Stealing saints

So, a recent episode of the Fencast talked about stealing saints’ relics from one church to take them to another. This might seem like a shocking thing, but it wasn’t actually uncommon in the middle ages, particularly in the early period.

I’ve written about one example before — the removal of the bones of Saint Oswald from Lincolnshire by the Mercians — but there are plenty of others you can look at. This type of thing is known as furta sacra, or “holy theft,” and it rests on a whole bunch of weird assumptions about the power of a saint. I believe, and I speak subject to correction, that the definitive book on the topic is still Furta Sacra by Patrick Geary. It’s not a specifically English thing, either — it happened to no less a luminary than Saint Nicholas, whose remains were swiped and translated to the Italian town of Bari, which is how he became the patron of good ol’ Bohemond of Taranto. Naturally, later sources claimed that Saint Nicholas appeared in a vision to the Italian sailors who nicked them and told them they should take his bones.

Here’s where they stashed the loot.

Same thing happened with Saint Mark in the 9th century; his bones were “rescued” from Alexandria by the Venetians and smuggled out of Egypt concealed under a layer of pork to confuse the Muslim customs inspectors.

So yeah: stealing saints’ bones is a grand old Christian tradition. Doesn’t seem like it should be, but that’s real life for you.

Stealing saints

One thought on “Stealing saints

  1. Another example that I’m sure your familiar with is St Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, who when kissing relics was know to bite a bit off and take it home to his monastery.

    As trainee archivists we were told to be aware of ‘pious forgery’ – the creation of fake (mainly Anglo-Saxon) charters to retrospectively justify a church’s estate. The monks of Westminster were particularly adept at this.

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