09 Apr

Patrick Geary, “Sacred commodities: the circulation of medieval relics” (1986)

“Sacred commodities” examines relics as commodities in the Middle Ages.


Like other goods in the Middle Ages, relics were circulated via sale, barter, gift, and theft. Goods and relics were not usually bought with money. Relics during this time were “bodies or portions of bodies” (174). People recognized that relics “were the saints, continuing to live among men. They were immediate sources of supernatural power for good or ill, and close contact with them or possession of them was a means of participating in that power” (176).

The value attached to relics “required the communal acceptance of three interrelated beliefs. First, the community had to believe that individuals associated with relics were special friends of God, or saints, during their lives and in death. Second, the community had to believe that the remains of a saint were prized and should be treated in a special way. Third, the community had to believe that relics were the remains of particular saints. Relics were highly desirable and communities competed for relics of particular saints.

Relics went through a process of confirmation. This process usually included a community procession, installation, or test of relics and then the performance of miracles by the relics. If relics worked—that is, “acted as channels for supernatural intervention”—then people considered them genuine (178). Once communities recognized the efficaciousness of relics “their continuing significance and value depended on their continued performance of miracles and on their relative value compared with other relics and other sources of power” (178). Relics were circulated and exchanged as gifts, and by theft and sale. The normal means of circulation was by gift. The circulation of relics “was part of a careful program of centralized control over the sacred” (185). This control over the sacred gave communities and individuals power and authority.

Once relics were circulated their vale and power had to be reconstructed for the new community in a similar process as described above. Included in this reconstruction of value were myths of the relics’ production and circulation. According to Geary, “acquiring the relic gave it value because it was worth acquiring, and this acquisition (often in the face of grave natural and supernatural dangers) was itself evidence that relics were genuine. Circulation thus created the commodity being circulated, although to survive as a commodity it had to continue to meet the high expectations raised by the mode of its creation” (187).  Geary suggests some characteristics important to commodity exchange in medieval society. 1) Relics were demanded and demand was historically situated. 2) Historians should examine the biographies of things because relics transformed from persons to commodities to persons and back to commodities. 3) People recognized conflicts over commodities’ value and did not always agree on the value of relics. Geary ends the essay by posing some questions for further study about commodities, relics, and exchange in medieval societies.


This essays (like the others in The Social Life of Things) seeks to expand the definition of commodities beyond Marx’s definition of goods intended for exchange in contemporary capitalist economies. Geary argues that historians can understand relics as commodities since we already think of slaves as commodities. Relics belong to the same category that treats persons as things and vice versa. Thus, commodities are not just produced goods exchanged in the modern marketplace. Commodities can by any thing or person that is circulated or exchanged in history. Geary’s essay is important because it considers relics as commodities. It also important because it suggests that historians must examine the biographies of things to understand their value. Value is gained not only in particular moments of exchange when a thing is a commodity, but also when the thing is a person (like a relic in a church). Value is constructed throughout the life of an exchanged thing.

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