Bones of Contention: The Justifications for Relic Thefts in the Middle Ages
By Gina Kathleen Burke
Masters Thesis, Miami University, 2004
Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to examine the popular religious phenomena of relic thefts during the Middle Ages. The hagiographic accounts, where monks and nuns record many of these thefts, reflect some ambivalence over these actions. Questions arise on how then the thefts were justified and moralized, and why certain members of society, especially clerics and royalty, were able to not only participate, but also to have their deeds labeled as sacred. Applying the sociological approach to this study of the thefts within hagiographic texts reveals that the divine authority of clerics and kings, which allowed them to participate in these acts, enabled these members of the medieval church to justify their involvement in theft because the sacredness of the theft, and the person committing it, trumped the situation’s ethical concern.
Introduction: During the Middle Ages, the cult of saints and the veneration of the saints’ relics became a central feature of theology, religious expression, and devotion for the Western Christian Church. Saints were those of the church community who, through their pious words and deeds, were believed to have had a special relationship with God that often manifested itself through miracles and, based on this relationship, were believed to reside in Heaven with God after their death. Since they had gained the reward of Heaven, they were deemed as exemplary figures to be copied as well as worthy of veneration by the rest of the Christian community. Although the saint’s soul was in Heaven, the saint’s body, and objects associated with the saint, remained on earth. These relics were seen as pledges and sources of power and thus were venerated by the rest of the community.