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.

09 Apr

John S. Strong, “Relics” in The Encyclopedia of Religion (1986)

John S. Strong defines relics as “the venerated remains of venerable persons” (275). Relics may be bones, ashes, and bodies of saints, martyrs, founders of religious traditions and holy people. Relics may also be objects that these people once owned or with which they had physical contact. Both types of relics work via “contagious magic” in that a part represents the whole. For example, bones, hair or a tooth make the entire person present. Strong suggests that Protestants condemned and destroyed relics during the Reformation. No other attention is given to Protestant relics.

03 Apr

Matthew Dennis, “Patriotic Remains: Bones of Contention in the Early Republic” (2003)

“Patriotic Remains” explores how early Americans treated the bones of Native Americans, patriots from the American Revolution, and George Washington. These bones were wrapped in political and cultural meaning and used to construct and practice nationalism in the early American Republic.


Americans, like Thomas Jefferson, dug up the bones of Native Americans that rested in mounds. Disposing of these bones cleared the way for an American heritage and claim to the land. The Tammany Society worked in New York to have the bones of soldiers from the American Revolution entombed. These bones haunted New Yorkers because they belonged to soldiers who had been held prisoner and died aboard British ships anchored off the coast. After the war, the ships were abandoned along with the dead and their bones. The ships eventually sank and the bones washed ashore. The bones remained on shore until the early 1800s. The Tammany Society argued that if the remains of Washington could be entombed then so could ordinary war heroes. According to Dennis, “These remains became holy objects, which served to promote patriotic memory and and national feeling.” The bones were interred, but their importance and memory waxed and waned through American history. The burial and interment of Washington’s bones were no less controversial. The nation went into mourning at the death of Washington. Americans held mock funerals, elegies, and processions to honor Washington. Congress called for his entombment at the Capital. Some Democratic-Republicans, however, argued that such ostentatious display of mourning and memorializing were unsuited to a republican form of government. Republicans and Federalists argued over whither public funds should pay for memorials to Washington. Washington was eventually buried at Mount Vernon, not the Capital. Dennis concludes that “Bones and the nation are linked symbolically: graves of ancestors stake claims to the national landscape and its history. They are political relics, deployed (though not always self-consciously) to gain control of the nation’s collective memory, and in support of particular cultural and political agendas” (148).

Things to Think About

  • John Adams criticized the emerging cult of Washington. He wrote to Benjamin Rush: “When my parson says, ‘Let us sing to the praise and glory of G.W.,’ your church will adopt a new collect in its liturgy and say ‘Sancte Washington, ora pro noobis.” Adams added that if Congress had agreed to fund the Washington mausoleum, he would have been “obliged to do the most unpopular act of my whole unpopular life by sending it back with a negative and reasons.” See Dennis, “Patriotic Remains,” 143.
  • Given the controversies over memorializing Washington with federal funds, Congress rejected the Tammany Society’s request for money to bury the New York patriots. A congressman wrote to the Tammany Society, “some are of the opinion that Congress ought not to appropriate public money for such purposes,” and others believed the art of printing “has superseded the use and intention of monuments.” See Dennis, “Patriotic Remains,” 144.
20 Mar

Alexandra Walsham, “Skeletons in the Cupboard” (2010)

“Skeletons in the Cupboard” explores the “afterlife of relics in the wake of the English Reformation.” Walsham argues that relics were a part of the “confessionalization of material culture in post-Reformation society” and that they became embroiled in the “politics of religious identity formations.”[1]


Protestants decried Catholics’ reverence and use of relics during and after the English Reformation. They argued that Catholic relics were unscriptural inventions of the Papacy and Catholic clergy. Nevertheless, the veneration of relics continued among Catholics in post-Reformation England. Some Catholics recognized the power of the reliquaries of destroyed relics. Others hid relics in their homes. Walsh recognizes that “A significant side-effect of the Reformation was to transfer relics from the custodianship of monasteries and churches into private hands and domestic settings.”[2] Moreover, new relics were formed during this time as priests and believers were martyred for their faith. By the seventeenth-century, relics became confessional badges and markers of the Catholic faithful.

At the same time, a reformed relic culture emerged. Protestants also kept the body fragments and possessions of people who had been martyred for their faith. Many of these acted as memorials that carried “spiritual and emotional rather than material and miraculous character.”[3] For many Protestants, these objects were signs or remembrances that served a didactic purpose. For many other Protestants, relics still carried divine powers that could act in the world and on people. Protestants also infused other objects, like the Bible, with powers that could heal and ward off evil. Relics and material objects became badges of adherence to the Protestant faith, just as they had for Catholics. Protestants also incorporated relics into their own religious practices by defining proper burial practices and displaying relics in cabinets of curiosities. Relics carried multiple meanings for Catholics and Protestants in post-Reformation England.


Walsham’s main contribution is her recognition that Protestants continued to use and revere objects in post-Reformation England. This was not due to any syncretism, popular religion, or failure of the Reformation. To the contrary, many Protestants, despite their abhorrence of relics, participated in their own material culture. This material culture often looked like that of Catholics’ devotion to relics as Protestants revered body fragments of martyred clergy and believers. At other times, this material culture was different in that it “remained commemorative in character.” Walsham suggests that this material culture tells us about “a Protestant culture of memory and identity centered as much on material objects as on distinctive dogmas and rituals.”[4] Walsham’s insight are significant in that they recognize the development of a Protestant material culture in post-Reformation England. Protestants did not stop employing things in religion, but they redefined how this material culture worked.

