Imagine, for a moment, that you are a distraught mother whose little boy is dying of the plague. You go to the church to pray. Your priest tells you about a special bone lying in a box under the altar. If you can offer a pig or a silver coin, you can touch the bone, say a prayer, and your child will be healed. A miracle right? You are desperate for your child to live so you pay your last silver coin.
Yes, people were convinced to worship and pay homage to relics. But, not just homage. People paid dearly for miracles or what they believed could be great powers bestowed by the artefacts.
Trade in relics became quite a business in medieval times. Some of the items bought, sold, and preserved included the following:
- Jesus’ blood
- Mary’s milk
Why did the church use relics? Relics brought in money. People made pilgrimages to holy sites and left money, farm animals, produce, clothing, and other gifts as gratitude for perceived blessings bestowed on them by the dead saint in the vague hope of being on the receiving end of a miracle. Money collected, either in the form of offered coins or by selling the goods left behind, financed many churches and cathedrals. The church and other opportunists made much money from relics and the relic trade became a lucrative entrepreneurial endeavour.
More often than not, though, these relics were fakes. How do we know this? Because often a relic appeared at the same time at more than one site. Bones, for example, could have been the bones of any dead person or maybe even an animal, and they showed up in various religious institutions across Europe, all ostensibly being a fragment of St. Somebody. How did the average population know? Well, they didn’t. People didn’t travel so much and weren’t as educated as in later centuries.
Imagine thinking that a finger bone or a decaying foreskin could produce a miracle. I think that, as humans, many of us are prone to superstition. Something concrete, a symbol to see or touch, makes the belief more real. People were susceptible to such ruses, especially in the midst unfortunate circumstances when they were desperate for help. People craved miracles. They needed to believe in something, and they’d clasp on to anything in an effort to improve their situation. And, sadly, people were willing to pay for that miracle. It shows how corrupt people and organizations could take advantage for their own benefit.
I wonder who decided to tell people that touching or praying over St. Somebody’s fingernail would result in the curing of a child’s disease or would ensure some great and wonderful miracle.