Le commerce médiéval des reliques

The medieval trade in relics

Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe experienced a flourishing trade inrelics sacred. But many of theserelics, if not almost all of them, were false.

Relics collected and venerated by medieval Europeans ranged from the mundane to the bizarre. The bones or body parts of saints andmartyrs were always in high demand. A church proudly displayed St. Peter's brain until the relic was accidentally moved and revealed to be a piece of pumice stone.

The relics of Christ or the Virgin Mary were considered extremely valuable and included items such as the milk of the Virgin Mary, the teeth, hair and blood of Christ,pieces of the cross and samples of the linen in which Christ was wrapped as a child. Many churches have even claimed to possess the foreskin of Christ, cut off during his circumcision. The Turin Shroud, believed to be the burial shroud in which Christ was buried, is perhaps the most famous medieval relic of all.

In the Middle Ages, you could make a lot of money with bones, hair and nails, provided they came from a saint. The measures taken by the Church against this trade were not very effective, especially since many of those who engaged in it were in its own ranks.

It was concerns about his finances that prompted the Byzantine Emperor Baldwin II in the 13th century to take a rather unusual step. To find money, he sold Christ's crown of thorns, which he owned, to King Louis IX of France. Since then, the crown has been kept at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the palace chapel of the former royal residence, and is one of the main relics of Christian churches. Among the Habsburgs, it was especially Rodolphe IV who was a great collector of relics.

The trade in such important religious objects was frowned upon by the Church, which prohibited it throughout the Middle Ages. All that was allowed was the exchange of these objects, in exchange for prayers offered by monks and nuns, gifts or purchases from "non-believers" in order to return them to the Church. As these objects were valuable commodities, it was customary to pass off transactions involving relics as gifts or theft. It is true that many of these objects were in fact fakes. In the first half of the fifteenth century, for example, Saint Bernard of Siena expressed the opinion that there were so many pieces of the cross of Christ in circulation that twelve oxen could not carry them all.

It was mainly the clergy who were active in the trade in relics, since they had access to churches and monasteries and knew the value of the objects in question. However, it was not easy to price them, as there were few goods with which the relics could be compared. Church historians assume that the asking prices must have been "astronomical". For example, the bones of Saint Anthony were weighed against gold in the early Middle Ages. Indeed, the buyer did not want to commit a sin by underestimating the value of such a relic.

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