A few weeks ago I heard this story on NPR about the St. Cuthbert Gospel, Europe’s oldest intact book, which the British Library recently paid $14 million to acquire.
The book is thought to date from seventh-century England and is in astonishingly good condition. This may be due to the fact that for four of its many centuries the book was not in anyone’s hands, but rather tucked away inside the coffin of Saint Cuthbert. From Wikipedia:

The book takes its name from Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, North East England, in whose tomb it was placed, probably a few years after his death in 687. Although it was long regarded as Cuthbert’s personal copy of the Gospel, to which there are early references, and so a relic of the saint, the book is now thought to date from shortly after Cuthbert’s death. It was probably a gift from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where it was written, intended to be placed in St Cuthbert’s coffin when his remains were placed behind the altar at Lindisfarne in 698. It presumably remained in the coffin through its long travels after 875, forced by Viking invasions, ending at Durham Cathedral. The book was found inside the coffin and removed in 1104 when the burial was once again moved within the cathedral. It was kept there with other relics, and important visitors were able to wear the book in a leather bag around their necks. 

Image: Miniature from Bede’s Prose Life of St Cuthbert (late 12th century), depicting the discovery of St. Cuthbert’s incorrupt corpse, via Wikipedia.

A few weeks ago I heard this story on NPR about the St. Cuthbert Gospel, Europe’s oldest intact book, which the British Library recently paid $14 million to acquire.

The book is thought to date from seventh-century England and is in astonishingly good condition. This may be due to the fact that for four of its many centuries the book was not in anyone’s hands, but rather tucked away inside the coffin of Saint Cuthbert. From Wikipedia:

The book takes its name from Saint Cuthbert of LindisfarneNorth East England, in whose tomb it was placed, probably a few years after his death in 687. Although it was long regarded as Cuthbert’s personal copy of the Gospel, to which there are early references, and so a relic of the saint, the book is now thought to date from shortly after Cuthbert’s death. It was probably a gift from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where it was written, intended to be placed in St Cuthbert’s coffin when his remains were placed behind the altar at Lindisfarne in 698. It presumably remained in the coffin through its long travels after 875, forced by Viking invasions, ending at Durham Cathedral. The book was found inside the coffin and removed in 1104 when the burial was once again moved within the cathedral. It was kept there with other relics, and important visitors were able to wear the book in a leather bag around their necks. 

Image: Miniature from Bede’s Prose Life of St Cuthbert (late 12th century), depicting the discovery of St. Cuthbert’s incorrupt corpse, via Wikipedia.

"The Becket Casket." V&A Museum, London. From Limoges, France, ca. 1180-1190.
From the V&A:

The murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December, 1170 by four knights in the service of King Henry II, is one of the few episodes of British medieval history that is still widely familiar. It provoked outrage throughout Europe, and Becket’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage within days of his death. He was canonised in 1173 and his shrine was one of the most famous in the Christian world, until its total destruction in 1538 on the orders of king Henry VIII.
Relics of Becket were much in demand and were often housed in elaborate caskets. Numbers of these survive today, scattered worldwide, most made of Limoges enamel, like this example. The V&A chasse is the most elaborate, the largest, and possibly the earliest in date. It is a magnificent example of Romanesque art, probably made for an important religious house.
The casket, or ‘chasse’, shows the murder of Becket, his burial, and the raising of his soul to heaven. […] Scenes of Becket’s martyrdom were made familiar in Canterbury by their depiction in the stained glass windows of the Trinity Chapel, near the shrine itself. The shrine was made in 1220, when Becket’s relics, newly enclosed in a shrine of gold and silver encrusted with gems, were placed behind the Archbishop’s throne.

"The Becket Casket." V&A Museum, London. From Limoges, France, ca. 1180-1190.

From the V&A:

The murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December, 1170 by four knights in the service of King Henry II, is one of the few episodes of British medieval history that is still widely familiar. It provoked outrage throughout Europe, and Becket’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage within days of his death. He was canonised in 1173 and his shrine was one of the most famous in the Christian world, until its total destruction in 1538 on the orders of king Henry VIII.

