In 757, if we are to believe the Royal Frankish Annals, Tassilo, the teenage duke of Bavaria, visited Frankish King Pepin and swore his fealty to the monarch and his sons on the relics of five saints. He touched the bodies of Dionysius, Rusticus, Eleutherius, Germanus, and Martin.
Scholars have said the Frankish annalist might have exaggerated the nature of the visit, as medieval writers were wont to do to please their bosses, in this case Pepin’s son Charles (Charlemagne). In reality, the visit might have been one of friendship rather than submission. Besides, that’s an awful lot of saints to bring to this occasion, considering the need for security and holy men. But for storyteller purposes, to have Tassilo swear on all those saints would have made his alleged disloyalty decades later all the more horrendous and justify Charles deposing his cousin.
Imagining massive processions and huge reliquaries carried by carts or multiple men, I was inclined to believe that part about the saints not really being present at the meeting. Then I encountered portable reliquaries in my research for Queen of the Darkest Hour. Perhaps, it was possible to bring a token from all those saints—not whole skeletons but tiny items connected to the divine and imbued with miraculous power.
Portable reliquaries were common throughout the West in the early Middle Ages, when travel was expensive and dangerous. Although every Christian aspired to go to Rome at least once, many could not afford the trip. The pilgrims who made the journey likely wanted to make the most of it, and a portable reliquary allowed them to do so. About five inches tall, the reliquaries were easy for one person to carry. With them, a pilgrim could bring a physical part of their faith home and interact with it. They would remain in the presence of the saint throughout their life, and they could bequeath this precious gift to their children.
This might be a good time to define just what a relic is. It was a physical thing connected to Jesus or one of the saints. It could be a pebble from a holy tomb, some dust from the tomb’s base, a vial of oil from a lamp burned over the tomb, a bone chip, a hair, a splinter of the true cross, a shred of clothing, or twigs from trees where the shepherds watched their flocks by night. It need not be large.
And it could look quite ordinary. The pilgrim had no objective way of knowing if the twigs were really from a saint’s favorite tree or a nearby woodpile, and some sellers of relics were less than scrupulous. The pilgrim was better off collecting a relic on site rather than buying one. Whatever the form, the objects made events in Christian history real.
To transport the relics, medieval pilgrims could carry a block of wood carved into the shape of a purse and hollowed out. As they traveled, they could collect relics of the saints they visited. The relic was wrapped in a bit of linen or silk, perhaps cut from discarded church hanging or liturgical vestments. Sometimes the cloth was stitched to secure the relics and labeled with a scrap of papyrus.
Once filled, the purse was sealed with a plug or sliding panel. To make this carved wood fitting for saintly objects, the purse was covered with a gilded metal, then stamped or decorated with gemstones or ivory. After chains were attached, the portable reliquary could be hung from a church beam or in a chapel, put on a bedpost, worn around the neck, or carried in a procession.
If the reliquary belonged to a church, a holy man could use it to raise revenue, heal the sick with its miraculous powers, bring warring factions to the peace table, or seek intercession during a famine or other natural disaster.
In a palace, the reliquary gave the king an aura of holiness, and it was handy when it came time for a vassal to swear an oath. It was one thing to offend a human lord, but quite another to anger a saint.
Whether Tassilo made a vow (assuming he did) while touching the actual saints’ bones or a portable reliquary with tiny objects, the promise was just as sacred.
Photos by Kleon3, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
“Portable Christianity: Relics in the Medieval West (c. 700-1200)” by Julia M.H. Smith
Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers
Originally published Aug. 28, 2018, on English Historical Fiction Authors.