Care of relics in early medieval Rome
By Julia M.H. Smith
Rome and Religion in the Early Middle Ages: Studies in Honor of Thomas F. X. Noble, eds. V. L. Garver and O.M. Phelan (Ashgate, 2014)
Introduction: Hidden in a dark corner of St. Peter’s shrine, Pope Sergius I (687–701) found a silver box so blackened with age that he was at first unsure whether it was indeed made of silver. Having said a prayer over it, he broke its seal and opened it. Inside, resting on a silken cushion, he discovered a jeweled reliquary of the True Cross and, according to the Liber Pontificalis, introduced into Rome the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in its honor. Some decades later, Pope Zacharias (741–52) made a similar find, this time in the Lateran: a reliquary containing the head of St. George, identified by a label in Greek. Accompanied by the assembled populace of the city, a solemn liturgical procession carried the head to the church dedicated to S. Giorgio in Velabro. After Gregory had enshrined it there, many miracles and benefits followed.
Rome was—and remains—full of surprising discoveries. In recent years, its history has become one of the hottest of hotspots of medieval scholarship. Beneficiary of skepticism towards grand narratives that is now almost universal among academic historians, beneficiary too of the maturation of postclassical archeology and of medievalists’ ability to expose the sophisticated discursive strategies of superficially straightforward texts and images, Rome is a “happening place.”
Its medieval history has been recovered for the mainstream of European history: among Anglophone historians, no one knows this better than Tom Noble. Over the span of his career, he has responded to its changing historiographical parameters with a gimlet eye for historical precision and the specificity of context and meaning, and has turned his unrivaled knowledge of papal sources to the themes and problems which energize historians of early medieval Europe as a whole, such as literacy, economy, ritual, and elites. His scholarship on Rome has said little about one such subject, however: the cults of saints and relics. I offer this contribution in gratitude for his scholarship, support, and camaraderie over many decades.