Relics of Becket were much in demand and were often housed in elaborate caskets. Numbers of these survive today, scattered worldwide, most made of Limoges enamel, like this example. The V&A chasse is the most elaborate, the largest, and possibly the earliest in date. It is a magnificent example of Romanesque art, probably made for an important religious house.

The casket, or ‘chasse’, shows the murder of Becket, his burial, and the raising of his soul to heaven. […] Scenes of Becket’s martyrdom were made familiar in Canterbury by their depiction in the stained glass windows of the Trinity Chapel, near the shrine itself. The shrine was made in 1220, when Becket’s relics, newly enclosed in a shrine of gold and silver encrusted with gems, were placed behind the Archbishop’s throne.

Saint Hubert

Saint Hubert (ca. 656 - 727), the first Bishop of Liège (in present-day Belgium), is the patron saint of hunters, archers, dogs, forest workers, trappers, mathematicians, opticians, metalworkers, and smelters. He was venerated widely during the Middle Ages. 

The National Gallery in London recounts the legend of his exhumation:

The body of Saint Hubert … was exhumed in 825 from St Peter’s in Liège, a church he founded, and moved to the Abbey of Andagium, St-Hubert-des-Ardennes. Though long dead, his body was undecayed, proving his sainthood to the figures gathered to watch. 

The Abbey of Andagium became a popular pilgrimage site, but the saint’s remains disappeared during the Reformation.

Sidenote One: Saint Hubert—like another patron saint of hunters, Saint Eustace—has traditionally been associated with the image of a deer with a cross between its antlers. His conversion legend has it that after his wife died in childbirth, Hubert retreated to the Ardennes and devoted himself entirely to hunting. From Wikipedia

On Good Friday morning, when the faithful were crowding the churches, Hubert sallied forth to the chase. As he was pursuing a magnificent stag or hart, the animal turned and, as the pious legend narrates, he was astounded at perceiving a crucifix standing between its antlers, while he heard a voice saying: “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell.” 

The Saint Hubert deer might look familiar. It appears here:

Sidenote Two: Up until the early twentieth century, folks invoked Saint Hubert to cure rabies, using a metal tool known as a “Saint Hubert’s Key”:

From the Science Museum in London (where this specimen resides):  

[Saint Hubert’s Keys] took the form of a bar, nail or cross that was either carried or attached to a wall of a home for added protection. A priest would prick the forehead of a person with rabies and a black bandage would be applied for nine days while the heated key was placed on the body where the bite had occurred. This could actually help because if the heated key was applied immediately it could cauterise and sterilize the wound, effectively killing the rabies virus.

Images, top to bottom:

  • "The Exhumation of Saint Hubert" by Rogier Van der Weyden and workshop, late 1430s, via Wikipedia.
  • Jägermeister bottle, via Wikipedia
  • Saint Hubert’s Key, Belgium, ca. 1880-1920, from the Science Museum (London).
An Anglo-Saxon teenager buried—uncoffined, and with gold and garnet goodies—in her bed.
Reliquary Box with Scenes from the Life of John the Baptist. Byzantine, 14th century.
Source: The Cleveland Museum of Art, via Treasures of Heaven:

The Christian cult of John the Baptist emerged early as a result of his prominence in the account of the Gospels, which credit him as the first to recognize Christ as the promised Savior. After his execution at the fortress of Machaerus, his remains were allegedly moved to Sebaste. Despite reports that John’s coffin “was opened, his bones burned, and his ashes scattered” during the reign of Julian the Apostate (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 3.3), Christian pilgrims such as Egeria in the 380s continued to visit his tomb. His head, however, was taken to the capital, where it was solemnly deposited on 18 February 391 in a church, richly endowed by Emperor Theodosius I. Over the centuries, at least thirty-six churches were dedicated to St. John the Baptist in Constantinople alone, attesting to his exceptional status among the saints and martyrs venerated in the Byzantine Empire.
The painted wood box likely served as a container for one of the saint’s relics. Several such relics—two fragments of his skull, his right arm, and locks of his blood-clotted hair—were kept and venerated in churches and monasteries at Constantinople into the late Byzantine period.

