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.

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.