate objects. They are possessed by spirits, acquired by the faithful, and transmitted to objects."

Opposed to this holy "virtue" was also a false mystic potency that emanated from inhabiting daemons who were conceived of as alien and hostile. Truly holy virtus would defeat it, but it could affect natural phenomena and effect its own kinds of miracles, deceitful and malignant ones. This "virtue" Gregory of Tours and other Christian writers associated with the devil, demons, soothsayers, magicians, pagans and pagan gods, and heretics. False virtus inhabited images of the pagan gods, the "idols" of our museums and archaeology, and destroying it accounts for some of the righteous rage with which mobs of Christians toppled sculptures, and smashed classical bas-reliefs (particularly the faces), as our museums attest.

The transmissibility of this potency, this virtus, is still reflected in the Roman Catholic classifications of relics in degrees, as mentioned above. By transmission, the "virtus" might be transmitted to the city. When St Martin died, November 8, 397, at a village halfway between Tours and Poitiers, the inhabitants of these cities were well ready to fight for his body, which the people of Tours managed to secure by stealth. The story of the purloining of St. Nicholas of Bari is another example. The Image of Edessa was reputed to render that city impregnable.

 

Roman Catholic classification and prohibitions:

Saint Jerome declared, "We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are" (Ad Riparium, i, P.L., XXII, 907). `

First-Class Relics:

Items directly associated with the events of Christ's life (manger, cross, etc.), or the physical remains of a saint (a bone, a hair, a limb, etc.). Traditionally, a martyr's relics are often more prized than the relics of other saints. Also, some saints relics are known for their extraordinary incorruptibility and so would have high regard. It is important to note that parts of the saint that were significant to that saint's life are more prized relics. For instance, King St. Stephen of Hungary's right forearm is especially important because of his status as a ruler. A famous theologian's head may be his most important relic. (The head of St. Thomas Aquinas was removed by the monks at the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova where he died). Logically, if a saint did a lot of travelling then the bones of his feet may be prized. Current Catholic teaching prohibits relics to be divided up into small, unrecognisable parts (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Canon Law). Thus even the many relics that are enshrined in churches and cathedrals worldwide must be at least a finger or small bone, etc.

Second-Class Relics: 

An item that the saint wore (a sock, a shirt, a glove, etc.) Also included is an item that the saint had, for example, a crucifix, book etc. Again, an item more important in the saint's life is thus a more important relic.

Third-Class Relics: 

The Third-Class Relics fall into two categories. The first category is a piece of cloth touched to the body of a saint after his death. The second category is a piece of cloth touched to the shrine or reliquary of the saint.

It is absolutely prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church to sell Relics of any class.

 

Importance of Relics in Medieval Christianity:

Since the beginning of Christianity, patrons have seen relics as a way to come closer to a person who was deemed divine and thus form a closer bond with God. Since Christians during the middle ages often took pilgrimages to shrines of holy people, relics became a large business. The pilgrims saw the purchasing of a relic as a means to bring the shrine back with him or her upon returning home in a small way, since during the middle ages the concept of physical proximity to the “holy” (tombs of saints or their personal objects) was considered extremely important (Brown, 89). This is in accordance with Andre Vauchez, who writes in his book Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, “[The common people] preferred the saints close to them in space and time” (Vauchez, 139). Now, instead of having to travel hundreds of miles to become near to a venerated saint, one could enjoy a close worship from home.

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