Reliquary Box with Scenes from the Life of John the Baptist. Byzantine, 14th century.

Source: The Cleveland Museum of Art, via Treasures of Heaven:

The Christian cult of John the Baptist emerged early as a result of his prominence in the account of the Gospels, which credit him as the first to recognize Christ as the promised Savior. After his execution at the fortress of Machaerus, his remains were allegedly moved to Sebaste. Despite reports that John’s coffin “was opened, his bones burned, and his ashes scattered” during the reign of Julian the Apostate (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 3.3), Christian pilgrims such as Egeria in the 380s continued to visit his tomb. His head, however, was taken to the capital, where it was solemnly deposited on 18 February 391 in a church, richly endowed by Emperor Theodosius I. Over the centuries, at least thirty-six churches were dedicated to St. John the Baptist in Constantinople alone, attesting to his exceptional status among the saints and martyrs venerated in the Byzantine Empire.

The painted wood box likely served as a container for one of the saint’s relics. Several such relics—two fragments of his skull, his right arm, and locks of his blood-clotted hair—were kept and venerated in churches and monasteries at Constantinople into the late Byzantine period.

The Shrine of St. Amandus; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Flemish, early 13th century with significant later additions. From Kathryn B. Gerry’s article on the Treasures of Heaven exhibit:

Amandus was the bishop of Maastricht and the founder and abbot of the Monastery of Elnon, near Tournai, where he was buried after his death (ca. 679). Before the end of the seventh century, he was considered a saint, and a pilgrimage cult developed at Elnon, eventually requiring that his bones be housed in a reliquary that could be shown to the faithful. In addition to being visited by pilgrims and carried in procession on feast days, the relics of St. Amandus were taken on a tour of the region around Elnon at least twice: once in 1066 to raise funds to rebuild the monastery after it was destroyed by fire, and again in 1107 to remind ambitious nobles of the monastery’s power and privileges. At least one earlier reliquary for St. Amandus must have existed, but it was destroyed or lost prior to the thirteenth century, perhaps in the fire of 1066. The figure at one of the gable-shaped ends is presumably Amandus; the other end, now empty, probably originally contained a figure of Christ. Although many such reliquaries were destroyed or sold to collectors during periods of religious reformation and political revolution, some continued to be used into the modern period: a reliquary similar to that of St. Amandus is still owned by the religious brotherhood of St. Symphorian in Belgium, and carried in public procession on several occasions during the year. Over the centuries, reliquaries such as this were likely to suffer some wear. Extensive scientific testing has shown that this reliquary was made in the early thirteenth century, but that it has been repaired and modified throughout the centuries as it continued to be used in the service of the cult of St. Amandus. The most recent modifications, however, were made by a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century art dealer hoping to “improve” the piece and make it more marketable.

I’m an Amanda, so this appeals to me greatly. However, if I were a saint, I would have preferred the tour of Flanders before dying.

The Shrine of St. Amandus; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Flemish, early 13th century with significant later additions. From Kathryn B. Gerry’s article on the Treasures of Heaven exhibit:

Amandus was the bishop of Maastricht and the founder and abbot of the Monastery of Elnon, near Tournai, where he was buried after his death (ca. 679). Before the end of the seventh century, he was considered a saint, and a pilgrimage cult developed at Elnon, eventually requiring that his bones be housed in a reliquary that could be shown to the faithful. In addition to being visited by pilgrims and carried in procession on feast days, the relics of St. Amandus were taken on a tour of the region around Elnon at least twice: once in 1066 to raise funds to rebuild the monastery after it was destroyed by fire, and again in 1107 to remind ambitious nobles of the monastery’s power and privileges. At least one earlier reliquary for St. Amandus must have existed, but it was destroyed or lost prior to the thirteenth century, perhaps in the fire of 1066. The figure at one of the gable-shaped ends is presumably Amandus; the other end, now empty, probably originally contained a figure of Christ. Although many such reliquaries were destroyed or sold to collectors during periods of religious reformation and political revolution, some continued to be used into the modern period: a reliquary similar to that of St. Amandus is still owned by the religious brotherhood of St. Symphorian in Belgium, and carried in public procession on several occasions during the year. Over the centuries, reliquaries such as this were likely to suffer some wear. Extensive scientific testing has shown that this reliquary was made in the early thirteenth century, but that it has been repaired and modified throughout the centuries as it continued to be used in the service of the cult of St. Amandus. The most recent modifications, however, were made by a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century art dealer hoping to “improve” the piece and make it more marketable.

