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Holy Blood Devotion in Later Medieval Scotland

Holy Blood devotion in later medieval Scotland

By Richard Oram

Journal of Medieval History, Volume 43, Issue 5, 562-578

British Library MS Additional 38116 f. 11v The Crucifixion

Sometime in 1440 the townsfolk of Aberdeen watched the performance of a ‘certain play of ly Haliblude played at the Windmill Hill’ just outside their burgh. Plays of such a spiritual nature were part of the established culture of public-religious display that was shared by all parts of later medieval Latin Christian Europe, alongside religious processions and elaborate liturgical performances in which lay supporters figured prominently. Their function, however, was not exclusively religious or devotional, and they were as much a medium for regulating behavioural norms within the tightly controlled structures of medieval urban society as they were a vehicle for expressions of lay piety. Fewer references to such plays survive in Scottish medieval sources than in England or northern Europe and this Aberdeen record is one of the earliest known Scottish examples. Whilst its early date renders it important enough in a Scottish context, its significance is all the greater for its also being the earliest surviving Scottish reference to a public quasi-religious act which focused on one element in late medieval Christocentric devotion, the Holy Blood.


Recent studies of Holy Blood devotion in Western Christendom have pointed to its relatively late development as a widespread phenomenon. The question of what happened to the blood shed by Christ at the Passion had been explored by early Christian theologians, but despite their writings on the topic earlier medieval devotional art and literature, and liturgical performance itself, were remarkable for their relative bloodlessness. That began to change in the course of the thirteenth century as theories of purgation and redemption evolved, with a developing trend away from visual and textual imagery which presented Christ and the sacrifice of the Crucifixion in generally comforting and often symbolically representative forms towards presentation in increasingly bloody and violent terms. That trend led to often horrifyingly graphic representations of the Passion by the fifteenth century. Running in parallel with the earlier stages of that shift was growth in the devotional focus upon blood relics, many of which had claimed origins in the Holy Land, as for example in the cases of relics at Bruges, Schwerin and Weingarten, and the revival of interest in items housed in the relic collections of the Holy Roman Emperors, kings of France and their greater nobles. At Bruges Count Thierry of Alsace (d. 1168) was credited with bringing a blood relic from Jerusalem, but it was only from the middle of the thirteenth century that the town began to emerge as a major northern European cult centre. There was a similar efflorescence of Holy Blood devotion in England in the second quarter of the thirteenth century with Henry III’s securing of a blood-relic for Westminster Abbey. It was, however, the slightly later gift to Hailes Abbey and the college at Ashridge by his nephew Edmund of Cornwall of blood-relics obtained by his father, Henry’s younger brother Richard, who as King of the Romans and claimant to the imperial throne had had access to the relic collection of the Holy Roman Emperors, that drew pilgrims; Westminster, despite its royal patron, did not flourish as a cult centre of the Holy Blood.

Click here to read this article in the Journal of Medieval History.

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