Despite this insight, Walsham’s distinction between relics and memorials in the explanation of this Protestant material culture is unclear. To be sure, some Protestants stopped using material objects as relics. But, I am not convinced that Protestants who employed body fragments of martyrs understood these objects to function as signs, memorials, or remembrances that served a didactic purpose. What would this didactic purpose be? The recognition that good Protestants are willing to die for their religion? Moreover, what exactly is a memorial? And, how is it different from a relic? In “Introduction: Relics and Remains” Walsham suggests that “relics can also be memorials, or material manifestations of the act of remembrance” because they link the past and present. In this article, memorials do not seem to function as relics. Walsham suggests that memorials have “spiritual and emotional rather than material and miraculous character.” But, these memorials were particularly material; they were body parts. And, their emotional and spiritual character does not exclude their power or relation to the divine. So, what is the difference between a relic and a memorial? These body fragments as memorials likely worked in some way to connect living Protestants to martyred Protestants in some material way. This seems to be one of the definitions of a relic, not just a sign of remembrance. Perhaps, further studies of this Protestant material culture can examine how Protestants employed memorials to get a better sense of the powers and functions of these material items, and how Protestants came to understand them as didactic objects, not relics, over time.

[1] Alexandra Walsham, “Skeletons in the Cupboard: Relics after the English Reformation,” Past & Present 206, no. suppl 5 (January 1, 2010): 122, doi:10.1093/pastj/gtq015.

[2] Ibid., 126.

[3] Ibid., 134.

[4] Ibid., 143.

20 Mar

Alexandra Walsham, “Introduction: Relics and Remains” (2010)

Walsham’s essay introduces readers to a collection of essays in a special issue of Past and Present where scholars discuss relics. Walsham provides an overview of the characteristics of relics and their situation in recent historiography and the essays.


The collection of essays define relics as “human remains and physical things [that] have become the focus of reverence, celebrity, curiosity, and conflict” across many times and cultures.[1] It examines “when and why bodies and personal belongings, and other objects come to be regarded as sacred by adherents of different faiths.” It also explores the “political economic, and social dimensions of the identification, discovery, preservation, and fabrication of relics and remains and their meanings and function in the spheres of memory, history, and heritage.” Relics are material objects that are linked to a particular person and events and/or places related to that person.

Walsham defines two types of relics: corporeal and non-corporeal relics. Scholars most often recognize corporeal relics, which are usually bodies or body fragments of dead or living people. These include skulls, bones, blood, teeth, hair, fingernails, and flesh. Non-corporeal relics are things that were possessed or in direct contact with a particular individual. These can be articles of clothing or personal property. These can also be books, written texts, letters, and scraps of paper or other items that bear “an autograph signature or graphic inscription.” Non-corporeal relics may also be rocks or stones with the impression of a foot, hand, or limb. In these latter examples, non-corporeal relics bear the physical traces of their possessors.

Walsh also suggests some characteristics that relics share. Relics are usually durable and resistant to decay. They are transportable and mobile, and usually small in size and scale. Sometimes relics transfer their power or sacred nature to their reliquaries or other proximate things through “holy contagion or radioactivity.”[2] Relics are “ontologically different” from images. They are actual physical embodiments of the divine or departed person in its entirety. Many believers do not recognize the difference between a relic and a forgery, fabrication, or reproduction of a relic. Thus, the modern distinction between original and copy does not usually apply when discussing relics. Relics may also be defined as “material manifestations of the act of remembrance” because they link the past and present. Relics also link the living to the dead by connecting heaven and earth. Sometimes relics cannot be distinguished from memorials, mementos, and antiquities. What does separate relics from other things is that relics are recognized as having a “capacity to operate as a locus and conduit of power.”[3] This power can be supernatural, salvific, apotropaic, or magical. For many societies, relics act as “‘a potentially wonder-working bridge between the mundane and the divine,” physical and metaphysical realms.” The discovery, identification, preservation, and display of relics structure their power.


Until recently, relics have attracted little attention in the academic world. Medievalists have taken up this task with the most zeal. Relics have also come to the attention of scholars who study material culture. Historians are beginning to study relics as objects with “social lives” and “cultural biographies.”[4] The study of the body, death, and memory studies have also made the study of relics more popular.

The collection of essays examines the ways that relics relate to religion, politics, and consumption, collection and display. This last theme is particularly helpful for scholars of material culture because it seeks to under how relics move through history. Relics are often object of commerce—trade, purchase, sale, and exchange. Patrick Geary has explored how relics function as “sacred commodities” in their social lives. Paul Gillingham has examined forgery and fabrication of relics.


  1. When relics act as memorials, or material manifestations of the act of remembrance, do they need to bear a trace of the memorized person?
  2. Can a memory be all the trace that is necessary to make something a relic that bridges the material and spiritual worlds?

[1] Alexandra Walsham, “Introduction: Relics and Remains,” Past & Present 206, no. suppl 5 (January 1, 2010): 10.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid., 17.