I’m an Amanda, so this appeals to me greatly. However, if I were a saint, I would have preferred the tour of Flanders before dying.

Reliquary of the Tooth of Mary Magdalene. Tuscan, 14th century (goldsmith’s work: 15th century). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 
Source: Treasures of Heaven online exhibit.

Reliquary of the Tooth of Mary Magdalene. Tuscan, 14th century (goldsmith’s work: 15th century). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Source: Treasures of Heaven online exhibit.

Ostensorium with “Paten of St. Bernward.” German (Lower Saxony [Hildesheim?]), ca. 1180-90 (paten); ca. 1350-1400 (monstrance). The Cleveland Museum of Art.
From the Treasures of Heaven exhibit:

This unusual ostensorium (from the Latin ostendere: to show) was made to facilitate the display and veneration of ten relics, most prominent among them an elaborate liturgical paten—a shallow plate for the elevation of the Eucharist during Mass—associated with St. Bernward of Hildesheim (d. 1022), and a relic of the True Cross.

On the back, eight more relics are visible:

They’re wrapped in silk and are identified—by an inscription on parchment accompanying the piece—as the remains of Saints Godehard, Nicholas, Auctor, Silvester, Servatius, John Chrysostom, Alexis, and Lawrence.

Ostensorium with “Paten of St. Bernward.” German (Lower Saxony [Hildesheim?]), ca. 1180-90 (paten); ca. 1350-1400 (monstrance). The Cleveland Museum of Art.

From the Treasures of Heaven exhibit:

This unusual ostensorium (from the Latin ostendere: to show) was made to facilitate the display and veneration of ten relics, most prominent among them an elaborate liturgical paten—a shallow plate for the elevation of the Eucharist during Mass—associated with St. Bernward of Hildesheim (d. 1022), and a relic of the True Cross.

On the back, eight more relics are visible:

They’re wrapped in silk and are identified—by an inscription on parchment accompanying the piece—as the remains of Saints Godehard, Nicholas, Auctor, Silvester, Servatius, John Chrysostom, Alexis, and Lawrence.

There’s a nice little video about this piece—showing a curator/smart person opening it up and revealing the (sadly, empty) compartments inside—on the website for the exhibit Treasures of Heaven.
The reliquary is believed to have held bits of skull and breastbone purported to belong to one of the 11,000 slaughtered maiden-followers of Saint Ursula.*
Image: Unknown female saint. Source: britishmuseum on Flickr.

Reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, probably a companion of St Ursula.  South Netherlandish, c. 1520 – 1530.  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

*Allegedly.

There’s a nice little video about this piece—showing a curator/smart person opening it up and revealing the (sadly, empty) compartments inside—on the website for the exhibit Treasures of Heaven.

The reliquary is believed to have held bits of skull and breastbone purported to belong to one of the 11,000 slaughtered maiden-followers of Saint Ursula.*

Image: Unknown female saint. Source: britishmuseum on Flickr.

Reliquary bust of an unknown female saint, probably a companion of St Ursula.
South Netherlandish, c. 1520 – 1530.
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

*Allegedly.

Exquisite Corpses: The Art of the Cadaver Tomb

From the ever-great Atlas Obscura:

Something strange happened to funeral monuments in the 15th century. Across France, Italy and England the long standing practice of carving recumbant effigies in poses of gentle rest was replaced by depictions of rotting corpses.

Read more.

Black Death did not kill indiscriminately: study

This article’s a few years old, and I’m not sure if there has been follow-up research since 2008 confirming/disproving this, or not. Still interesting.

