Crusaders, Pilgrims, and Relics – Bearers of the Cross: Material Religion in the Crusading World 1095-1300

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. (Wikipedia)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. (Wikipedia)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. (Wikipedia)

The Museum of the Order of St. John is hosting a series of events and talks to promote their project: Bearers of the Cross: Material Religion in the Crusading World 1095-1300. Spearheaded by Dr. William Purkis (University of Birmingham), and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Crusade-centred project, which opened in October 2015, will, “develop new knowledge and understanding of the lived, material religion of medieval crusaders through a wide-ranging analysis of the texts, art, architecture and material culture associated with crusader belief”. The Bearers of the Cross project will run until December 2017.

There are over 60,000 objects at the museum, but its medieval collection has remained relatively unknown. The Museum of the Order of St. John now has the opportunity to showcase its impressive medieval artefacts to researchers and the public.


Purkis gave a talk last month on medieval relics for the project, entitled: Souvenirs of the Sepulchre: Devotion to an Empty Tomb at the Time of the First Crusade. He began by recounting a particularly curious tale of lust and intrigue, set in thirteenth century Jerusalem. The story of a merchant from Groningen who happened to come across the arm of St. John the Baptist.

A merchant bought the arm of St. John the Baptist from a harlot. He had visited the Hospital of St. John and became obsessed with having the arm for himself, but it was impossible, as the arm was guarded by a knight. He approached a harlot to help him procure the arm from the knight by seducing him. He paid £140 of silver for the ill deed, and having gotten what he wanted, he took it home to Groningen. The merchant tried to keep it secret, but the arm was discovered, and ended up getting passed around. The merchant suddenly fell ill and confessed his heinous crime, and the arm of St. John the Baptist ended up in the church of St. Martin. The story was written by a Cistercian monk from Germany, Caesarius of Heisterbach (1180-1240). It was clearly meant as a tale of warning for would-be pilgrims about the perils of mishandling relics or, obtaining them by nefarious means.


This story was a good segue for Purkis’s talk about the cult of medieval relics, their uses, and impact on society. Like modern day collectibles, relics fell into levels, or value categories. At the top, the most valuable were the physical remains of saints, e.g., teeth, bones, and hair. Also in this echelon were objects associated with Christ’s Passion, such as The Crown of Thorns, and the Holy Lance.

In “Level 2”, you had objects that had come into contact with a saint, such as clothes, or liquids. Fragments of these relics could be mass produced and given as gifts for reflection, healing, personal devotion, and to ward off evil. There were many tales of relic theft in the Middle Ages, like that of the Merchant of Groningen, and they were common devices of warning found in relic lore and hagiography.

Religious locations were also important to medieval people. Many made pilgrimages to Canterbury, Rome, and Santiago de Compostella, but according to Purkis, in the medieval mind, nothing topped Jerusalem. Robert the Monk, also known as Robert of Rheims (d. 1122), was a well known chronicler of the First Crusade (1095-1099), wrote that, “Jerusalem is the navel of the earth.” Other contemporaries such as the monk, Guibert de Cogent (1055-1124) and Baldric of Bourgueil (1050-1130), both extolled the virtues of Jerusalem.

Christ's entry into Jerusalem from the Melisende Psalter  (Wikipedia)
Christ’s entry into Jerusalem from the Melisende Psalter (Wikipedia)

The Cult of the Holy Sepulchre
A cult developed around the Holy Sepulchre, which was odd because there was no physical body to touch, or take pieces of to pass around. Purkis called the devotion to it, ‘a cult of absence.’ So how did pilgrims worship an empty tomb? Pilgrims went to great lengths to obtain pieces of the Holy Sepulchre; they devised interesting ways to capture the essence of  being there, and bring it back with them. Pilgrimage sites, such as Jerusalem, often had merchants hawking religious wares, items like Ampulla seals, used for reflection, and announced to the world that while Christ’s body might not be there, it was there. The idea that the seal retained the spiritual presence in spite of the physical absence.


Some pilgrims would take scrapings of rock as proof for their journey to the Holy Sepulchre. Many pilgrims took objects from home to the Holy Sepulchre and created a new category of relics known as “contact relics”; turning common objects from home into something holy by imbuing them with “virtus” from the Holy Sepulchre. This tradition from the Middle Ages continues today, pilgrims bring objects from home to the Holy Sepulchre and touch them to it, thereby transforming them into holy relics, imbued with the spirit of Christ. In fact, modern day reliquaries are being sold in Jerusalem to meet the needs of pilgrims so they can take a bit of the Holy Land home with them. Contact relics still appear to have a special niche market today, thus retaining a continuity between the medieval and modern.

The First Crusade saw radical ideas of penitential warfare. Devotion to the Holy Sepulchre was used as part of Pope Urban II’s recruitment and call to arms for the First Crusade. The threat to the Holy Sepulchre was levied by the papacy to get people to continue crusading.

Leaving you on that note with a quote from French Cistercian monk, Nicholas of Clairvaeux on the Holy Sepulchre.


“The Earth is trouble and shaken because the King of Heaven has lost his land, the land where his feet have stood. The enemies of his cross are working to destroy the places of our redemption and they are straining to profane the places sanctified of the blood of Christ – the most important of these places for the Christian religion the sepulchre in which the Lord of all was buried, and where his funerals shroud was bound together. All of these things they are striving to pull down.” ~ Nicholas of Claireveaux, Letter to the Count of Brittany (April, 1146)

~Sandra Alvarez

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