Saints, Tradition and Monastic Identity: The Ghent Relics, 850-1100

Ghent altarpiece

Ghent altarpieceSaints, Tradition and Monastic Identity: The Ghent Relics, 850-1100

Christoph Maier

Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire: Tome 85 fasc. 2, 2007. Histoire medievale, moderne et contemporaine – Middeleeuwse. moderne en hedendaagse geschiedenis. pp. 223-277.


The extraordinary story ofthe Ghent relics was first told by Oswald Holder- Egger in an article published in 1886. During his work on part two of volume 15 of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica Scriptores series, which Holder- Egger had just finished, he had come across the hagiographie literature produced at the abbeys of St Baafs and St Pieters in Ghent. Under the heading Monumenta S. Bavonis Gandavensis minora and Monumenta Blandiniensia minora Holder-Egger had edited extracts of most of the vitae, translationes, and miracula of the tenth and eleventh centuries concerning the saints cults of the two monasteries’3′. What must have struck him above all is the sheer number of new cults established at Ghent in the short interval between the middle of the tenth and the middle of the eleventh centuries. Indeed, the number of relic translations recorded during this time, even if divided between the two abbeys, finds no equivalent elsewhere in any one single place, not even in ninth century Saxony, where the influx of saints relics in the wake of Christianisation was particularly high.


It was the abbey of St Pieters which started the roll-call of new saints. In 944 St Pieters acquired the relics of the monastery of St Wandrille at Fontenelle in Normandy which had been destroyed by Viking invaders. Accompanying the body of St Wandrille to St Pieters were the relics of St Ansbert and possibly St Vulfram also from Fontenelle. Only a few years later there followed the relics of St Bertulf and St Gudwal; the former came from Renty, a small mon astic community near St Omer, the latter from Brittany via the monastery of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Before the 940s the abbey of St Pieters had only possessed one important cult of relics, that of St Amalberga of Temse; now, within not even ten years, St Pieters’ arsenal of relics was increased by the bodies of five new saints.

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