Fatimid Flask Reliquary; Mount: 14th century, Flask: 11th–14th century. From James Robinson’s article in the Treasures of Heaven online exhibit:

The modest dimensions of this Fatimid rock crystal vessel suggest that it was probably crafted originally as a perfume flask. At some point in the fourteenth century, it was converted to use as a Christian reliquary for suspension. A Latin inscription on the gilded silver cap that seals it implies that the flask once contained “the hair of the blessed Mary.”

Fatimid Flask Reliquary; Mount: 14th century, Flask: 11th–14th century. From James Robinson’s article in the Treasures of Heaven online exhibit:

The modest dimensions of this Fatimid rock crystal vessel suggest that it was probably crafted originally as a perfume flask. At some point in the fourteenth century, it was converted to use as a Christian reliquary for suspension. A Latin inscription on the gilded silver cap that seals it implies that the flask once contained “the hair of the blessed Mary.”

Rhenish crystal reliquary, ca. 1200, featured in the (totally awesome!) Treasures of Heaven online exhibit. From Martina Bagnoli’s article on the site:

This barrel-shaped reliquary consists of a large, cylindrical piece of crystal bored down the middle to create a narrow compartment for a relic. According to medieval lapidaries, rock crystal was a symbol of spiritual purity. Hence the mineral was frequently used to adorn saints’ reliquaries from the early Middle Ages onward. In the Walters’ reliquary, however, rock crystal is not merely decorative but is used as a chamber. In this way, the relic is revealed for veneration rather than hidden from view as in earlier reliquaries. The rock crystal chamber magnified the relics contained inside, establishing the real presence of the saint. The emergence of this new type of transparent reliquary is to be linked with a renewed interest in visibility during the early Gothic period. Transparent reliquaries satisfied the believers’ desire to see the relics without having to handle them.

Rhenish crystal reliquary, ca. 1200, featured in the (totally awesome!) Treasures of Heaven online exhibit. From Martina Bagnoli’s article on the site:

This barrel-shaped reliquary consists of a large, cylindrical piece of crystal bored down the middle to create a narrow compartment for a relic. According to medieval lapidaries, rock crystal was a symbol of spiritual purity. Hence the mineral was frequently used to adorn saints’ reliquaries from the early Middle Ages onward. In the Walters’ reliquary, however, rock crystal is not merely decorative but is used as a chamber. In this way, the relic is revealed for veneration rather than hidden from view as in earlier reliquaries. The rock crystal chamber magnified the relics contained inside, establishing the real presence of the saint. The emergence of this new type of transparent reliquary is to be linked with a renewed interest in visibility during the early Gothic period. Transparent reliquaries satisfied the believers’ desire to see the relics without having to handle them.

Interesting post on the Museum of London’s blog about the “catastrophe cemetery” created at East Smithfield for victims of the Black Death:

The plague, or the Black Death, is a particularly interesting period in London’s history; it was both short and dramatic, hitting hardest in 1349 to 50. Whilst outbreaks of plague in London would continue throughout the following two centuries (and still occur throughout undeveloped parts of the world), the largest death toll occurred in a very brief period. Families were wiped out, whole neighbourhoods destroyed and the landscape of the medieval city was changed for good.

Image: Georgian London. (Shown: Jelena Bekvalac, osteologist at Museum of London.)

Interesting post on the Museum of London’s blog about the “catastrophe cemetery” created at East Smithfield for victims of the Black Death:

The plague, or the Black Death, is a particularly interesting period in London’s history; it was both short and dramatic, hitting hardest in 1349 to 50. Whilst outbreaks of plague in London would continue throughout the following two centuries (and still occur throughout undeveloped parts of the world), the largest death toll occurred in a very brief period. Families were wiped out, whole neighbourhoods destroyed and the landscape of the medieval city was changed for good.

Image: Georgian London. (Shown: Jelena Bekvalac, osteologist at Museum of London.)

Skeletons, mummies, bog bodies, exhumations. The dead, and what happens to them.

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